Writer and director Paul Dalio’s “Touched with Fire” is a unique love story about two people who suffer from manic depression. Dalio started his career in the industry making short films after studying screen writing at New York University. Acclaimed filmmaker and NYU professor, Spike Lee, took Dalio under his wing and executive produced “Touched with Fire,” the director’s feature film debut.
Based, in part, on Dalio’s own experiences with manic depression, the film explores the mental disorder from the lead characters’ perspective and offers the audience a chance to truly see everything from their points of view. During a phone interview, Dalio spoke about his process, the characters, and why “Touched with Fire” is much more personal than the short films he started off making.
You can read the entire interview below! “Touched with Fire” is currently out in theaters.
As your first feature, how has this experience been in comparison to directing your short films?
The first thing was that they [the short films]weren’t coming from a very emotional place. I felt very cold directing them. the other thing was that none of them were very personal. I learned a lot, technically, from making short films. But this was kind of personal, the first time that I was creating something with integrity with my heart.
You struggle with manic depression yourself. Did you draw from a lot of your own personal experiences?
Absolutely, yeah! Most of it you see there–Carla showing up in her house in a panic, going on about how she’s not the person she used to be; Marco going to those rap clubs to flaunt his lunacy. The suicidal state, the depression. I was sawing a piece of wood and repeating in my mind, “It’s not gonna get any better than this.” And I called my dad to say goodbye and he came in a panic and stopped me. But really, what it was was a metaphor of my love/hate relationship with bipolar and kind of an internal wrestling between the idea of how beautiful it is and the experience of how horrific it is. It just kind of manifested itself in these two characters who brought out all of each other’s beauty and horror and had different elements that activated each other.
I appreciated the fact that the film was from Carla and Marco’s perspectives and not from their parents’ and how they’re coping.
Yeah, there’s been a lot of films that have looked at the mentally unstable from the outside and what was frustrating to me with having the condition is experiencing how human it is, experiencing how beautiful it is. Experiencing things that, if people knew what that looked like through their eyes, they wouldn’t look at those people that way anymore. If you see a lunatic looking up at the sky with these crazy, wild eyes, you’re going to judge him. But if you were able to see the most beloved image of the sky through the sanitarium window with Van Gogh’s manic eyes, then you’re going to walk by that person and not look at him the same way because you saw the beauty through his eyes.
The film was originally called “Mania Days.” Why the title change?
It originally when we got picked up by the distributor. The distributor was bringing up the idea of changing the name. I didn’t realize that I was the only person that saw mania as a universally beautiful thing. Many people were imagining it as this horror story in a hospital and everyone’s stabbing each other with syringes. It was a completely different painting than what I had in my mind. It was kind of perfect and I realized it was there in front of my eyes the whole time that I should name it “Touched with Fire,” because that’s the book that originally spawned the inspiration and shifted my self-perception and perception of bipolar. And the book was so woven in with the narrative that it was just perfect.
There are a lot of complex scenes in the film. Was there any anxiety you felt about attempting to do something so ambitious for your first feature?
Well, I wanted to be as truthful and responsible about the whole thing as possible. And that people would see the beauty in it and get the right message from. It was, to me, a huge duty as a filmmaker with bipolar who had an opportunity to be able to dispel some of the stigma. There aren’t many opportunities that the filmmaker can show people through their eyes and still have such a powerful potential to really put you in the characters’ skin with every element: The sound, the picture, the acting. That was the biggest concern, that people won’t get it.
You have two talented actors in the film. Was there a lot of rehearsal involved? Any advice you gave from your personal experience to help them portray their characters realistically?
Yeah. Well, it wasn’t so much rehearsal as much as just other forms of preparation. Luke [Kirby] and I would go for really long walks and really opened up to each other about each other. It was very important that he became Marco as much as we were able to find what it was about Marco that we could adapt around him, so that he could embody the character.
The most important thing is that they understood who each of their characters were, so they [the actors]could ground themselves in that and then have them understand the condition and what it does, and then they could visualize how they could react to it. They both had an extraordinary emotional range and an extraordinary imagination, so they were able to visualize the characters. And they were both very intense about the work and were very method-like actors, and they were both naturally driven to the script because something in them was tapping into the character.