Actress Vera Farmiga, nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2010 for Up in the Air, has directed her first feature, Higher Ground, and it’s no ease-into-it starter project. Instead the film’s an emotionally rich and complex look at how we find faith and ourselves.
Higher Ground is based on Carolyn S. Briggs’ memoir, This Dark World, about Briggs’ search for spiritual and personal fulfillment in the ’70s and ’80s.
Briggs co-wrote the film’s screenplay, which follows the character of Corrine (based on Briggs and played in adulthood by Farmiga) as she struggles to balance love, family, and faith while trying to fit into the patriarchal, evangelical Christian church that encompasses her world.
The film co-stars John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Joshua Leonard (The Blair Witch Project), Donna Murphy (Tangled), Bill Irwin (Rachel Getting Married), and most impressively Dagmara Dominczyk (The Count of Monte Cristo) as Corrine’s free-spirited best friend.
A writer pal and I sat down with Farmiga a few weeks ago in Chicago to talk about Higher Ground. (And while this edited transcript below, the heady subject matter, and that photo above of Farmiga with her stern Slavic cheekbones may not reflect it, it was one of the more raucous, free-wheeling interviews I’ve done–thanks to Farmiga’s enthusiastic energy, propensity for hand gestures, and a few goofy, inappropriate tangents that don’t belong in a family blog.)
Vera Farmiga: Honestly there’s so much joy and wisdom within that realm of spirituality, and that’s what I strived as a storyteller, as a director, and as an actress.
There’s a certain amount of openness, if you’re approaching it with reverence, with respect, and you’re not trying to determine whether God does or does not exist–you’re just looking at what it means to trek spiritually, the ups and downs, the ebbs and the flows, the highs and the lows. It’s a rocky road but it’s a trek towards heaven, whatever you believe heaven is a concrete idea or an abstract idea. So yeah, you’re gonna be affected by it.
It took an enormous amount of courage because it’s very tricky subject matter. You have to put everybody’s opinions aside and say, “This is what touches me about this woman’s journey, this is what I think has the power to touch others, no matter what your path is, or what your spiritual tenets are.”
The film examines at the core what does it mean to be holy? What is holiness? What is a healthy soul? And what does it take to achieve that? What is faith? How do we persevere in faith, not only with our deity but in our relationships, in our marriages, in our family? So that’s what it explores, and yeah there’s a certain amount of self-reflection that you’ve got to do.
Farmiga: It’s so much easier making the film than actually talking about it. It’s making me miss the “What’s it like to kiss George Clooney?” questions.
But the way I talk about faith is by making this film. These are perceptions and feelings and notions, and I threw it all up there, anything that’s churning within me, within my own experience. There’s a lot of me in it and there’s very little of me in it.
Just because I’m the photographer, people automatically want to say, “What do you think?” It’s not important what I think–I want to know how you experience it, because I think it’s important to have dialogue about God.
I find a holier-than-thou attitude abominable. I think the point of religion should be that if your passion is ultimately for self awareness and self transcendence and the betterment of self, then it’s a good thing–if that passion comes from a good place. But it’s so easy to be self righteous.
Farmiga: I bleed into every character I play. You’re using your own instrument, your memories, you’re using your emotions, you’re using your brain, your unconscious and subconscious. It’s very much me and then it’s not me at all, it’s Carolyn Briggs. It’s sort of the kinetic energies between the two of us that’s coming through, and we forged a narrative from there.
I think in order to touch people in a personal way you have to come from a personal place. Simply put, the story was about a woman who was just trying to live a passionate existence and have intimacy in all these relationships and yet not sacrifice her authenticity or her sense of genuine self. It’s very easy to relate to that idea.
What was the greatest change in your career after your Oscar nomination for Up In The Air?
Farmiga: Personally I don’t see how fame or critical acclaim changed much. I was attracting a certain kind of story or a certain kind of storyteller before the nomination, and I don’t see much change afterward.
Maybe I’m a slightly bigger household name, but not even that so much–if they ask I’ll tell people I’m in Up In The Air, and they’ll ask me who I am in that film. Maybe it affects financing and distribution and people saying, “Oh fiscally more people will come see you,” like they move the decimal point over.
I wanted to experiment with creating interesting roles for women. You answer the question over and over the same when you’re asked about the landscape of those roles for women, and it’s always during award season where you get these articles that are like, “Look at these amazing roles for women,” but it’s always the same five women that are being nominated, so it’s the same five kinds of roles that get the attention.
I just wanted to find a story and give myself the kind of role that I dream of.
You’ve worked with some pretty high-level directors. What have you picked up from them that helped with your first time behind the camera?
Farmiga: The Apostle’s one of my top five films, and Robert Duvall was a case study for me, his acting and his directing. My favorite directors I’ve worked with–Debra Granik [2004's Down to the Bone], Martin Scorsese [2006's The Departed], Anthony Minghella [2006's Breaking and Entering]–the thing they all have in common is joy, the good cheer that they spread, their zeal for the task at hand that just trickles right down to the PAs. They have so much passion–filmmaking is their passion. I want to be that person, I want to live a passionate life, and I want to exude that to other people.
Higher Ground expands to select theaters across the country Friday, September 2.
More from the cast of Higher Ground at redbox:
- Vera Farmiga in Source Code (on DVD and Blu-ray) and coming soon in Henry’s Crime
- John Hawkes in Winter’s Bone
- Donna Murphy in Tangled (on DVD and Blu-ray)