God can be a four-letter word in Hollywood, so it’s kind of a miracle a movie like Higher Ground got made. Based on memoirs by Carolyn Briggs, the movie tells the story of an intelligent, independent woman in an evangelical Christian community. She finds a husband and starts a family while retraining her endless curiosity. Her experimentation is never quite a rebellion – she cares too deeply for children and the church for that – yet her need for growth causes her to seriously question her place. Higher Ground stars Vera Farmiga, who also directed. Best known for her roles in The Departed and Up in the Air, Farmiga brings her trademark warmth and intelligence to the role, and also makes shrewd choices behind the camera. Her film is thought-provoking drama, one that explore faith and even finds room the occasional sex joke. I recently had a chance to talk with Farmiga about the challenges of directing and making a film that sincerely explores religion.
What made you choose this book to be your directorial debut?
It chose me. I really feel that way. I tried to wriggle out of its grasp several times, and every time I tried, something else would happen that would make the project unstoppable. At first, I read the screenplay by Tim Metcalfe, who worked on drafts three years before I even came into the picture. He sent the script to me after seeing Down to the Bone (he also sent Carolyn Briggs’ memoirs), and it touched me in divinely mysterious ways – ways that are still mysterious to me now. It plucked a spiritual chord. I just loved this woman’s yearning for passion and intimacy, both with God and all humans. So I wanted to step into her shoes and defend her journey.
Long story short, the scripted morphed as I worked with [Tim] and met Carolyn Briggs. Still, we couldn’t find financing or producers. I tried to walk away, yet this was the only opportunity since Down to the Bone to have a juicy protagonist role. The only way I could play the role was if I also directed, which is how financing came. I had a lot of ideas I wanted to apply: music was a big thing, so was praise and joy. I had some tonal ideas, too. I wanted to insert more humor, and not the “ha-ha, aren’t they ludicrous” kind of humor, but the “aren’t we a quirky lot” kind. And with the blessing of Carolyn, I thought maybe I could take the reins.
Financing came, so now I thought, “Oof, now I really have to do it.” I sent [the script] to Debra Granik since she was a mentor who could provide input. I didn’t directly ask her to take over, but I secretly hoped she would. But she was neck-deep in press work for Winter’s Bone, plus she’s the sort of director who needs to be fully immersed. She still agreed to mentor me, and then when John Hawkes and everyone else got on board, obviously this was really happening.
Before I knew it, I was on set where I had to deliver the last speech first. After I got that first day over, I felt I could enjoy the process and not feel so afraid of it.
You’ve worked with a lot of great directors. Did you take any influence from them?
For them, it’s the essence of who they are. What makes them great directors is their spirits and leadership. The joy they spread is infectious. Scorsese? Well, if you’ve ever been around that man [ed. Note: I haven’t], it’s impossible not to be affected and moved. Minghella, too. He had this mischief and joy he spread around set. The crew gets tired – they’re there before you arrive, and they’re there after – so they need to be invested, too. They’ll only invest if you treat them like kings and queens. That’s what I learned. And from the not-so-great experiences, I learned what not to do and how to not treat people… Those are my three biggest influences, I think: Anthony Minghella, Debra Granik, and Marty Scorsese.
Those are goods ones, I think.
Your sister plays a younger version of the character you play. How did her performance influence yours, and vice versa?
We have the benefit of the same genetic code, so we didn’t have to prepare much in terms of movement. We move in similar ways because of the house we grew up in and, who knows, because of Ukrainian folk dancing. She watched me a long time, and I’ve photographed her since she was a newborn. She shot her scenes after I filmed mine, so she was able to follow [my lead]. And she never dreamed of being an actress! I begged her to do it. I said, “You’re the lynchpin. You’re the hinge I need to make this door swing.” It’s a tall order – the moments of salvation and baptism – so the audience really needed the early scenes with her. She had no choice in the matter, but my 2004 Toyota Tacoma (which she’ll get when she’s 18) helped seal the deal.
