Oscar-nominated actress Vera Farmiga is highly respected in her field, and now she has joined the small but growing number of actresses who have become directors. Farmiga’s directorial debut is the feature-film drama “Higher Ground,” in which she stars as Corinne Walker, a traditional wife and mother who has spent her life being a devout Christian, but then she begins to question her faith and the strength of her marriage to her husband, Ethan Miller (played by Joshua Leonard), whom she married when they were teenagers.
The cast of the critically acclaimed “Higher Ground” also includes Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz as Pastor Bud, the head of the couple’s local church; Oscar nominee John Hawkes as Corinne’s father, CW Walker; and Dagmara Dominiczyk as Annika, Corinne’s best friend, who has a major life change that rattles Corinne’s belief in God. In this exclusive one-on-one interview, I recently caught up with Farmiga at a restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where we talked about the experience of directing her first movie, as well as what it was like to work with her real-life husband and one of her sisters on the film.
Now that you’ve had the experience of being a director, how have you changed as an actress?
I don’t know if I’ve changed as an actress. It’s not a bad or good thing. I think I always try to be accommodating and open and available and proving for my director. I love to give as many takes as they want. I love to give them as many choices as they want.
Looking at yourself in the editing, it was the first time I could really watch a performance and see how many takes it takes and what’s happening and study how I think something may be coming across. There are a certain number of things that are just beyond your control. Sometimes you think you’re coming across a certain way, and sometimes when you do nothing, it’s the most powerful choice. You never know. You can only be open and receptive and pliable and supple and malleable.
If anything, I have more appreciation as an actress for what it takes to actually see a film come to fruition. It takes a lot of energy. And it takes a lot of faith and a lot of hope and perseverance and stamina for a film to see the light of day. And I think there’s just a greater appreciation for the process than just getting the experience of getting a job, checking in, punching in, punching out, and seeing the movie. It’s an intensive process of striving in a way that can only reveal itself to me as a director.
How would you describe your directing style when it comes to dealing with actors?
It varies. It’s a personality thing. [On “Higher Ground,”] I worked with non-actors and seasoned actors. In my experience with directors, directors have to adjust according to the needs of their actors. The worst directors I ever worked with — and I’m not mentioning any names — I learned valuable lessons from them as well.
The worst experiences have been where the director’s personality has been overwhelming in the process. Your task as a director is to massage and cajole performances out of your actors and make them feel at their mightiest and their most comfortable and their most inspired. With some actors, you leave them alone, and you just whisper a suggestion or two if need be.
[On “Higher Ground,”] I was working with John Hawkes, Donna Murphy, Joshua Leonard, Norbert Leo Butz. They’re powerhouses. These are actors who speak volumes in silences, that have earnestness, that have such nuance, that have such a readiness — and are really just fun-loving actors.
And some of the non-actors needed to be manhandled and ruled with an iron fist. Some of the non-actors had studied with local teachers to prepare for the part, when that wasn’t part of the job description. I hired them for their rawness, and they came with all these pre-conceived notions on how to play [their parts]. And they weren’t in the moment.
You grasp at straws. Whatever works in the moment. I had some of the non-actors crowing like roosters at the top of their lungs just to get them out of their heads. These are some people whom I somehow magically found.
For example, there’s a scene with Corinne and Annika, and Corinne is giving her a driving lesson, and they’re praising the Lord and trying to get over the “spirit of fear,” and they’re praying. And then all of a sudden, they hear the sirens. And a policeman pulls them over.
And the scene is about these two very Christian women trying to get out of this ticket by kind of seducing the cop. And the guy that I had cast as the cop had shaved his moustache. And the flirtation is trying to distract him with the task at hand, which was giving them a speeding ticket, by complimenting his moustache.
We shot this in upstate New York. So I marched over to a New Paltz state trooper office. I knew they were police guys, so they know “The Departed.” So I said, “My name is Vera Farmiga. I’ve been a part of several films, namely ‘The Departed.’ You may have seen it.”
“Oh yeah! Who were you in that?” “The only woman in it. I’m directing a film. We’re shooting it tomorrow. We need a policeman volunteer with a moustache.”
So from that, I got several volunteers. This guy, I didn’t even show him his lines, and I said, “This is the scenario. Vibe with us. I want you to stick to your mission. Don’t do anything you wouldn’t do if you were on the clock. And these are a couple of lines you should hit.”
Most of the children, like 99 percent of them, were non-actors. Working with children is a whole other ball game. They’re like little animals. You have to keep the camera turned on them all the time. Sometimes it takes a 41-minute take to get one sentence out in a believable way. There are roundabout ways of working, but it all depends on the personalities of your actors and actresses.
How would you describe your directing style when it comes to editing?
This was my first experience. My experience as a director has to do with my experience as an actor on set. I participated in over 30 films and I worked with heavyweight champions of American cinema. And a lot of their traits and their ideas about storytelling have rubbed off on me. But in the editing room, which I’d never been a part of, the post-production process is where I discovered that that’s where you make your mark as a filmmaker.
