Spinning Platters Interview: Vera Farmiga on “Higher Ground”

by Jason LeRoy on September 2, 2011

Vera Farmiga in HIGHER GROUND

“This is challenging! This discourse is challenging! This is a campaign that is more rigorous than the Up in the Air Oscar campaign. Those questions were like, ‘What is it like to kiss George Clooney?'” But Vera Farmiga wouldn’t have it any other way. The Oscar-nominated actress, 38, is making her directorial debut with Higher Ground, adapted for the screen by Carolyn S. Briggs (and Tim Metcalfe) from her memoir, This Dark World. It is a finely observed, deeply felt spiritual character study about a woman named Corinne (Farmiga). Yes, this film dares to address religion, specifically evangelical Christianity. But it does so in a manner as completely disarming, sensitive, and uncompromising as Farmiga herself.

Those familiar with Farmiga’s career will not be surprised by the revelation that is Higher Ground. After playing supporting parts in films like Return to Paradise and 15 Minutes, Farmiga broke out with her blistering lead performance in Down to the Bone (2004), directed by Debra Granik, who went on to direct Winter’s Bone. The film garnered Farmiga a Special Jury Prize at Sundance. It also caught the attention of Martin Scorsese, who was confident enough in her abilities to cast her as the only key female character in his star-studded Best Picture winner, The Departed.

She went on to create memorable characters in such celebrated but little-seen films as Quid Pro Quo, Nothing But the Truth, and Breaking and Entering (the final film by Anthony Minghella), as well as the modern cult classic Orphan (and a similar film titled Joshua). And then came Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, in which Farmiga went toe-to-toe with George Clooney as Alex, the strong, sexy businesswoman who sends cocky “transition specialist” Clooney into a tailspin by beating him at his own game. Her sharp, confident performance earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. She recently appeared opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in the well-reviewed sci-fi flick, Source Code.

And now comes the emotionally epic Higher Ground, with Farmiga pulling double duty as the director and star. Many films have been made about Christianity, but Higher Ground is one of a kind. Utterly earnest and reverently respectful, it follows the character of Corinne through several spiritual movements in her faith journey. We first meet her as a little girl raising her hand during an altar call at Vacation Bible School, despite not being sure why. As a teenager (played by Farmiga’s younger sister, Taissa), she meets a sexy musician named Ethan (Boyd Holbrook, then Joshua Leonard as an adult), with whom she becomes pregnant and gets married. But after a chilling accident, Corinne and Ethan become born-again and join a tightly-knit community of believers. Not a cult. Just a community. But as she continues to learn and grow, she begins to chafe at the confines of her belief system, experiencing a crisis of faith that tests her as well as those in her community.

The film is remarkably fluent in evangelical Christianity, depicting it with more integrity, honesty, and complexity than any other feature film I’ve seen. Farmiga’s directorial touch is so assured and unaffected, the film feels like a documentary at times. It depicts people of faith living in community together without mockery or exaggeration, satire or parody. Not since Save Me has an American narrative film accomplished such a feat. In addition to the personal subject matter, Farmiga further personalized the film by casting “ten or eleven” of her family members in various roles, ranging from siblings and cousins to grandmothers and in-laws (“It’s a film about family,” she says. “And it’s cheap labor.”) Spinning Platters recently sat down with Farmiga to discuss making a film with such a sensitive subject, trying to speak in tongues, and dodging questions about George Clooney on The View.

You’ve been on this press tour for a while, answering similar questions over and over. Does it get easier? Does it just feel like part of the job?

I love it because I’m proud of the film, I’m genuinely proud of this. This is my baby. This is like the other twin that was being birthed at the same time my Gytta was [Farmiga was pregnant with her second child, Gytta, during production; they are her children with husband Renn Hawkey). This was me and my experiment to create inspiration for myself if I’m not feeling it. Since Down to the Bone, I feel like I haven’t been challenged in this way, in this very intimate portraiture where you really get to delve into the psyche, into actual emotion. And it’s spiritual this time. But to fully engage in a character’s psyche, yeah, it’s challenging. Especially with kids in tow. [laughs] I don’t know what’s easier. Leaving them at home? I haven’t done that yet, and I sometimes need to just bury my face in their thighs in between interviews.

