Exclusive Interview with Vera Farmiga, on Her Directorial Debut Higher Ground, Motherhood, Religion and John Hawkes
Interviewed by: Elisa Osegueda
Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut may come as a surprise to many, but the Academy Award-nominated actress isnâ€™t afraid of reaching Higher Ground. Inspired by Carolyn S. Briggsâ€™ memoir This Dark World, the film explores a womanâ€™s struggles with her Christian faith. Farmiga respectfully dissects spiritual life, embraces the gray of black-and-white religion and asksâ€”is it possible for faith and doubt to coexist?
Vera Farmiga sat with us at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills to discuss life as a film director, motherhood, exploring the Christian faith and her love for John Hawkes.
Fandango: This script was in the works for several years with you set to play the lead. At what point did you decide you would star and direct the film?
Vera Farmiga: It was a suggestion of the previous directorâ€™s. I said, â€śIâ€™m going to take a weekend to think about it.â€ť And then I was extremely encouraged to do so by the producers, Carly Hugo and Matt Parker, who had been on board at least for several years in the development. My husband then was becoming the producer and everyone who was attached said, â€śYeah, do it. You have very strong opinions, clear ideas of where you would like thing to go so take control.â€ť So with that encouragement I reached out to Carolyn Briggs and said letâ€™s reinvestigate this. We have this quirky sense of humor, so when youâ€™re dealing with religion, which is a really prickly subject, and youâ€™re inserting as much humor as possible, you better be careful tonally. I really did not want to poke fun at the community.
Fandango: Did you actually ever think you would direct?
Farmiga: Never, it came as a surprise. It was one of those extreme left turns that you take. There were times when I was just terrified about it because there was just so little time and I was pregnant at the same time. It came together so quickly, the financing, and we had to shoot before my baby bump emerged so that was a lot of pressure.
Fandango: Was it tough to shoot an indie film compared to the big productions youâ€™ve been a part of?
Farmiga: I do both in equal measures. Even with the more money you have it seems like itâ€™s still at the same pace. Whether youâ€™re making a million dollar film or a $100 million film there is never enough money, thereâ€™s never enough time. Itâ€™s really about the creature comforts. You either have an incredible trailer or you donâ€™t.
Fandango: What are some of the things you had to give up?
Farmiga: I had no toilet, which is not a good thing for a woman in the second trimester of pregnancy. We had a Porta-Potty that the entire cast shared. But itâ€™s an epic film in the sense that we had 21 live music performances, 58 shooting locations, a massive cast, three different time periods, costume, hair, makeup, wardrobe, furniture, car changesâ€¦itâ€™s a lot. We shot it all in 26 days. When youâ€™re directing yourself and there is very little time you canâ€™t always view what youâ€™ve shot so you got to operate from instinct.
Fandango: Whatâ€™s fascinating about this film is the way it explores the gray in black-and-white religion.
Farmiga: It touches me at a very personal level. I want to keep a certain measure of open heartedness and open mindedness and to do that you have to not be afraid of asking questions. It takes a certain amount of courage to do that to always come from an authentic self. Embracing that gray takes courage to do. We are all seekers in some way. There are those of us who think they have all the answers and there are those of us who may never get an answer.
Fandango: Thereâ€™s a beautiful female friendship that sparks between you and costar Dagmara Dominczyk.
Farmiga: Carolyn Briggs and I really wanted to bolster that relationship. Similar in the way that my friendships with women areâ€¦so measuring and loving and goofy and in them I see the person that I want to be. Dagmara Dominczyk, who plays Annika, possesses all those qualities that all women want to have. She has strength, vulnerability, sensuality, intelligence…so for me I couldnâ€™t think of anyone else. I thought of Dagmara first for the role. Itâ€™s refreshing to see a portrayal of a female friendship thatâ€™s uplifting, caring and not just vindictive or jealous or competitive.
Fandango: Your character and Annika are both trying to evolve within a Christian household but it seems as though women at that time were playing a more submissive role.
Farmiga: Iâ€™m not saying that thatâ€™s how it is now. The story took place in a very specific time period, around second wave feminism. Look at the ratio of male pastors to female pastors, itâ€™s lopsided, but thatâ€™s not to say I think religion puts women in a box. This was true to Carolyn Briggsâ€™ experience in the 1970s when women in general were finding their voices and struggling to be heard. Itâ€™s very specific to a certain time period and reduced to a very particular group of individuals that she encounters. If youâ€™re going to dissect this in a biblical way I donâ€™t think Jesus puts women in a box, I think men and women put themselves in boxes.
Fandango: I was pleasantly surprised to see John Hawkes in the film, who plays your father. I remember just last year people wondering who he was after his Oscar nomination.
Farmiga: He caught my eye way back when he did The Perfect Storm. Iâ€™ve always yearned to work with him. Heâ€™s special. I could honestly have picked his role with a flip of a coin. He could have played the pastor, my husband, but he has the capacity to go 30 years. He has this maturity and boyishness; it was a tall order to go from 30 years old to 60 years old. He and Donna Murphy are the consistent actors that anchor the film throughout the decades. I donâ€™t know too many actors that can do that. Heâ€™s no secret anymore. The catâ€™s out of the bag with that one.
Fandango: You play a very devoted, stay at home mother in the film but how are you handling life as a working mother?
Farmiga: Barely. I have the best husband a wife could possibly have. Heâ€™s the best father my children could have. Heâ€™s able to focus on his writing and producing. We just take the kids with us and we ship them back and forth but we are there as a family.
Fandango: Whatâ€™s it like to work with your husband?
Farmiga: Great. He and I work really well together. I will be directing the film that he wrote next. Itâ€™s another chance to be together, weâ€™re good collaborators, and weâ€™re best friends. I love spending time with him and seeing him at work. He has an extraordinary sense of humor and weâ€™re good together.
Fandango: Speaking of upcoming projects I hear you have quite a few projects lined up.
Farmiga: Itâ€™s so premature to talk about. I was just packing for Johannesburg and that project fell through because they lost $800,000 in financing. There are about five to six projects that Iâ€™m close to signing the dotted line. Iâ€™ve done Goats and Safe House.
Fandango: Did you get to work with Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds in Safe House?
Farmiga: Ah, I didnâ€™t work with them. Weâ€™re in the same film but we didnâ€™t get to work together! The consolation price was to work with Sam Shepard and Brendan Gleeson.