There’s a great scene in Paul Dalio’s new film, “Touched With Fire,” where young lovers Carla (Katie Holmes) and Marco (Luke Kirby) run with rebellious abandon through a room covered in the iconic spirals of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” as Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” floods the soundtrack with bewitching magic. The use of these artists’ work is apt, since both men struggled with the same demons that plague Carla and Marco. The couple’s bipolar disorder has caused them to feel like aliens in a world that has no understanding of their heightened reality. Having struggled with bipolar himself, Dalio’s intimate knowledge of the subject matter gave him an uncommonly perceptive eye when portraying Carla and Marco’s symptoms, which defy the sort of mawkish stereotypes that often mar films about mental illness. This is a remarkable, refreshingly unsentimental character study that would make a fitting double bill with Valerie Weiss’s “A Light Beneath Their Feet.”
Dalio and Kirby spoke with RogerEbert.com about how Kay Redfield Jamison’s book of the same name inspired their film, the role meditation plays in their artistic process, and the important truth that patients and doctors must embrace in order for recovery to be achievable.
Paul, you had previously worked for the David Lynch Foundation. Had its practice of transcendental meditation informed your approach to filmmaking, since cinema is, in essence, a guided meditation?
Paul Dalio (PD): Absolutely. David Lynch was actually the one who first inspired me to become a filmmaker when I was in high school. His films just took me to that dream place that lifts you out of the norm, out of the everyday life, and that is kind of what allured me. I wonder if the insanity in me lingering beneath the surface was drawn to that. When I worked for his foundation, I got very much into meditation and tapping into the unconscious. Fellini was Lynch’s master and his biggest idol, and he believed in Fellini’s view that film is a dream, it’s not reality. It’s all about delving into the unconscious.
Luke Kirby (LK): There are a lot of actors right now who are doing dream work where they focus on a role and try to bring it into their dreams. I haven’t done that work, but I’ve always found that when I’m studying for a role, the work I’m doing somehow manages to enter my dreams, no matter what approach I take.
PD: When we began working together, so much of the work Luke was doing sounded so much like a dream that it blew my mind. There was a meditation Luke did on what type of animal he was—first he was a wolf and then a deer. He’s one of the few true Method actors, meaning that he takes acting to the deepest levels of consciousness with an appreciation of it being an endless craft. You could tell that he went to an amazing conservatory too. After working with so many great actors and acting students in film school, it was a whole other thing working with Luke.
LK: Lynch calls that process of going deeper “catching the big fish.” You keep exploring and the process just keeps growing—it doesn’t stop. It’s such an exciting and interesting thing to do with your time.
Carla and Marco truly feel that they understand each other in a way that no one else can, and that’s something many couples will find relatable, regardless of their circumstances.
LK: Carla and Marco’s love is something that they have never touched in their lives. When you encounter that first love, a young love, you do feel that your story is original. You are utterly convinced that your story has never been told before, because it hasn’t. It’s so powerful, and I can totally understand how these characters would feel alien to the planet. If people are saying that somehow their connection is going to be detrimental to their health, of course they are going to reject that idea, because that’s the power of falling like that.
PD: And love is the most universal experience. There is nothing more important than love, there is nothing more meaningful than love, and there is nothing more human in people’s relationships than love. These two people in love just happen to have what we call “bipolar,” which is this thing of emotional extremes, a thing of expansive emotion that breaks outside of the norm. When that emotion takes the form of love and burns out of what other people would say is control, it transcends everything that people would say is acceptable or normal. Like Luke said, when you experience that, how are you going to listen to some doctor saying, “No, you should be living a life that is tame and centered and middle-of-the-road.” If you don’t acknowledge that in people who have it, they won’t listen to you.
One of the most provocative aspects of the film is how Marco resists treatment for fear of diminishing his artistic potential.
