Academy Award-nominated actress Vera Farmiga makes a highly assured debut as a director in Higher Ground, a film about a woman’s journey from belief to skepticism to doubt within the confines of a rural evangelical community and a wider world of personal relationships. Released by Sony Pictures Classics, Higher Ground hit theaters at the end of August to highly positive reviews. The New York Times said the film was “directed with disarming grace and sharp intelligence.”
Nominated for a best supporting actress Academy Award in 2010 for her role in director Jason Reitman’s Up In the Air, Farmiga also stars in Higher Ground as Corinne Walker, who over a span of nearly three decades goes from impulsively becoming a born-again believer in her youth to ultimately rejecting her faith.
And as if there weren’t already enough on her plate, Farmiga was in her second trimester of pregnancy during the shoot in upstate New York and delivered a daughter, her second child, during the editing phase. She brought her newborn to work during postproduction.
The challenge of directing a film, she says, didn’t really intimidate her once she was convinced to take up the task. “It’s not something I aspired to, but once I agreed to direct, I wanted absolute, consummate, emphatic control over the attitude and nature of the story,” she says. “I wanted to make a movie that doesn’t judge or poke fun at religion, or its characters or the concepts, and also doesn’t let anything slide.”
The detailed demands of directing didn’t daunt her much either. “Photography has long been a hobby of mine and I felt I had spent many years telling stories in images,” she notes. “As for the technical issues – what I was shooting on and what equipment to use – I knew I could rely on my cinematographer Michael McDonough.”
She had gotten to know the Scottish-born director of photography – whose cinematography lends a burnished glow to Higher Ground – from working with him on two previous films. Most notable was Down to the Bone (2004), where she played a working-class mother battling to hide her drug addiction.
Directed by Deborah Gralnick, the film provided a breakthrough role for Farmiga. She won best actress honors at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. “It really was the jump-start of my career and put me on the map,” she observes, adding that “working with Deborah and Michael taught me a lot that I was able to put to good use in Higher Ground.”
The film had a long gestation. Farmiga had expressed an interest in playing the lead role three years before the shoot finally got underway when she read an initial draft of the script by screenwriter Tim Metcalf, based on This Dark World, a memoir by Carolyn Briggs (who is co-screenwriter).
“Tim and I kept massaging the script for years, but it wasn’t going anywhere,” she recalls. “We were shopping it around but no one was taking the bait. It wasn’t the greatest film subject for getting financing.”
Between other film jobs, Farmiga would go back and reinvestigate the project, “I was committed to it, but after several years, I started pulling away because it wasn’t jelling.” With the project at a seeming impasse and no director attached, Metcalf suggested that Farmiga consider directing Higher Ground herself, a move seconded by other participants in the project.
At that point the logjam began to break. “The word got out that I was going to direct a film and many people suddenly were interested,” she recalls. And financing finally was clinched. “The producers put me on a very loose leash as far as making my own choices, so I was able to handpick the actors and the rest of the crew.”
She chose production designer Sharon Lamofsky, who worked on Oscar-winning documentary Man on a Wire; and costumer Amela Baksic who worked on Across the Universe with director Julie Taymor. “Sharon turned out to be a frugal genius,” says Farmiga, “doing fantastic things with the small amount she had to work with.” And Baksic found many of the outfits for the characters by going to Salvation Army stores on Wednesday’s when prices were half off.
One important element Farmiga added to the film was the music, consisting largely of traditional hymns sung live by the main actors and the supporting cast of churchgoers. “Casting was the most crucial decision I had to make, because there wasn’t going to be much time to rehearse so they had to be good,” she notes. “In prep I wanted to focus mainly on music, because there are 20 something music cues. Some of the actors were also good singers, but I wanted them to sing like people who are worshipping, so they could touch viewers on a very visceral level.”
Her husband Renn Hawkey, a founder of rock group Deadsy, was the film’s music director as well as being one of the producers. “We had to make a mad dash at the end to get music approvals,” she says. “You would think these hymns would be in the public domain but they’ve all been squatted on.”
The shoot itself was a sprint, lasting only 26 days, because of the limited budget. “That was amazing for the kind of film we shot,” she notes. “The story spanned three decades, and we needed appropriate cars, wardrobe, and furniture for different eras.” The film was shot according to location, and sometimes moved two or three times a day, which also meant shifting between decades.
To use an appropriate metaphor, “things came together miraculously,” she declares. “It was a scramble, but a cheerful scramble – everyone was happy to be there working for peanuts. Somehow they felt the subject matter was inspirational. I had people from all religions working on the set.”
Originally set to be filmed in Iowa where the memoir is set, it was lensed instead in the picturesque Catskills in upstate New York in and around the town of Ellenville. That happens to be only a few miles from the house where Farmiga and her husband reside. That was an important factor, given her pregnancy. The town is also a stone’s throw from the BCDF Studio in Kerhonkson, owned by one of the film’s producers, which is located in what used to be a 35,0 00-square-foot barn stable for Arabian horses. Still being built out, the production facility now includes four editing suites, a screening room, a full sound studio and several production offices.
And that’s where Farmiga worked with editor Colleen Sharp to cut the film. “It was a crash course in editing for me,” says the director. “Luckily I had Colleen who has such a good eye, great hands and is both a master tailor and great seamstress. With the footage we had, we’d do one snip in this direction or a stitch in that direction, and the entire tone of a scene would change.”
Farmiga became immersed in cutting the film: “I loved the editing experience. I found that’s where I could make my mark as a storyteller. Before that it was everybody’s story. During the shoot I was bolstered with an army of talented collaborators, my actors, my crew, my department heads. But it was in the privacy of the editing room – that’s when it became my story.”