Writer of 'Higher Ground' brings real struggles to screen
CHAMPAIGN — Ebertfest emcee Chaz Ebert thinks most movies about religion satirize or make fun of faith and the faithful. Not so with "Higher Ground," actress Vera Farmiga's finely wrought debut as a director.
Introducing the movie at her husband's film festival on Saturday at the Virginia Theatre, Ebert described "Higher Ground" as the female equivalent of "The Apostle," a 1997 drama directed by and starring Robert Duvall as a charismatic Pentecostal preacher with an eye for women.
In "Higher Ground," Farmiga also stars as Corinne Walker, who at a young age becomes a born-again Christian and then over 20 years loses her faith. The movie was based on "This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost," by Carolyn S. Briggs, who adapted it for the screen.
Briggs, who appeared on the Virginia stage after the screening at the 14th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival, said she's met people who ask why she is not bitter or angry over her two decades of experiences with Christian fundamentalism.
"It all came to the good," she said. "I think I grew, and I'm grateful."
Nell Minow, who with Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, joined Briggs on stage, asked how the writer would now fill out a form asking her religion.
Briggs replied she would probably "leave that little box blank" and then quoted the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: "Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves ... ."
Now an associate professor of English at Marshalltown Community College in Iowa, Briggs decided to write "This Dark World" while working on a master of fine arts degree in creative writing at the University of Arkansas, where a professor told her it would sell if she told the truth.
"I cut open a vein and let it bleed on the page," she said.
She admitted, though, that the movie took some creative licenses.
For example, her real-life teenage husband, who was a rock musician in his youth, was converted as he and Briggs read the Bible in bed each night. That was not cinematic enough, producers told Briggs, who co-wrote the screenplay with Tim Metcalfe.
So the husband (portrayed by Joshua Leonard) converts after the band van he is driving goes off the road and into a pond or lake. He, Corinne and their baby, as well as his band mates, survive.
Before the accident, Corinne had placed their baby in a cooler to settle her down. The baby also is saved from drowning.
"I tell my students who are writing creatively that they can lie their way to the truth and make up scenes," Briggs said, adding that the baby-in-the-cooler scene was made up.
Among other departures from the book: It is set in Iowa while the movie was shot in the Hudson Valley, 17 miles from Farmiga's home.
And Briggs eventually did learn to pray in tongues, or the language of prayer, while her movie character tries to but is unable to receive the spirit.
Briggs also had some fun with another character who seems interested in Corinne after she leaves her husband. He was based on an Irish writer with whom she had an affair while studying in Ireland. He turned out to be "really crummy," Briggs said. In the script, she turned him into a mailman.
"That was the biggest pleasure of all," Briggs said, eliciting laughs from the packed house.
It was Farmiga's idea to make a movie based on Briggs' memoir. The actress told Minow the book chose her.
"It touched me in a divinely mysterious way," Farmiga told Minow, a movie critic and lawyer. "It slayed my spirit."
Farmiga brilliantly cast her own biological sister, Taissa Farmiga, to play Corinne as a teen. (The resemblance between the two sisters is remarkable.)
In "Higher Ground," Taissa as the young Corinne experiences her first real-life kiss on camera. Coincidentally, the 19-year-old actor who plays Bobby in "Patang," the movie that followed "Higher Ground" on Saturday, experienced his first real-life kiss in that movie, set during the annual kite festival in Ahmedabad, India.
Sony Pictures Classics purchased "Higher Ground" for distribution when it premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival — even though Barker and his business partner feared the movie would not sell because it was about religion.
Barker said Saturday he had never seen a similar movie about religion.
"This one has respect toward religion," he said.