By Scott Marks | SDUN Film Critic
Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut, “Higher Ground,” currently playing at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinema, tells the story of a woman questioning her religious faith. She also stars as Corinne Walker, a Midwestern farmer’s daughter who starts life’s ride as a pregnant teenager married to a religious rocker only to grow and fall prey to the persuasive ways of a close-knit religious community.
With the separation of church and state growing increasingly more narrow, Farmiga wisely opts for a non-judgmental approach that is both respectful and only occasionally leery of its subjects, and one that is never without grace, style, and dignity.
All I wanted to know was what she learned from Prof. Scorsese’s tutelage on “The Departed.” (“What didn’t I learn?” came her wise reply.) After time spent devoted to worshipping him, the conversation shifted to another favorite, Oana the ditzy hooker in “Breaking and Entering.” A discussion on the value of character likability soon led to a quick rebuke over sniffing for satire where it wasn’t intended.
Scott Marks: Damn if you’re not a double-threat, a movie star and an actress. Make that triple threat. You now direct as well.
Vera Farmiga: Thank you. That was a surprise. It really was one of those curve balls life throws at you that you either choose to catch or duck.
SM: If given one Vera Farmiga performance to take with me to my eternal screening room in hell, it would be Oana, “Breaking and Entering’s” aggressive hooker who crashes Jude Law’s sedan-stakeout wearing nothing but a fleece topcoat and a cigarette.
VF: She’s one of my favorites.
SM: How far back into your Ukrainian roots did you reach to find Oana?
VF: Not too far back. [Director Anthony] Minghella actually asked me to consider one of the other gals eventually played by Robin Wright Penn and Juliette Binoche. I gravitated towards Oana. I don’t care how small she was on the written page; I thought she had a big presence. I loved her whimsy. This is someone whose spirit should be downtrodden with the kind of path she’s taken, yet she’s just light as a feather and has got that sparkle in her eye and a quick wit and candor — which I always love. Maybe it’s because it’s something I’m still trying to figure out, but I always liked frankness and candor and she’s got this sharp tongue and silliness too. I also got to flex my silly muscles.
SM: I can’t think of too many movie prostitutes who go ignored and unrewarded yet show up the next night with coffee and a mix-tape for their unresponsive John. On to “Higher Ground.” I’ll be up front: I have little if any regard for the characters in your film. When it comes to religious cults that use the Bible as a shield…that’s, I’m out. It does not mean that I can’t embrace your film. I’m not crazy about the characters in “North by Northwest” or just about any of the cold brood Otto Preminger threw my way, but it’s the job of a good cinematic storyteller to make the unlikeable compelling to watch.
VF: I think the challenge they’re in is not whether we agree with Nietzsche or not. It’s not whether God is dead. The word God exists, therefore God exists. We all have our definitions of what God means to us and definitions of God that resonate within us and we don’t ultimately agree with each others concepts and conceptualizations. I get it. I’m asking a lot from people. I’m surprised
that there is going to be an audience for this film. I am not pandering to anybody’s comfort level. I don’t know what it is that I am trying to do per-se other than I am striving for an openness. I’ve been touched by this woman’s searching. It’s okay not to like characters.
SM: Do you think I want to hang with “Raging Bull’s” Jake La Motta? Again, the fact that you are able to make these characters compelling and watchable says a lot about your ability as a storyteller.
VF: How can you not like, or at least tolerate, someone who is earnestly them self? That’s the caliber we were going for and the kind of actor I wanted to work with. Anybody who contributed to the film couldn’t be jaded or possess cynicism. I’ve got all walks of life, all sorts of spiritual tenets, all ideas about what the meaning of life is. Everyone was at least approaching the film with earnestness. I almost put the kibosh on it after the first several days of casting. People came in ready to demonize others. And then Norbert Leo Butz walks in and is able to play a pastor, who is incredibly flawed, with such authenticity. It’s (the actors), too. I can only take so much credit.
SM: You spoke earlier of the cast and crew’s commitment to the subject and your dedication to thwarting jaundiced ways of thinking, but I did find myself laughing out loud throughout the movie, enough so where as to think this qualifies as satire.
VF: Give me an example.
SM: There is a harrowing car accident that for me turned humorous thanks to the addition of a baby placed in a 60 quart thermal cooler that her negligent, drug-crazed, parents used as a makeshift bassinet. Aren’t you in some way commenting on the hypocritical behavior of these purportedly God-fearing characters?
VF: Think back at 15, 16 or 17 years of age. Imagine all those responsibilities of becoming a parent. I know what my frustrations are as a 38-year-old mother of two that’s balancing a major career. I don’t have nannies. I’m there fending for myself when it comes to raising my kids. In defense of the character and her maternal frustration, I know that moment of placing a child in a cooler. God knows what [drugs] they are smoking. That’s second-hand smoke she and the baby are inhaling. The frustrations at that level, being placed in that predicament at 15 years old, is overwhelming. It’s not funny at all. I’ve been on a nine-city express tour and the kids come with me. I know what it is trying to balance my life, and I’m living in posh hotels and flying first class with my kids in tow trying to be the best mom and career woman that I can be. Corinne is frustrated and she does strange things with that frustration.
SM: Maybe what I was talking about had more to do with nervous laughter because there is something about the hypocrisy surrounding people who present themselves as children of God that would allow a baby to be exposed to this heroin haze and placed in a giant Thermos instead of a bassinet.
VF: Bassinets are expensive. They did the best they could. You have to suspend disbelief in order to buy into the weariness of that lifestyle. If you ever spent any time on a tour bus, you know what a bleak existence it is. And if you are trying to bring a family on board, it’s impossible. And a 15-year-old at that with squashed dreams? We all do things in exasperation that are not potentially “the right way.” It is nervous laughter because we can recognize ourselves in it. I would not have put that up on a screen had I not identified with that exasperation on a very deep level. It’s these very negative moments in our lives that open us up if one is able to confront them and acknowledge them.