SXSW 2015 Interview: Paul Dalio on ‘Mania Days’ and Katie Holmes

The writer/director describes how his own experiences with depression inspired the new drama starring Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

The SXSW premiere Mania Days tells the story of two manic-depressive patients (Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby) who meet in an institution and try to have a relationship when they get out. I got to meet first time writer/director Paul Dalio in Austin and got into a really in-depth discussion of his personal experience with bipolar disorder. 

We hope it is a helpful discussion for readers and good background for the film, which will hopefully find distribution out of SXSW. In the courtyard of the Four Seasons Austin, Dalio and I spoke for an hour. His wife, Kristina Nikolova, was there pushing their baby in a stroller, as Dalio would subtly reveal that Mania Days was in some ways a family effort. 

 

Check Out: SXSW 2015 Review: ‘Mania Days’ Grounds the Pixie Dreamgirl

 

Was it important to have compassion for these characters, even in the bad decisions they make?

Paul Dalio: That was the most important thing for the film. That was the purpose of the film because it’s such a hard thing for people to have compassion for someone they look at as behaving so abnormally that they almost question the humanity in that person’s soul. I’ll admit that myself, before I went crazy, I could look at a crazy person and it’s almost like wondering is there a humanity there, or is there a fractured humanity? There’s something that just turns people off. 

But then when I went crazy, I experienced it. Obviously, when I became that person, it was very different. I found a genuine, not just humanity, but the fact that they contribute to over 1/3 of the human spirit. If you break it down statistically, 38% of Pulitzer prize winning poets, they made such huge contributions to humanity, to what it means to be human, to the essence of being a human being, but they’re still marginalized as being not like us. Not like the rest of us humanity, off, diseased, ill, genetically defective.

I take it that’s an open book, so thank you, because I have to ask: Mania Days is so insightful about this condition, did you have experience with it?

Yeah, I went through just about everything that each of the characters went through. Mostly in the beginning I was like Carla, afraid of it, ashamed of it. Then I became more like Luna, embracing it and romanticizing it as a way of coping. 

For me, having gone through all of it, it’s such a subjective thing. It’s such an internal experience, it’s so hard to convey it to someone who’s just watching two people from the outside. That was the biggest challenge, so when you say you’re in a depression, people don’t understand so they say, “Oh, why don’t you go for a run? Why don’t you go walk it off?” They don’t get what Depression is. They don’t get what the interior of it is like. When you put a brain on a brain scan, there’s literally no light. There’s no activity. 

Hemingway was a tough guy. This is a guy who was an ambulance driver in the war, went after big game in Africa, studied bullfighting. He was embraced as one of the toughest guys in history iconically. When he came across the bipolar depression, he couldn’t take it and he committed suicide. It had nothing to do with his strength, nothing to do with his character. That was a challenge of how to put you in the skin of the character. I try to use the filmmaking techniques to subjectively put you in there.

Sure, but not overdo it.

Not overdo it because if you overdo it, it’s not real. And also take you there gradually. I wanted everything to be authentic because sometimes when people think insanity, they think it’s a crazy altered state of reality, but it’s actually more of an enhanced state of reality. When Van Gogh was painting stars, they just found recently, scientists found that there were actual spirals occurring in particles in the air where the wind was sucking up the spirals of light. That was something that he saw that was natural. It was an enhanced experience of reality. It wasn’t just this craziness.

Now people who go bipolar, they develop delusions because their enhanced state of being with the natural world mixes with their imagination and they start having delusions about things that aren’t there. 

Medication is as complicated as the condition itself because it’s not as simple as you take medicine and get better. There are some medicines that work and some that don’t and it’s different for everybody’s chemistry. Some people even mistake a bad medication as representative of all treatment, so what was your experience with medication?

It’s a completely corrupt system. My first experience with medication was a corrupt doctor. I should’ve known the moment I stepped into the office and I saw little Dixie cups with prescription drug company brands. I go in there, I tell him I don’t feel anything. I tell him I feel no emotion and I don’t think I’m going to feel emotion. He tells me, “Stay away from Lithium. I’m going to put you on this other drug.” I couldn’t get in touch with him. He was literally at his vacation home and I couldn’t get in touch with him. He kept pushing this drug and saying, “Just be patient” and then he would tell me things like, “You don’t know what it’s like to feel normal because you didn’t feel normal before. Before you got sick, you were experiencing things, that was the mania coming on. It hadn’t quite hit yet.” 

So you have a doctor who hasn’t taken the medication who’s telling you what the medication is doing to you and you have a doctor who hasn’t subjectively gone through it, yet also telling you what the medication is doing to you. That was the biggest thing. I found out only later that the best doctors prescribe Lithium. But Lithium is an all natural substance so the drug companies can’t patent it. They push these other drugs to the doctors and get the doctors to badmouth Lithium.

