Writers on Writing: Higher Ground

Dagmara Dominczyk and Vera Farmiga in Higher Ground

Writing a memoir requires a strange combination of narcissism and humility, but adapting my memoir into a screenplay meant relinquishing a sense of self — everything I had written in the past about my story was malleable and disposable in the service of the film. However, it was my good fortune to collaborate with Vera Farmiga, the director and star of Higher Ground, and her character Corinne became a hybrid of both our sensibilities.

Vera and her husband Renn came to my home in Iowa in October of 2009. Together we combed through my memoir This Dark World looking for scenes that would tell the story cinematically. We decided the film would cover a 30-year span, making Vera’s job as director all the more difficult. She would have to cast two separate groups of actors to play two growing families — all without breaking her tiny independent film budget. The childhood and adolescent scenes are brief and fast-moving and essential in developing Corinne’s sense of loss and inadequacy. To know all is to forgive all — an audience needs this backstory before it encounters adult Corinne rushing out of the baptismal waters with a whoop.

Throughout my career, I routinely wrote without anyone’s feedback other than the occasional editor. Writing a screenplay demands collaboration. Because the screenplay is an adaptation of a memoir, voiceover seemed a logical device to me, but one of the readers objected, explaining that voiceover told him what to think and he wanted to decide that on his own. So I took the voiceover out and began again. Another round of notes and rewriting and more notes and more rewriting. Conference calls. Losing a scene that someone suddenly didn’t love. Tackling a suggested scene that I didn’t love. Writing scenes that I knew were right and there was an immediate consensus. Vera sending me a jubilant text when she got off a plane and read the latest draft. As in any creative endeavor, there was elation and, in equal parts, despair.

In April of 2010, financing loomed as a very real possibility and I flew to New York to finalize the script. There were at least three new scenes everyone agreed were missing. The most significant scene being the closing scene in which Corinne finds her own voice, something she has not been successful at doing. It couldn’t be Lifetime movie-esque. It had to be touching and real and gritty and true. My instinct was to end on an ironic note, but I was persuaded to write something else. I sat up all night in Ms. Farmiga’s lovely and homespun guest room in order to finish that final scene, which turned out to be exactly right for the film.

When I was an MFA student, one of my professors told me I could sell a memoir if I told the truth and didn’t hold back. I try to follow that advice in whatever genre I am writing, especially in fiction which paradoxically is where honesty matters the most. Conflict is equally important and it has to be well-developed, plausible, and significant. We’re all voyeurs, consistently curious about others and their journeys, and trouble is always interesting. Richard Walter writes there should be an argument in every scene, and that argument should not be resolved before the final scene.

Director Vera Farmiga and Writer Carolyn Briggs

The worst thing you can tell me as a writer is that I’ve bored you. There are no boring topics, only boring writers. I’ve written a memoir and a screenplay that deals with one woman’s spiritual crisis of faith. That logline doesn’t sound too promising even to me. But Higher Ground is a compelling and engaging film because the characters are rich, the conflict is both internal and external, and the film doesn’t give way to cliché or predictability. Robert Frost said that poetry needs to surprise the reader; in other words, there needs to be a pay-off for the reader. In the same way, I believe a good movie generously rewards its audience. The audience could have chosen another film — make them glad they chose yours. Respect your audience and their intelligence. Do everything you can to be clear — the last thing you want is your audience arguing with you.

My biggest challenge was writing scenes with characters inspired by members of my family. As I said before, I am determined to tell my own truth, but what about someone else’s truth? Having a writer in the family means having an assassin in the family, so I tread lightly with respect for each character, whether he or she is composite, invented, or someone quite real. Both Vera and I hoped to start a dialogue about the nature of faith, but primarily we wanted to tell a good story.

Vera was so open to humor and tiny flashes of fantasy — it was a fabulous thing we had in common. I loved the way we infused the script with quirky moments, especially little Corinne’s perception of adult sexuality and a scene outside of the church when Corinne is literally outside with the dogs. One dog would join her and then another and another until she found herself surrounded, almost like the scene in Hitchcock’s The Birds. People have asked if I intended the word “dog” to be a palindrome of God. It’s an interesting play on words, but pure coincidence.

I’ve certainly invented scenes in the screenplay, some based on real events, some not. I think the title Higher Ground is a better reflection of where I am now with my life, perhaps better than the original title of my memoir, This Dark World.  Every writer I’ve known is just a little bit miserable, but what keeps us going is our ability to imagine getting to a better place. Belief and faith do not belong solely to a religious community — they’re a writer’s lifelines, too. Yea though we walk through the valley of rejection, we will yet rejoice in the land of milk and honey and substantial residuals. Amen and amen.

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Carolyn S. Briggs received her MFA from the University of Arkansas. Her 2002 memoir This Dark World has been reissued as Higher Ground: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011). With the release of Higher Ground by Sony Pictures Classics on August 26, 2011, she adds screenwriter to her writing credits. Carolyn is an associate professor of English at Marshalltown Community College in Iowa.

One thought on “Writers on Writing: Higher Ground

  1. Gale Massey

    I saw the movie this afternoon and was very moved. Parts of it were hysterical (“I’m eating my egg MacMuffin all over again” and the strawberry cupcake scene). I laughed so hard I startled myself! Then by the closing scene I was devastated. The story telling articulated so many of my own issues with having grown up in a fundamentalist church. I felt the power and beauty of the music, the clear yearning in the human voice, the age-old melodies. Religion uses hymns to encourage suspension of rationality. It worked beautifully in the movie and moved me to tears. Was the mention of Zeus was a reference to the memoir, “Change Me Into Zeus’s daughter,” by Barbara Robinette Moss?

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