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Vera Farmiga—Higher Ground—8/19/11

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Nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Up in the Air, Vera Farmiga has also drawn attention in Martin Scorsese's The Departed, Debra Granik's Down to the Bone, Jonathan Demme's The Manchurian Candidate, Rod Lurie's Nothing But the Truth, and Anthony Minghella's Breaking and Entering. Other films include Source Code, Henry's Crime, Orphan, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Joshua, Running Scared, Autumn in New York and 15 Minutes. Farmiga also starred opposite Heath Ledger in the short-lived 1997 TV series Roar. Now's she's both the director and star of the indie drama Higher Ground, about one woman's search for identity within a Christian community (the film was inspired by co-screenwriter Carolyn S. Briggs' memoir This Dark World). I spoke to Farmiga—after her lunch break with her two young childen—at San Francisco's Prescott Hotel.

Groucho: Thank you for submitting to another.

(Both laugh.)

Groucho: So I thought I'd start by asking—

Vera Farmiga: An easy question?

G: Sure.  I think it's pretty easy, the first one.

Vera Farmiga: (Laughs.)

G: We'll start out with a softball. Do you recall the first time it ever entered into your head that perhaps you might, one day, want to direct? Or that just never happened. It just came to you, and you said, "Okay. I can do that."

VF: Not until Tim Metcalfe, who was the guy who was supposed to do it, who wanted to do it. Not until he had pulled away from the project. After years of investment, just found out I was pregnant, the second one, and you have to choose your battles. I found, until the moment he suggested it, I thought it was a preposterous notion, just because my—I didn't need a certain amount of control, but I really wanted to embody the character. I really wanted to, I don't know, take that trek. You know? I just—it's rare. It's a rare trip to take as an actress. And so, kinda had to sit on it for a weekend. And that conviction did not come in the form of a resonant "Hallelujah!" (Laughs.) 

G: So to speak.

VF: It was a very small impulse to try it. And I—you know, just from the moment of, I think, commitment to that sense of adventure, and from the "yes," then I didn't sweat. I honestly couldn't look at it—there was...it was like navigating through people's projections of whatever their fears are, of risk-taking. Like whether it was the subject matter. "Really?" Like when [they] would say, "What are you focused on next?" You know, "I'm gonna direct this film about a woman and her struggle to conceptualize God."

(Both laugh.)

VF: You know? It's like, "Are you insane?  Are you possessed?"

G: "Is that a four-quadrant film?" they would ask you. (Laughs.) Right.

VF: Yeah.

G: Which it is, actually. You said that you don't have that—by nature, I suppose—that instinct for needing control. Though so many directors—

VF: Oh, that's not true.

G: Oh! Okay. (Laughs.)

VF: My mom will completely disagree with you.

G: Oh, okay.

(Both laugh.)

G: So I was just going to say—

VF: So will my husband. (Laughs.)

G: So many directors are control freaks, you know. I wonder if you kind of learned being—

VF: Well, it's not control. It's conviction. For instance...if I'm helming this ship?

G: Yeah.

VF: It's not like—look, there's a certain amount of control: you have to just take the wheel. You have to know which way to attack. Which wave to ride, you know? And what your—you have to, of course.  You're in control. You're leadership.

G: Yeah. And once you turn that corner, even if you—

VF: It can become diluted. It's become—it's actually very rare for a director to take consummate control because often it's like the more money you invest, the vision is so diluted. You're actually so susceptible to the opinions of your financiers. It's very rare to actually have what I had, which was "You tell your story with your unique perspective, and—"

G: That's a gift.

VF: Yeah. It's not unusual for a personality to sort of have a very strong opinion. Not opinion, because I'm not—you know, I don't actually. You know, I'm more of a listener than I am a talker.

G: But once you follow that impulse and say, "I'm gonna do this," you immediately take ownership of the material and you start to see it in—

VF: I saw a great sense of it—all of it became a great sense of adventure. Which came with an enormous amount of risk. But I knew people were going to—I knew—I don't know. Actor-directors get a lot of—not flak, but a lot of—

G: Suspicion, or—

VF: Suspicion, yeah. And I don't know why. Martin Scorsese is an actor-director.  Cassavetes was an actor director.

G: Yeah.

VF: Polanski is an actor-director.  These are all my sources of inspiration.

