For many years, Zach Braff was the star of the hit show “Scrubs” and while most people know him from that as a funnyman, he can be seen in a far more dramatic role in Deborah Chow’s drama The High Cost of Living, playing Henry, an American drug dealer living in Montreal who parties too hard one night and inadvertently runs into a woman with his car, then drives off. That woman, Nathalie (Isabelle Blais) was pregnant with her first child, but the horrible accident puts a wedge between her and her husband Michel. When he hears about the victim, Henry’s guilt and remorse drives him to seek Nathalie out, and he becomes her close confidante and friend without realizing he was the man whose negligence caused her so much torment.
The High Cost of Living is a tough movie at times, but there’s also a warmth to the story thanks to the performances by Braff and Blais, who are so perfectly well-matched both with each other and with Deborah Chow’s material.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to Braff last month just before the Tribeca Film Festival kicked into high gear, and we talked about all aspects of his career, both present and future.
ComingSoon.net: When people see this, they may be surprised that you’re doing drama, but I knew you’d been developing “Open Hearts” forever, so I know that you’re a fan of high drama. How did Deborah contact you about this? Did you know her beforehand?
Zach Braff: Never met her, got it through my manager. I was looking for something completely different than “Scrubs” obviously, trying to push myself to do something challenging and dramatic. When I read this, it just kinda seemed too good to be true. It was exactly what I was looking for. It was different. I loved the Montreal aspect of it and the bilingual aspect of it. I sat down with her in the Bowery Hotel and we just clicked. We just liked each other and I didn’t even think about it twice.
CS: Was the character Henry always from New York? Was he always an outsider in Montreal?
Braff: Yeah, it was always an American living in Montreal, sort of displaced and feeling lost.
CS: When you hear he’s a drug dealer you kind of assume that he’s a scumbag, and he has moments of that, but you find that he’s not completely unlikable, that he just hits this woman and then drives off.
Braff: No, it’s not him. You know these people in life who get so tangled up in themselves in their way and they just can’t break out of it, you know? I don’t think he’s a bad person. Obviously, he does something horrific, but he’s not at his heart, he’s a bad guy. He’s just so trapped and doesn’t really see any way of getting out of it. So he’s just sort of existing.
CS: Did you have to convince Deborah that you could do this kind of a role?
Braff: I was prepared to. I would’ve auditioned and everything, but she I think saw in the films I’ve done where I did do some dramatic acting, “The Last Kiss” and “Garden State,” I think she saw my potential to do this. Yeah, I would’ve completely auditioned, but she didn’t ask me to.
CS: What are your concerns as an actor working with a first-time director being that you were a first-time director yourself at one time? Did you have more understanding of what she was going through?
Braff: Well, yeah, more understanding, but you just never know. You meet the person and they seem nice and they wrote a good script, but you have no idea what they’re going to be like under the pressure of a set. A set is a chaotic period, but when you have no money and it’s winter and everyone’s running around all stressed out, how does someone handle that? She was very, very calm. Then most importantly, in the editing room, created a really good movie.
CS: What was it like shooting in Montreal? As the movie begins, you just assume it’s New York, because it’s similar, especially Chinatown. What was it like shooting there again? You’ve made a film there before.
Braff: Yeah, I did it there before, but it’s better in the spring than in the winter. (Laughs) It’s really, really cold there in February. People are like, “How did you get in touch with your inner like, sorrow?” I was like, “Just walk outside in Montreal in February.” But I loved the city. Other than the temperature-wise, the city’s amazing. It’s great. It’s like a mini-Europe just north of us. It’s beautiful and the people are nice and the food’s amazing. It’s very romantic.
CS: How was it budget-wise compared to “Garden State”?
Braff: I think this movie was all in a million dollars. I only shot 15 days on it. We shot on the Red camera, smaller crew. You know, it was total bare bones.
CS: Are you able to separate your filmmaking and directing with your acting side?
Braff: Yeah, yeah, I had to do that lots. The one lesson I’ve learned… and I only had one time where it didn’t work at all. We just had a totally different vision for the movie. I think you just gotta make sure that you and the filmmaker are on the exact same page of what kind of movie you’re making. I was obviously nervous Deborah would think that when I met her. At that first meeting I said to her, “You don’t have to think for a second that I’m going to try and commandeer your movie. When I made my first film I had amazing actors who were so supportive of me. They’d all done so many more movies than I had. I want to be that for you. I might occasionally whisper a thought in your ear, but I’m here to support you and help you make your dream come true.”
CS: There’s a lot of scenes with Isabelle on her own. Were you actually there when they were shooting those scenes or did you want to keep that separate so you didn’t really know what was going on?