Also the other thing is you have to be patient. That’s the other thing about medication. Medication could be great if you find the right cocktail if you’re patient. What happens is bipolar is like a pendulum. The more recently it’s swung, the more it wants to swing again. So you need a lot of medication at first to restrain it, to keep yourself from swinging. So you’re going to feel numb. I was numb for about five years. I felt nothing for about five years but it was slowly stripping away layer by layer until I felt rich, deep emotion. Now I feel much deeper emotion than before bipolar.

That’s great to hear. A bad doctor doesn’t mean there’s no good medication for you. It’s not either mania or numb. You can actually feel good. 

Yeah, that’s the thing. Patients initially think it’s either/or. They think either I’m going to go off the meds and I’m going to feel all the emotion in the world, but it’s going to either kill me or mess up my life. Or I feel nothing and I’m able to get by in life. That’s what I thought. I thought it was either/or. Then the other issue is working with a doctor you can trust. So many doctors might want to avoid liability. They might want to play it safe and keep you restrained.

And who trusts you to describe how you feel and doesn’t tell you, “You’re wrong, you don’t feel that.”

Yes. That’s exactly it. That relationship, mutual trust, where I trust that he is going to get me to where I want to feel and he is going to trust when I’m telling him this is how I feel. And he trusts that I’m not trying to get him to let me feel mania. He trusts that I want to feel deep emotion and I’ll know what deep emotion is when I feel it. 

Since it’s tied to creativity, you understand the worry that you don’t want to suppress the creativity. That’s another thing, the wrong medication can make it hard to work. Cocktail is the right description, finding the right combination that lets you get where you want to be.

And to have the patience because you can only make little changes one at a time. I believe in trying to play and push things but very gradually, very little at a time and not much, not being greedy. You can’t have everything, but when you go through what we go through, you really learn to appreciate things. When you get back what you never thought you’d get back, it puts things in perspective.

I think the importance of how feeling and thinking outside the range of normality, having a gift, has to be appreciated in order for treatment to occur. If the doctor is treating it like a gift to be nurtured, meaning I see this gift in you and I appreciate and I respect it, and my goal is to make sure that gift flourishes and comes out and I don’t kill that gift, that would make the patient feel legitimized. That would make the patient have hope, this isn’t going to be crushed, if the doctors can see that. Doctors don’t see it at this point. 

What I want to do is actually create a website to open up this conversation with interviews with Kay Jamison. That was the real Kay Jamison by the way [in the movie]. I’ve spoken doctors, even Dr. Oz and he had no idea. He was like, “Wow, I can’t believe I’ve been talking to my patients this way. I totally understand why patients turn away from their doctors.” If you don’t address the issue that this is a creative thing and we want to preserve the creativity while not crushing that gift by not acknowledging it. If that’s not opened up in the dialogue, that ruins all possibility for treatment. 

Is that fear of losing the mania would lose creativity akin to artists who feel they can’t create after they get sober? Like Lars Von Trier just said that.

That is such a good comparison because it’s so true. Just you saying that brought up memories of Basquiat saying that when he was on heroin he got all these good reviews. Then he went off heroin and got all these bad reviews. Eminem saying now he won’t touch alcohol, he won’t drink or do drugs, but every time he was in the mic booth before that, when he was creating all these great raps, he was on some kind of drug. But the truth is, I found that the greats, the legends, like Eric Clapton, Santana, have crashed into the ashes and either the legend stayed down there in the ashes because that kind of fire can’t sustain, or they rise like the phoenix and they become the best they’ve ever been. 

Eric Clapton is top of his game. He drinks tea. He does yoga. Santana, same thing. He meditates. He doesn’t touch drugs or alcohol. He’s amazing. He’s prolific when he gets on that guitar. These are people that adapted and that’s the true essence of someone who has survival and will, their ability to adapt and not cling to a past notion of what they were or what they had to be. Those are the most inspiring stories, someone who actually broke free from that habit and rose up above. 

There is a fringe that says there’s no such thing as a chemical imbalance and you shouldn’t take psychiatric medication. Are they dangerous or is it such a fringe that people don’t really take them seriously?

I think it’s dangerous. It does influence patients. It influenced me. That was one of the big philosophies I had when I was going through the swings and I would’ve been dead now because of it. Or, I would have been numb on medication just getting by, giving up on that magic. I feel more of the magic of bipolar now than I did when I was magic, because it’s sustained. I’m able to apply it to my real life, to a life that sustains and matters. I could never have a kid or a wife or create art that would sustain. It would just all turn to ashes. It would all burn down and become nothing.

So it’s not off and on for you anymore?

It’s not off and on. It’s sustained. It stays consistent now so I can create consistently. I can feel emotion consistently. It’s like the fire came back but it kept it from getting out of control, but it allowed it to be sustainable but not so much that it’s ecstatic and burns your brain out. 

