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”.
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.” 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. 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. 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. 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. Farmiga’s eyes light up instantly in response and she raves, “Oh no, I would’ve loved that! 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. Higher ground is indeed common ground.
It's that Farmiga treats them with such matter-of-fact grace. "The film magnifies those moments of the restless soul, those dark nights of the soul," Farmiga said a few weeks ago in Dallas, where she had come to promote the film. "Higher Ground" is based on a memoir called "This Dark World," by Carolyn S. Briggs, who co-wrote the screenplay adaptation with Tim Metcalfe. Only if Farmiga agreed to direct could the film get funding.
"I think films about faith that are easily marketed to the faith-based community, or films that use religion as backdrop to horror movies, those succeed," Farmiga noted. At the film's premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Farmiga joked that she did all the things that a debut director is supposed to avoid: Her movie has multiple music cues, takes place in three visually distinct times periods and features complicated scenes involving animals and children. Speaking of Farmiga's performance: "Higher Ground" was acquired shortly after Sundance by Sony Pictures Classics, which is opening the movie in theaters just prior to the rush of fall prestige. After Vera Farmiga was nominated for an Oscar for her performance opposite George Clooney in the 2009 film "Up in the Air," the actress was offered the chance of a lifetime -- not just to act in a film, but to direct it as well.
The result is indie drama "Higher Ground," due in theaters on Friday. The film is inspired by Carolyn Brigg's memoir "This Dark World," in which a young woman enters a community of evangelical Christians, then begins to question her faith.
"Ground" follows lead character Corinne (Farmiga) over a span of 20 years. Farmiga, 38, made the film a family affair with husband Renn Hawkey a producer and musical director and her sister Taissa, 15 years-old at the time and with no prior acting experience, playing young Corinne.
"Higher Ground" debuted at 2011's Sundance Film Festival, launching Farmiga's second career as a filmmaker and a budding acting career for Taissa. Reuters sat down with the sisters to talk about their experience of working together on "Higher Ground."
Taissa: "Vera texted me and was like, 'Hey, do you wanna play the younger version of me in a movie I'm directing?' Taissa: "There was. Vera: (turns to Taissa) "You should thank me! (laughter) (laughter)
Vera: (laughs) "Yes. Taissa: "None at all. Q: Vera, why have your sister in the film? Vera: "So many. (turns to Taissa). (to Taissa) Vera: "It depends on the moment. Taissa: "But there are times when you're that cool older sister."