G: Yeah.

VF: I'm sure Debra Granik would make an excellent actress.

G: Yeah. I was thinking that actually, earlier.

VF: (Laughs.)  I would love—

G: I think she probably could. And I wanted to talk—getting a little more specific about the film—take for example the opening baptism scene.

/content/interviews/339/5.jpgVF: Yeeaah. That was my idea. I wanted to immerse the audience in our world. Like, I'm not—there's no holds barred...I'm not going to ease you into this. I'm gonna say I'm dunking you into—I'm certain. And I know people...depending on what angle they're coming from...there's probably a suffocation, like a drowning element to their experience, but my intent was let's treat this as, I think, the holy ritual it's intended to be. Which is look how amazing it is when someone...it takes a lot of courage to reenact your death, the death of your lesser self, and emerge to that. And it's a real—I love that challenge. I love saying—I don't care what, fundamentally, you think or don't think. Let's just—let's take a dip with these people, and see and investigate their yearning.

G: Yeah. It's also, of course, sort of as the entryway symbol into the film, it also reflects your pregnancy, I guess, too.

VF: Yeah.

G: Which I hadn't thought about until just now.

VF: We had to incorporate—I think Carolyn Briggs wanted to look over the course of the span of her life; she gave birth to three kids. So the film is about family and these transitional phases in a woman's life from being a daughter to becoming a wife and having your own family and the choices that come with all of that. It's only natural that pregnancy would be very much a part of that equation. And so I think the timing was perfect to embrace what was developing in my own body and kind of be strategic about when we shot what scenes. And sort of the beginning of the fourth month and the end of the fifth are very different times. And it's a good, kind of, leeway, actually. It's amazing growth within that second trimester, so we were able to incorporate it, and I think it made it very special. I think that it added something, you know.

G: Very few people have that kind of photo album of their pregnancy.

VF: I know! I know!

(Both laugh.)

VF: And I have—

G: It's the ultimate snapshot of that moment in your life—

VF: And I'm trying to enjoy it.

G: Of those months in your life. You know, we've talked about the opening scene, and also the closing scene, it strikes me that they're very much Rorschach tests for an audience. Are you finding that people—are you getting a wide variety of responses to—because I think somebody could watch that first scene and say, as someone did in my research—you know, a Christian interviewer was so grateful for the depiction of the ecstatic-ness of that ritual—whereas I think somebody else might watch it and, say, roll their eyes and say, "Oh. Here's another—" You know, "I can't stand those holy rollers" or something.

VF: Yeah, that's also kind of fundamentalism. (Laughs.)

G: Yeah. Right, right.

VF: You know? In a fundamentally-fundamental about their preconceived—I think the greatest—the gratification here comes from...as far as response goes, the ones that...the gratitude for "You know, I expected something and instead the surprise was that I had a very open experience of this. And thank you for that lesson in receptivity." So that's really cool for me to—I don't really—you can't make a film about perseverance and stamina and honesty or courage without considering everybody else's ideas or emotions, concepts. Y'know...so I'm sticking to Carolyn Briggs's experiences. How my own perceptions and feelings and my own quest, you know, informs it. And I can only stick to this fictional character that she and I have put on, you know, and developed, and say—because I'm not doing a biopic. At the same time, it's very much Carolyn Briggs, so we can only kind of—we push aside everybody else's queasiness and worry or defensiveness. I don't know. I'm not sure...yeah. Because we're used to being defensive. You know, we either don't resonate with people's very particular concept of God, and that angers us because we're trying to relate to each other on a very deep human level; I mean, that's the point of being here together. Or we're sick of...very one-dimensional portrayals on the human experience, and that doesn't resonate with us either. And yet those are the kind of films that are being made because it's easier to digest, for whatever reasons. You know?

G: Right. Well, I think, you know, certainly the film is a very welcoming invitation for reflection. And, you know, once people get into the theater, you've got 'em. You know?

VF: Yeah.

(Both laugh.)

G: So yeah. Get 'em into the theater.

VF: Get 'em in.

G: That's what we're doing here.

(Both laugh.)

G: I did want to ask: you mentioned it is inspired by Briggs's memoir, and I think maybe you sort of answered my question already in that it sounds like Corinne is the intersection of you and Carolyn. Maybe. Is that accurate?

