In her new film Vera Farmiga takes a role very different from the one that earned her an Oscar nomination. In “Up in the Air,” she played George Clooney’s seductive fellow-traveler-with benefits. In “Higher Ground,” based on a memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs (who also co-wrote the screenplay), she’s a woman who’s given herself over to a fundamentalist form of Christianity that’s taken her into a very strict community. But in a recent Dallas interview, she emphasized that her picture’s purpose was neither to embrace nor reject any particular religious view, but simply to depict the struggle for spiritual fulfillment in a serious way.
“I was just looking for a meaty role,” Farmiga said about her decision to make the picture. “You ski the bunny slope for thirty times, and you look for odd terrain. I have to feel the fear, because I know that I’m challenging myself. This particular film took a lot of introspection and openness.”
And she immediately added, “I was scared to make this movie. I was terrified. It took an enormous amount of courage. It was one thing to tax myself as an actress—there was so much for me to defend about this character. But then as a director, you don’t want to come across as a philistine, either as a director or on the subject matter. And it’s scary because it’s such a subjective thing, such a personal matter—faith. Defining what it means to be holy, defining what God means to you, is so subjective. People are on guard as soon as they hear the word ‘God.’
“I’m asking a lot of people. I’m not making a film for believers, I’m not making a film for non-believers. I’m making a film for the whole spectrum of humanity. Look at this very intimate portrait of a woman in her yearning to be the best mom, to be the best wife, to be her best self, her highest self—and have compassion for it, regardless of how you define God. It’s easy to describe someone else’s passion as insanity or lunacy, but if it comes from a genuine place of self-transcendence, if it comes from a holy place, then it is beautiful.
“Films about religion, in these times of holy war, are important,” Farmiga added. “I think they can find a commonality, I think we can find common ground, higher ground [through them].”
Farmiga went on to explain her decision not only to take the lead in “Higher Ground,” but to direct it as well—her first time in that capacity, “In one sense I directed it because no one else would,” she said half-jokingly. “I gave it to my mentors, and they were all busy, or disinterested. And I really wanted to play this role. And I thought it was a really strong topic.”
When asked whether her own upbringing in a small, tightly-bound community of Ukrainian Catholics affected her treatment of the material, Farmiga replied, “I can honesty say that this is very much about me and nothing about me. The power of the film is that people have very different interpretations of it, and they experience it in very different ways, depending on what your tenets are and where you are on your path. I’ve had believers see the film and have a genuine empathy for the journey, and I’ve had atheists see it and be very open-hearted and compassionate toward her search. But I think what was important was to get into her head and use whatever experiences and perceptions I’ve had—I’m involved in the Christian faith, and it’s still very much a part of me. I’m totally influenced by my childhood. Even the sense of community, our need for community—and me growing up in a Ukrainian community, and the need for identity and wanting to belong to something. I’m still figuring out what drew me [to the script]—it’s still revealing itself to me. Sometimes I don’t know until a decade later why I needed to explore something.”
Farmiga described all the stages of making “Higher Ground” with enthusiasm. Of collaborating with Briggs on the script, she recalled, “We worked so closely…we spent so much time together, and you feel a kinetic energy with someone or you don’t, and if you do feel a sort of chemistry, it happens. We have a similar sensibility as far as what we’re touched by, what works for us. She asked me to direct it.” Of the company that ultimately agreed to finance the film, she said, “I asked for complete control, and with that came freedom. And BCDF Pictures really believed in the ‘auteur’ and not diluting that vision. We were on the same page from the start. Once they could understand my perspective and my desire for the film, they just totally trusted me.” Of her hand-picked cast, she said, “These are the kind of actors that make me a better actress. I got John Hawkes first, and he was a great magnet to gather the rest of the troops.” And in working with them, she took her cue from directors she’d worked with in the past. “My favorite directors have been the most passionate, the ones that truly spread good cheer and joy,” she said. “That’s Scorsese, that’s Anthony Minghella. They have the innate ability to get everyone on board. And I think with that kind of leadership and energy, if you put it out, you’re going to get it back.”
“It was challenging to see if I could tell a story about belief without having the film make a statement, having a belief about belief,” Farmiga reiterated. “I did my best, and really tried to come from gentle place.”
And she emphasized the support from others she depended on to help her accomplish the project. “I’m surrounded by a lot of people who think I can do great things,” she said, “and that’s enough to make you try.”