A Higher Calling
By Carl Kozlowski
Inside every actor is a director dying to take control of a film and show what they’re really capable of doing. Usually an actor has to reach the iconic status of a Clint Eastwood, Tom Hanks or Robert DeNiro to make that creative leap, but that didn’t stop Vera Farmiga from taking the helm of her most personal project to date.
A respected character actress who scored an Oscar nomination as George Clooney’s part-time lover in 2009’s Up in the Air, Farmiga has surprised Hollywood and critics alike with her strong debut as the director of the new film Higher Ground. A fictionalized take on the memoir This Dark World, by Carolyn Bridges, it depicts the struggle of a woman named Corinne at the early-1970s dawn of the feminist movement, who found herself torn between her deeply personal Christian faith and the oppressive nature of her rural church.
Higher Ground was a Sundance favorite in January, landing distribution with Sony Pictures Classics.
Farmiga recently discussed the film and her profoundly personal reasons for directing it.
“I’m getting surprised reactions a lot because of the subject matter,” says Farmiga, an elegant presence who speaks with frequent reflective pauses. “A big reference film for me and one of my top five favorites is The Apostle by Robert Duvall—a story about someone trying hard to master the spiritual life and it necessitates making arduous and at times very painful journeys within our selves and our all too human souls.”
Farmiga felt drawn to This Dark World because of its similar tale of spiritual struggle, after being introduced to it by the film’s original screenwriter, Tim Metcalfe. Metcalfe was originally supposed to direct the film as well, but couldn’t find the financing to move forward until Farmiga—who was already signed to star—was convinced to take the helm.
After flying out to Iowa to meet Briggs, who’s now a creative writing professor at a college, Farmiga was convinced that the film should focus not on the loss of faith but of a woman’s journey to reach a deeper, more vibrant sense of belief than she could find among her longtime congregation.
“Looking back on her life, she realized that it was a story about the loss of impoverished faith, and she was searching for an authentic faith that was true to her personal relationship with God,” explains Farmiga. “It requires making a leap into the world of uncertainty.”
At the film’s outset, Corinne, an innocent, wide-eyed teenager, falls in love with a slightly older boy who dreams of becoming a rock star. They marry after she gets pregnant but continue traveling with his band, partying with marijuana and alcohol, until an abrupt accident forces their bus off the road and causes it to crash into a lake, nearly drowning the young family.
But when they survive, they immediately attribute their salvation to God and embrace Christianity wholeheartedly. Yet, as the years go by, Corinne realizes that her inquisitive spirit and desire to have a voice in the world is at odds with the strict rules of the particular parish they joined and her husband’s way of thinking.
As it follows her struggle to find the right balance and relationship with God for her life, the film never mocks or demonizes those who remain in her church. It simply shows that everyone has their own personal relationship, or lack thereof, with God, even if it means splitting up the relationships in their earthly lives.
“I think there are two kinds of films—the anti-religion film, and the pro-religion film,” explains Farmiga. “The films that proselytize are made for that community or to convert others to that community, and then there are those that mock the community and are threatening to the community. That’s not the film I was making.”
Nonetheless, Farmiga has received plenty of feedback from pastors who have attended early screenings and have generally warmed to her respectful take on faith. She has also been pleasantly surprised by the reaction her film received at last January’s Sundance Film Festival, where it was one of several films that explored faith.
“What are the questions I’m asking? The ones that touch me,” Farmiga concludes. “There was a strong conviction in me to direct this. I wanted to ask what does it mean to be holy? That’s what I think the audience is asking: What does God mean to me?
“In my experience, the crossroads of doubt and faith are very common and I wanted to make a movie that didn’t judge it. It’s not a bad thing—a reflective person thinks deeply and questions often.”