Zach Braff interview: Wish I Was Here, Garden State and more

We chat to actor and filmmaker Zach Braff about his latest film Wish I Was here, Garden State, and much more...

It’s been a decade since Zach Braff made Garden State, a film about being mentally and emotionally adrift in your 20s and, now, he’s made Wish I Was Here – a film about being mentally and emotionally adrift in your 30s. It gathered publicity good and bad from its beginnings with Kickstarter post-Veronica Mars, and has since premiered at Sundance and been released around the world.

This week it finally reaches the UK, and we spoke to co-writer, director and star of the film, Zach Braff, about the process of getting the movie made and his perspective on the state of the film industry.

Congratulations on the film – it obviously showed at Sundance at the beginning of the year – are you excited for more people over here to see it?

Yeah, I mean, I’ve been so blessed to have such a really incredible fanbase here in the UK. The UK’s been so supportive of my work – Scrubs is obviously still on a lot here, and Garden State was really well received – so I’m really excited to share it over here. It’s such a passion project, such a labour of love, and I’m really, really proud of it.

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It’s been billed as a kind of spiritual sequel to Garden State, do you see it that way or is that just because it’s your follow-up movie?

Well, they have a lot in common in that they’re both lose memoirs, in a way. For the second time, this time with my brother, I went and wrote about a version of my life. Granted, there’s a lot of fiction interwoven, but they are cousins or brothers because they are versions of our life and what we think about spirituality and education and going after your dreams.

And both films definitely have the existential element of trying to be present and seize the day, so I do think they’re related. And tonally, of course they’re related, because that’s my favourite style – mixing comedy and drama and a touch of the surreal. That can be said of pretty much everything I’ve done; everything I’ve created.

A lot of the early publicity was to do with the Kickstarter campaign so soon after Veronica Mars – what initially drew you to that option?

Well, we were in a meeting, having the traditional conversations one has with a financier, basically listing off the things that we were going to have to sacrifice.

Like, ‘okay it’s a movie about LA but you can’t shoot in LA because there’s no tax incentive’; ‘I know you want those actors and maybe we’ll end up there but first we want you to offer it to these actors; ‘we want to you cut this scene, this scene, this scene, this scene…’; ‘we realise you’ve come up with a budget that’s as low as you can possibly get it, but can you make it for half of that?’

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These are just standard conversations one has when they’re trying to get financing for a film, and then the Veronica Mars thing broke and it was so zeitgeisty and everywhere, as we all recall. And I have such a loyal fanbase that my producer couldn’t help but turn to me and go, ‘you know, if you put your own money in, and we crowd-funded some of this, we wouldn’t have to have any of these conversations.’

So it became an experiment – it was not a money making exercise. You don’t traditionally make money off of these small films. It was about, if we sold t-shirts and tickets to Q&As and signed posters and set visits and anything we could think of, that money and my own money could fund the film and we could make it without compromise. That was revelatory, and I thought a worthy experiment. 

How long were you trying to get it made before you reached that point?

This particular film, not so long, but I’d tried to get several through the system and had this conversation. So, when this happened with something I was so passionate about, maybe a few months into having these sort of conversations when the Veronica Mars thing broke, we had to stop and kind of rethink it.

You spoke about casting, were the people in the film your first choice?

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Of course. Once the fans made me the CEO of the corporation I was like, ‘okay, well these are all my first choices.’ And they all loved the movie and they all said yes.

Did anything change between the start of the process and the final film?

The film always changes in the editing room, I mean you write a script and then you go out and collect all of the images, but it isn’t until the editing that you see what you’ve got.

Because great cinematography changes a scene and makes it more important. An amazing performance from an actor changes the scene’s importance. So the weight and balance of the accumulation of all the scenes you’ve got shifts from performance of both your creative crew members and your actors.

So it isn’t until you get in the editing room that you discover what you’ve got. So the tone – the balance between comedy and drama – is discovered because you can lean it towards comedy or you can lean it towards drama.

