Touched with Fire takes its title and thematic inspiration from Kay Redfield Jamison’s 1996 study Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, in which the psychologist examines how the works of many artists, musicians, and writers–including Van Gogh, Tchaikovsky, and Byron–were fueled by their struggles with bipolar disorders.
The film follows two poets, Carla (Katie Holmes) and Marco (Luke Kirby), who meet in a treatment facility and whose opposing natures not only draws them into a passionate romantic relationship but also dangerously stokes each other’s mania–much to the concern of their doctors and family. (Touched with Fire also features Christine Lahti as Carla’s mother and Griffin Dunne as Marco’s father.)
As a student at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Dalio’s artistic exploration of his past experiences with bipolarity and creativity drew the attention and support of both his film professor, Spike Lee (an executive producer on the film), and his fellow student and future wife, Kristina Nikolova (also a producer and co-cinematographer on Touched with Fire).
I sat down in Chicago last month to talk with both Paul Dalio and Luke Kirby (recently seen in Rectify and Show Me a Hero) about making Touched with Fire.
Touched with Fire opens this week in select theaters nationwide.
Paul Dalio: Absolutely. Fortunately, I had a lot of time to prepare; first with a look book, then working with the creative departments. It was a three-month pre-production period with just the creative departments and really getting the specifics right.
The great thing about film, the power of film is that you can really affect all the senses and put the audience into the skin of the characters. When you get all the departments on the same page, and you’re all creating from the same place, you can just saturate the senses. So the viewers are experiencing digitally, aurally, what it’s like so they’re not distanced from the characters. They’re not watching a mania from the outside—they’re inside the mania, inside the skin of the characters.
As an actor, Luke, does playing those sorts of extreme emotion states come with dangers, pitfalls?
Luke Kirby: Probably? But that’s why we do it. The great gift actors are granted with film is that it can all go into an editing room. [Laughs] So it’s not your fault! And hopefully they’ll have the wherewithal when they’re in the editing room to get the right stuff on screen. For me with this work, the biggest pitfall would be to be too concerned about going too far. So for me, I put that on Paul….
Dalio: Thank god, we had that trust…
Kirby: He was the barometer for whether or not what we were doing was authentic, or if it felt like it needed a nudge. So I was grateful this film was in Paul’s hands.
Dalio: As a first-time director, I was grateful that he trusted me. That I could let him go as far as he wanted and try everything. And then for him to know I would catch him if he was going into something that wasn’t truthful, and that in the editing room I’d keep it pure, and authentic, and real.
But when putting these emotions on screen, you probably have to go a little bigger in order to convey them to the audience in the span of a two-hour film.
There’s always that balance between naturalism and the very heightened artifice that defines “art.” The film itself focuses on creativity, especially poetry.
Dalio: Fortunately mania is already big. [Laughs] It’s big enough for anything; authentically big.
Kirby: I love naturalism, love it. I don’t know that it’s truer to life. Naturalism at some point just becomes an aesthetic versus a real behavioral observation.
How did you balance that heightened reality without playing into stereotypes and preconceptions about bipolar behavior?
Kirby: Well, it’s so personal to Paul and dear to his heart that for me it was very clear that he was going to be holding close to that. There’s a creative flow—you can’t get motion if you’re worrying too much.
Dalio: I saw Luke had it when I met him. It was clear that he could take that leap. I wouldn’t put anything on the screen that wasn’t authentic, or heightened so that I could show something, even if it wasn’t “true.”
The most important thing for me was to be really authentic, but bi-polar is one of those things with heightened experience and heightened extremes. Luke had that in him when I met him, and I knew that he would go further and further in an authentic way because he’s a very authentic actor. He puts a lot of emphasis on the internal experience and building the character internally in a strong way before even going in front of the camera. So everything he did was authentic.
While I can give him feedback from the outside, truth is in your intuition. And he had a strong intuition and he was truthful to that. Once he made the imaginary leap with his already existing emotional range beyond the norm and pushed into that heightened manic state, while he might be off here and there, he had a barometer of truth in him through his intuition as an actor. It was very much connected to his senses, and so clearly written all over his face and body and behavior. So much of that I didn’t need to push out, it just happened.
