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Vera Farmiga finds 'Higher Ground' with her new film

August 24, 2011 |  2:02 pm

Based on Carolyn S. Briggs’ memoir, “This Dark World,” the new drama “Higher Ground” tracks the journey of a born-again Christian wife and mother living in a tightknit Christian community in the Midwest who begins to question her faith. The project, which premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival and opens in theaters in Los Angeles on Friday, marks the feature directorial debut of Vera Farmiga, who has delivered acclaimed performances in such films as “Up in the Air,” “The Departed” and “Down to the Bone.”

Appropriately enough, the 38-year-old turned the venture into a family affair, starring in the lead and casting her youngest sister, Taissa, as a teenage version of her character, Corinne Walker. The Oscar nominee’s toddler son, Fynn, played Corinne’s baby daughter, and Farmiga’s husband, Renn Hawkey, was one of the producers of the indie film, which was made from a script by Tim Metcalfe and Briggs for less than $2 million. Farmiga also happened to be pregnant with her now 9-month-old daughter, Gytta, during the production.

On a recent visit to Los Angeles from her home in upstate New York, Farmiga revealed why she chose to step behind the camera and her experiences making the film.

Question: Your sister — who is now 17 — got a lot of attention for her performance in the film when it premiered at Sundance in January. Had she acted before?

Vera Farmiga: Never. She was doing me a favor. I think she was sort of a typically bored 15-year-old who was looking for an adventure. She has a tremendous power of expression. I can always tell what she is feeling when I take one look at her face. There are seven children in our family. She’s the baby. I sent her a text and invited her to be in the film. She submitted willingly.

Q: You have worked with directors including Martin Scorsese, Jason Reitman and Debra Granik. Was it a natural progression for you to try your hand at directing?

V.F.: I was fighting it every step of the way. I never dreamed of directing [“Higher Ground”]. It is just one of those curveballs that life throws at you and you can either duck or catch it.

Q: But you had been attached to the project as an actress for a long time.

V.F.: I attached myself to [writer-director] Tim Metcalfe for three years. He conceptualized it as a film. After three years of collaboration we shopped it around to some certain New York financiers. No one was taking the bait.

Q: Do you think they were fearful of trying to market a movie with religious content?

V.F.: It is easy to market a film with religion as a backdrop. The apocalypse is always an easy sell as a thriller, and religion and spirituality in a horror film is an easy sell. But something that actually investigates a spiritual trek is incredibly hard to market because you can’t categorize it and it’s not easy to digest.

Q: So how did you ultimately decide to direct?

V.F.: When I found out I was pregnant with my second child, I said, “I have to be more selective as where I put my energies.” I told Tim, “I think this is the end of the road for us.” As soon as I tried to wiggle away … he suggested that I direct it. The investment only came in once I made the choice to direct it.

Q: You also began to collaborate on the script with Briggs.

V.F.: I flew to Iowa [where Briggs teaches creative writing]. We went back to her memoir and started working. Tim stepped away for personal reasons and Carolyn and I sort of very intimately began to develop the script.

Q: Have you gotten any feedback from religious communities about the film?

V.F.: My aunt, who is an Episcopalian pastor, wept with joy to such an honest depiction of the struggle of faith. Pastors have wanted to use it as a teaching tool.

Q: Are you ready to tackle your second film as director?

V.F.: I am not chasing it but if I feel like I have a unique take on something…. Films read like prisms, and if I feel there is a new angle of illumination then yes, absolutely.


Movies look at faith in all its forms

-- Susan King

Photo: Vera Farmiga. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times

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