Believers Keep on Believin’: Vera Farmiga Envisions a Higher Ground

The title of Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut feature, which premiered this past winter at the Sundance Film Festival and will be released by Sony Pictures Classics in New York and Los Angeles this Friday, is Higher Ground, but recent events have led me to believe it could as well be called “Common Ground”.

As any twenty-something with an overzealous investment in the creative arts is prone to do, I spent several afternoons this summer, around the time of my first screening of Farmiga’s film, pouring over Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. There’s a sort of cosmic existential relief in reading Rilke’s epistolary musings, since you can imagine that he’s addressing you and only you. It’s a bit like faith in that way – even when it’s silly, you still end up feeling a little less alone. I recently sat down with Ms. Farmiga and her co-star Dagmara Dominczyk to discuss their film, and at one point Farmiga posited that “the intention of a film like this is hopefully just to find that common ground, that’s also higher ground.” Only a few moments later she brought up Rilke and Letters to a Young Poet as inspirations for the project. I couldn’t help but break into a grin, and allowed myself an inner moment of sentimentality: a little piece of common ground, and also perhaps higher ground, had just revealed itself to me.

Higher Ground explores the confluence between the earth-bound and grandiose, the tangible and intangible, the “common” and “higher”, with the hope of uncovering new means of human connection. The film follows Corinne (Farmiga) and her complex, decades-long relationship with God and faith, from a rocky childhood to a shotgun marriage to an extended period living as part of an insular Christian community. We witness an entire era of American history from Corinne’s perspective, which should tell you just how atypical Higher Ground is even among independent cinema’s recent offerings: this is a narrative refracted entirely and explicitly through the female psyche, and it also navigates politically-charged thematic territory without providing a polemical agenda of any kind. My conversation with Farmiga and Dominczyk provided insight into not only these tropes, but also each woman’s creative process and the status of faith and femininity in contemporary American cinema.

For Farmiga, the challenges this project presented only made it more attractive. She is quick to link this role to her breakthrough performance in 2005’s Down to the Bone, directed by Debra Granik of Winter’s Bone fame. She describes that film as “another portrait of a woman trying to be the best human” she possibly can, with the filmmakers “tackling abstract concepts in a very direct, distinct way, through addiction and recovery”. Projects like these might be an actor’s dream, but they remain exceedingly rare in contemporary American cinema, especially for a woman: “I have not had [other] opportunities to explore a female psyche to the great depths that these portraits allow me to,” she concedes, which inevitably means that projects like Down to the Bone and Higher Ground require exorbitant amounts of dedication from day one.

In the case of Higher Ground, Farmiga did much of the pre-production work herself even before she signed on as director. “I grew the film,” she admits with a laugh. “For three years, I was just attached as an actor, and for those three years we workshopped the script, we took it in many different directions, and we pedaled it around struggling to find financing and it wasn’t happening. Then the Oscar nomination happened for Up In The Air, and there’s a certain amount of energy there that you should probably take advantage of, so it was really a certain matter of timing.”

Despite the depth of her involvement, though, she had doubts about taking on the role of director: “I actually tried to break away from the film many times. I said, ‘Tim [Metcalfe, co-writer of the script, along with Carolyn Briggs, the woman whose memoirs inspired the film and on whom the character of Corinne is based], the script is good enough that you probably shop it to someone…’ and instead of saying, ‘Okay, see you later,’ he said, ‘Well, why don’t you take control? You have very strong impulses and ideas.’” Farmiga responded positively to the suggestion, and soon the project was lifting off as it never had before.

Chief among those strong impulses and ideas is her commitment to the piece’s unusual tenor: earnest, mature, and non-confrontational, Higher Ground eschews just about every conception one has about a film covering Christian fundamentalism. “It pisses some people off because you’re not taking sides,” Farmiga says. “In that pendulum sway of fundamentalism and non-fundamentalism, doubt by nature is the middle ground, between knowing and not-knowing. It’s an ingredient of faith.” Admittedly, the film’s apolitical stance has brought about its own obstacles. Farmiga and Dominczyk assert that their objective was to avoid any conversion tactics in one direction or another, as such a technique would prove limiting and ultimately false, but Farmiga also acknowledges that “it’s so much easier to market a film like that.” Higher Ground, in bypassing sensationalism and exploitation, might lack a multiplex-ready hook, but its subtlety ultimately reaps much greater, rarer cinematic rewards.

“I had to make sure that everyone was approaching it with earnestness,” Farmiga says of her mentality behind the selection of cast and crew. That earnestness is palpable throughout the film, which features the likes of John Hawkes, Donna Murphy and Bill Irwin giving small but exquisitely detailed, lived-in performances. Farmiga is quick to cite Ms. Dominczyk, who plays Corinne’s best friend Annika, as a major source of the intimate, familial energy that fuels the piece throughout. Recalling the casting decision, Dominczyk says with a laugh, “I did a reading with Vera, just a reading, and a year later my agent called and said, ‘You know that movie? She wants you to play her best friend!’ and I could not believe it! Like, sight unseen? You don’t know if I’m 300 pounds a year later, nothing!” Farmiga’s eyes light up instantly in response and she raves, “Oh no, I would’ve loved that! Because she [Annika] is like the uberwoman, she’s the woman we all want to be, so more of it, to me, would have been that much more Annika! And everyone loves Annika and everyone needs Annika.” The character’s physicality additionally imbues the film with a surprising sensuality, surely an unprecedented achievement among cinematic depictions of fundamentalist Christianity. “She’s not sacrificing her sense of self, her sensuality. This is an incredibly spiritual woman and an incredibly carnal woman,” Farmiga says, to which Dominczyk adds, “She loves God… and she loves to have a good time.”

The character of Annika is in many ways the narrative manifestation of the particularly feminine energy that, through either circumstance or divine providence, has permeated throughout Higher Ground‘s production. Farmiga notes that the film’s formation mirrored the stages of her second pregnancy: pre-production during her first trimester, shooting during her second, post-production during her third. Dominczyk is quick to point out the otherworldly quality with which Farmiga’s pregnancy affected the on-set experience: “I think that’s why the movie is so filled with light. I don’t know if it’s because she [Farmiga] was with child, [but] she exuded this kind of energy, this zen. She was so loving and generous with every actor and every single person”. She adds with a grin that the pregnancy probably amplified Farmiga’s directorial authority, noting that, “A grip is not gonna complain about standing in a lake with a pregnant lady directing!”

At this point in our conversation, Dominczyk recalls that, “I asked Vera one day on set, ‘Please tell me you go home and punch a wall or have a breakdown!’” to which Farmiga succinctly replies, “And of course I did,” going on to add, “There was a lot of laughter and a lot of crying. I did come home and weep like I’ve never wept before.” It’s a moving sentiment from one of America’s greatest actresses, and it fits the thematic concerns of Higher Ground perfectly: that pendulum swing from laughter to tears, from devotion to doubt, from reverence to irreverence. “Higher” ground isn’t isolated, it isn’t a throne, and it certainly isn’t fixed: it shifts with us, adjusting to our victories and defeats, fitting in our loved ones and shared experiences. Higher ground is indeed common ground.

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Higher Ground will be released by Sony Pictures Classics in New York and Los Angeles on August 26. Farmiga emerges as the first serious Best Actress contender of the season.