Out of the shadows

Paul Dalio on being bipolar, Touched With Fire and the power of art.

by Jennie Kermode

Lost in the night
Lost in the night

Every year, numerous films are made about the experiences of people living with mental health challenges, but they’re very rarely made by people who know what that feels like. Touched With Fire is an exception. It’s the story of a relationship that develops between two people who meet in a psychiatric institution and find themselves torn between the ecstasy of heightened emotion and the need to cope in the real world. Paul Dalio, who directs with remarkable confidence given that this is his first feature, used elements of his own story in developing the script. He hopes that the film will help other people to better understand what it means to be bipolar, and so far it’s proving a success.


“It wasn’t literally my story,” he explains, “but much of what I went through is present in the story. I was trying to convey something universal that people like me who are going through that can relate to. It’s important to me that people going through it could identify with it and ideally use it to help them find a way out.”

The film strikes a difficult balance between celebrating the joy and creativity of manic experiences and highlighting the cost of insanity. Was that something he struggled with or something that came naturally as the story unfolded?

“It came naturally,” he says. “The most important thing to me was to be authentic. If you’re going through that authentic experience then you’ll experience both. That in itself is important because the moment people i that situation feel lied to or lectured at or told what to do, there’s going to be alienation; it’s going to separate them and stop them from from being pulled into that experience. I wanted to dramatise the way it feels to go through that and have that dramatisation go to the end of the line, so there’s some kind of truthful consequence to it and a bipolar audience can themselves identify with it.”

In the institution
In the institution

The film is remarkably beautiful in places, especially in its depiction of manic episodes. “Yeah, because aside from it being important to describe the thing truthfully it’s important that people can see the beauty of it, because of how much that can do to change the stigma. I wanted audiences to be able to see through these people’s eyes, to see the beauty they’re seeing, because maybe then they can see the beauty of these people themselves. I wanted to show how they were beforehand, before it happened. A lot of films about people like this are all about dysfunction, disorder and ugliness. It’s like if you imagine someone looking at a homeless person in the street with bloodshot eyes and a crooked grin, they might see only ugliness but if they could see what that person was seeing it could be something beautiful like Starry Night. I find that painting beautiful. Van Gogh was able to capture it. Maybe I don’t have the talent but I wanted to try.”

It’s also a much funnier film than people are likely to expect.

Sharing ideas
Sharing ideas

“The humour is also very important to the film, number one because it’s actually like that. I wanted to show the charm and the childlike innocence and playfulness that bipolar people can have. Number two because humour is relatable – people identify with it. It’s an authentic kind of humour that bipolar people have, especially when they’re when manic – they can be really humorous and fun to be around. And I think it’s important for any story that has tragedy in it to also have humour because that goes with that; it captures the contrast that’s there in real life in that kind of situation. And generally I think it’s the people who have gone through the most tragic experiences who have the best sense of how to capture that in art and how to bring humour to dark situations, like some of the great Eastern European filmmakers.”

Is this part of what makes it so important for there to be films on the subject made by people who are bipolar themselves?

“Absolutely. Because so many films have depicted it from the outside looking in at someone who has it, and I wanted the audience to literally see it through the characters’ eyes, so I enhanced some of the visual and audio elements. I wanted them to be able to identify with the way these characters felt, to go beyond empathising.”

On top of the world
On top of the world

Did he have any role in finding actors who could make that work?

“Casting was actually in a big part down to the casting director,” he says. “She actually really pushed for both Luke [Kirby] and Katie [Holmes] and she was very strong in her opinion that they would be great for those roles. Her understanding was very deep. When she first read the script she invited me into her office and asked me everything – about what I went through, about having a bipolar condition – she was really interested in getting to the soul of the character and then finding the actor whose soul embodies that. She was right in her instincts. Both Luke and Katie have that extra emotional range and imagination, and the craft as actors to make that imaginative leap, to express and embody those characters and the way they feel.”

How did he approach working with the actors himself?

“A lot of it was in preparation. I started with getting them to understand who the characters were so they could really become the characters before bipolar, so they understood who those people were. We focused on the core qualities of each character and then on how they would respond under mania or depression. We also talked about the Kay Jamison book [a study of manic depression which is important to both characters], and every kind of bipolar poet, composer and painter. Having poetry, painting and music really helped them capture those states and understand how they as sane people might respond for the frst time going insane. Really most of the work on set was very easy for them after that. The work on set was just about making little adjustments, tips and reminders, saying try this or try that - they’re both so good at what they do anyway that it went really well, and then they have that chemistry, that really helped a lot. They were fuelling each other as people. It was the best education I could have had as a director.” It’s also an experience that cemented his love of the art.

Looking at it from the outside
Looking at it from the outside

“I’m writing the next one now. I’m sure I’ll always make films – I have such a passion for it.” The reaction to this film has probably boosted that passion.

“I’m so encouraged by how this film went down with audiences – both bipolar audiences and audiences in general. The general public might discriminate against these people but when they saw the film they actually loved these people, they loved the idea of being these people, with a few saying they were even envious of them or saying they could understand for they felt - they don’t experience that level of emotion themselves but they feel it enough that they can understand. I’m also excited that it as a 93% audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes because that’s really unusual. Also with the medical community... it’s been great seeing how many people in the bipolar community relate to them and their experience, and some have told me how much that has helped them to come to a resolution or find a way out. Doctors and parents of bipolar people said that it resonated with them and helped to open up conversations because both of them could empathise with it. The best thing for me was hearing about a woman who I was working with through the International Bipolar Foundation whose daughter was saying that for the first time she understands her. That was very, very exciting.

Touched With Fire
Touched With Fire

He’s also pleased that his film is being shown at the Scottish Mental Health Arts And Film Festival.

“It’s very interesting to me to see which cultures respond in which ways..I hear different things about how different cultures react. It’s extremely exciting and encouraging to me that Scottish culture was even encouraged to have a festival that dealt with that, and it was extremely exciting to me, the fact that they responded to the film. I’m eager to see exactly what the audience reaction is going to be.

“My hope is that [the film] opens up dialogue and can further that universality where everyone feels connected. That it can help to eliminate stigma, because stigma is really the biggest issue right now with bipolar. If everyone hides in the shadows because they feel shame or they’re in denial then all that the public will see is the worst of their imagination of what’s in the shadows. Shining a light of truth, of beauty and showing the artistry that goes with that can invite the audience in to something they never knew about, which in turn encourages the people who are in the shadows to come out.”

Paul Dalio is presenting Touched With Fire, via Skype, at the GFT in Glasgow on October 24, as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival.

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