In the dramatic film “Touched With Fire,” Katie Homes and Luke Kirby portray two New York City poets named Carla and Marco who have bipolar disorder and whose art is fueled by their emotional extremes. When they meet in a treatment facility, their chemistry is instant and intense, driving each other’s mania to new heights. They bond over the book “Touched With Fire,” and pursue their passion which breaks outside the bounds of sanity, swinging them from fantastical highs to tormented lows until they ultimately must choose between sanity and love. At a New York City press conference for “Touched With Fire,” Holmes and Kirby joined co-stars Christine Lahti and Bruce Altman (who play Carla’s parents, Sara and Donald) and “Touched With Fire” writer/director Paul Dalio to discuss the movie and their own real-life experiences with bipolar people.
“Touched With Fire” was previously titled “Mania Days.” What was the reason for the title change?
Dalio: When we were picked up by the distributor, they brought up the point that not everyone associates mania with love. Some people thought it would be a hospital horror story with patients stabbing each other. I didn’t want to give that impression to people, so we were examining other possibilities for the title. And “Touched With Fire” was perfect, because that was the initial inspiration that shifted my whole perspective on things that led to the life journey that led to the film.
Katie and Luke, how did you work together to tell this difficult story? And can anyone share any stories of bipolar people you know who might have influenced your performance in “Touched With Fire”?
Holmes: This was a wonderfully creative experience. For myself, I approached this project not really knowing much about this disease. When I met with Paul, I was so inspired by his passion and willingness to bring such a personal story to the screen. And the opportunity to take on such a challenging role was something that seemed right.
It was wonderful working with everyone. It was wonderful working with Luke. We prepared on our own and had a lot of rehearsals. We also depended on Paul to guide our characters. We had a great time. Everybody on the crew and the cast, I think, we all had different stories that we shared. I realized through this process how many people have been affected personally, so it made the work really rewarding.
Kirby: You asked how we approached it. I think it was just a matter of meeting and locking some kind horns and then striving to find rhythm. That was true of Katie also true with Paul and the crew and everyone. I think, as film goes, it was a little bit of trial and error. Luckily, we had that charm.
Lahti: I was immediately drawn to this story because of my own experience with bipolar — not personally, but my sister struggled with the disease for over 25 years, and then she took her life. I didn’t really have to do any homework for the story. I understood this mom. I understood [her daughter Carla].
My sister just didn’t find the right cocktail of medication for her. I feel like if she were alive today, she would find something, whether it was a combination of medication and meditation or just a different cocktail. I think we’ve come a really long way in how we treat bipolar.
When [my sister] was depressed, she was like Katie’s character was depressed. “Brain dead,” she would call it. When she was manic, she was like Katie’s and Luke’s characters she was extremely manic. And then even more, almost psychotic mania. Her life was a roller coaster. And by the end, she had had enough.
Anyone who’s been touched by suicide knows that there’s a whole bunch of stages you go through of anger and rage and guilt. “Why didn’t I do fill in the blank?’ If only I had done that.” I still have those thoughts. But then finally, there’s kind of an understanding, and that ultimately, giving her the dignity and respect to make that choice. She was the most courageous, strongest and resilient person I have ever known.
Meeting Paul, I was so inspired by his ability to be so live such a healthy life, and to find a way of finding stability and staying on his medication. To see Paul live a life that’s so productive and creative, and celebrate bipolar in such a way that this film does, without demonizing it. As a society, we think, “Oh, you’re bipolar. That’s scary. Ew, too bad. You’re going to have to deal with that your whole life.” But to put a positive spin on it, which I think Paul has done in the movie. So I’m really proud to a part of it.
Altman: I liked Paul from when I first met him, and that’s always important to me — and all the other wonderful actors. The circumstances were really clear to me, in terms of [Donald] loving [his] daughter, being concerned about her relationship with this young man. And loving and admiring [Sara].
I liked Griffin [Dunne, who plays Marco’s father, George]. I liked his character. We were kind of on the same page. It was kind of like rolling down a hill that way. Katie is such a delightful person, and she’s a wonderful actress — as everybody was. So I just get to listen and respond.
With Paul, even though it’s a work of fiction, it’s based on his own experiences. That was my understanding of it … suffering in being able to get through college at NYU [New York University]. I do know people who have bipolar disease. And to make a movie of it was very inspiring. It allowed me to be in the moment. It added to the verisimilitude of the experience.
Katie, this is one of your more emotional roles. What did you learn about yourself in making “Touched With Fire”?
Holmes: It was very emotional. When you prepare for any role, there’s a lot of rehearsal and a lot of research. This was just a wonderful acting experience, and it was because of this whole cast and Paul. We were really allowed the freedom to try different things because these characters were going through such highs and lows.
Finding the right degree of that high and the right degree of that low, we really had the space and time to do that. So it was really wonderful as an actor to go to work every day and be like, “Ooh, I get to try something, and it’s OK.” We were all a team, and we were all very inspired to create an authentic portrayal of something that is really important. Everybody was very, very helpful.
Katie, you have a co-producing credit on “Touched With Fire.” What did that mean for you?
Holmes: I was really excited when I read this script and really happy to be involved as I was able to be. And I’m so proud of this movie, and so proud of what everybody has done, especially Paul. The work involved is truly incredible. I know that for all of us, from the beginning, it was creating real characters.
This isn’t an idea. This is really what it’s like. It’s based on real experiences. We had this wonderful opportunity where Paul is giving us his real-life experiences. It was very helpful in allowing us to portray it as authentically as we could.