You can lean it towards the surreal or towards the real. And you can give different subplots weight depending on how it all came out. So that has definitely changed and been shaped in the editing room. It was the same with Garden State as well. 

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The music is obviously a huge part of the film, and I think that’s one of the reasons people warm to your work, what’s the process of you choosing the soundtrack?

I do it all with my editor and we assemble a giant playlist from music supervisors, record labels and our own personal favourites.

I’ve had a playlist on my iTunes for years called ‘Music for Movies’. They’re just songs that feel cinematic and feel great to cut to, and then we just try them with trial and error until it’s visceral and we get goosebumps. We’ll points to the hairs on our arm and go, ‘that’s it.’

It’s just that perfect combination that you can’t really describe, of imagery and song, and when it happens you just know. And you could try your favourite song in the world, and it wouldn’t work. You don’t know until you try, and that’s why I really like working with my editor because he’s wonderful on that. We really work well together.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the mid-budget film kind of disappearing, but this obviously fits into that category – do you think crowdfunding is the only way now to get them made?

I don’t think crowdfunding is the only way to get them made and I don’t think crowdfunding will work for that many people because, first of all, you have to have the fanbase in order to do it. Then there’s whether the internet will love it or hate it – a lot people don’t want to deal with that. I don’t care, because I like to ruffle some feathers, but I don’t think that crowdfunding is the answer.

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It is a conundrum, because people really aren’t going to the movie theatre anymore like they used to. Hollywood had the worst summer since ’97. So they go for action and superheroes and what we call ‘stoner comedies’, but they aren’t really going to the theatre anymore like they used to. So how will the industry evolve around that? I have no idea, but I’m anxious to see.

Making the film on the audience’s dime, was there a level of pressure to deliver “fan-service” moments? There was obviously the little Scrubs reunion…

Of course I wanted to do a couple of things for the fans – of course there was a lot of pressure – and I wanted to make the fans happy because I made it with and for the fans. I was very clear about that.

So yeah, that’s why I wanted Donald to do a cameo and have us riff together, but I really felt like what the fans wanted was for me to just do what we’d written without compromise. So that’s really what we wanted to do – to just kind of be true to our vision – and I think we really were.

I could sleep at night because I felt like I’d be really shocked if a Scrubs fan and/or a Garden State fan didn’t like the film, because it was the same oeuvre and the same tone.  it was a mix of comedy of drama with a touch of the surreal, which seems to be what the core of my fanbase really likes. So I felt like I was giving them what they would like. 

You’ve gone from TV to film and back again, and you’re as well known for both, which I think is rare. Would you ever return to television for the right job?

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Yeah, now more than ever. If you’d asked me that a year ago I’d probably have been like, ‘maybe…’ Now I’m like, ‘of course,’ because everything I’m watching is on TV.

I said to someone today – you know when you click on iTunes and it comes up and it’s like a fork in the road. You can choose movies or TV, and I find myself clicking on TV more than ever because, like everybody else, I wanna get addicted to a new series. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

With a film, you try it and, nowadays for me more than not, you’re not into it and you bail and then you’re left with nothing. Whereas with a TV series, if enough of your friends have told you it’s great, you then try and you’re addicted like everybody else. And it’s fun – it’s social and communities form around the shows.

And the writing’s never been better, so, if you look at the talent that’s migrated over to television it, sadly as a film lover, seems the way things are going.

Because, like you said, there’s no market for the theatrical experience, for these mid-level films. Unless you’re creating an action-IMAX experience, or creating a ‘let’s get high and go giggle at a comedy’ kind of movie. I love those too, don’t get me wrong, I love all that shit too, but unless you’re creating those experiences, people are waiting for iTunes. So, that’s something that’s new.

The film industry is having a puberty of sorts in a way that the music industry has over the last ten years, and none of us know how it’s going to end up.

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Just finally, what’s your favourite Jason Statham movie?

I don’t want Jason Statham to be upset, because I think that he’s a very talented person, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a full Jason Statham movie…

Zach Braff, thank you very much.

Wish I Was Here is out now in UK cinemas.