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Searching for Sacred: Higher Ground

Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga on how the "warring Gods of our time" influenced her directorial debut, a film about one woman's struggle to follow a spiritual path.

Higher Ground: Vera Farmiga
Vera Farmiga / Molly Hawkey, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Vera Farmiga
is best known to mainstream audiences for her turns in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, with the latter earning her an Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting Actress in 2010. But by that point, she had been working steadily for over a decade, garnering critical acclaim in films such as Down to the Bone and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Now Farmiga is stepping out in a new role: as both director and lead actress in the spiritual drama Higher Ground (TFF 2011), which also stars Joshua Leonard (Humpday, The Blair Witch Project), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone, Deadwood), and Farmiga’s younger sister Taissa Farmiga, making her feature film debut as the adolescent version of the lead.


Based on Carolyn S. Briggs’ memoir, This Dark World, Higher Ground follows the path of one woman’s spiritual journey, from her Protestant upbringing to her adulthood in an isolated evangelical Christian community. Along the way, our heroine, Corinne, struggles with her faith, never seeming to match the rapturous devotion of those around her. Eventually, tensions mount as she challenges the notions of subservience expected from her as a woman: her marriage falters as she gains her independence, but her spiritual quest continues.


We recently caught up with Farmiga, talking with her about her family, how past filmmakers have influenced her filmmaking debut, and the warring Gods of our time.


Boyd Holbrook and Taissa Farmiga / Molly Hawkey, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Higher Ground: Vera FarmigaTribeca: I understand you grew up in a quite isolated religious community.


Vera Farmiga: That’s what the Internet says. [laughs] I grew up like any of us did—mine was a Catholic, Christian, Ukrainian-American community—but a sense of community is important to me.


Tribeca: Did that inspire or influence your interest in telling this story?


Vera Farmiga: Indirectly, I’m sure my childhood informed the film in profound ways. My parents instilled in us the importance of determining and conceptualizing God for yourself, and what that means to you. But I wasn’t making a film about me; I really was moved by Carolyn Briggs’ candor about her spiritual path. Her life touched me in very deep ways.


Tribeca: You were attached to the project as the lead for many years, but how did you become the director?


Vera Farmiga: [Co-writer] Tim Metcalfe, who was going to direct the movie, sent me the memoirs, I read them, and we talked about the film for a long time. The script went through many transformations over the years.


Around the Oscar nomination, when I found out I was pregnant for the second time, I knew I had to be very strategic about where my focus and energies were going to go, and I actually tried to extricate myself from Higher Ground: “We’re not getting financing, it’s a tough sell, people don’t know how to market a film like this… so I’m going to step away. I think the script is in a good place; you’re going to be able to find someone.” But instead of saying, “Okay,” Tim said, “Well, how about you take the reins?”


The conviction and courage to direct didn’t come right away; I wasn’t clobbered over the head [with wanting to do it]—it was more of a tiny “tap tap.”


Higher Ground: Vera Farmiga
Dagmara Dominczyk and Vera Farmiga / Michael McDonough, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Tribeca: Had you been looking for a project to direct?


Vera Farmiga: No! This started off innocently. But for whatever reason, people believed in my vision. I had very vivid and concrete ideas, even in my approach to the work as an actress, and in voicing those, the producers were assured I could do it.


In some ways, this was me creating a role for myself. You get tired of complaining about the roles for women—the lack of depth. And I also felt like since Down to the Bone, I really hadn’t been able to jump in so deep, on a psychic level, into a film. And this felt like the portraiture that would give me that opportunity.


Higher Ground: Vera Farmiga
Bill Irwin / Molly Hawkey, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Tribeca: What struck me so strongly about your film is how uncynical it is about religion—you don’t see that very often these days. I kept waiting for there to be that dig… But Corinne was so earnest in her journey.


Vera Farmiga: I think inherent to my personality and my soul is a genuine compassion; I certainly strive to cultivate that in my life. Cynicism [is something] I’ve had to work hard to incorporate, because it’s not there naturally for me. I remember one of my first directors said to me, “You have absolutely no sense of irony.”[Laughs.] That was one of my first blatant directions as a young actress! But I do know what I find funny, and it’s not the “hardy-har-har, look how lunatic humans are.” It’s: “[Chuckle.] Aren’t we a funny lot?”


I think we’re all on Team Human. I wasn’t making a film that was going to state a case for the existence or non-existence of God. We all have our concepts of God. God exists; whether we resonate with each other’s concepts of God is a whole different story.


It’s very easy to market a film about believers to the belief community, and it’s easy to market a mockery to people who want to poke fun, but this was an entirely different kind of film, and I felt challenged by it, and I felt like there was something profound [in it]. Especially in this time, when we have such rude, warring concepts of God: Gods of love become Gods of hate. Everyone has their dukes up, saying, “My God is a more awesome God than your God,” “My God reigns,” “My God would kick your God’s cojones.”


I think dimensional portrayals of faith and struggle are important, films about concepts of what holiness means. I think it’s important to find common ground, which is a kind of higher ground.


Higher Ground: Vera Farmiga Higher Ground: Vera Farmiga
Vera Farmiga, Taissa Farmiga / Molly Hawkey, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Tribeca: Your wonderful cast includes your own sister, Taissa, playing your character at a younger age. Had she acted before?


Vera Famiga: Never. I mean, I saw her in a 4th grade play. She was 15, turning 16, when we filmed, and now she is about to turn 17, and she’s off in Los Angeles, shooting a television series.


