'Touched with Fire' finds drama, beauty in mental illness

Carla (Katie Holmes) and Marco (Luke Kirby)
In "Touched with Fire," Carla (Katie Holmes) and Marco (Luke Kirby) try to build a life together after completing therapy. However, when Marco decides he wants to embrace the emotional and creative highs of his condition, a pregnant Carla is hesitant.
Joey Kuhn | Courtesy Roadside Attractions

A film director who struggled for four years with bipolar disorder is hoping his new drama will help people understand the condition — and even recognize the beauty in it.

"Touched with Fire," starring Katie Holmes, opens in Minnesota this weekend.

The film tells the story of two poets, Carla and Marco, who meet in therapy in a mental hospital. Carla, played by Katie Holmes, is there after a manic episode that led her to her mother's doorstep in the middle of the night.

"I'm just trying to work out who I am," she tells her mother. "Because I don't feel like myself anymore. Even when I go off the medication, I don't feel like myself."

Her mother, played by Christine Lahti, tries to calm her down, but Carla is wound up.

"I hate it when you look at me like that," she says accusingly.

"How am I looking at you?" asks her mom.

"Like I'm crazy. You're looking at me like you don't recognize me."

Writer/director Paul Dalio on the set.
Writer/director Paul Dalio on the set of "Touched With Fire." The film portrays two poets, both with bipolar disorder, who meet and fall in love during therapy.
Joey Kuhn | Courtesy Roadside Attractions

Director Paul Dalio said he respects Holmes' bravery.

"It's definitely one of those roles that you can either make yourself look ridiculous in, and be very judged and criticized, or you can get an amazing performance," Dalio said.

Dalio wrote as well as directed "Touched with Fire." He said he believes the adage that 80 percent of directing is in the casting. Holmes committed entirely to the role, he said.

The film is rooted in Dalio's own experiences with bipolar disorder. He struggled with the condition going through film school in New York. With treatment, he's been stable for several years.

After graduation he looked for a story to film. He and his wife, who is also a filmmaker, began throwing ideas back and forth about two people, each with mental illness, who fall in love.

It gave Dalio a way of exploring — and, he said, explaining — what it's like to be bipolar. It's not all bad. He points to a long list of writers, painters and composers who created great things despite, or possibly because of, the disorder.

"This thing that brings out so much beauty and brings out all these positive things that a sane person can't really comprehend because they are not in their skin," he said. "But it also brings out all of this horror."

During Dalio's time at NYU's film school, the famed director Spike Lee was one of his professors. Lee liked Dalio's idea and offered to be the film's executive producer. They met every week to go over drafts of a script.

"And I'd rewrite, rewrite, show it to him again: Rewrite, rewrite," he said. "I'm like, 'Can we shoot yet?' And he's like, 'No, no, it's not ready.' All right, it's a month later. 'Can we shoot?' 'No, no, it's not ready.' It took like a year of writing, writing, writing."

Carla (Katie Holmes) and Marco (Luke Kirby)
Carla (Katie Holmes) and Marco (Luke Kirby) find common ground in poetry as they try to find balance lost when they were diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Writer/director Paul Dalio, who has struggled with the disorder for four years, says he hopes the film will de-stigmatize the condition.
Joey Kuhn | Courtesy Roadside Attractions

The cameras finally rolled in 2013. Lee then put him through another year of editing and re-editing. Frustrating as that was, Dalio said he's now glad Lee was so tough.

"Touched with Fire" is a searing drama that follows Carla and Marco, kindred spirits who begin writing together. But when they feed each other's mania, the hospital separates them. Eventually they find each other again and end up living together despite concerns from their parents.

A meeting to discuss the situation deteriorates when Marco, played by actor Luke Kirby, announces he's going off medication.

"I don't think it's such a bad thing to feel life with the deepest emotion," he says. " I don't think that's a problem."

"It's an illness," says Carla's mother.

"Well, maybe for you," Marco shoots back, "because maybe you have a low emotional capacity and so, to you, it makes you feel sick."

"Wait! Wait! Wait! I don't have a low emotional capacity," she says angrily, and all around, voices rise.

Dalio said it was important to depict the characters' families. The film reflects the families' pain, but also their love and concern for Carla and Marco.

"It is very easy in these kind of stories to make the parents the villains who are trying to separate the lovers," he said. "But it's not the reality and it's not very helpful."

Dalio hopes "Touched with Fire" takes some of the stigma out of bipolar disorder.

The stigma right now is so severe that "the very best someone can hope for is pity," he said. "And that's not good enough." Creating a society in which people are not ashamed to reveal their disorder, he said, would be a start.