Mania Days is an emotional look at mental health, telling the story of two characters who fall in love in an institution and try to maintain that relationship in the outside world. Starring Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby, the film was one of the more memorable dramas of SXSW 2015.
After the premiere, we had the chance to sit down with the film’s director, Paul Dalio. During the course of our interview, we discussed why he wanted to tell this story, how he prepared to shoot, what his methods are for working with actors, and much more.
Check it out below and enjoy!
WGTC: There’s been a few movies on mental health that I’ve seen here this week, but the others have had more comedic elements. Why’d you want to tell this story and tell it in this way?
Dalio: I’ve seen a lot of movies about mental health and what upsets me the most is when it’s portrayed by someone who doesn’t have it and they don’t understand it. Often they judge it. It adds to a stigma. I wanted to do a movie where people can live through the eyes of someone who has it. Having been through all of it, I tried to do my best to put the audience into the skin of someone who they might have looked at as being a total lunatic or even someone who it freaked them out when they went to a suicide attempt. It freaked them out when they’re crying out to the moon or talking to a tree. Stuff that’s ludicrous to them.
I’m sure that a lot of people after they threw van Gogh into the sanitarium, and he’s looking out at the night sky howling out to it, they thought it was crazy. Thinking, “Why are you talking to the sky?” Then when he came out he painted the sky the same view that he saw from the sanitarium window. They just did a video with scientists, back then they thought he was crazy, having hallucinations, but this video found that he was seeing particles of the air and light that were occurring in spirals. Things that actually occur in nature that the human eye can’t see, but that he somehow picked up on. So instead of having a delusion about the sky, the sky was unfolding itself in front of his eyes. And I think that being able to see Starry Night through van Gogh’s eyes, people would have a totally different perspective on bipolar than if they watched someone howling out to the moon.
You talked a bit there about wanting to take something that people think is ludicrous and show it in a human light. The one scene that I thought did that exceptionally well is the one where they’re both having manic episodes as they’re separated. They’re clearly having an episode, but at the same time it feels like a pair of people who want to be left to their own devices. It feels very human. How’d you pull off that balance?
Dalio: I definitely tried to create characters who were going through things that are very universally empathetic. Particularly starting them off so you know they were sane people just like you and me. Then something happened to them and they became a different person. So I tried to put them into these circumstances that anyone could relate to. A yearning to belong. A yearning to be the way you used to be. A yearning to have your mother look you in the eyes with the smile that she used to before you got sick. Not look at you like you’re crazy. Showing their humanity instead of seeing them as a fractured soul that’s not human. That was important.
This was your first feature? How’d it go? Any first time horror stories?
Dalio: You always hopefully make mistakes, because if you’re not making mistakes you’re not going to grow as a filmmaker. Fortunately, NYU film school prepared me a lot. I spent a lot of time preparing. I was very rigorous about every element of the preparation. There were moments when catastrophe could have occurred. In a film, catastrophe could occur at any moment. You can find some way that the film falls apart. I guess embracing fear and keeping your eyes open at all moments and fighting at every single moment without compromise is what helped me.
Even in the sound design, and the color correction, it can throw off the whole emotion of the film. I’m sure I made mistakes, but I feel good that I did everything I could within my awareness and within my will to make the best film I can. Hopefully I can spend some time reflecting before I make my next one to really hone in and identify where the mistakes were so I don’t repeat them and so I grow.
In terms of preparation, you’ve got some complex scenes, such as the one where the two leads are separated but doing very similar things. Were you hesitant about doing things that ambitious?
Dalio: I am more meticulous than most in the preparation. I spent three months in pre-production. The first thing I do is create a 50-page look book. I start with the core idea of the film and then I flesh out lots of specifics to give to each department. I spend a lot of time going back and forth with the departments so all the specifics are unified to one vision.
In working with them, it’s a constant back and forth. I’ve found people who are very much about finding the vision of the director but are also very creative so they can go back and forth with it and add to it and fill it out. I think that’s how I’m going to be with all movies. For this movie, it was important to be very unified about the look and to control it. That’s the only way to capture the subjective experience of the characters. You’re seeing things through their eyes and seeing things through their ears. You have to be very specific. The directors I admire most are the ones who are very controlled.
It doesn’t mean that you can’t improvise. It actually gives you more freedom to improvise. Because you see the thing so clearly at that point so if you see an opportunity to add to that vision, that you hadn’t thought of, you can readjust yourself to capture something. When you do that, there’s more freedom in the editing room. When you’ve planned everything out so specifically, the shots tend to fall in line with each other no matter how you cut them. You can be creative later on. The moment with the glass, where she’s banging on the glass, that moment I just found on the spot when I went on a location scout. I didn’t originally conceive it that way. But the opportunity came up because I knew what I was going for and it was there.