Dalio: It was just such an incredible performance, and she put in so much … her blood, her sweat, her tears that we could not not give her a co-producing credit. She really gave everything from the beginning, from the rehearsal stage and the preparation stage. I didn’t want to impose on her. She was intensely involved.
Christine and Bruce, can you talk about how people might understand what your Sarah and Donald characters might be going through, even though people might not always sympathize with how they handle it?
Lahti: I think Paul found that great balance, because they’re not always sympathetic. [Carla and Marco] put their parents and families through the wringer, but I think Paul has such a deep, deep empathy and understanding of this illness that even though they’re not always sympathetic, he understands them. And I think that’s part of the beauty of this film: [Marco and Carla] are not always Romeo and Juliet with horrible parents who are trying to break up this beautiful love. They’re really indulgent sometimes and narcissistic and selfish and human. And I thought that was a beautiful balance that he found.
Can you talk about bipolar people’s tendency to go off their prescribed medication, and then self-medicate with alcohol and illegal drugs?
Dalio: What I was hoping to show you through their eyes and their skin is the seduction of the mania, because of how beautiful it is, how ecstatic it is, these are people by nature who need to feel life at the deepest extremes of emotion. And then what it’s like when they’re on meds — these people, who by nature, are supposed to feel things extremely deeply are told to feel nothing and how restraining that could be. I don’t think a lot of people understand that. That was important.
“Touched With Fire” is about personal growth. Katie, how have you grown in the last few years and why?
Holmes: I think that’s a really interesting question. I think this movie is more of an exploration of people at a certain time in their lives and trying to figure out a way to deal with an illness. As an actor, I think this was an incredible experience to grow creatively, and it’s because of this wonderful group of people. We had a really great time making this, and so many friendships came out of this. I look at this project as a wonderful, creative time.
Luke and Katie, what theme resonated the most with you in “Touched With Fire?”
Kirby: I was very struck, in reading the script, just by the voice that was coming off the page. It felt very raw and intent on getting some kind of word out there. It wasn’t clear to me at the time what it was. It felt like more than a message about any condition. It felt more a story that was screaming to be told. And then when I met Paul, I saw that in person.
I have been struck in the last couple of weeks, when we’ve gone one some tours and done some Q&As, about how much it’s connected with a lot of people. It really is very striking how many lives bipolar has touched. I’m just delighted to see that and see people who live with it or have lived among it stand up and talk about it. It’s kind of a beautiful thing to generate any dialogue around anything is just a very nice residual charm of making entertainment.
Holmes: I agree with what he just said. And I think that the whole movie is full of a probable whole piece that I think you take away with your own experience. And that’s a really powerful thing to be a part of. I think that’s the reason to do things.
You start the movie thinking one thing, and hopefully they’ve learned something at the end of the movie. And I think with this [movie], you really do, and I’m really proud of that — or maybe you don’t, and you recognize the experience you’ve had. And that’s also something that’s really a wonderful gift to be part of something that can do that. I’m very proud of that.
Paul, can you talk about your decision to list several real-life historical people at the end of “Touched With Fire”?
Dalio: These people on that list made some of the biggest contributions to the human spirit but were labeled for having a human disorder. And I think that’s a very important thing to think about, for the public to be able to appreciate the beauty of it allows the people who have it to be proud of it. Right now, the conversation is, “You are not your illness,” but it is woven into the fabric of your DNA, so no one wants to come out about it.
By showing these names who have brought so much enrichment to your hearts and your minds and your understanding of what it means to be human at the core, by having that, I feel like these people, instead of hiding that gift in the shadows and preventing that to bring enrichment to your souls, allow them to come out and shine and bring more of that humanity to who you are.
Katie, can you talk about working with Christine Lahti and how knowing she had a sister with bipolar disorder might have affected your performance?
Holmes: Working with Christine was incredible. She taught me so much about acting but also really inspired me by her personal story. It taught me what it was like by sharing her personal experience.
Doing our scenes together was incredible. It was so much fun. I just wanted to do more and more takes. It was like playing a game. We got to be free. We got to try stuff. She’s amazing.
Paul, was doing this movie a healing experience for you? And can you talk about your relationship with Spike Lee, who is an executive producer of “Touched With Fire”?
Dalio: It was definitely a healing experience, because when you become bipolar, and you know you’re not going to be the person you used to be, and you don’t feel seen by society for who you are, it felt like being stuck in a birth canal between my previous self and who I wanted to be and be seen as. This project was almost like a merge to be born, to be seen for all the beauty that exists in this thing that a lot of other people may share. It feels liberating spiritually.
Spike was my professor at NYU. He was one of the few people who saw anything in me, because I was over-medicated at NYU. I had written a rap musical when I was going through the swings from mania to depression and my descent into hell. I remember when I was graduating, I brought him a script. He had become a good mentor, and I said, “I want to do this script.”
It was probably the most commercial script you could ever think of in trying to get the biggest audience possible. It was like a Russian mafia script with “The Godfather” and “The Lion King” and “Hamlet.” He looked at it and said, “Do not. I’ve seen this way too many times.” It’s not just me. He executive produced a classmate’s film.
When I was making it, it was my wife who was pushing me to make this other [movie]. She said, “You were going through hell when you were making that rap musical, but you really didn’t come out of it to be able to give a story that would help other people come out of it. This film, this other script, you made, having come out of the experience with some clarity that might be able to help others come out of it. And I think you’re evolved past that other script.” She kept pushing me to write the script, even though it was just an idea at the time. I showed it to Spike, and Spike supported it instead.
For more info: “Touched With Fire” website