Below, in a first person feature for indieWIRE, Oscar-nominee Vera Farmiga opens up about how her directorial debut “Higher Ground” came to be, and why she decided to go behind the camera. This article was originally published during indieWIRE‘s coverage of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival where the film had its world premiere. It comes out in limited release this Friday, August 26 through Sony Pictures Classics.
Charting one woman’s spiritual journey through life while exploring and embracing her own humanity, “Higher Ground” is that rare film that is rich in ideas but also charged with emotion.
As a child growing up in the 1960s, Corinne’s defining feature is her sense of inadequacy. When she reaches high school, her home life begins to unravel, driving her into the arms of Ethan, a guitarist in a local band. An event propels them to join a small fundamentalist community where they find meaning and stability. But some of its more conservative tenets leave Corinne unsettled, driving her into a profound crisis of faith that turns her world upside down.
Vera Farmiga gives yet another richly nuanced performance, but this time she unleashes her equally formidable talent behind the camera as well. She tackles complex issues with sophistication and graceful insight, crafting a moving story about the transformative powers of faith and doubt. [Synopsis courtesy of Sundance Institute]
Director: Vera Farmiga
Screenwriter” Carolyn S. Briggs, Tim Metcalfe
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, John Hawkes, Dagmara Dominczyk, Norbert Leo Butz, Donna Murphy
Executive Producer: Jonathan Burkhart, Brice Dal Farra, Lauren Munsch
Producer: Claude Dal Farra, Renn Hawkey, Carly Hugo, Jon Rubinstein, Matt Parker
Composer: Alec Puro
Cinematographer: Michael McDonough
Editor: Colleen Sharp
Production Designer: Sharon Lomofsky
Responses courtesy of “Higher Ground” director Vera Farmiga.
Farmiga’s grandfather, the storyteller…
Storytelling is a rich and vital part of my Ukrainian heritage and its traditions. My grandfather was a particularly skilled raconteur with the style, flair and enchantment that Ukrainian folktales demand. Always a rapt audience in Dido Stephan’s loving arms, I was enthralled by the words and images I heard and saw in vivid description when he spoke. He would engage our minds with numerous wacky Slavic fables about wild boars, foxes, and talking goats, cats who saved roosters from the clutches of vixens, daughters bargained away by their fathers to three-eyed witches in the woods, runaway donuts who refused to be eaten. Stories about foibles and failings that reflected a humorous commentary on life where gullibility and greed were justly punished, where quick wits and ingenuity triumphed over brutish strength or beauty. I loved Dido’s stories, learning from them was a vital part of my development and what lured me to participate in filmmaking.
My senior year of high school, two roads diverged in the yellow wood. It was either optometry or acting. Helping people gain sight or helping people gain insight. I opted for the better scholarship deal and now here I am.
Lack of characters that do women proud…
I’m always on the sweep for inspiration, always rummaging for intriguing female characters. It’s scarce as a hen’s teeth to encounter lady-characters in Hollywood scripts that don’t just fit into the age old myths of good woman/bad woman. Boring mother or pitiful slut. A year ago, I was outside at my burn pile tending to the smoldering coals of autumn brush and scripts featuring pathetic excuses for female characterization when my manager Jon called and offered some sound advice: “Stop asking for permission.” What a notion! Create my own opportunity.
A “universal subject matter worth exploring”…
“Higher Ground” is inspired by the memoirs written by Carolyn Briggs called “This Dark World.” It’s a coming-of-age tale of wisdom and growth sprung from the recollections of Carolyn’s childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood in which she tackles honestly the complex issues of faith and doubt, sharing challenges in her relationships with family, community, and God. Her story intrigued me, resonated on many levels. In my own journey I have possessed faith and doubt, both in great quantities. I don’t know anybody who hasn’t. It was a universal subject matter I found worth exploring. Everybody has a definition of what faith means to them and most people at some point question and/or redefine it.. My husband Renn Hawkey and I jumped on a plane to Iowa, he gave Carolyn a crash course in the use of Final Draft and screenwriting and we began an intense collaboration and development of the script. The book served as a springboard and we ricocheted from there, churning out a story about the development of a woman who is a seeker, exploring human inquiry and the perfection and imperfection of love. Our mission was to be reverent in execution. We strived for authenticity, portraying Christians in the fullest dimension, not adhering to Sunday school values or poking fun. We aimed for music to be integral to the film’s story, a melodic celebration coloring the passages of the protagonist’s life.
When John Fundus came sniffing…
We faced the typical budgetary challenges of independent cinema. I broke the cardinal rules of modest budget filmmaking and included everything not suggested for a first time actress/director- colossal cast, hordes of extras, kids, animals, stunts, live music cues, three different eras. I was in for it. Oh, add my four and a half month pregnancy to the list. One harrowing day we were visited by the infamous IATSE union rep John Fundus. When Fundus comes sniffing around set, I don’t care if you have the virtue of Jesus, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Ghandi and the Dalai Lama all rolled into one, you’re going to shit bricks. Mr. Fundus stepped on set, Renn as producer engaged his most disarming charm to diffuse belying angst and greeted him with, “I hope you live up to your name. I hope there’s some “fun” in “Fundus”.” To which John replied, “There’s also “fun” in “funeral.”” Sure enough in our crew, John Fundus caught the scent of an other-union imposter working outside his jurisdiction without permission. I was lagging three scenes and needed him to stop sniffing and clear out asap so we could proceed. The actual meaning of fundus is “the top portion of the uterus, opposite of the cervix.” I laid on him my best doe-eyes and tried the pregnancy angle. I implored him to “consider the stress on my womb.” And with a moist eye Fundus handed us a wee fine and fled. I never had the chance to film those three lost scenes yet the film stays the course without them.
Films that Farmiga used as inspiration while shooting her debut…
“The Apostle” by Robert Duvall, for its spirit, fearlessness and accuracy.
“Rachel Getting Married” by Jonathan Demme, for its use of music.
“Down to The Bone” and “Winter’s Bone” by Debra Granik, for the way Debra works with children to obtain honest performances. Debra is my mentor, I looked to her for advice on every aspect.
And up next…
I can be seen in the upcoming sci-fi drama “Source Code” directed by Duncan Jones (“Moon”), starring alongside Jake Gyllenhaal and Jeffrey Wright, and the upcoming romantic comedy “Henry’s Crime” directed by Malcolm Venville (“44 Inch Chest”), starring alongside Keanu Reeves and James Caan.
Also starring in a comedy called “Goats” based on the novel by Mark Poirier, directed by first-timer Christopher Neil.
Developing a dark comedy about family grief called “Flying Squirrels,” written by Renn Hawkey.