August 26th, 2011
09:54 AM ET
By Steve Almasy, CNN
(CNN) - Actress Vera Farmiga can empathize with the fears and doubts of Corinne Walker, the character she plays in her new film, “Higher Ground.”
Corinne is a Christian who's struggling to hang on to her faith. Farmiga's fears and doubts, meanwhile, were born of making her directorial debut with the movie, which opens in Los Angeles and New York on Friday.
The film spans several decades, following Corinne from a young girl who half-heartedly proclaims herself to be saved by Jesus to a teenager who marries when she becomes pregnant to a woman ensconced in a deeply religious community after she and her husband come to believe that God has saved their baby.
Farmiga, who starred opposite George Clooney in the hit movie "Up in the Air," told CNN that she began panicking during preproduction, as the magnitude of the undertaking - simultaneously directing and playing the lead role, lots of child actors, and 25 scenes that included music - became clear.
In the movie, Walker is also overwhelmed as she grapples with changing relationships, including her dissolving marriage, her estranged parents, her quirky best friend and her rowdy sister.
“We’re watching Corinne engage in [those relationships] and those are very similar to her relationships with God, full of doubt and uncertainty,” Farmiga said in an interview. “And [she’s] searching for faith in all of these relationships. I think … that’s certainly how I related to it on every one of those levels.”
“Higher Ground” is a largely faith-based film, but it stands out from other recent offerings in that genre.
Many of those films focus on Christianity and the hope and healing power that people find in God, including this year's "Soul Surfer" and 2008's small-budget "Fireproof." Farmiga's movie, adapted from the memoirs of Carolyn S. Briggs (“This Dark World”), deals with a woman whose struggle over faith intensifies throughout the film.
Critics have praised the film, especially the way in which Farmiga depicts her characters. “[Farmiga] has a real knack for tonal and thematic complexity, and her critique is informed by an essential patience with and respect for the culture she's depicting,” writes Justin Chang in Variety.
The movie's portrayal of an internal holy war is one that many people can identify with, Farmiga said.
“In many ways the film is very much about me and not about me at all,” she said. “I identified with her yearning - Carolyn Briggs’ and Corinne. Her yearning, her searching. That yearning to me is holiness.”
Farmiga said that she was not yearning to make her directorial debut at the project's outset.
When screenwriter Tim Metcalfe sent her his script and Briggs’ memoir, Farmiga knew she wanted to play Corinne. She and Metcalfe sought financing, but it was “tricky,” she said.
“Well, maybe we need to get a bigger name,” to direct it, Farmiga remembers thinking. She tried Debra Granik, who she knew from “Down to the Bone,” but Granik said she was busy.
Farmiga, who had been in about 30 films and several TV series, said that despite her doubts about getting the film made, she couldn’t “wiggle out of the film’s grasp.” So with a pledge from Granik to help mentor, she went back out to get financing as the film's new director.
The money materialized, but with funds came pressure.
“Just investing in the film in these financial times takes enormous amount of faith. So when someone actually invests in you, it’s huge, there’s a lot at stake,” she said.
Farmiga, who was pregnant during the filming, said it was difficult balancing hormonal changes and family needs with the needs of actors and the broader demands of moviemaking. She said she drew on lessons she picked up from directors like Granik, Martin Scorsese and Anthony Minghella.
“These are very passionate people, and their passion, their zeal, their joy, is infectious,” she said, “and I felt like that’s real leadership, not ruling with an iron fist. Like putting aside your own personality traits and catering to the needs of your cast and crew.”
That cast and crew included some family members, including her 16-year-old sister, Taissa Farmiga, who plays the teenage Corinne.
At the end of the film, the adult Corinne has come to a decision, but Farmiga, who read "Choose Your Own Adventure" books as a kid, says the nature of that choice is open to interpretation and discussion. Like the novels she used to devour, you can say the story goes one way, then watch it again and say it goes another.
Farmiga does say Corinne has one foot in the door of her church and one foot out.
“She’s caught in that moment of ambivalence and yearning and fear and doubt - disillusioned, disenchantment, disappointment, striving, aching, wanting,” she said. “It’s a very messy place to be, but you know that she’s been baptized in the fire.”
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