Movie News & Reviews

Filmmaker pours his experience with mental illness into ‘Touched With Fire’

Paul Dalio, on the “Touched With Fire” set, wrote and directed the movie, which has been met with praise from the psychiatric community.
Paul Dalio, on the “Touched With Fire” set, wrote and directed the movie, which has been met with praise from the psychiatric community. Roadside Attractions

Filmmaker Paul Dalio’s bipolar disorder first manifested itself during his college years at New York University with what he calls a “hyper-manic experience.” It was followed by a long bout of depression.

It wasn’t until some years later, in 2004, that he had a full psychotic episode that led to a diagnosis and hospitalization.

Dalio, the son of billionaire entrepreneur Ray Dalio, went through five years of off-and-on institutionalization before finding the right combination of drugs to keep his condition under control.

Dalio has poured his experiences into “Touched With Fire,” which he wrote and directed. Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby play patients diagnosed with manic-depression who meet in a psych ward, fall in love riding the creative high that is a big part of the illness’s “up” cycle, and eventually must accept that they’re not good for each other.

The film, which was executive-produced by Spike Lee (one of Dalio’s NYU film professors), opens in Kansas City on Feb. 19.

It may be one of the best, most authentic films ever made about mental illness.

“Most of what happens to these characters happened to me,” Dalio said in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles. “The love story was mainly a metaphor for the internal struggle between the two halves of bipolar disorder. First you’ve got all the beauty of creativity and romance that comes with the manic phase. But alongside it there’s the horror and pain.

“Basically the film is about the need to reconcile those two opposites.”

The film’s title was inspired by Kay Jamison’s 1996 book of the same name, which makes the case that many, if not most, great artistic geniuses are bipolar. Jamison, a psychologist who developed the condition, has a brief scene in the film playing herself.

“Jamison’s book was very important to me,” Dalio said. “It led to this shift in my perception of bipolar illness and my perception of myself.”

Before reading the book, Dalio said, he felt stigmatized by his illness. Now he is much more secure about his place and his value.

While “Touched With Fire” forces the viewer to share the exhilaration and fierce energy felt by the two lovers, it is also ruthlessly honest in depicting the plight of their parents, played by Christine Lahti, Bruce Altman and Griffin Dunne.

“I really wanted to create parents who were empathetic and well-intentioned,” Dalio said. “In movies they’re too often portrayed as villains trying to stymie this beautiful romance.

“Most parents have no idea of how to deal with this. It’s an unreasonable situation, because it’s impossible to deal in a sane way with an insane person. I wanted to create parents that the audience could see themselves in. And at the same time see themselves through their children’s eyes, bridging the gap between them.”

Though it’s Dalio’s first feature film, “Touched With Fire” is so dramatically potent and intellectually nuanced that it has received raves from the psychiatric community.

“Yeah, that’s been pretty astounding,” he said. “Doctors, policymakers, people who run big mental health organizations and the patients themselves … they’ve all been behind it.

“Which is really gratifying because the film’s approach is a bit controversial. I wasn’t sure if they would think I was romanticizing the condition.”

Though it was shot on a shoestring budget, often employing students as crew and borrowing NYU film equipment, “Touched With Fire” looks terrific.

And Dalio said that at no time in the process was it suggested that because he was bipolar he might not be up to the challenge.

“By the time I started working on it I was so stable. Actually, being bipolar was a selling point in gaining the confidence of the actors. They knew I’d be able to help them find their performances.”

It isn’t just medication that keeps him on an even keel, Dalio said. He also relies on many healthy habits, from exercise to diet to meditation.

“I almost take these things to extremes because they allow you to lower the medication dosage. The more stable you become, the less drugs you need and that opens up your senses and emotions. That’s one of the odd things about the condition — you can actually experience a wider emotional range than can other people. In that sense the disorder can be a gift.”

There is no cure for bipolar disorder, which Dalio calls “the never-ending journey.”

“But at the same time it can be a rewarding journey. You’ll always walk a tightrope, always be facing the possibility of slipping. But if you’re lucky you become stronger and more disciplined in your determination to survive.”