Vera Farmiga Talks Sitcoms, Spirituality, and HIGHER GROUND
Higher Ground, which opens in New York and Los Angeles today, is a serious exploration of one woman's search for spirituality, yet it displays a disarming sense of humor. Vera Farmiga, who directed and stars in the film, says that she shares her sense of what's funny with Carolyn Briggs, whose memoir served as the basis for the script. "That allows it to go into the surreal, and I didn't back away from that," she told me when we sat down to talk about the film. Laughing, she added: "That's probably my Gilligan's Island / Fantasy Island influence."
Like the vast majority of American youth, Farmiga grew up watching television, not films. She watched whatever was on: The Love Boat or Little House on the Prairie, or Three's Company with her grandmother. "My film history sucks," she admits. Martin Scorsese, who directed her in The Departed, would send her "satchels of DVDs, citing Ukrainian directors from the 30s, Korean filmmakers from the 80s ..." Knowing that she's Ukrainian-American, I kiddingly prompted her for her favorite Ukrainian directors.
"I don't know! I have to catch up!"
Farmiga's lighter side has rarely been as evident as her finely-honed dramatic chops as an actress. That's a bit of a shame, because she has a quick, rich laugh, and her entire face lights up when she jokes, for example, about her limited knowledge of film history. Ever since she broke out in 2004, thanks to her stunning lead performance in Debra Granik's Down to the Bone, she's excelled at portraying complex, troubled characters, leading to her Academy Award nomination as George Clooney's transitory bedfellow in Jason Reitman's Up in the Air. She has the unnerving ability to seduce and / or wither men with a tiny flick of her eyes, while simultaneously emanating a warm, motherly vibe with her countenance and body language.
All her skills as an actress are on display in Higher Ground, which follows a woman named Corinne from her youth into her 30s. She plays the character in her 20s and 30s; she boldly cast younger sister Taissa Farmiga, in her debut, to essay Corinne's younger years. (More than by the way, older sister Vera was five months pregnant during the shoot.) Though Vera Farmiga is a neophyte director, you wouldn't know it from watching the film. She says she employed an "instinctual approach" to filmmaking, similar to the way that she creates characters. Farmiga is quick to credit her collaborators, from a wonderful cast that includes John Hawkes, Dagmara Dominczyk, Joshua Leonard, Bill Irwin, and Norbert Leo Butz, to director of cinematography Michael McDonough and production designer Sharon Lomofsky. Still, Higher Ground is very much a reflection of its director.
"It's a very particular kind of film," she says. "It's not plot-driven; you know what you're in for when you sit down. It's a character study. It really is like looking into someone'e photo album over the course of three decades, and being made privy to the intimacy of a journey during the course of one woman's life as a mother, as a daughter, as a sister, as a friend, as a community member, as a devotee."
She maintains that she didn't want to pander to any community, Christian or otherwise. "I'm portraying a person as she is, and a spiritual path in all its endeavors, in dizzying heights and 'the valley of the shadow of death,' and doubt, because it's all a part of it, the ups and the downs, the ebb and the flow.
"It becomes really lofty. But we had more laughs at Sundance than any comedy that was there. People were able to giggle, not at the characters, but at themselves."
Higher Ground opens today in limited release in New York and Los Angeles. Check the official site for theaters. The film will expand on September 2 and then wider on September 9 (including my home base of Dallas, Texas), which is when I'll publish the entire interview and my review. (Spoiler: It's a good movie, whether you're spiritually-inclined or not.)
Photo credit: © 2011 - Sony Pictures Classics