/content/interviews/339/4.jpgVF: Uhh. That's such a nice way of putting it. I mean, we collaborated intensely. So she is, by virtue of that equation, yes. Yeah. It is very directly taken from Carolyn Briggs's memoirs. And then there [are], sort of, several composites where our desires to see certain portrayals of femininity, sort of, embodied in the form of Monica. I mean, that was a composite of several women in her life. But yeah. I imagine that's relevant probably for every director-writer relationship. And the actress or actor who embodies the character. But it is. And I often feel very lopsided without her in interviews because everybody wants to talk to me, and it's almost "The Vera Farmiga Show," and somehow, you know—and yes, her memoirs exist. And she often, actually, feels very misrepresented in the memoirs because it was edited and skewed to really—in a very black-and-white way that she turned away from her faith, and she's never wholly been able to reject her faith. And it's complicated. (Laughs.)

G: And that's reflected in the film as well.

VF: Yeah. And I often kind of really miss her by my side because it has been—yeah! It's our baby. (Laughs.) It's a real combination of the two of us. I mean it's on one hand—it's not me at all on the other.  And it is. It is and it isn't.

G: Yeah.

VF: I'm not sure if it's in equal measures or—you know, it depends on the scene. It depends on—but this is where I really feel like—oftentimes I feel like she should be sitting here. And that's just been sort of the journey to marketing. But, um—

G: Well, you're doing fine.

(Both laugh.)

G: Yeah, I wanted to ask about, you know, obviously, though the film is not—it's more of a character piece about the journey of one person, of self-discovery. But obviously religion is so much a part of that and inextricable from that, and religious films are so rare—at least ones that aren't black and white, certainly—and what I liked about the film in that respect is that it wasn't afraid to show flaws, but it wasn't just about the flaws; it was also about everything that this gives to people, this group.

VF: The good intentions. Sure. And wisdom. (Laughs.) Yes, there are sermons in the film. And even when I screened it to—I screened it upstate New York, a very small contingency of friends and family and believers and just people from every walk of faith. And even the believers were saying, "Please. Take down the sermons. Take down the speeches."

G: (Laughs.)

VF: I was so enamored with the speeches. Like, that was really hard for me to whittle away, because—

G: That's your actor's side.

VF: Yeah, it's also my director's side. Norbert Leo Butz. And it's also because I actually think there's so much wisdom in those, particularly because they're not—if you see it again, you can see that the messages are really universal.  I mean, it could be, y'know, like a sermon in a Buddhist temple, or in pretty much any house of worship. It's just, it's really universal, kind of, concepts of living like—if you look at all the sermons. Whether it's the..."giving hot coffee or cold coffee, and not lukewarm," you know, about living a passionate life of intimacy. But even the best—people were saying, "You gotta whittle 'em down, man!  You gotta whittle 'em down." (Laughs.) I was loving that, y'know?

G: It sounds like—

VF: I love Norbert's performance.

G: Yeah. He is—

VF: And you know, people are actually—it's funny, I don't think he gets, almost, the kudos he deserves because he pushes so authentically and genuinely, and yet he has some really selfish moments, so you want to project onto it...every memory of every flawed pastor you can think of.  And yeah, it's a patriarchy—patriarchal fringe group...at this very specific time in history.

G: Right. I think one of the interesting things about religion, too, is that you have the people in parishes or faith communities, on that level who are much more open to growth, I think, than necessarily the establishment of the church is or the leadership. Are you finding in screening the film and so on and so forth—are you feeling some defensiveness or push back from Christian establishment because, you know—?

VF: Well, what would the push back be, do you think? But I can't answer that because I generally have only screened it to—so far, the response is like CNN and NPR, and these are the [ones] I'm talking to, which have a very—

G: Yeah.

/content/interviews/339/3.jpgVF: They have to take a sort of common-ground approach to talking about it, and so—and also, I haven't—oh, that's not true. We screened it for very religious communities: in the Mormon community in Sundance, that could appreciate it. I had pastors come to me and say they want to use it as a teaching tool. You know, I've had a little response here and there. I'm sure—I fully expect to have a broad range of reactions, but I know in my heart, and the compassion that I operate from and, knowing my approach, which is always one of love and kindness. Always. And positivity and openness and gentleness. You know, people will experience it accordingly, and my only job is to evoke. My job is to—I'm not preaching.  I'm not converting or un-converting. That's not the job here. I'm like a good sermon; let's provoke discussion.