You find a way to make it work, and I’m certainly proud of it. This is a very challenging film to market. It’s like this is a funny experiment in giving yourself as many obstacles… Especially doing a film with this subject matter. People get very sensitive and combative and defensive and skittish and worried. It’s so weird. Look, it’s rare to have the topic of God, concepts of God, discussed so directly. And it’s silly not to have those discussions, especially if we are living in a time of holy war and it’s so much a part of our presidential campaigns. I think it’s something to talk about. I didn’t see it as an obstacle. I had to put everybody’s skittishness aside and say, “I don’t know what your qualm is,” but Carolyn Briggs’ lovely, honest memoir is such an almost uncomfortably intimate diary read…when you read something so private and personal and honest, then you’re touched by it. That’s how I was affected by it, and if I was touched in that way, then it will resonate with others.

Was it difficult to find funding for this film?

It was for the three years I wasn’t attached as the director. As soon as Carolyn wrote her version [of the script], as soon as she took the reins as a screenwriter and was able to use her own voice, that changed things. She touched on something accurate, and as soon as I attached myself as a director, I think the combination of her words and hopefully an acknowledgment of my approach as an actress, a confidence my producers had. That’s the only thing they had to go by, how I approach my work as an actress. I hadn’t directed anything. And they know me, at that point my producers had known me personally and they saw how I was already infusing it as an actress, what I wanted to incorporate and how I wanted to represent the world of this film.

Financing came miraculously and quickly, weirdly enough. It shouldn’t have! It doesn’t fit any sort of measure of success for an equation of film funding or financing distribution. And then there were moments, because of the pregnancy and because there was so little time – the financiers wanted to shoot right away which meant we were thrown into pre-production – it was so roll-up-your-sleeves that I got skittish. It was this challenge of knowing that if I said “Not now” it would become never.

I reached out to Debra Granik at this point, and I didn’t blatantly ask her to direct, but I was secretly hoping she would take this off my hands. [laughs] We were looking for that next project together, and she was there to mentor me. So I thought, “Okay, financing is there, Debra won’t do it,” then John Hawkes signed on and I thought, “Now we really have to do it.” I kept battling every step of the way. I would hem and haw until I was on set. Not until it was day one on set would I say, “Okay. Let’s play.” But yeah, financing came very easily once Carolyn’s version of the script was intact and once our energies mixed and infused the script. I think people could see something different.

How do you feel about the kinds of roles available for actresses over 35 on film and television?

I’d like to see more characterizations on television that branch out professions, that don’t just reduce them to private investigators. My position…it’s a frustrated one. I’m tired of complaining about it. This is the way I’m dealing with it [gestures toward Higher Ground poster]. It took a lot of tenacity to get it done. Oftentimes I wanted to walk away because it’s really hard, committing yourself in such a capacity and also being a mom, gestating a baby at the same time. I’ll probably eliminate that from the equation next time. [laughs] But that’s what actresses were doing in the ’30s, so this was my response to see if it was possible, if it was plausible. And it bubbled up to the surface. I can only go by my inspiration, and how often I light up when I meet an intriguing lady on the page. It doesn’t happen too often.

Do you feel like Kathyrn Bigelow’s Best Director win at the Oscars [for The Hurt Locker] has had a significant impact on female directors?

Significantly… I’m not sure. Probably not? I can only come from a very personal perspective to say, “What’s the correlation of projects that I get where there’s a male director or a female director?” And I don’t see any difference. Not at all. But we just gotta engage in warfare! We gotta say, “Why should there be a gender bias?” We’re all on Team Human, telling human stories. We both possess very masculine and feminine traits in our own personalities. It has nothing to do with gender. Sometimes we have to create our own opportunities if they’re not happening. And yeah, it’s frustrating. [pause] I don’t think it’s had an impact. I’d like to think it has, but I don’t know.

Would you like to direct again? Would you have to feel a similarly personal connection to the material?