Tribeca: Whoa! Is she your youngest sibling?


Vera Farmiga: She’s the baby; my kid sister. There are 21 years between us, and I kind of nougied her into doing it; she had no choice in the matter. [laughs] I texted her and made it really appealing. I said I’d give her my pickup truck when she turned 18. And we were digging a pool, so I said, “Come spend a fun summer swimming with your nephew, and do some babysitting. Oh, and I’m filming this film, and you could play the adolescent version of me, and you’ve got to do it. I need you to do it, so whatever it takes.” She’s just game for anything, she’s really level-headed and goofy, and one of my best friends.


She’s also used to me turning the camera on her. I do that to all my sisters—I find them incredibly beautiful—I’ve photographed them their whole lives. So I think she trusted me, and I sent her the script, and she responded to it.


Tribeca: It’s a great way to get into it—having your sister there to look out for you. Were your parents open to it?

Vera Farmiga:
After I gave them the G-rated version. [Laughs.] But my mom knew I was looking out for her, and there are poetic ways of shooting things. I think for my mom, it was like, “She may or may not be having her first kiss, and it’s on camera?”


Higher Ground: Vera Farmiga Higher Ground: Vera Farmiga
Donna Murphy, John Hawkes / Molly Hawkey, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Tribeca: For the rest of your cast, you really mined the NYC theater community: Donna Murphy, Norbert Leo Butz, Bill Irwin, Nina Arianda. Do you think it really helps film actors to have a theater background?


Vera Farmiga: I think the theatre background makes you a more inventive actor. To sustain a theatrical performance over a show’s run, you find ways to keep stimulated, and it makes you very receptive and fun-loving and generous. Rehearsals and finding what works on a night-to-night basis give you a stamina, and an openness that I find theatre actors have more than film actors, who can be very rigid in their ways.


But also, in the kind of actor that I’m drawn to, I think the biggest quality has to be an earnestness. And these actors are powerhouses! They portray their characters in such honest ways.


Tribeca: I thought Norbert Leo Butz was especially fantastic. He kind of gives you the creeps, but at the same time—


Vera Farmiga: At the same time, you can’t not marvel at his passion. He delivers amazing sermons that are universal: talking about finding God in nature, about living a passionate life, not a lukewarm life. And the sermons aren’t particular to the Christian faith; you could set them in any spiritual community. I think the film hinges on his performance working.


Higher Ground: Vera Farmiga
Boyd Holbrook, Taissa Farmiga, Fynn Hawkey / Michael McDonough, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Tribeca: What have you learned from the directors you’ve worked with?


Vera Farmiga: The importance of joy and how infectious that is—the way to get people to do their best work is to create a really joyful environment. And all my favorite directors—my biggest are Debra Granik, Gina Kim, Niki Caro, Scorsese, Anthony Minghella—are very passionate people. They all have their different personalities, and within that are idiosyncrasies, but I think the key through-line in all these experiences was the innocence with which they approach their subjects. You look at a Scorsese picture, and it’s not the plot you remember; it’s the characters. He worships the characters, and he defends them.


Honestly, I’ve been swept away on their missions just because I generally enjoyed being around them. It’s as simple as that. They all have an air of gratitude—like Minghella: we’d be there at 3 in the morning, freezing, shooting scenes, and he’d make up songs for his crew. Rest his soul now, I miss him terribly, but I remember how he kept the crew going.


A film is not comprised of your vision; it’s all the souls that you invite to be a part of it. Their energies are seeping into every frame. You can sense, in the final product, if it’s been an enlightened experience and whether people were inspired or not. And that’s really a trickle-down from whoever’s at the helm.


Higher Ground: Vera Farmiga
Joshua Leonard, Vera Farmiga / Molly Hawkey, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Tribeca: As a debut director, what advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?


Vera Farmiga: Stamina has a lot to do with it, and perseverance. The stats of this project, on paper, were not the right equation for financing or distribution. It’s a tricky subject matter—people tend to get defensive and emotional when you talk about God, or conceptualizations of God—it’s a female-centric movie, everything that’s really difficult to market. But it’s a personal story… So just find an incredibly personal story to tell, and that story will find a way to bubble up to the surface, if it comes from a very holy, personal place.


Making a film, and investing in a film, especially in these economic times, takes a lot of faith, but I think with technology these days, it’s just a matter of finding the courage—and encouragement—to do it. You’ll find a way to tell that story for minimal budget, for cents on the dollar, if it’s important enough for you. Sometimes it’s just as easy as deciding, because how soon “not now” becomes “never.” He is able who thinks he is able.


Higher Ground: Vera Farmiga
Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Vera Farmiga / Molly Hawkey, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Tribeca: What do you want audiences to take away from your film?


Vera Farmiga: Well, I can’t tell you what you should take away, because it deals with spiritual warfare. In my opinion, what makes a spiritual warrior is openness, and receptivity, and compassion, and stamina, and authenticity, and coming from a genuine self. The power of the film that I’m really particularly proud of is that you will reflect upon it whatever you need to resonate. And that will mean something different to everybody.


God is alive, and we have our own concepts of what that means to us. I think we have to find a way to continue living peaceably, to coexist spiritually with each other, and so I think films about faith are important—films that depict the honest struggles to define what God means to us. Honestly, I’m just asking for tolerance. I’m asking, “Take a look at this lady’s yearning, because that yearning is a kind of holiness.”


Higher Ground opens on Friday, August 26. Find tickets.


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