Sat September 19th
Moonstruck Productions is a television and film production company founded by Paul Dalio and Kristina Nikolova Dalio, dedicated to using narrative to have an impact on social issues. After graduating from film school at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Paul Dalio suffered a psychotic episode. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and spent the next three years in and out of hospitals as he worked to rebuild balance in his life. Once he was able, he returned to NYU for its graduate film program.
While in graduate school, Dalio met his collaborator and now wife, Kristina Nikolova Dalio. Based on a shared interest in film, storytelling, and social issues, the two founded Moonstruck Productions. Dalio wanted to present bipolar disorder through the eyes of someone who was bipolar:
“There’s a huge stigma against the disorder, which has all kinds of negative consequences—it’s why those with the disorder won’t take their meds, why companies won’t hire bipolar people, why there’s no funding for research. We wanted to humanize the disorder, put it in a non-clinical light, get rid of the stigma.”
Dalio wrote, scored, directed, and edited Touched with Fire, which starred Luke Kirby and Katie Holmes. It premiered at South by Southwest in 2015, with a theatrical release in 2016 by Roadside Attractions. The film was a New York Times critics’ pick, has a 90 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and won a number of awards, including the SAMHSA Voice Award, the International Bipolar Foundation Imagine Award, the Didi Hirsch Foundation Erasing the Stigma Leadership Award, and the Ryan Licht Sang Bipolar Foundation Shining Star Award. The response from the mental health community was overwhelmingly positive. Dalio recalled:
“I had so many bipolar people come up to me and tell me it changed their lives, it saved their lives, seeing themselves—people suffering from the disorder—portrayed like that on the big screen. If we continue this work, over time we’ll start to see audiences empathizing with bipolar individuals. That erodes the stigma. When there’s less of a stigma, doctors don’t condescend to their patients as much. Parents don’t talk down to their kids. People with the disorder will feel better about themselves, and start taking their meds, leading to widespread improvement in health and quality of life for the bipolar community”.
The film’s success led to increased visibility generally, and also opportunities to talk with media personalities like Arianna Huffington and Dr. Oz, both of whom reached out as a result of the film. The widespread interest led Dalio to hold a conference to gather people with the disorder, the public, and members of the mental health community to discuss issues that face bipolar people and develop a shared path forward.
In 2017 Moonstruck began work on Revelation, a film centered on the apocalyptic visions of a manic young man. Spike Lee signed on as executive producer. To start tracking their influence and impact, he and Nikolova are planning to partner with the Harmony Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to tracking impact on social media. They will be using algorithms to measure the effect they’re having, for instance tallying responses on Twitter and Reddit—data that not long ago would have been impossible to gather.
Dalio has also started working on a bipolar VR experience film, called Becoming. This five-minute immersive film will put the viewer inside of a bipolar mind in both manic and depressive states. Moonstruck intends to give the film to police departments, mental health organizations, schools, and other entities where fostering empathy through film can make a real difference.
Moonstruck Productions is creating impactful films and television series that center on accurate and positive depictions of bipolar characters. Along with this work, they are building a community of bipolar people, inspiring pride, creativity, and healthy behaviors in people with the disorder. Investment from CultureBank in the form of knowledge, leadership, and funding would help propagate a culture of equity. As Dalio observes, “So many amazingly talented artists start creative ventures, but are taken down by mental illness and they stop making art, or they have episodes and end up in hospitals, or they kill themselves. Positive stories in television and in film can get more people feeling better about themselves, then that means more amazing art in the world. And that’s something everyone can enjoy.”