It's tricky business when you make a movie about religion. Religion elicits such passion that it's hard to get the nuance without sounding preachy or judgmental. But that is exactly what Vera Farmiga has done in her directorial debut. She's made a movie about religion - evangelical Christianity that feel universal and asks fundamental human questions about believing and what happens when doubt creeps into one's mind. Like her performances, Farmiga breathes excitement into her role as director making a very strong and interesting debut.
The film takes places in the 70s and her character is a pure believer but she is also a woman who seeks out Higher Ground and to her that Higher Ground is the call to preach and her calling is not accepted by her community and her family. She pushes and stretches and doesn't understand why her calling is not as valid as a man's. So she becomes disillusioned not just with religion but with her whole life because her religion is her whole life. It is a movie that asks what do you do when you begin to challenge the fundamental fabric of your life. It is also a film that explores female friendships in a profound way. The beautiful relationship that Farmiga develops between her character Corinne and Dagmara Dominczyk as Annika is a true and real female friendship so seldom seen onscreen.
I had the chance to meet Vera Farmiga several months ago with a group of other female writers at the Tribeca Film Festival. She was fascinating and so smart about directing and acting. Here are some of the questions I was able to ask.
Some of the things she mentioned include how she admires people of great faith- and that she didn't want to make fun of religion in the film and also did not want to judge. The film was made in 26 days and Vera was four months pregnant when she was filming. She also talked about how Debra Granik was a mentor to her and that directing has given her the freedom to create roles for women.
Women and Hollywood: You were first attached attached as an actor. When did you decide you wanted to direct this?
Vera Farmiga: A man named Tim Metcalfe introduced me to his then script and Caroline Briggs' memoirs and we developed it together for three years and there were so many other things happening so I ended up removing myself from the project because it wasn't shaping up the way I envisioned it. When I removed myself, Tim suggested that I take control. Directing came as a surprise to me. I was terrified of it and I wanted Debra Granik to direct it. She is a mentor of mine, she mentored me through this process especially in the editing because the editing suite is a place where actors are usually barred from….Her advice was show to not take the audience for dunces. You don't have to hit people over the head.
WaH: I read a piece in the Guardian that you do a bonfire on your lawn and burn the scripts with roles that are demeaning to women.
VF: it sounds more anarchic than it is. When you live upstate it is more commonplace to do bonfires - there are many storms and there are always twigs falling down. I love building fires it's a zen activity. You gotta do something with all these scripts and I don't necessarily want to take them to the dump where we live because I am afraid that someone will be privy to things that haven't come out yet. You can paint it as such because technically I do, but it is criminal in some way to burn anybody's writing. It's usually the poorer scripts that get ignited.
WaH: The film seems like to is going to be progressive about religion because they look like hippies it was the 70s so I kept waiting for Corinne to wake up to her treatment as a woman.
VF: It's interesting how certain denominations especially in the Christian world will view this. It will be easy for them to say this was the 1970s and it was a struggle for women to voice their opinions. Women were just becoming pastors and the idea of women pastors was something that was churning in the same way sociopolitically that was reflected in what was happening during that time. My intent is not to say that christianity puts women in a box, or jesus puts women in a box, men put women in a box, women put women in a box. There are certain black and white ideas that certain characters in this film have and that's not to say how all Christians are. It's not necessarily specific to faith and religion.
WaH: You do indie films and studio films. How do you balance going between the two worlds?
VF: As an artist it feels great. I choose most of the things that are offered to me. I do have some choice in the matter but it's not like there are a million scripts coming. I feel like I tend to attract sort of like minded people who are interested in the kinds of stories that I like so I feel blessed that way. It's high stakes. I feel that those stories are in both indie films and studio films. It's easier to make an indie film. There are more options because there is less money being invested. There are more stories but it doesn't mean those films will see the light of day, most of the films I choose don't have financing in place. It's really just the story that motivates me and who my fellow collaborators will be. They are both there in studio films too. It's nice to actually get paid for it and that's why I cherish the films that I do that come from hollywood and the studio system. it's not either or. There are crap films in the indie world as well. It's the luck of the draw.
WaH: do you want to direct more?
VF: I do want to direct more because honestly I don't want to wait around for someone to give me the opportunity. After having done it once I said this is how it's done. Instead of whining about roles for women, just create them…That's what actresses did for themselves in the 30s and after being asked so many time about scripts that imam reading- there are many scripts for women but there are many great female actresses all vying for the roles. Stop asking for permission create your own opportunities.