G: Yeah.

VF: So I look forward to the response. I'm sure it's going to come! And it'll—y'know, we'll see. But so far, I think—you know, as many denominations as there are—tens of thousands. Not only Christian faith, but in other very passionate religious movements. I think there will be—look, you're projecting onto it what only resonates with you. If you had a struggle...then you will relate on a certain level. If you've been baptized in fire, and have a shhhhhh—and like have never stumbled and really—then you might have a little holier-than-thou attitude toward it and say, "Unlucky you. I wish you could tap into what I'm tapping into." There's gonna be a—it depends. It depends on your very own, personal, spiritual trek, how you will respond. And it's awesome that people can reflect to it in that way.

G: Yeah, and all those angles of the prism are all around Corinne in the film.

VF: Yeah, I love that—it is. To me it read like a beautiful prism, the film. Hold it up, you know, from any which angle, and look at this perspective, and—

G: Yeah. Before I get the hook here, I wanted to ask you about A View From the Bridge. Is that—?

VF: It's not happening.

G: Not happening? Aw, okay.

VF: It fell through.

G: Alright.

VF: It fell through, and it's such a heartbreak to Anthony LaPaglia, who played it on Broadway and invested many, many years. As far as I know, it's not happening. I know Mia Wasikowska wasn't available and fell through, and then financing lost, and all of that. So, no. Yeah, it's a bummer to me. You know, it's such tricky times.

G: Uh-huh. Right. But on the bright side, it sounds as if the offers are rolling in for you.

VF: Does it sound like that? Ha! (Laughs.)

G: Well, you said at one point... (Laughs.) That's what it sounds like.

VF: I'm like "Damn, they're rolling in!"

G: Well, you said—

VF: Yeah?

G: That you're getting a lot of two-for-one offers now.

VF: Oh, for directing. Some of them. Yeah. No, it's all—I don't know how many I'm getting. I've gotten, I don't know, since then? At least, maybe, eight or ten offers...? They're all independent. It's not like "Hollywood" is busting down my door to tell the next, you know, female-centric—no, no. No, they're all, I mean, they're as legitimate in my head, but there's not so many I'm actually pursuing. "Two-for-one deals." (Laughs.) It's a nice—exhausting, but it's a nice pat on the back. And I'm not complaining, because if that's what it takes to do inspired work, then so be it, and I'll continue not being the—yeah, you know, I'm open to anything.

G: Were there particular films that you aspired to in their tone or their weight, as for—or that you used as touchstones when you embarked on this?

VF: Yeah. Yeah. It was a very formative experience on Down to the Bone. It was working with Debra Granik. The way she—ohhhh. The way—her voyeurism. Her—the depth, the intimacy to which she explores her world. The way she loves her protagonist. Duvall. I cite his—that's always a case study for me, his acting and directing in a film about faith. I mean, that was very blatantly, kind of a good reference film for me.

G: Yeah. The Apostle. Right.

/content/interviews/339/1.jpgVF: Yeah. I really-it's one of my-it's really on top there. It's on top of my list, and I just have really wanted to approach it in the same, sort of, vigorous "in it" way, you know? He doesn't treat anything as precious. You know? He's just-I love that scene where he's like yelling at God. "I'm angry at you!" That scene, to me, is such a beautiful scene of a challenge. Where he's just sitting by himself and he's ranting-like, yeah. I think maybe those. (Long pause.) For the surreal, 'cause I really loved-see my part-part of my-what was very important to me-and I had to fight for this with my producers because we had to whittle the film down from like a three-hour film, and the fantasies were at stake at one point. And I love that contradiction of that very Debra Granik/Cassavettes-like, you know, gritty, honest and that realness, and then the spraying off the surreal and incorporating that. I loved the go-between, the two.

G: It really evokes that when you open yourself to change, things come in you're not expecting.

VF: Yeah.

G: These kind of flashes of "Oh, I have to deal with that now."

VF: Yeah.

G: Yeah. Those are some great moments in the film. I have to stop, sorry...I wish I could spend more time.

VF: Oh, I know.

G: It's been wonderful. Thank you.

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