PD: The shame of it is that parents and often doctors think that it’s an either/or situation. Either you have the fire that’s going to let you feel life at its wildest extremes, and you might create something amazing out of it and there might be purpose in it, but it will destroy your life and kill you, or you live numb, which is basically like a waiting room for death. If you can imagine missing feeling sad, it’s the only thing worse than pain. You’re like, “What’s the point, why am I here?” Emotions are what drives everyone. You get up in the morning and go do something because the emotion drives you to it. Imagine having love for someone and being told, “You’re not allowed to experience that love because you’re not allowed to experience pain.” It’s a dilemma that so many people with bipolar can’t reconcile. They can’t find a way out of it. The truth is that you can have both. That is so important for people with bipolar to understand, and it’s important for doctors and parents to understand.
If the doctors and the parents try to extinguish this thing that is beautiful, then the patients and the children are going to go off their meds, and they may kill themselves. The patient needs to believe that they can keep the fire while being medicated. The doctors must tell them, “I understand that you experienced something beautiful. I understand that you saw the stars pulsing spirals of fire across the sky like Van Gogh did when he was looking outside the sanitarium window. But you know what? He didn’t paint [‘Starry Night’] when he was manic. He painted it when he was sane because he didn’t need the mania to have the magic.” Of course, that didn’t used to always be the case, because people with bipolar required too much medication, but nowadays, you can find the right balance. I feel much more emotion than I did before, and more meaningful emotion and richer emotion than when I was manic. I’m able to experience meaningful things that can only be experienced when I’m stable, like a family. I have two children and a wife, and I’m able to create art that’s much better than before.
Your film has the same title as Kay Redfield Jamison’s 1993 book, “Touched With Fire.” How did her study of “manic-depressive illness and the artistic temperament” inspire this story?
PD: That book changed my whole life and self-perception. After forming an identity that was based on how I fit into the world, and having that shattered by getting a diagnosis that tells me that I’m a genetic defect and I might be able to just get by on these meds that make me feel nothing, I came across her book, which told me, “No, this could be a gift. You’re not bipolar, you are touched with fire. This isn’t a disorder, this is something meaningful that can have purpose. You are not a mistake of God, you are touched by God.” To suddenly experience that changed everything and led to the shift in perspective that unfolded itself into this film. That was beautiful to be able to honor the book by giving our film the same name. Kay plays herself in the scene where she meets with Marco and Carla. It’s an improvised scene, so Luke and Katie went in and asked questions that came out of their characters’ needs, and Kay just answered them as she would answer anyone.
LK: Yeah, she was amazing. It was fantastic meeting her because she’s such a great person to talk to. She lived it but she also studied it, and I think really bridges that gap.
PD: There’s this comfort you feel with Kay. You feel like you’re in good hands.
LK: I can see how you wouldn’t trust any doctors who just say, “Take this and call me in the morning.” Kay lives it and she still lives it. She has such a great understanding and language for it. The most challenging part for me with talking to her was that her arguments were so compelling that I ended up getting more and more diffident with her.
PD: You could see his face getting more and more frustrated. [laughs]
Did the book assist you, Luke, during your research process?
LK: Yeah, I read some of Kay’s stuff and some of William Styron’s stuff about depression. I was a little familiar with it from past work, and had familiarized myself with the creative aspect of it. But then meeting Paul and getting to know Paul was really the best resource for me to share his story. Anything that I could relate in my own experience to the highs and lows of bipolar struck a chord with him. It was just a great gift.
PD: Luke surprised me. He brought back flashbacks of the way I was and captured elements of mania that I hadn’t fully seen but were so truthful and so real. That was when it became really thrilling. I wasn’t expecting him to remind me of my own experiences that I had forgotten.
LK: I would be so curious to wire my brain up and see what’s occurring when I act, because a performance is such a heightened state. I’ve always found that with doing theatre especially. It’s so hard to come down.
PD: I showed his performance to my doctor and he was like, “I don’t know, you’ve got to be careful that you don’t trigger something. I’m sure there’s something in his family tree.” [laughs] And the great thing is that Luke recaptured it in a human way. There are so many times that mania manifests itself, and I’ll be able to empathize and relate to it because I’ll know what they’re going through. Yet another person will look at it and have an adversity to it. But Luke did it in such a brilliant way, so naturally and so human that anyone would find it relatable.