Yeah, it has to. It’s the only criteria by which I would direct again, because it’s a two-year commitment at least. I can’t selfishly approach it anymore, with two kids and being a provider. I’ve had to say, “What is strong enough to take me away?” Because that means time away from my children. And it has to do with feeling clobbered by inspiration. That’s always worth it, and it behooves my kids. They don’t get the short end of the stick. If I’m feeling inspired, then they get an inspired mama. So yeah, I will [probably direct again]. The second time around is always easier. But it’s not something I’m seeking. It would have to be for two reasons: to create opportunity, and if I think I have a unique angle on something that I can infuse it with, a new perspective. Those are the two instigating factors.

The female characters in this film seem so authentic and real, as opposed to a man’s idea of a female character. Did you work on the script with Carolyn?

I was there massaging Carolyn and cheering her on and misting her, and pushing her at times. She’s coming at it from her very undiluted perspective of what it means to be a woman struggling for self-awareness and self-transcendence and sense of self and identity. She’s not someone who concerns herself with a masculine perspective on things. She’s just coming at it from her own very personal experience of what it means to be a woman. Annika [a passionate, earthy friend of Corinne’s within the community, played by Dagmara Dominczyk] is her yearning, her desire as a writer to create female characters in fiction that really represent the ones in our nonfictional lives as we know them. We developed it together, and I pointed her in certain directions of what my particular sensibilities are as an audience member, what I enjoy watching or where I like stories to go and what I like them to investigate. There’s a word here or there [that I wrote], expressions, ideas for scenes that are my own perception of things.

Do you see yourself wanting to write your own screenplay?

I feel like I can repair things with writing. [But] I haven’t tried it, and I can only accomplish as far as I reach. My husband has written a script and there’s a lot of my words in there. That’s something that we’ll realize together, whether I direct or help direct. For now, I’m looking. It takes a special kind of talent. In the small collaborations so far, like Higher Ground, I’ve found that I can get into the psyches of certain characters, but it takes someone with big brains to really get into the headspace. It takes a lot of research too, I guess. So never say never. I do enjoy fleshing out characters, but I haven’t tried it yet. We’ll see!

There’s a really incredible scene in the film where Corinne tries to speak in tongues —

[long laugh]

— and I’ve been there in my own life, so many of my friends have been there, and I never expected to see that moment in a film. And now that I have, I don’t really expect to ever see it again. So thank you for committing that to film!

I do love that scene as well. It wasn’t actually part of Carolyn’s particular experience. I guess the community didn’t condone that. It’s a hot topic within certain denominations and communities. Is it the Holy Spirit? Is it a less-than-holy spirit? But just the yearning… Continuous in the script is this character’s yearning to come from an authentic self, and to live life passionately with openness and intimacy. That yearning is holiness to me. I love that scene for that yearning.

You recently told New York Magazine that you missed Gytta learning to crawl while you were on The View, answering the Oscar trail question about kissing Clooney yet again…

Yeah, I did. I was grateful to be on The View, and I was grateful to Katie Couric for actually bringing up the film. They’re such powerhouse ladies, and it’s just a six-minute segment. It feels like a ping-pong match, it’s hard… But yeah, I missed out of Gytta’s crawl. It’s alright. It’s on video.

With that in mind, do you have any intentional plans regarding the pace of your career after this huge accomplishment? How would you like to weave together your film work with your family life?

It’s play by play. I don’t plan things. I used to love making lists as a kid. Every day would have a list around 8 and 9 years of age. And my cousin hated me for it. I remember we would have sleepovers and I would be like, “Okay, first we make formulas in your dad’s basement, then we make cookies…” [laughs] But I don’t know. My plans fall through. And there’s a certain closure and rigidness [to that line of thinking]. I swing with the punches now. And this was a surprise. This got together literally within three months. We were in pre-production in even less than that. And it’s one of those wonderful surprises where it’s choices: you choose to engage or you don’t. And I’m just open. My husband will tell you differently, because I hem and haw to him every evening after this press tour. I’m like, “I can’t continue at this capacity!” [laughs] And then I put my best face on and have a really good time talking about it. [pause] But naps usually fix things. And to just engage the way I do, which is chasing inspiration. That’s it.

Higher Ground opens in the Bay Area today.

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