From 'Garden State' to the Final Moments
Zach Braff on death, Kickstarter, and 'Wish I Was Here'
By Richard Whittaker, 8:31AM, Thu. Jul. 24
If you look up "existential angst" in the dictionary, you might not expect to see a picture of Zach Braff. But, even in comedy, the actor has always found the darker side of the pratfall.
Braff's latest film – the midlife crisis dramatic comedy Wish I Was Here – is a passion project. The star of the dark medical sitcom Scrubs directed, stars in, and even co-scripted this new project with his brother Adam. Like Braff, the character he plays – Aidan – is an actor living in L.A., struggling with show business. Moreover, both men are secular American Jews. They associate with the culture but, Braff says, "I don't think that there's a bearded man who cares if I have a bacon double cheeseburger."
That doesn't change for Aidan when he is faced with the imminent death of his father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), but he must face the big questions about a meaningful life, one lived with a sense of responsibility. He says, "My character is looking for some sort of connection to that, and all he has in his quiver is Judaism."
It's a clear evolution from his debut movie, 2004's surprise cult smash Garden State. It's almost the "after" of its "happily ever after," with Aidan as a more world-weary Andrew Largeman, now complete with wife (Kate Hudson) and kids (Pierce Gagnon and The Conjuring's Joey King.) But where his first film deals with a man struggling with a suspended adolescence, here a father worries about becoming a patriarch. He observes: "Those topics interest me. I'm by no means trying to preach, but I'm sharing what I think about, what I worry about, what I obsess about. When I did that with Garden State with regards to love and psycho-pharmaceutical drugs, people responded to it. So I thought, my brother and I will write about the things we're thinking about now."
The film already comes with a built-in audience of people who saw their own postmillennial blues portrayed in Garden State. They are the same people that provided $3.1 million of its eventual $5.5 million budget through the film's Kickstarter campaign. But that process also caused controversy, as Braff was lambasted for his funding: After all, how dare a celebrity use this new tool of artistic finance. Shouldn't he just go cap in hand to his studio pals?
Ask that of Braff, and you'll probably get a bitter chuckle. For him, this was a movie that would never get studio cash, would be seen as not commercial, with no audience (even though there are 46,520 Kickstarter donors that would disagree.) In part, it's his attempt to follow the trail of cinematic dissidents like Woody Allen, Hal Ashby "and others who told a story without rules, and there are so many rules in making a movie these days. Especially since we crowdfunded and broke the rules that way."
Austin Chronicle: You spend nine seasons doing Scrubs, which is a show about death, and how we deal with death, and lighthearted moments around death, and then you go, 'You know what? I'm going to do a film about death.'
Zach Braff: With some lighthearted moments. My answer is that, I don't believe in an afterlife, and I believe we're animals here for this brief time on Earth, and it's such a mindfuck that we exist, and that we're on this rock, spinning through infinity. And when you don't have a religion to give you some comfort that you're going to end up in an afterlife where everything will be utopian, you think about death a lot, and you think about, 'Am I doing everything I can to make the most of my brief time?' So that's what the movie's about. It's about a guy that doesn't want to give up on his dream, and has no spirituality, and is searching for it. When death is put in his face, he's called upon to really question how long he can continue to, perhaps narcissistically, go after a dream that might not happen when he has a responsibility to his family.
AC: There's something very peculiar and specific here, because Judaism is both a religion and a secular cultural identity.
ZB: One of the things I wanted to say with the old rabbi, while making some jokes about him being on YouTube and trying to ride a Segway, is that he's metaphorically trying to keep up with today's young Jewish population – and it needn't be Jewish, insert Christianity into it anywhere easily – and not doing a very good job. Now you've this new pope coming out and saying some new things and people are going apeshit. It's the old way, trying to keep up with the new. So in my film, I have this young rabbi who does know how to talk to a secular person and say, 'Calm down. Stop clutching onto the semantics so much. What do you feel, and let's see how I can make that work for you. If you don't want to call that Judaism, don't. If you do, do. But my job is to help steer you.' I love that idea. It's almost like a fantasy. I wrote the young religious scholar that I wish I'd met, but I never did.
AC: There's often a backlash against celebrities or more established artists using crowdfunding, and I've often thought that's partly because people don't understand how hard it is to get anything greenlit.
ZB: If you're cynical enough to think this is a get-rich-quick scheme, there is no stupider get-rich-quick scheme than making an art film. Ask any friend of yours who's tried to make an independent movie, and I'm sure that everyone reading this knows someone, it's impossible to make them, and it's very rare they ever make money. If I was after dough, I would call (Scrubs creator) Bill Lawrence and we'd go do a network comedy, and we'd both make a lot of money. This is about telling a story that no one else wanted to tell.
And if you think I could have got something like this greenlit, I'm here to tell you I couldn't. If you're shocked by reading it, I was humbled by hearing it. Nobody wanted to pay for this script, even after I'd had a giant hit. It's not a traditional script. It's not a romantic comedy, where everything is set up and paid off. It goes off on some tangents, like Garden State did. And no one wanted to pay for Garden State, where in the third act they go off on a quest to find a random piece of jewelry that hasn't come up before. No one's going to make that movie, and Hollywood certainly isn't going to make a movie about Judaism, even though it's a metaphor for spirituality in itself. It would have to be about Christianity to appeal to the masses. They're not going to make a film that has fantasy sequences like this. And the best deal I had on the table involved me not having final cut. Who the hell is going to make an art film, that's their art, without having final say about what goes into it?
So I wasn't going to make it. It was going to get put on the proverbial shelf when Veronica Mars broke. We looked at each other and said, 'Well, it's worth a shot.'
AC: That's the thing. People get behind a project if they believe in it, and there are more than enough crowdfunding projects that never make it.
ZB: The high-profile celebrity ones have specific audiences, whether it be Amanda Palmer or now LeVar Burton, who's breaking all records. He's a very good man, I know him personally, and he has a cameo in the film. He's so passionate about children's reading, it's his life's work, couldn't get anyone to sponsor it. So he goes to the fans, and the fans go, 'A million? Fuck that, man. We're going to give you five or six. We love this project, we grew up on it, we want you to be succesful.' Veronica Mars, same thing. Amanda Palmer, same thing. Spike Lee, same thing. It has to be a specific type of person with a specific type of following and specific type of project that isn't going to get made. It's not for everyone. The ingredients have to be right.
AC: There's a tear-down instinct when celebrities go off the recognized script.
ZB: There's a tear-down instinct, period. I'm terrified for Jennifer Lawrence. They're already taking pot shots at her. Whenever anyone gets so popular, I'm like, oh my god, I want to walk around them with bodyguards, because the entire universe wants them to fall. That's just how our society is, and that sells news. Click bait.
Wish I was Here opens in Austin on Friday, July 25. See Film Listings for a review and showtimes.