Trying to find a film about faith that is neither a heavy handed “message” genre pic nor handled disrespectfully with mockery is like searching for a needle in a haystack. These types of films are few and far between. However, in Vera Farmiga’s refreshing directorial debut, HIGHER GROUND, she’s able to walk that fine line of understanding without being condescending. The end product exudes her warm humor, compassion, and respect – things not normally shown in a Hollywood film dealing with religion.
Based on Carolyn S. Briggs’ memoir, This Dark World, the film (co-written by the author and Tim Metcalfe) depicts the landscape of a tight-knit spiritual community thrown off balance when its heroine beings to question her faith.
Joshua Leonard (BLAIR WITCH PROJECT), who plays Farmiga’s husband Ethan in the film, says
“These were real people with real problems looking for real solutions. And really screwing up sometimes. The journey of these characters was completely relatable. Who doesn’t want to find some sort of meaning for their life? These crucial human character concerns were really resonant. These are people for whom it’s not that simple or pretty. They’re messy and chaotic.”
“All I was interested in was telling a story of legitimate struggle. I wanted them talking in real ways.”
“I felt Corrine’s struggle, and I was with it the entire time. I felt the same sense of yearning and betrayal and being lost that she did. So often movies are about characters who wake up and have these epiphanies. They change 180 degrees and there is an answer to their character conflict in 1 ½ to 2 hours. And in my experience what happens far more is you have an epiphany in life, and you change 180 degrees, and three hours later you recalibrate back to the person you were – and maybe you change forever only 2 percent. That’s why it was so essential we told the journey of these people over the course of time (25 years).”
On finding the material Farmiga fondly states,
“I felt this was the best of scripts. I haven’t had this opportunity since DOWN TO THE BONE to explore female psyche like I did on this. I’ve had a lot of successful opportunities to work with extremely talented co-stars and directors, but not on this level of commitment and responsibility. When reading Briggs’ novel, I was touched by the intimacy and that gave my spirits lift.”
Farmiga revealed that when she approached Briggs about the project, the author told her she felt the book was edited to seem like she had abandoned her faith, which she never wholly did. Farmiga says,
“For her it was a chance to get to retell her story with more perspective.”
Shot in 26 days and for less than a million bucks, Farmiga was up against more than just your usual first time filmmaker challenges. She was also pregnant with her second child Gytta. When I asked her what it was like multitasking, Farmiga exclaims,
“This is really a question for my husband – behind closed doors I was a wreck!”
But her quick thinking, as well as the limited budget, paid off. She was able to make the film somewhat of a family affair. Not only did she have her extremely talented 16 year-old sister Taissa play her character Corrine as a teen, but Farmiga’s real life 15-month-old (at the time of shooting) son Fynn plays teen Corrine’s daughter.
“The idea came for obvious genetic similarities. I also have 20 seconds to make the audience love this family before they potentially lose them. I need shorthand. I know if I’m in this space, he’ll be relaxed. (Taissa) is his favorite aunt and she had that tenderness and affection.”
The playful and sort of surreal scenes are something Farmiga thought of to augment Briggs’ novel.
“It’s us privy to Corrine’s imagination – the way she deals with observation and stress. We need comic relief in a film that’s really lofty. We’re glimpsing her writer’s brain at work. This is an inspiring poetess, and this is her writing a scenario in her head. Carolyn was game to explore that. I anchored the film in the real. The surreal was just as important for pathos.”
On her incredible supporting cast, Farmiga says
“I believe in magnetism, and people draw to each other for whatever reason. Nothing is a mistake. For me the actors drew themselves to the material; John Hawkes at one point wanted to be a pastor. I needed actors who could defend their characters and not accuse them. Hawkes, you know, digs deep. It’s so multi-layered. With Joshua Leonard there was a lot of discussion. He didn’t come from any experience in the Christian community, so this was new territory for him.” Leonard concurs, “My journey was somewhat akin to Corrine’s journey – she was trying to find herself outside the community, and I was trying to find myself inside the community.”
On directing, Farmiga says her experience with directors like Martin Scorsese, Debra Granik, and Anthony Minghella taught her to adjust an actor’s performance while allowing them the freedom to feel out the moment.
“Perhaps you make tweaks, but sometimes it’s no suggestions. And that has to do with questioning the actors, ‘How can I make you comfortable? How can I put you at ease?’ Some actors it means leaving them alone, because you can see somebody’s process. It’s personality pending, and comes with intimacy and patience.”
“Vera was everything an actor would want in a director. She, in her performances and in her life, leads with her heart and leads with questions that are unique to her and matter to her. She would never ask anyone to do work she wouldn’t do herself. She had a clear vision for the film that none of us saw.”
Leonard had actually just directed a film himself (THE LIE) when he got the offer to be in Farmiga’s film.
“I walked in thinking I’m going to offer her great solidarity, and it was so readily apparent she didn’t need my help. But I think she had very much the same experience, which is to hire people you have an implicit trust for who can be sounding boards.”
On being directed by older sis, Taissa said Vera used her younger sister’s performance to inform her own:
“I shot a lot of my stuff first. She was watching me for more of my mannerisms.” Vera countered, “Look, already we’re cut from the same cloth. In the way we move and the way were taught. That upbringing makes us who were are. She reminds me a lot of myself in the way she listens to people. She’s a good listener. She also has a great gift of expression. I think it was more just understanding the character.”
The sisters shared a laugh as Vera recalled directing Taissa in one particular scene:
“At times I had to rule with an iron fist. The scene at the kitchen table – I remember I was forcing you to do that over and over, saying ‘You’re getting lazy! You’re getting tired! I can see that you’re tired. You’re supposed to be stimulated by this guy. I don’t buy it.’ I was rigorous with you at times, but other times, I didn’t have to touch you.”
Vera and Taissa also shared a sweet and emotional moment during the interview – as only sisters can – when Vera noted
“There’s a shorthand with us. I can make her cry at the drop of a hat just by uttering Mama’s name…”
On what she would want audiences to take away from the film Farmiga sums it up perfectly:
“Films provoke discussions. It’s a challenge to people. It’s a demanding film for the viewer and you experience it in very personal ways. I think that’s where the power of film is.”
HIGHER GROUND opens in select theaters on Friday, August 26 in New York and Los Angeles.