One of the film’s strengths is that unlike, say, I Smile Back (where the viewer immediately sees and feels that the main character is behaving in self-destructive, harmful ways), in Touched with Fire, we’re drawn into Marco and Carla’s worlds and asked to explore and understand both their driving forces and philosophies as valid and sympathetic—as well as the legitimate concerns of their parents, doctors, and the “outside world.”
Dalio: For the same reasons I wanted the audience to experience things through their skin and see the beauty of the world through their eyes, I wanted the audience to be with them in every single way.
Part of that are the choices they make. And you cannot be with the characters if they’re making choices you wouldn’t make. You have to at least be in their skin and empathize with them.
I thought it was very important for reaching people are bipolar, for them to experience it and say, “I know what that’s like, and I know I have to make those choices.” Then when I bring them to the resolution, they can decide for themselves if that’s truthful, but at least they’ll have a chance of having their truth aligned with mine if I took them through a journey they could relate to.
I also thought it was important for the doctors and parents out there in the audience to be able to see what they’re going through and understand why they make those choices. So they are able to talk to their patients or kids in an intelligent way. That’s also why I show the doctors and parents as well-intentioned people. The obvious stereotype is to make them villains who are stopping these kids from loving each other, but that’s not helpful, and it doesn’t allow or invite the doctors and parents in the audience to see themselves in those characters, and to allow them to see themselves through their children’s or patients’ eyes.
The film actively paints Carla as “sun” and “light” and Marco as “moon” and “darkness.” Luke, did you approach Marco as the “darker” character, the more cautionary tale?
Kirby: I was definitely drawn to his audacious attitude. His situation or condition, the fight in him was very real to me. There was something a little childlike in him that excited me. I wasn’t really aware of the cautionary tale aspect.
As a night owl myself, his connection to the moon was more about the beautiful lunacy than the dark elements. I think magic is very present in the night because the world goes quiet. If you have an imagination, you can really be free to be with that and not have life interrupt.
I just read a book called Waking Up to the Dark by Clark Strand that’s all about how civilization includes more light due to technology like cell phones and becomes more dependent on light. From his experience, he is making the argument for the importance of having dark in your life. He wakes up in the night and goes for walks. He was a monk for a while, so he’s very spiritual.
Because the film is so successful at showing the truth of bipolarity, it also creates its own challenge in how to find its own narrative conclusion. At one point, you bring the real Kay Jamison into the film to offer advice about how she herself found that balance between mania and creativity.
Dalio: Marco’s nature is to defy that balance—they have to live out their own consequences and compare those consequences with what they were told, to find those truths for themselves. The truth is there’s many Marcos out there who would watch that scene, and they would say, “Oh, Jaminson couldn’t face the storms.”
If Marco on screen was to say “Kay Jaminson was right—that’s the way we have to live,” the Marcos out in the audience would say, “Oh, he couldn’t face the storm—but I would be able to face it.” You need him to crash in the storm and reach the belly of the abyss in order to get out of it and stay out it.
Knowing from your own experience that the struggle with real bipolarity is an ongoing thing, how did you approach writing an ending for the film. How did you bring it home to a conclusion, since a feature film can’t be 40 hours long?
Dalio: [loud laughter at Luke] He knows the original script! That’s not far off!
But you can’t have a nice, neat ending, and yet as a work of art itself, the film has to offer some sort of cinematic closure as the lights come up, right?
Dalio: Absolutely. The creative process was authentically wrestling between the beauty and the darkness. I wanted to show all the love that they had and all the torment the love brought out, but also authentically allow these characters to live out their relationship with these drives that brought them together and made them shine brighter and brighter until at some point it would naturally burn so bright that it would fall into the ashes.
And then try to find within those ashes some resolution, some truth that wasn’t forced, that wasn’t didactic, that wasn’t trying to tie things up in a neat bow, but was truthful. And in that truth find some kind of message that would be a help to people who watch the film.
I set out with the editing to keep the film in the frame of the four seasons, because bi-polar runs with the seasons, and Carla and Marco’s relationship ran with the seasons.
There was a thing about repeating the cycle, and they had to break the cycle. The cycle is that in the summer the mania runs wild and reaches peak saturation, and then crashes in the fall, and you go through a winter depression, and then spring comes again and invites you with that warm invitation to rise too high. It’s so hard to resist the temptation. But though the film’s structure and editing, I wanted to show them have the full seasonal cycle and then break the cycle.