NYU Tisch School Of the Arts and NYU graduate film-making alumnus Paul Dalio talks to Elbert Wyche about Mania Days, his debut feature that premieres in SXSW.

The film stars Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby as two manic-depressive poets who meet in a psychiatric hospital and whose art and romance is fuelled by their emotional extremes. The film also stars Christine Lahti, Griffin Dunne and Bruce Altman.

Dalio speaks to Elbert Wyche about his quasi-autobiographical connection to the story, his close relationship to his mentor Spike Lee and his ability to balance many roles in production and post.

Mania Days receives its world premiere at SXSW on March 16. CAA represents US sales.

When did you decide this was a film and subject matter you wanted to take on?
A few years ago in my last year of NYU film school, my wife and classmate at the time invited me to Bulgaria to help with her debut feature. She said, ‘Give me an idea for a crazy love story.’ I said, ‘Two manic-depressives meet in a psychiatric hospital and begin a romance which brings out each other’s mania?’ She said, ‘No, you have to do that, that’s your personal story.’

We met three years earlier at NYU when I was just getting out of a psychiatric hospital. She pulled me out of the darkness into light, thawed my frozen heart and pushed me to write a love story about those days. The love story between two manic-depressives who bring out all the beauty and horror of each other’s condition was a metaphor for my love and hate relationship with my bipolar. What many people don’t know about it is that while it can be horrific (one in four commit suicide) there’s also a magic and beauty to it. Thirty-eight percent of Pulitzer Prize-winning poets were bipolar.

Describe your writing process while tackling this script.
The core of the writing process was digging up memories and pushing the characters into progressively more dramatic situations that would take them back and forth between beauty and horror with building magnitude until they reached the end of the line. For me, walking helps me brainstorm and sitting helps me flesh out those ideas into big picture notes. I transfer those notes to a ‘smaller picture’ outline and then transfer those into a ‘smallest picture’ script. I started doing this thing I call stoop hopping, where I would walk around with an iPad in a neighborhood with many stoops and brainstorm. When an idea hit me I would sit down on someone’s stoop so I wouldn’t have to buy coffee and could write my idea down.

Spike Lee is the executive producer; how much involvement did he have in getting Mania Days made and how has knowing him impacted your growth as a film-maker?
Spike Lee was my professor at NYU Graduate film school. He’s an amazing man in that he’s not only a master, but he also strongly believes in mentorship. Many great NYU thesis films were executive-produced by him such as Manos Sucios, Una Noche and Pariah. He was very involved with every phase of the film – giving extensive notes on the script, advising on all the different creative aspects of pre-production and attaching the cast and crew. He would even come on set and watch me direct and coach me right then and there. He is truly a great mentor.

Who are a few film-makers that inspire you and do they inform your style?
All my heroes have informed my style in some way. Spike Lee, in the way he pushes to do things that hadn’t been done before and reaches high levels of expressivity in style. Emir Kusturica in his use of contrast – mixing tragedy with humour, tenderness with rage and bringing magical imagery to bleak circumstances. Pedro Almodóvar in how he manages to make melodrama actually deeply dramatic and make absurdity very real and his use of colour to create an enhanced world that supports such tones. Hitchcock in his subtle use of subliminal imagery that goes straight to the unconscious to evoke visceral primal emotions. Martin Scorsese in the flow of his storytelling, in the synchronicity of editing, music, pacing, story; almost like ballet. 

How did you get Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby attached to star?
I had an amazing casting director, Avy Kaufman, who read the script and believed in me as a first-time director, which I’m very grateful for. She had cast Katie in her first film, The Ice Storm, and had come to know her well over the years. We were already in pre-production and hadn’t found our two leads. Luke Kirby was also Avy’s suggestion. He was the first person she presented to me whom she felt strongly certain about. Katie liked him too and we all met and there was instant chemistry between them so we moved quickly ahead.

Where did shooting take place and were there any challenges or unique circumstances?
Because bipolar swings in sync with the seasonal tides, it was important to capture all four seasons, so we broke the shoot up into separate chunks from March through July. It was mostly in New York with a few days in Utah. My wife, who is the cinematographer and a producer on the film, was nine months pregnant and was due on the last day of the shoot. People on set were placing bets about if it would happen during or after the shoot.

She went into labour the night before the last day. I had saved the most emotionally important scene for the last day because the actors’ performance depended on it and the emotional impact of the film depended on that scene. So the decision in the hospital was do we shoot or not? My wife insisted I shoot. I remember the challenge of being totally present with the actors and pushing to get the best performances while at the same time checking in by cell phone on where she was in the labour. The first assistant director was calling out to the set, ‘Alright, let’s move things along so Paul doesn’t miss the birth of his firstborn.’ I finished the day and got to the hospital 30 minutes before the birth.

You’ve not only written and directed here but also handled editing and composition. Was it difficult wearing so many hats? Did you at any moment feel like you were spreading yourself too thin or that any one responsibility would interfere with another?
The beauty of film to me is the synthesis of multiple art forms unified by one vision and the joy is in getting to do as much of it as possible. The challenge is in doing it as much as possible while not spreading yourself thin. Once the core vision was conceived out of the script I created a 50-page look-book to flesh it out with as many specifics as possible, breaking them into separate creative departments.

The challenge was finding people who not only enjoy implementing such a detailed vision but also have the creativity to flesh it out and further it – those qualities usually don’t go together but I found some rare people who I had that collaboration with and it was thrilling. Post-production is probably my favorite process because it’s when you get to put all those pieces together. Editing and composing worked well together because I did them at the same time in the same space, which made it easy to keep them stylistically unified to the vision.