Director Paul Dalio on Changing the Conversation Around Mental Illness With ‘Touched With Fire’

Filmmaker Paul Dalio is using his personal experience with bipolar disorder to tackle mental health stigmas with his debut film “Touched With Fire.” Starring Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby, “Touched With Fire” explores the dynamic between two manic poets attempting to sustain a relationship in a world that’s constantly trying to “fix” them. Taking inspiration from psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison’s book of the same title, the film examines the connection between artistic geniuses and bipolar disorder using impressive performances by Holmes and Kirby.

Director, writer, editor and composer Paul Dalio divulged to EV his passion for “Touched With Fire” and why it’s such an important topic.  

The film’s original title was “Mania Days” then was changed to “Touched With Fire.” What prompted you to change the title to that of the book? How big of a role did Jamison’s book play in the creation of this film?

Well, the title changed after we were picked up by Roadside (Productions). They had kind of brought up that the (title) “Mania Days” didn’t have quite the same notion as being romantic and talking to other people it seemed for some people to have this idea of being a horror film with patients stabbing each other with syringes in a hospital (laughs). Not everybody could see the beauty in mania. We were thinking about titles and “Touched With Fire” came to me and I was like “Wow, it should have been “Touched With Fire” all along.” So it was really exciting that Roadside brought that up.

“Touched With Fire” did create this shift in consciousness and this shift in my self-perception of bipolar [disorder] way back at the very beginning of this journey that I lived through that inspired the film. You wander around lost with no answers until I came across this book “Touched With Fire.” After reading one medical book [after] another that had this clinical, rigid text that described this thing as being this illness where you felt like you were under a microscope by some person in a lab coat, you just all of a sudden look at this book that doesn’t look like a clinical book at all. It looks like a beautiful artistic book that’s written not at all as a clinical book. It’s giving you this tangible correlation between bipolar and artistic genius and after struggling to find an identity by sorting through a pile of labels that either in some way describe you as a defect or mental illness or disorder. That book and that title “Touched With Fire” just blazed through all these thick, clinical print with ink and just kind of dissolved. . .finally giving me the name of something I could be proud to be. I was like “Yea, that’s what I am. I’m touched with fire.” And it completely changed my whole life, my whole self-perception.

Just like your vision of the illness was changed with this book, was your aim with this film in part to increase the overall empathy and understanding of mental illness?

Absolutely. That was the number one goal for people to see through these people’s eyes the beauty that they experienced so that they don’t look at people like they do when they cross the street to avoid walking past them…. Van Gogh had a quote, which I read to the whole crew right before the first scene of the film that we shot, which was something like say I’m an eccentric, that I’m an unpleasant person. I have no place in society and never will and even if it may be true, I would like to one day show through my work what such an eccentric has in his heart. That was kind of like a prayer, like a wish, of what I would hope the film would do.

What did you want to do differently with your film about mental illness compared to what you’ve seen with others on the same topic?

Well, it’s so hard to know what someone who is mentally ill is going through internally. It’s so hard to know what’s in their heart. It’s so hard to know who they really are. So filmmakers who depicted bipolar, understandably, aren’t bipolar. It’s very difficult to see them for who they are. There’s never been a film that really, really allows the audience to experience it through their eyes. It’s always viewed through some family member’s eyes, through some person’s eyes watching them and not understanding them. I did feel like it was a big duty and privilege to happen to be a filmmaker who also had bipolar disorder. I thought it was a rare opportunity [with] that combination to be able to be the first film that actually allows the audience to see through their eyes. By doing that, you kill the stigma or at least reduce the stigma.

The chemistry between Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby is part of what makes your film so intriguing. What was it about these two actors that made you choose them?

It was a lot of faith in the casting director. Avy Kaufman was the one who pushed for both of those actors who turned out to be far more extraordinary than I ever knew they could. They blew my mind and it was extraordinary to work with them and it was astounding what came out of it. They are, more than anything else, what captured [being] bipolar by inviting people in in a way that was truthful and beautiful that allowed them to empathize with these two characters.

Touched With Fire opens in select theaters and VOD on Feb. 12.