Few actors get to star in a monster commercial smash that is also a zeitgeist hit, but that was Joshua Leonard’s experience with “The Blair Witch Project,” which turned a meager $60,000 production budget into almost $250 million in worldwide theatrical receipts, and owned the summer of 1999 (and beyond, in the form of countless spoofs, homages and far less inspired rip-offs) like no other indie movie of its time. Leonard continued to act over the years, and achieved a second peak of artistic acclaim two years back in Lynn Shelton’s “Humpday,” in which he and a fellow heterosexual friend (Mark Duplass) find themselves locked in a pact/dare to make a gay porn flick together, as an entry for an avant-garde art festival.
Leonard’s latest film is Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut, “Higher Ground.” In it, Leonard plays Ethan Miller, a would-be rock star turned family man who comes to relate to his wife Corinne (Farmiga) chiefly through the orthodoxy of their church’s teachings. ShockYa recently had a chance to talk to Leonard one-on-one about religion, sex tapes for Christians, the film’s relaxed rhythms, and his own directorial debut, “The Lie,” which debuted alongside “Higher Ground” at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and sees releases via Screen Media later this fall, in November. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: The moments in “Higher Ground” which could be these big, plot-point pivotal scenes in a more Hollywood-style treatment of the same subject matter don’t really come to fruition in traditional ways. Did that rather remarkable sort of subtlety read on the page?
Joshua Leonard: I think that thing you’re describing, from my perspective, when I read it, was the sum total of the script. It was merely a portrait of a community, a portrait of this woman and the people that she was surrounded with, and it read with probably with even more non-narrative, non-propulsive fluidity than the film itself plays with. It was just a series of moments. And certainly, film is not life. Film happens in less than two hours, and life happens for as long as it takes. But I think so often in films the notion of inciting incidents or epiphany or life-changing incidents is that those happen and then the character becomes a new person — that in the course of an hour-and-a-half they learn or solve their essential character conflict. And in my experience in my own life, those inciting experiences happen, epiphanies happen and I generally change 180 degrees for about three hours. And then I start recalibrating, and by the next day maybe I’ve changed by about two percent. But retaining faith in a revelation is I think so much of what this film explores. You’ve got two characters, in Corinne and Ethan, who fall in love at a young age, don’t have a lot of guidance by the time that they have kids, and have this life-changing event where their daughter almost dies. Ethan, maybe because he’s more prone to fundamentalism, takes that and finds the word, finds a community that he loves and trusts, loves his wife and only wants to make things better, wants to learn and continue to grow so that he can just pass along the best things to his children. And that container in which he exists is as large as he ever needs it to be for his own journey of self-exploration.
ShockYa: That’s a great way to put it.
JL: Unfortunately, he’s married to somehow for whom that context is never necessarily going to be enough for what she needs and what she’s looking for. (pause) That, and they stop having sex after a while (laughs), which is another shoe entirely.
ShockYa: Sure. Watching the film, I remember I did take the note, “Clitoral stimulation is part of God’s plan.” (laughs) Those (sexual education) tapes (for Christian husbands, as shown in a scene in the movie) were quite funny, but they really do exist, right?
JL: They absolutely do exist! And the community that exists in this film, and these characters — although the humanity is hopefully completely relatable to an audience, as it was for me — [is real, though] the idea of spending a life striving and trying to find faith in something — which I think for so many of us, myself especially or very much included, is antithetical to the way I was raised, which is to question everything, to question politics and media and authority figures and schools and my parents — is tough. On some level, it keeps me interested, and on some level it’s just a social defense system and runs in diametric opposition to the nature of faith, which is to trust in something greater than yourself. Whatever we pretend that we’re doing, it’s my belief that we’re all doing that underneath the surface anyway, no matter how cynical we may come off in any given moment. That’s because we’re trying to have faith in cynicism, and [believe] that’s the thing that’s larger than us.
ShockYa: I had the experience of seeing “Higher Ground” in close proximity, date-wise, to “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” another movie about placing faith and trust in one vessel or container. The main character in that movie seemed to place her trust in a Messianic figure to escape having to ask herself any questions. Not to the same degree, obviously, but is Ethan a bit like that — personally set like resin, versus Corinne, who is more malleable?
JL: Absolutely. Ethan is a fundamentalist. It’s as simple as the word to him. (pauses) I think to Ethan, when you have the Bible and Jesus Christ and this God, why would you ever need more or need to go beyond that?
ShockYa: I haven’t had a chance yet to see “The Lie,” your adaptation of T.C. Boyle’s story, but how did the expectation going in of directing a feature film jibe with the actual experience?
JL: I loved every second of it. I can’t wait to do it again. I’m not dying to act and direct at the same time again, though. I think because we were making it so close to the bone, and I was working with a group of people who I trusted implicitly and already had working relationships with, this was kind of a one-off. But I directed a short film and I co-directed a documentary, “Beautiful Losers,” which I spent three years on. I’ve directed some music videos too, and always knew that I wanted to go into narrative. “The Lie” was in many ways a reaction to being the guy that I hated — which was, like, waiting around to get your film financed. I found this story and knew I could do it cheap, and I knew the right actors and people to shoot it. And all the “Humpday” press was coming out, and I just felt like, “Let’s jump without a net a see how it goes.” I just loved it. That story falls in line with the types of projects that have really attracted me at least over the last few years, in that it’s a movie about idealism versus responsibility. It’s couched in a context that hopefully some people find very funny and some people maybe find a little too dark to be funny. (laughs)
ShockYa: You mentioned jumping without a safety, and it occurs to me that after “The Blair Witch Project” you could have taken a different jump, and opted for a much more conventional career, since I’m assuming there were opportunities there. On a certain level do you crave the excitement and narrative adventurousness of smaller projects, or is that a function of those being the sort of people that made “Blair Witch” together all those years ago?
JL: I think to some extent, yes. I was actually just talking about this — about this notion of looking back on a career as a narrative that actually makes sense. I can say, having done films like “Blair Witch” and “Humpday,” there’s really an established aesthetic and something I gravitate towards. Now, in putting things back-to-back in a sentence, what you necessarily leave out, of course, is that there was a decade in between those projects. And so none of it is as clear and intentional as, “This is the career that I was meant to have.” Have I tried other things? Yeah, sure, I’ve been in a couple of popcorn movies. Did I have fun? Sure. Was I having an experience authentic to myself? Probably not. Could other people see that and realize that I probably wasn’t the right guy to be in those kinds of movies? Yeah. So I think in the aggregate it’s easy to look back and [recognize] a continuity, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like it at the time that it’s happening.
ShockYa: You mentioned not being keen to direct yourself again, so what were your impressions of how Vera handled that on this film, which exists in this rather delicate, ephemeral state?
JL: It was so easy, I think partially because I esteemed her so much as an actress going into the process. I was already primed and prone to have faith in her as a director. But then getting there… (pauses) the extraordinary thing about her as a director is the exact quality that I believe she brings to her career as an actress, and also getting people to know her better in her journey as a human being outside of her career entirely, which is that she leads with humanity, she leads with humility and she never asks anybody to do anything that she’s not willing to do herself. There’s something so fiercely authentic about her. And she really knew what she wanted, and knew the questions she wanted to ask. So every note she ever gave us (as a director) was just to explore if there was something truer or more nuanced, and those are great questions to get asked.
Written by: Brent Simon