Griffin Dunne, Christine Lahti, Katie Holmes,
Photo by Aurora Rose/REX/Shutterstock

The New York premiere of Roadside Attractions’ “Touched With Fire” was held at the Walter Reade Theatre at Lincoln Center on Wednesday night, with an after-party across the street at the Lincoln Ristorante. The film is a drama about two poets, Carla (Katie Holmes) and Marco (Luke Kirby), struggling with bipolar disorder and the painful truth that their romantic relationship fuels their mania. The director, first-time filmmaker Paul Dalio, told Variety that the subject was important to him because it was based on his own experience dealing with mental illness.

“Touched With Fire” is based on the filmmaker’s “feeling of being misunderstood for a long time, and the rebirth of fully showing the world what this thing really is. It was cathartic,” Dalio said, adding that before he got healthy, he had been through a period of hospitalization and suicidal depression and “the shame of being a freak and not knowing who you are anymore — and then, romanticizing your difference. The heaven and hell we all go through.”

Dalio was a student at NYU’s film program, and his professor Spike Lee took an interest in his work, and eventually agreed to produce his film. “He gets behind projects he believes in. When it was time for me to graduate, I showed him a commercial script I had written, and he advised against doing it,” Dalio said, “and this script, my wife really liked it, and she made a point that I had already come out of that stuff, and by wallowing down in there it wouldn’t help anyone, and if I wrote a story with real reflection, it could help people. You listen to the wife.”

Star Holmes is no stranger to taking a chance on rookie filmmakers. “I’ve worked with a lot of first-time directors, and I actually find it to be really thrilling, and I just directed my first film,” she said. That drama, “All We Had,” will be released this year. “It’s so helpful when people are excited and they support you, so I try to do that with other first-time filmmakers.”

Holmes’ co-star Kirby, best known for playing attorney Jon Stern on “Rectify,” said he prepared for the role by talking with Dalio about his experiences and by reading “Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament” by psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, which is referenced heavily in the film (Jamison even makes an appearance at the end) and the poems of William Styron, who battled mental illness.

Kirby told Variety that he was well aware that mental illness has a dodgy history of cinematic portrayals, and that many actors have been criticized for going too big and coming off like a parody of people who suffer from real problems.

“It’s a tightrope; you can’t be too much in your head, as far as if it will be like that. You have to trust the director as to whether what you do will have purchase or not,” Kirby said, “otherwise, you’ll get stuck in a fear blender. It was really just counting on the director more than anything.”

Oscar-nominated actress Christine Lahti plays the mother of Holmes’ character. She told Variety that she was attracted to the film because the disease had affected her family, and she thought Dalio’s script got right what a lot of other films get wrong about the subject.

“My sister struggled with a severe bipolar disorder for 20 years, so I understood it,” Lahti said. “There are other movies that say ‘all you need is love,’ and that’s not true. I think the seduction of mania is really explored in this movie, and is not romanticized, and that’s very important. A lot of people don’t want to take their medication, because they say it makes them brain-dead or they don’t have the right cocktail and they want to be manic because it feels better, and this movie shows how destructive it can be. With the right amount of medication and maybe meditation, you can have a very stable, productive life. That’s the hope.

“You have to take your medication,” she reiterated. “You need love, you need support, and you need your medication.”

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