Interview: Zach Braff Leaves the Garden State Behind Him

While it’s a drag that it’s taken so long for the actor, best known for playing Dr. John Dorian on the hospital sitcom “Scrubs,” to direct another movie, it’s appropriate that his follow-up, Wish I Was Here, is being released ten days before that anniversary.

Drawing influences from his own life and that of his older brother and co-writer Adam, Braff plays Aidan Bloom, a struggling actor trying to raise two kids (Joey King, Pierce Gagnon) with his working wife Sarah (Kate Hudson). When Aidan’s dying father (Mandy Patinkin) can no longer afford to pay for the kids’ private school, Aidan decides to teach them himself at home. At the same time, he’s dealing with his unrealistic single brother Noah, played by Josh Gad, who seems more interested in impressing his cosplay-loving neighbor (Ashley Greene) than visiting their father before he passes.

While the movie has its funny moments, it’s not a straight comedy as much as a soulful and introspective look at following your dreams and overcoming obstacles, and in many ways, a far more grown-up and realistic movie than Garden State–sci-fi-inspired fantasy sequences aside. got on the phone with Braff last week to talk about the origins of his intriguing new film and the pressures of following up such a beloved movie like Garden State, while also taking a non-traditional route for funding the movie. We’ve spoken a couple times over the years for other things you’ve done and I know you’ve been developing other things and this seemed to come from out of nowhere. When the Kickstarter was announced, no one had really heard about the project until then. Was it something you and your brother had been working on a long time before that?

Zach Braff:
Well, no, I had just been banging my head against the wall, because I can’t get anything made in the way films are made these days. I tried the indie route again, and I couldn’t get financing or I’d lose a celebrity. The person who was championing it would get fired or I’d take the big studio movie route, and the head of the studio got fired and then I lost an A-list movie star and then I got another A-list movie star who said “I’ll do it as long as I don’t get this movie with an A-list director” and then she got that movie with an A-list director. So time after time after time, the way the system works, which is essentially celebrity wrangling. It’s very frustrating, and it is very tricky, and it’s just so amazing that anything ever gets made. I saw Jeff Bezos on “60 Minutes” going on about the creation of Amazon and people telling him it wouldn’t work and he said something to the effect of, “Complaining is not a strategy.”

So I started to look for an out of the box way. I have my own money obviously, so I knew I could invest in myself, but my brother and I had written a pretty large project so I couldn’t afford the loan. Right around this time, when all of this was just getting so frustrating, I thought, “Maybe I’ll just go back to TV, because making movies in this day and age at this budget level is close to impossible.” Steven Spielberg said it best in his “State of American Cinema” speech. I don’t know if you saw that but he articulates it better than I ever could. But it was 180 degrees when the plan worked and it put all the control in my hands and took it completely out of any corporate control or any fund control and sort of gave me the key to the castle to make what I’m pretty sure my fanbase will like. I feel pretty confident that if anything, I could make something that my fans will like. I think after the 14 years of having them, I’m pretty confident I know their tastes.

CS: Did you think you could make a movie like this for less money? I’m not sure how it compares to “Garden State,” which was done fairly cheaply if I remember correct.

Well, “Garden State” remember was ten years ago and “Garden State” is basically a movie of three people sitting in different locations talking. I don’t know if you’ve seen this movie, but it’s pretty large scale, so we really calculated? and I’m a proud member of many, many unions?I think almost every union you can be in as a thespian?and creator of content, so to make it within the unions in L.A. without a tax incentive and to not cut what we thought was important, we couldn’t think of how to make it for less than 5 and a half million dollars.

CS: Was it a natural transition to start writing this with your brother and did that come about organically?

It’s sort of a combo of our lives. We wanted to write about fathers and sons and brothers and he’s a wonderful writer. He has two young children and he’s very involved in their rearing and his wife has a normal job while he’s a creative person who works from home, so all of that sort of dovetailed into a lot of the bullet points of our script. We’re ten years apart and we wanted to write about spirituality in the secular world, and we grew up very religious, but neither one of us really responded to that. So we wanted to write about fathers and sons and spirituality and what it’s like to be a hero to your family in 2014.

CS: Josh Gad plays your character’s brother in the movie. Is he based on your third brother or on you?

No, no, we have a third brother who’s also a writer named Joshua, and no, I’d say there’s pieces of us in all three brothers but none of them are based? my brother Adam has two young kids and is very funny out-of-the-box Dad, and I was a struggling actor who went through a lot of those experiences, but we thought that ideally that would all be metaphoric for going after one’s dreams. Most people aren’t struggling actors so the hope was that it could be a conversation if you’re not a person who has faith and you don’t believe there’s an after-life, how long are you going to go after your dream? You wrestle with that question.

