Vera Farmiga calls her first shot at directing, “One of those curve balls life throws at you that you either choose to catch or duck.”
Higher Ground, opening Friday at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas, was adapted from Carolyn S. Briggs’ spiritual memoir, This Dark World: A Story of Faith Found and Lost. Farmiga plays Corinne Walker, a member in good standing of a tight-knit evangelical community about to have her belief-system challenged. When the Academy Award-nominated actress was brought on board to play the lead, there was no mention of her directing.
Screenwriter Tim Metcalf spent three years in development before Briggs and producer (and Farmiga’s husband) Renn Hawkey came in for intensive rewrites. In the process, the project became welded to her psyche. When presented with a shot at the director’s seat, she stood firm, stuck out her mitt, and caught the ball in one hand.
Vera Farmiga is that rare commodity -- a movie star who can act. Turns out she can also direct. I’m not surprised. While appearing in Scorsese's The Departed, she learned at the foot of The Master, which is precisely where the interview (and the sanctity of World Cinema as we know it) begins.
Scott Marks: The following Facebook status update was posted by me on August 15 at 5:46 p.m.: “I'm speaking with Vera Farmiga next week! It will be the easiest interview of my life. One question: ‘What did you learn from your time spent in Marty's celestial presence?’ If it takes her less than three days to answer, I'm hanging up and panning Higher Ground.” Alright, Vera. Start talking.
Vera Farmiga (Laughing): What did I learn from his celestial presence? What didn’t I learn? I think Higher Ground is a blatant result of how I’ve been affected by that man. He approaches everything with such vigor, and joy, and innocence. Especially for him, even though he’s photographing really often times...(Pausing to find the right word.)
Yeah. What’s a grislier word? Thwarted. He approaches it with such innocence and openness and still, after all these years, such joy. That rubs off on you. That’s the kind of leadership I strive for. It doesn’t matter what you’re shooting. They’ll follow the Pied Piper is you’ve got a skip in your step and if you’re passionate.
It shows in your performance in The Departed. There’s this exceptional little privileged moment when you and Matt Damon are in the restaurant sharing an architecturally-sound dessert. The look on your face when he jokingly indicates that there might not be a second date is nothing short of miraculous.
I had better keep moving in fear that the entire interview will be about Him. How appropriate is it that your first film opens with a baptism?
(Laughing): You’re right. It’s symbolic isn’t it? That’s beautiful. That’s such a nice way of looking at it. The story that Carolyn Briggs originally wrote had a different beginning. I didn’t want to apologize to the audience for the film they were about to see. I didn’t want to slide them in, I wanted to dunk them in.
There are a lot of terrific background faces interspersed throughout that add a great deal of verisimilitude, or in your case Vera-similitude, to the picture. First, how much of a say did you have in casting and where did you find the guy who played accordion salesman Bobby Lee Moore? Did he study method-sweating under Strassberg? That guy was great.
Scott, you are awesome! I valiantly fought for him. (Pausing.) Oh, my God! Okay. My producers gave me en enormous amount of slack on my leash when it came to casting. It was practically unheard of in this day and age. I didn’t have a leash, really. Half of my producers are European so they believe in the auteur. They treat the directors differently. Once they could understand my vision and get behind it, they wanted me to be happy. In my career, I have been disappointed time and again. Sometimes I lose jobs because of that dollar sign prefix that actors kind of possess and financiers can determine whether or not they can sell the film in Kabul or South Korea. They wanted the right actor to get the job, not the ones that are on “the list.”
Seldom has the casting of younger actresses to play a recognized star in flashback scenes been quite this effective. You had an obvious edge in your look-alike younger sister Taissa, but McKenzie Turner was equally identical as the “Young Corinne.” It was like something out of Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series where you watch the same performer play the same character at various stages of their life.
Taissa was also a contingency. I can fudge every other incarnation of the characters, but I knew that the major bridge to cross is adolescent Corrine to when you meet me. We tried using contacts. Taissa has beautiful hazel eyes and an iridescent quality that kind of matches a quality that my eyes have. We’re cut from the same genetic fabric, so to speak, and I knew that was an ace in my pocket. As for the young McKenzie, initially I had asked my brother for my 7-year-old niece, Shashika, which would have really blown people away. Now that he’s seen the film (my brother) regrets not letting her do it. McKenzie was someone we found at a school play. I’ve played a lot of mothers in my career and those have been the best experiences, certainly the most nuanced. When it comes to young actors, it’s okay for them to show up unrehearsed and not knowing their lines. Sometimes an hour-and-a-half will go by just to get one line from them. There are round-about ways of working with children to get these delicious nuggets of performance. The kids are brilliant in the film. They're all non-actors. There is something in McKenzie’s gaze that makes what happens in-between the lines more important.
Higher Ground is timed to open, at least in the San Diego market, hot on the heels of the overtly faith (de)based comedy, Salvation Boulevard.
Yes, I know. It’s actually playing OnDemand. Did you see it?
That’s by my Joshua director (George Ratliff). He actually called to offer me one of the roles in the film when I was embarking on Higher Ground. I forget what character he had me in mind for, but I didn’t respond to it.
It’s an out-and-out comedy and I think you cover much the same ground in a subtler and more effective manner. Your film broaches the incredibly uneasy subject of sex among the Christian far-right.
Why does it make you feel uneasy?
I’ve learned a lot in my lifetime by watching movies and television, but the thought of someone learning how to make love by looking at a Church-sanctioned instructional video, particularly one called “Christ Liked Sex,” makes me squirm. C’mon, Vera! That’s meant to be funny.
It’s funny, but guess what? It came right out of Carolyn Briggs’ life.
I don't doubt it.
This was based on a couple of Bible study tapes that talked about how to achieve greater intimacy in your relationship. I think it’s awesome to portray Christians...genitals are God-given. I think that was a big mission on the part of Carolyn Briggs, to "dimensionalize" believers and not castrate them or rob them of sexuality, sensuality and full dimension.
The Christian far right, let alone their bedroom habits, is a subject that never crosses my mind.
I don’t think it just goes for Christianity. It holds true of any sort of religious movement. Think about the Orthodox Jewish.
I’m Jewish. Believe me, my parents never had sex!
(Laughing): Yeah. Right.
You have a precise way of capturing emotion in a single frame. Without giving away who or when, there is a slow pan right to a heretofore vital character frozen in a wheelchair with children wiping away drool from the corner of their mouth. This icy moment was more frightening than anything I’ve seen in recent science-fiction films.
[At this moment, the publicist interrupts and asks that we begin to wrap things up.]
Let me quickly tell you, because I love that you brought up the accordion salesman. Those scenes were on the chopping block and I had to fight valiantly to retain them. When it came down to editing the film and the additional ten minutes it takes to drop the running time from 105 minutes to 95 minutes...you begin fighting for things you believe. Things that you put your stamp on and prevent it from being just run-of-the-mill. The accordion player is a childhood friend of mine. He plays the accordion for a living. I think he actually played at my pre-wedding ceremony. You cannot teach an actor to sweat as profusely as he does. It’s a part of his behavior. That's why I love working with non-actors. They add such dimension and scope and nuance. To me he was right out of...
I’m thinking of Grady Sutton in a W.C. Fields film.
I was going more for David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.
Read David Elliott's review.