‘Higher Ground‘ project wouldn’t let Farmiga get away
Interviewed by: Michael Phillips
Source: Chicago Tribune
Vera Farmiga calls it “a threshold film.”
For three years, the actress who received an Oscar nomination for “Up in the Air” was attached, as they say, to a film version of “This Dark World,” the Carolyn S. Briggs nonfiction book subtitled “a memoir of salvation found and lost.” Briggs’ 2002 book follows Briggs’ experiences in a tiny, fairly radical fundamentalist Christian sect in Iowa. The book also follows her life inside a rickety marriage to a man with whom she found God before she lost her sense of Him and began questioning the assumptions she’d been living by for her entire adult life.
Retitled “Higher Ground,” the film version’s script had a hard time attracting backers. At the three-year mark Farmiga got nervous about the tone and direction the script had taken â€” toward easy judgment of Briggs’ rejected church, in Farmiga’s eyes, and away from the sort of nuance that might make “Higher Ground,” as she puts it, “audience-friendlier” and “a threshold film” as opposed to a tale hinging on a cut-and-dried spiritual decision.
Farmiga tried to back out of the project, but she ended up getting pulled back in both as leading actress and as first-time feature director. The challenges were considerable and, in the end, too tantalizing to resist. The results can be assessed by secular and religious moviegoers alike starting Friday. They’re well worth the assessment.
The script is credited to Briggs and co-writer Tim Metcalfe. Farmiga and her husband, musician and producer Renn Hawkey, oversaw the process. The key, Farmiga told me over coffee the other week while in town with her husband and their two young children, was to “maneuver Carolyn away from her experience of what actually happened to her. She was the template, but we weren’t making a biopic. Her frustration had to do with this very … fringe group of believers. A lot of (the script) is fictionalized. We had to pull the story away from her and forge our own narrative. That’s tricky.”
Farmiga, 38, grew up one of seven kids in a Catholic Ukrainian-American household. She says she’s no longer tied to any one denomination. She also says that her priority in making “Higher Ground” was to make the specific (some would say cultlike) religious sect on screen something other than “rejectable.”
“I grew up in a Catholic, Christian household and I found that community to be flawed,” she acknowledges, “but it’s a good community. In our search for identity and sense of self and self-transcendence, we search for the definition of what God means to us. We’re not defining whether God does or does not exist. That’s not the discussion, or the aim of the film.” In making “Higher Ground” she tried to depict her character’s community as more than a simple oppositional force to one woman’s personal enlightenment.
Working with several family members and shooting (in 26 days) near her home in New York’s Hudson River Valley, Farmiga was several months’ pregnant when filming began. “I was winging it,” she admits with a laugh. “A lot.” She saw the story as a question: How do we live a fully integrated life?
“The way to change anything, about any one of your relationships, whether it’s with your partner or your parents or your children, is to come from a completely genuine self. That’s how to live a life that’s impassioned and intimate, whether it’s your relationship with a deity, however you define that, with your family or your community.”
Everyone, Farmiga says, knows what it is to confront “the darker aspects of our souls â€” how painful that is, how frustrating, how disenchanting and disappointing, these moments of agony when we choose to remove ourselves from everything we hold dear.” The central figure in “Higher Ground,” she says, “is just trying to figure out how to have a healthy soul.” And, she says, taking a final bite of strawberries before running off to the next interview, “the only way I was going to get a chance to play this woman was if I directed the film.”