You prepare for an interview by thinking up a list of questions; you only need one or two good ones, and the conversation takes care of itself. But the person being interviewed has certain points they want to get across, regardless of your questions. They may have been reiterating these same points into different microphones a dozen times a day.
In this case, I wanted to ask Vera Farmiga, director and star of Higher Ground (opening in limited release on Friday), about the portrayal of the Christian church in the film. It's more affectionate and positive than the stereotypes we often see; it's notably more positive even than the presentation of this community in the Carolyn Briggs memoir that preceded the movie. At Sundance, Farmiga said she had earlier spent three years with the project and then backed off because she didn't feel right about the way the faith community was being depicted. I wanted to hear more about that.
But Farmiga wanted to talk about the inherent struggle that accompanies a search for God; she sees the film as being an honest representation of the experience shared by adherents of any and every kind of faith, everyone who knows those "I won't let go until you bless me" moments. Here's how our conversation went.
Whenever evangelical Christians hear there's a movie coming out that includes a depiction of evangelicals, they get nervous, because it is so often negative.
Understandably so. I get it. I understand that defensiveness or fear.
The memoir that preceded the movie, This Dark World, depicted a church that many evangelicals would consider oppressive or cultish, and they worry that secular readers might think it depicts evangelicals everywhere. But Higher Ground is not like that; it's a more positive presentation. Was that deliberate?
Absolutely. You know, it's not even a positive or negative portrayal; I'm not skewing it either direction. I'm just showing a legitimate struggle—the struggle to find intimacy in our relationships with God. It takes an enormous amount of courage to say "I'm struggling" and to find your voice. That honesty, the terror, the fear—it's brutal, the admitting of that. But God is big enough to accommodate it.
I wanted to make a legitimate film about that struggle. So to me, as the director and as the actress, my responsibility is just to tell—is to be blatant about it. Look, I think it's easier to digest if you ask me well, did you skew it positive, did you skew it negative? And it's really not a skew, it's not a bias.
Carolyn Briggs herself will tell you that when that memoir was written—well, look at the title: This Dark World. It's now been renamed Higher Ground. It's piggyback marketing, but it's also a more positive title. The book was written at a very dark time in her life with very little perspective. And she admits that the editors have skewed the memoir in a direction where it appears like she completely rejected her faith, whereas she's never wholly been able to do that. It's been a lifelong journey for her, but it's between her and God. And she had the courage to talk about that struggle. That touched me to the depths of my being, to the depths of my soul. I admired her courage in that story.
And that's a journey that you share, to some extent?
I think we all do. Look, I mean you'd have to rip out all the pages about Job; you'd have to rip out all the pages about Thomas in the Bible, if this wasn't a human condition, a legitimate one.
In these times, in this harsh, rude, warring world that we live in, where most of the bloodshed is "My God is greater than your God" and we're fighting in the name of our God, we have to find a way to peaceably coexist, spiritually. God is love. I think all religions can agree on certain definitions of God and concepts of God, like God being the God of love, the great "I am" energy.