CS: While your character Aiden is the central character, each character has their own stories and subplots and issues to deal with. How hard was it to fit that into a movie without losing focus too much and get all those ideas you wanted to get in there?

It is tricky and a lot of it is that we only had 25 days. I always think of it like it’s a scavenge hunt. You go out there and you have the script and you just collect as many different shots and many different scenes and then as much as you can collect in those 25 or 26 days, and then you really discover what the film is in the edit room without all the chaos. Production is so frantic and you can’t go over 12 hours, because you can’t afford overtime and there’s lots of locations and equipment and people and wrangling. It’s just 26 days of insanity, and then when you can actually take a breath and sit there with a cup of coffee and look at it, you can sort of figure out how to shape it.

CS: Was there a lot of calling in favors for a movie like this? You have a lot of people you’ve worked with before such as Donald Faison and Jim Parsons?

All of them. I called in a zillion favors, yeah. All my friends that were actors I asked to be in it and all those visual FX were one favor after another. Of course, we needed crew who did it for a low rate because we wanted to make it in L.A. and L.A. doesn’t have much of a tax break. We wanted to keep it in L.A. ’cause L.A. was a character. We knew that we were giving up essentially 30% from the states that would have given us that back, so we had to really pull in a lot of favors.

CS: As I mentioned, you had Donald and Jim Parsons, who you worked with before. When you were writing the script, did you think about parts for them? Or did you know which character you wanted to go to them with?

No, I don’t write like that, especially for supporting characters or cameos, but when you’re finally done and you go into production, you go, “Oh my God, that would be a hilarious part for Donald. Wouldn’t that be great if Jim Parsons did that cameo?” These guys are all my buddies and my friends. I like to brag that I discovered Jim because he was in “Garden State” and now he’s the “world-renowned Jim Parsons.” I have a Jim Parsons action figure from “The Big Bang (Theory).”

CS: That’s a good link to one of the sections of the movie that takes place at Comic-Con for Josh’s subplot. There seems to be more and more shooting there these days, but it seems like the most insane thing to even try.

It was insanity and then full disclosure, the interior we built in L.A. It would have been impossible to do what we did, but Comic-Con did let us shoot outside, those exterior establishing shots, which was insane itself because it’s mayhem down there. They read our script and saw that we were giving them a shout-out in a positive way. It’s about someone who learns to be fully self-expressed and fully himself through cosplay so it was an ad for Comic-Con in a way. After lots of begging and Chris Hardwicke was instrumental because he’s Mr. Comic-Con, we were able to shoot there.

CS: Right, I remember when they shot scenes for Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s “Paul” there and it was a similar thing.

I think they only shot establishing there. I think with “Paul” they had enough money for extras and they shot down there, not at Comic-Con but at the venue, the convention center.

CS: Actually, I visited the set in Albuquerque where they had gotten all the Comic-Con banners and recreated it inside the convention center there.

Oh, I think Larry Sher (who was the cinematographer on BOTH movies, oddly enough!) said that they reshot it, but what do I know?

CS: I have to assume that Mandy Patinkin was one of the only choices to play your father, because he’s really amazing.

Yeah, I’ve always loved Mandy and he’s so wonderful. “The Princess Bride” is my favorite movie and “Homeland” is one of the best TV shows in years and I’m on Broadway right now in a musical and he’s a Broadway musical legend so he’s definitely been a big inspiration to me.

CS: Did you know him before you approached him to be in the movie?

No, I ran into him on a street in Manhattan and I walked up to him, but I’d never met him before.

CS: But that was after you had the script and everything?

No, I did end up talking to him about the script, but I went up to him on the street because he was just another actor on the streets of New York and we just started shooting the sh*t and really got along.

CS: Since you have to run, I just want to quickly ask about the soundtrack. “Garden State” was such a popular thing, even winning a Grammy, so was there a lot of pressure to create a soundtrack for this one?

Yeah, except that nobody buys albums anymore so ten years ago since when “Garden State’ came out, record stores have disappeared and iTunes became iTunes, so we really tried to do something original and different by creating a lot of original music this time. We have three original songs and we had to rethink “What is a soundtrack?” because back ten years ago, people actually bought full albums so we were trying to shake it up a bit this time.

Wish I Was Here opens in select cities on Friday, July 18. While we didn’t get a chance to talk about it, Braff also executive produces and appears in the doc Video Games: The Movie, which also opens on the 18th.