I suspect that fringe has met bad psychiatrists so they say all psychiatry is bad. Like anything, there are some bad doctors who commit malpractice, but that’s not all of medicine. You don’t get rid of the entire practice.

No. I do think that a sign up front is that if the doctor says don’t take Lithium, it’s bad for you, that’s a red flag I would say. It is statistically the best drug. The thing is you needed a 1.5 blood level ten years ago. Then they found you could have a .6 blood level in the last five-ten years and I’m at a .4. My doctor said he wouldn’t prescribe that but I’m so rigorous about meditation and health habits that he allowed me to slowly get there. It opens up the possibility of what can occur with a balance between medication and natural means of healing yourself with meditation. My doctor found the effects of meditation so strong on me that he did a study on meditation’s affects on bipolar. The study was so strong that he published a book about it called Transcendence. 

How did you get Katie Holmes?

Actually, both those leads, she just had a strong instinct on those two. She had discovered Katie in The Ice Storm and saw something in her back then. She actually had Ang Lee wait. Ang Lee couldn’t be there but she was so insistent on Ang seeing her, so she told Katie to wait for an hour. She called me out of nowhere three weeks before shooting. We were on location scout and she was like, “I really feel, I have a strong instinct that we should show this script to Katie.” I didn’t question why. I do know that her instincts are almost a mystical level. They’re crazy instincts but she got the script to her and something in it struck a chord, because when I met her, she was very intense about it. 

This is your first film. Was this the first first film you always wanted to make?

Going to film school is almost like a process of digging up a lot of junk, creating it and throwing it out until you finally get to something that’s meaningful because you’re trying to dig and find yourself, find your story. I think it’s important as a filmmaker that your first story is personal because as you evolve as a human being, your empathy grows and your understanding of people grows and your empathy for the world grows so you can slowly expand. I think it’s good when you come out to say, “This is who I am.” 

The project that I was working on when Spike Lee offered to executive produce it was a film that I wrote while I was in the manias and depression, but it’s one that I wrote when I was lost in it. It was a rap musical of this kid who was in a sanitarium and the Devil is sending him into hell. He’s trying to make a story to make sense of it. It’s called Storytelling and it was him when he was lost in it. The truth is, I had nothing to say in a way that was of value to anybody at the time, because I was lost in it. I didn’t come out of it.

Joseph Campbell has a great quote which is that the dream is the personalized myth and the myth is the depersonalized dream. If you have anything to say of value to anyone, you have to come out of the circumstance of your own nightmare and have perspective. My wife is actually the one who pushed me to tell Spike, “I have to do this story instead.”

Now that you’ve done Mania Days can you still make the rap musical, please? Because that sounds awesome! 

I do want to do it. I was planning on doing it. The next film I’m doing is a film I’m co-directing with my wife and I was thinking of doing it after that. I think I’ll have more perspective on it now going back to it. You can’t leave your hell behind, you know. You always have to revisit it because you can’t forget who you were and what you went through. It approaches it from a different angle. It approaches it from the nightmarish state that faces that state head on, the torments when you’re in that state, the insights that you have. It’s almost like the state that the shaman or the prophet would have. 

Were the animated backgrounds on green screen behind Luke and Katie?

No, no, that was actually projection. 

Oh really, live on the set?

Yeah, yeah, it was a tricky balance so that they didn’t run into it. The one thing that was CGI was when spotlights turn gradually into the stars of Starry Night. Those animated stars were drawn on the walls as just markers and then we animated those. We used the animation that we had projected onto the full Starry Night. 

Are there policies in institutions about patients dating, and can they enforce them once the patients are released?

There’s no policy but my doctor had told me once that he would strongly advise against two manic patients [dating] because he said “they tend to rub each other the wrong way.” 

What is the film that you and your wife are making?

It’s a sci-fi. It’s a love story. Other than that, I’ve sworn to secrecy.

Sure, but is it not autobiographical at all?

Everything is drawn from elements in some way. I’d say that movie has half of her and half of me in it. This movie was all me and she kind of pushed me to do it, but as we got married and as we grew closer, our lives became enriched with elements that found their way into this new one, indirectly and directly. To me that was the beauty of it. She made her first feature and now I made mine. She made this film Faith, Love and Whiskey

Has that been distributed?

No, we’re still trying to distribute it. It was at Slamdance 2012. We took it to festivals but we were making this one on the side. We were showing it to people but the festival circuit passed so it was hard to show it to people. Now we’re hoping that when we sell this, we can sell that as well. Not forcing the distributor to buy it, but even take it. You don’t even have to give us money. Let’s just get it out there, because it’s a great story. It was nice because her film was very personal to her. My film is personal to me, but as a whole, both of us are are allured to enhanced metaphor of reality that deal with social issues, by using magic realism, by using metaphor, by using these poetics, like Aristotle’s Poetics almost. The filmmakers we love are like Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies.

 


William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline’s Film Channel and the host of The B-Movies Podcast and The Blue Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.