2011 was a big year for actors taking chances behind the camera. George Clooney got political with his critically acclaimed drama “The Ides of March;” Paddy Considine brought real grit to his debut “Tyrannosaur;” and Clint Eastwood invited controversy with his biopic “J. Edgar.” Most impressive of all though — mainly because no one saw it coming — was “Higher Ground,” Vera Farmiga’s remarkably accomplished first stab at directing. It comes out on DVD and Blu-ray today and it’s our pick of the week.
Since wowing critics and audiences with her award-winning turn in “Down to the Bone,” Farmiga has continued to show great strength and range with strong performances in a number of films including “The Departed” and “Up in the Air.” In her directorial debut, Farmiga brings the same fire from her acting to her deft handling of the story of a woman confused about her own notions of faith. Farmiga pulls double duty in “Higher Ground” by playing the heroine, Corinne.
Prior to premiering in Sundance last year (where it was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics), Farmiga answered some questions with Indiewire via Email.
What inspired you to get behind the camera for the first time?
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.
Wait, we have to go back. You have a burn pile?
Scripts accumulate! You can’t take them to the dump. I don’t have a shredder than can get rid of them. And you don’t want the scripts getting back onto the streets. You have to get rid of them somehow. I figured the way to be green about them is to fertilize. So the ashes can disperse.
Why did you choose to create that opportunity with “Higher Ground”? What about the tale spoke to you?
“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.
This being your first stab at indie filmmaking; what most challenged you in the process?
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.