Braff: Yeah, it’s helpful to not know anything about her. People are like, “Was it hard to shoot the movie so quickly and you didn’t know her?” I was like, “Perfect because he doesn’t know her.” She’s a very shy person in real life. That sort of helped. We were kind of like awkwardly-estranged from one another and I think it fed right into the movie.
CS: The movie is being sold a bit like a romance, but it’s not really a romance. It’s more about people coming together.
Braff: It’s a very hard movie to sell when you think about it. If you were in charge of marketing it’s like – when they told me they were cutting a trailer for it I’m like, “God, that’s a tough assignment,” because you don’t want to give away a lot of the stuff that happens, but also how do you draw people in? I do think though, when you zoom out, it is ultimately a story about love.
CS: It’s not your typical movie love story.
Braff: Most definitely not.
CS: I saw the movie before I saw any marketing, and I was glad, because if I spent the movie thinking they’re going to hook up, I’m not sure I would have liked it so much.
Braff: Yeah, but you can see the conundrum that they face. How do you market? It’s a difficult movie to market.
CS: Why do you think he reaches out to her? Being an outsider, I mean, he probably could’ve gotten away with it scot free, you would think.
Braff: I think in the beginning, it’s his own conscience. He wants to ease his own conscience and once he knows she’s alive, he just kind of wants to check in and make sure, “Okay, everything’s good. No harm, no foul.” Then, when he finds out the news, he’s so f*cking destroyed that he doesn’t know what to do, but other than to try and take care of her. There’s a certain point in the movie where he starts to shift from easing his own conscience and taking care of himself to genuinely being selfless and taking care of her. Other than the very relatively simple plot, the movie is really about the arc of these two peoples’ emotions and making a giant change in their lives and how that can be born out of tragedy.
CS: Had you ever met the leading actress Isabelle before?
Braff: No, but she’s a big French-Canadian star. See, they have their own whole cinema. What’s fascinating and something I didn’t know at all is that she can walk down the street in Montreal and people will see her like a superstar. The second she leaves French Canada, no one knows who she is. I didn’t know that that existed. I thought Canadian cinema was Canadian cinema. Obviously, there’s two different worlds. I know that she had won awards and was known for being a wonderful actress. I saw some of her work, but I mean, I can’t imagine someone doing a better job with such a hard role.
CS: Both of you did great and I don’t think Deborah could’ve found better actors.
Braff: Thank you. Well, I hope you’ll say that in your article. (Laughs)
CS: So what’s going on with your directing today? I know “Garden State” is a tough act to follow.
Braff: I know.
CS: There are people who love “Garden State” who are like, “Come on.”
Braff: I know, man. Well, what I say to those peopleI mean, I’m active on Facebook and Twitter, so I know all those people are like, “Dude, what the hell?” There’s two parts to it – one, I was able to make “Garden State” miraculously with tremendous support whilst doing “Scrubs.” So then, when I continued to do “Scrubs,” I couldn’t get those – I mean, in hindsight, it was amazing how much lined up perfectly so I could squeeze that in while doing a TV show. Then, for the rest of the run of “Scrubs” I was never able to get those wonderful things to line up again because we had like, a three month hiatus and it just didn’t work out. Now, I’ve had like, two movies almost come together, both of which fell apart. I could’ve made a crap movie 10 times over, but I’m trying to make a really good movie that I stand by and that I believe in. So, I tell all those people who are waiting, “I thank you so much and it’s coming. I’ve been trying to navigate the Hollywood system and make something really good that you’ll all like again and not make something that I don’t believe in.” So, that’s hard to do. It was hard to do with “Garden State.” Everyone in town passed on “Garden State,” so I’m going to keep trying. I have a play that I’ve written.
CS: Yeah, I saw that you were doing a play at Second Stage.
Braff: Yeah, so I wrote a play because while I was waiting for this movie that I was hoping to direct this summer to come together called “Swingles,” I thought I would write a play, just thinking like, “This will be an exercise and it will be a good stepping stone and I’ll learn.” Then the response to the play was so great that now Second Stage, which is my favorite Off-Broadway theater, is producing it. So that’s thrilling. I might even take this piece and adapt it and make a little tiny budget movie on it, too.
CS: Have you found that theater in general is easier to get into?
Braff: No, no, no. It’s not easier. One thing I will say is it does come down to one person whereas in film, there’s so many people that have to say yes and sign off on doing it. It’s so hard to get the money, but with theater, there is an artistic director and it usually comes down to him or her. It’s by no means easier, yeah.
