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Vera Farmiga‘s big breakout as an actress was her starring role in Debra Granik‘s 2004 drama Down to the Bone, which earned her a Sundance special jury prize for her performance. She returns in 2011 with her directorial debut, Higher Ground, a U.S. dramatic competition entry in which she also stars as a woman in a fundamentalist community who is struggling with her faith. It will have its world premiere at the Eccles Theatre Sunday afternoon.
Here, Farmiga talks to THR about Freudian conflict in the editing room, how Sundance amped up her fear of Bigfoot and why drawing your husband’s penis is an exercise in wifely devotion.
THR: What was the thing that most hooked you about this script that made you want to direct it?
Vera Farmiga: The thing about the film that hitched me to directing it was it’s tricky tone. I wanted to be the Pied Piper on this one. I wanted to make sure all the notes were being hit. It’s not arrogance, but I honestly thought no one could direct it better. I was first attached to the project as an actress. As I became more and more involved in the development of the script, it took on my personality, it took on a bizarre and unique shape. It became a genre-defying film – a coming of age story, a romance, a dark comedy, a tender account of female friendship and even a musical exploring the complex themes of faith and doubt. I wanted absolute, consummate, emphatic control over the attitude and nature of the story. I wanted the telling of it to come from a holy and well-intentioned place. 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.
THR: In what ways did the subject matter of the film allow you to explore or challenge some of your own thoughts on religion and faith?
Farmiga:Whether we call it religion or faith, we all battle for a balanced integrated soul. The protagonist in my film is searching for an authentic faith. She yearns for qualities of a spiritual warrior–an understanding and virtuosity over her own soul. She’s on a quest for insight and wisdom. The film examines her struggles within all the love relationships in her life–in her marriage, with her parents, her children, her friends, her community, her relationship to God and her relationship to self. The examination proves just how porous and murky a spiritual path can be at times. It embraces the gray of black-and-white religion. It explores a notion I’ve experienced my whole life–that the spiritual life is hard to master. Great faith requires great striving.
THR: What was the most challenging part of the process as a director?
Farmiga:Most challenging was self-editing. Editing is not a part of the filmmaking process I’ve ever been privy to as an actress. Editing yourself is like an irksome coin toss. You’ve got to strip yourself of super ego and operate from the id. Maybe I’ve got my Freud mixed up. It’s just hard to trade a beauty shot for the performance with truth and a brightly lit zit.
THR: Did also being the director affect the way you performed on camera in any way?
Farmiga:I sincerely don’t think so. Normally, I rely heavily on my director to massage me out of my actor comfort zones. I relied instead on my scene partners, my script supervisor, my focus puller and my husband/producer for feedback. We didn’t always have time for playback and review, so I went by the affirmation or sheepishness of their gazes. I never moved on without their thumbs up. But I’d like to think that most often my instinct and bullshit meter told me when to cut and print.
THR: What one scene from the film would you describe to hook people to come see it?
Farmiga: There is a scene in which my character Corinne and her best friend within the Christian community, Annika, draw their husbands’ penises as a healthy exercise in husband devotion.
THR: How do you look at Sundance as a place to launch an independent movie like Higher Ground?
Farmiga: Sundance is like Launch Complex 39 at the Kennedy Space Center. It’s the premier launching pad for independent film in the U.S. and the world. I’m psyched.
THR: What is your favorite Sundance film?
Farmiga: Down to the Bone, by Debra Granik. I’m biased. Oh, also there was the short film a few years back, the year I served grand jury duty at Sundance, about a guy being raped by Bigfoot. My older brother Victor instilled in me a fathomless fear of Bigfoot. It struck a chord.
THR: What is the memory of Sundance that most stands out for you?
Farmiga: It’s a toss up between arguing with John C. Reilly and B. Ruby Rich about the film Thumbsuckerin jury deliberation, and making out with my husband in the hot tub at Sundance Headquarters.
THR: What’s the one tip about Sundance you would throw out to a first-timer about to head up there?
Farmiga: Function before fashion. It’s frigid and the shuttles don’t always run on time. Also stay somewhat sober. The rigorous schedule and altitude is a lethal combination.
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