"Higher Ground"—Vera Farmiga Takes Control
Using what she has learned from colleagues, Vera Farmiga, Oscar nominee for "Up in the Air," directs and stars in a film that explores spirituality. Arts reporter Emily Wilson talks to her about the project.
When director and writer Tim Metcalfe sent Vera Farmiga an offer to be the lead in "Higher Ground," a movie he planned to direct about a tight-knit spiritual community based on Carolyn Briggs' memoir, This Dark World (now renamed Higher Ground), the actress immediately wanted to be involved.
"It felt very intimate as if I had just been privy to her secret diary of spirituality," Farmiga said about Briggs' book. "That intimacy was so touching, and there was a really strong rendering of a female character that resonated with me on every level–as a mother, as a wife, as a daughter."
For three years, Farmiga and Metcalfe tried to get the movie made, working on the script and looking for financing. The night before Farmiga went to the Academy Awards, nominated for "Up in the Air," she found out she was pregnant with her second child, and she decided she'd have to pull back from the production. But Metcalfe had other ideas.
"I tried to wiggle away from the attachment, and I said, 'Tim, you can probably get another actress, and I'm going to focus on other things,'" Farmiga said. "Instead of walking away, he said 'Let me ask you this–what if you directed it?'"
Although she hadn't directed before, Farmiga decided to take the challenge, seeing it as a way to work on a story that was gratifying for her unlike some of the scripts she gets.
"I'm tired of complaining about it," she said about the lack of good parts for women in movies. "I've been in this profession a long time. I have a certain measure of attention and responsibility that comes with that spotlight."
Farmiga says she was very influenced by director Deborah Granik, whom she worked with on "Down to the Bone." That 2005 independent film had won awards for both of them.
"She's not writing about the subject matter–she's in it, and she's loving her heroines so much," Farmiga said of Granik's work as co-scripter as well as director of "Down to the Bone." Granik also directed the 2010 feature, "Winter's Bone." "She doesn't judge them–she defends why they are the way they are and defends their search."
Farmiga has recently played parts written for a man–in "Source Code" and in the upcoming "Safe House" with Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds where she plays a CIA supervisor. She also sees scripts with interesting female parts, but, as with "Higher Ground," they can't get financing.
"I'm seeing great roles, she said. "What I want is to see them greenlit."
In "Higher Ground," Farmiga's character Corinne is an aspiring writer married to a guitar player, who both join a religious community after they and their baby live though a horrible accident. To Farmiga it was an important story that she wanted to tell with gentleness and without bias.
"I think it's something we all grapple with, conceiving of God and finding our own concept of God that works for us. I thought there was something there that was very resonant especially in these times. God ends up being talked about quite a lot around election time," she said. "It's something we're all very skittish to discuss and I thought this was a great format and could be an interesting lesson on receptivity and openness and compassion."
The spiritual group is depicted as very open and loving, but with feminism emerging in the 70s, Corinne starts to question some of its strictures. She is told that when she speaks out in church about her experience, she is coming too close to preaching, which women shouldn't do, and when a man in the church compliments her dress, another woman tells her she shouldn't wear anything that can tempt men.
Corinne really starts to wonder about her faith and God after a close friend in the church, Annika, a lively, deeply spiritual, sensuous woman, suffers a brain tumor that leaves her mute and curled in a wheelchair. Farmiga says the friendship between Annika and Corinne is one of the things that attracted her to the story.
"She is the woman that Corinne yearns to be, and in their friendship Corinne finds that great rapture as I know it to be," Farmiga said. "When was the last time you've seen a film where you could say, 'There's a really beautiful representation of female friendship'? Instead of showing a jealous and competitive relationship, which is often what we see, it's a simple representation of female friendship in all its devotion and what we should be to each other."
"Higher Ground" opened to excellent reviews last weekend in Los Angeles and New York, and is set to open in selected cities early in September.
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