Filmmaker effectively captures the complexities of mental illness


banner_TouchedWithFire1449712871Preston Barta // Editor

“Instead of being bipolar, you can be ‘touched with fire.’”

Mental illness can be a rich source for film, no doubt. It’s encouraging to discover more and more characters with depression and bipolar disorder sensitively but also with powerful drama. It’s a tricky thing to pull off an exploration of such a world and bring out the complexities of troubled lives in a way that’s relatable. However, there are some genuinely great films that depict mental illness, highlight the struggles and raise awareness.

In theaters this weekend is TOUCHED WITH FIRE, a prime example of a film that effectively captures the beauty and horror of such conditions as well as the intensity of a new romance in an us-against-the-world environment.

Written and directed by Paul Dalio (FAITH, LOVE AND WHISKY), the film pits two poets, played respectively by Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby (TAKE THIS WALTZ), with bipolar disorder together in a treatment facility. Their chemistry ignites quickly and drives their mania to new depths, putting them in a position where they must choose between sanity and love.

Writer-director Paul Dalio on the set of TOUCHED WITH FIRE. Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

Writer-director Paul Dalio on the set of TOUCHED WITH FIRE. Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

Dalio, 36, began his career as a filmmaker when he was 20 years old, shortly around the time he also was diagnosed with manic depressive disorder. At the time, Dalio thought he was experiencing some form of divine illumination. However, doctors told him there was nothing beautiful in what he saw. “They told me, ‘you just triggered a lifelong illness that will swing you from psychotic highs to suicidal lows with progressive intensity for the rest of your life,’” said Dalio.

Dalio felt like he’d never be the same person again. “You’re lost trying to find your new identity,” said Dalio. This is when he found the book in which this film is based on, TOUCHED WITH FIRE: MANIC-DEPRESSIVE ILLNESS AND THE ARTISTIC TEMPERAMENT.

After scraping through a collection of journals filled with clinical and medical diagnostic terminology, Dalio found a source of hope. “It had a whole new version of the science behind this condition, while the other books made you feel like a disease,” said Dalio. “Instead of being bipolar, you can be ‘touched with fire.’”

As a film, TOUCHED WITH FIRE is a refreshing departure from other attempts to clutch the subject. “It’s so difficult for filmmakers to tackle mental illness because they don’t have it,” said Dalio. “They’re seeing it from the outside and have no way of knowing what it truly is like from the inside.”

While some filmmakers know how to structure a story, build drama and are perceptive, when it comes to mental illness, they have no choice but to judge it through the lens of a clinical book or what they might have read. “If you see someone acting strange and hear ‘bipolar’ or ‘manic depressive’ attached to them, everything you know about that person comes through a medical book that is really degrading and makes these people feel like a defect,” said Dalio. “It’s only by fortune that I happen to be a filmmaker who has it and had the opportunity to do my best to convey what it’s like through their eyes.”

Luke Kirby as Marco, and Katie Holmes as Carla. Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

Luke Kirby as Marco, and Katie Holmes as Carla. Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

His goal in making this film was to not have his actors play crazy. “I wanted them to authentically be manic, like any filmmaker would,” said Dalio. “Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby are two brilliant actors who have an enormous imagination and emotional range. I vividly described my own experience, gave them books about other people’s experiences, poetry by bipolar poets, paintings by bipolar painters and music by bipolar musicians, so they could really experience and visualize it.”

After Holmes and Kirby got a grasp on the characters and condition, when Dalio put them together in front of the camera for the first time, the relationship between them was organic. “It was very easy to let them take off and not tell them what was manic and what wasn’t,” said Dalio. “Any direction I would give them, even if it felt off, I would approach it in a way that never told them it was off. I wanted them to maintain that free spirit, which is important if you’re manic.”

The beauty of film is the ability for filmmakers to break down stigmas and take us inside another person’s point-of-view. Dalio gives audiences a rare and touching chance to experience what it’s really like to walk in the shoes of his characters and appreciate who these people really are.

TOUCHED WITH FIRE is now playing in select theaters.
Dallas: Angelika Dallas, Cinemark West Plano and AMC Grapevine Mills 30.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction ( as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.