You hire your cast, you hire your crew. With your choices there, and with some slight direction, the film pretty much decides what it is at this point. Tonally, to shift that, it’s the post-production process, where I discovered that it’s a real tailor job. You’re working with a master seamstress, and you’re deciding whether to cut this fabric into a miniskirt or a ball gown. You cut this way, you dial back that way.
You increase the warmth or the coolness or the visuals, like the color. It’s a magical process, but I think that’s really where your intentions as a director, in terms of what kind of story you are telling and the spirit at which you approach that story, that’s where it becomes obvious.
Your husband, Renn Hawkey, was a producer and music supervisor for “Higher Ground.” How did he work with you on the music for the film? Did he come up with suggestions during filming or did most of the music choices happen in post-production?
We work very, very well together. We know that we have that ability as a couple. With any marital partnership, if you’re not meant to work together, don’t. We complement each other. I really need his sense of humor, and he needs me for various things.
The music was a combination of efforts. I knew which hymns I wanted. I knew that I wanted music to be a character in the film. I knew that to establish the joy and the work of a community, music is what feeds the sound you make. And it was going to be crucial to establish Corinne’s rapture.
And I’m very particular about the soundtrack. I hate being manipulated by song. Don’t tell me what I should be feeling. I don’t want cellos or violins to be telling me that I should be bawling right now. I really want the thing to stand on its own. I don’t want to be manipulated, but I want music to be a character in the film.
So the soundtrack very much became my source music. I knew which hymns I wanted to use. These are my favorite songs. And with Renn, we found them together.
You’d think that hymns are public domain. They’re not. People have squatted on hymns. It’s very rare to get a public-domain hymn. Everyone’s squatted.
But Renn found the right divine vocals to attach to these hymns. He found Warren Haynes for me. He found Amy Helm. He found Oliver Wood. These are really powerful voices, and Renn organized all of them.
And he and Alec [Puro, music composer for “Higher Ground”] arranged some of the songs. And Alec the composer did very minimal, very simple scoring without imposing. It wasn’t heavy-handed at all. It was just the three of us with very strong ideas about the music.
Your sister Taissa Varmiga plays a teenage Corinne Walker in “Higher Ground.” Was there anything that surprised you about working with them?
I don’t think she surprised me. I knew that she was capable. I’ve been photographing her since she was born. There’s nearly 21 years between us. I personally think she’s one of those people who can do whatever she wants. She’s just got to make a commitment to it.
She’s just full of potential. She’s very soulful. She possess all the qualities that I needed for the character: simultaneous strength and vulnerability and inquisitiveness. And she, for obvious genetic reasons, got the job.
You can forgive any other un-likeness, but from adolescence to the switch to adulthood, you really have to be transported and believe that, in terms of what that actress looks like. I didn’t look at any other actress. She was the right age and the same genetic makeup.
I said, “I’m not going to audition her. I want her to feel the conviction that I know she can do it. She will be able to do it if she feels my devotion. If she feels my belief, my faith in her, then she’ll do it.”
She did a chemistry reading with me and Boyd Holbrook, who plays teenage Ethan Miller in the movie. I needed an actor who could instigate her into great performances. Boyd was magnificent in every way. Before that, I said, “She’s doing it. I’m not putting her on tape. I’m not going to sweat her on this. It’s hers.”
What can you say about your coming movies? Are you still involved with the film version of “A View From the Bridge”?
No, that’s fallen apart. “Goats” is based on Mark Poirier’s novel of the same name. David Duchovny plays Goat Man. It takes place in Tucson. It’s a boy’s coming-of-age story. I play a spiritualist mom who has set up a very loose, unstructured bohemian environment.
His father figure is this guy, Goat Man, and they on goat tracks and smoke pot. It’s kind of a pendulum between his very unstructured lifestyle and his rigid, structured, regulated lifestyle at boarding school. And the film kind of goes in between these two worlds.
“Safe House,” we just completed that in South Africa. “Safe House” is with Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds. It’s really a story about a rogue CIA agent that Denzel plays. The whole film is about his capture, his elusiveness.
Can you set the record straight about any misconceptions about “Higher Ground”?
I haven’t heard anything. The power of this film is that whatever your spiritual path is, you will reflect accordingly. I can’t say that people experience it in a wrong way. There’s no wrong way to experience a film.
People will talk about it in very different ways. People have very different experiences with the film. And people interpret it in very different ways.
But ultimately, it’s a story about how arduous a spiritual path is. It takes great strength. And we all have our very different concepts of God. We need to be patient with ourselves as well.
We’re receiving answers to these questions, but the key is to love those questions themselves. There’s no message in the film. I don’t want to tell people how they should feel.
For more info: “Higher Ground” website
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Interview with Vera Farmiga for “Up in the Air” (New York City press conference)
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Interview with Vera Farmiga for “Henry’s Crime” (New York City press conference)
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