CS: I was curious about that because to get financing to make movies, which are more expensive, I thought it might be easier to find someone in theater who likes your work enough to finance it.
Braff: I think in film they can love your movie and then go, “Okay, we’re going to try and get financing. All right, now we’re going to try and get a star that will warrant the budget. All right, now we’re going to have a ton of notes for you. Oh, now the financier doesn’t like the end of the movie.” There’s so many cooks in the kitchen. In particular, we’re now more than ever in terms of getting an actor who has foreign value. It’s such a process whereas one fact that I will say, to my brief experience thus far in Off-Broadway theater is, they have a budget. If the artistic director chooses your play, it’s going to be made. That’s why I was really lucky, that she responded to my play like she did.
CS: What about “Open Hearts”? Is that something you still want to adapt?
Braff: I already adapted it. That was the other movie that I was about to make. Dude, there was a week where it was like literally Sean Penn and Michelle Williams and I was like, “Oh my God, this is my dream cast. We’re about to make my first really intense drama.” Then, for a number of reasons, it didn’t come together. I am a big fan of Suzanne Bier’s and I thought she did a fantastic job with that movie, so this was my adaptation. I have it. It’s sitting on a shelf if anyone wants to produce it. (Laughs)
CS: I’ve spoken to Suzanne a few times and she’s not really a fan of remakes and she was not into the idea of her movies being redone but now she’s doing a remake too, which is ironic. Have you read any of her interviews about it?
Braff: I’ve never met her, but I’m a fan and I don’t feel that same way. I think it’s odd when people remake movies that were big hits in the States and were wonderful. I think it’s odd when people remake a movie that was really successful in the States. That, I never fully understood. But, this was a movie that no one–I can guarantee–if I counted all the people in the United States who saw it, it’s a Danish Dogme movie. I think of it like an artist doing a cover of a song. I was like, “I’d like to do my cover of her little Dogme movie because I think her writing is fantastic,” and I adapted it a little bit and changed it a tiny bit, but for the most part, I stuck to what she did because I thought it was so powerful. I thought an American audience will never see this movie. I can do a version that I think they would see because first and foremost, a lot of people don’t watch foreign language films. A lot of people don’t watch shaky, handheld Dogme movies.
CS: Unless it’s “Paranormal Activity.”
Braff: Yeah, they like shaky handheld horror.
CS: So where do you go from here? Obviously you have this play that you’re going to spend the summer working on.
Braff: I’m hoping to do a movie called “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” in the fall with Chloe Moretz and Jessica Biel with another first-time filmmaker who wrote a really good script named Bill Purple and continuing to work on putting my next movie together. It’s trying to get all the pieces lined up. The one thing on the table now is, I have an adaptation of this play that we might make on a scale of this movie, make something super-small, so I can circumvent the system. Gary Gilbert, who financed “Garden State” and financed “The Kids Are All Right” and is a good buddy of mine read the play and was like, “Let’s do it. It’s a small piece so let’s go make a small scale movie of it,” which is something we’re talking about now.
CS: Is there something good about laying low for a while after “Scrubs,” so you can come back and not have that thing of “Oh, it’s that guy again”?
Braff: Yeah, I always think it’s weird when people who are so known for something on TV just take the first thing that comes their way and go super big with it. That rarely works for people unless you’re like, George Clooney. He came off of “ER,” but he was already a movie star, you know? So I think yeah, it’s kind of like, “Alright, let’s lay low for a second and regroup and really focus on what you want to do.”
CS: As a person who wants to direct more films, do you feel you’re going to act in all of them? Or do you feel not so much?
Braff: I don’t know. I just want to do cool things. If it’s an Off-Broadway show, if it’s a studio movie, if it’s my own movie, if it’s a million dollar Canadian indie, my sort of mantra to myself is I want to make movies that I would want to go see. So many trailers I see I’m like, “Wow, I know there’s an audience for that, but I don’t want to see that.” (Laughs) So when I see movies where I feel the opposite I’m like, “Wow, that’s something I would’ve loved to have been a part of.” That inspires me.
CS: Do you find your tastes are a little more niche than most people would think?
Braff: Not more than most people. I mean, anyone who appreciates festival movies and indie movies, that’s usually my taste.
CS: That’s a pretty big audience these days, and it’s getting bigger I think.
Braff: It’s getting bigger. There’s always a couple of breakouts a year, but yeah, I mean, I think I respond more to the movies at the Independent Spirit Awards than necessarily the ones at the Golden Globes.
The High Cost of Living opens in New York and L.A. following its run on Video on Demand over the past few weeks.