The most profound relationship in the movie is Corrine’s relationship with her friend Annika. Can you talk about that a little bit?
That is the sort of female bond I’ve personally known, so I wanted to see it portrayed on film. I’ve learned so much from my best friends, and they demanded so much of me. That’s who Annika is. Corrine adores Annika because she is able to be her best – both spiritually and carnally – while having fun and never losing her sense of self. I really wanted to have fun with [those characters]. I wanted their relationship to be the most passionate and pure you see in the film. Of course, it is all taken away so that Corrine can take what she has with Annika and find it within.
I was interested in your discussion of tone. It’s very rare to find a film that doesn’t make a caricature out of religious faith, and yet you also had some skepticism, too. How did you work to combine the two?
I knew what my approach was going to be. A different director could have taken the whole story, and in that last scene where she’s in the threshold [of a church door], pushed her in one direction or another. I’m the sort who wanted to keep her even-keeled. I’m not saying I’m a “one foot in, one foot out” kind of a girl. I just know my intent isn’t to find cynicism, but compassion. And also serenity, gentleness, respect. That’s who I am, so that’s the approach.
You know, people asked me if I was afraid of putting [Corrine] in a patriarchal community, which might make some general comment about Christianity. I wasn’t because this was the situation Carolyn Briggs found herself in. This was the sixties and seventies, when women were struggling to find their voices, a struggle which continues today. Ultimately, I can only apply my direction to a scene and trust the way it’ll be interpreted by the actors. Audiences will project their own ideas, so I can only worry about whether I’m being fair or honest.
Given how audiences project their ideas, can you talk about how their reactions differ?
Our senses of spirituality are all different. Some reactions were very defensive and antagonizing, others were grateful. Some people, on the other hand, really identify with the characters in a way others do not. There are people who see Corrine walk into the church, and others see her abandon the church. It’s wild how people choose to see or choose not to see. That’s where the film’s power lies. I was working toward this – I wanted parts of the film to work as a handheld mirror. I wanted audiences to ask themselves, “What does it mean to have a healthy soul? Do I have one?” I know I’m asking a lot, but I take inspiration from The Apostle, which is one of my top-five favorite films. The spirituality in that film was so natural, which is what I wanted. At the same time, I want audiences to come to my film with receptivity and openness.
What was it like to work on a small film with a limited budget?
I’m used to it! Even in the big Hollywood films, you only get two or three takes. The only difference is that the coffee is a hell of a lot better and the trailers are posh. We didn’t have trailers on Higher Ground, but there was no time for them. You take a hit in comforts to make a film like this, but you gain a lot, too. This was the greatest responsibility I’ve ever had, and so now I feel the most pride.
What were some of the hardships you had while directing?
The Craft Service did not show up on the first day. Or rather, the guy did show up and then left with all the food. Maybe he wanted to be in a scene and then got miffed, I don’t know. It was on the hottest day, too. But we rolled with the punches. Also, it was frustrating to shoot a film set in the seventies and then have twenty extras show up with shaved heads. According to the rules of the Screen Actors Guild, we were just inside the requirements for having to use extras. And I always think extras make or break a film.
Really? Why do you say that?
For authenticity’s sake, I prefer to use non-actors for extras. With all due respect for actors, who often can only find extra work. I just prefer working with the people who should get the job. I was shooting in a community where I needed a lot of long-haired, bearded men from upstate New York. When battling the elements, men tend to be hairier up there. To hire a local Screen Actors Guild actor was frustrating because they were all clean-shaven and we didn’t have money for beards.
Also, I love working with children who are non-actors. They’re little raw animals who keep you on your toes. We had a forty-minute take just to get Gabe to say his lines in the birthday party sequence. He’s eating his cake while the cameras are rolling, and we’re trying to get him to say his lines, so it’s magic when he finally says it.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me! It was such a pleasure.
No, thank you!