Zach Braff Interview

07 January 2009

Talented sitcom star graduates to triple-threat as writer, director and star of 'Garden State'

Talented sitcom star graduates to triple-threat as writer, director and star of 'Garden State'

(Some questions in this interview have come from another journalist present for the Q&A.)

This summer, ironic and affable Everyguy actor Zach Braff has taken an intrepid leap from his lead role in the off-kilter sitcom "Scrubs" -- he's written, directed and stars in "Garden State," a meaning-of-life, coming-of-age dramatic comedy that may well come to be "The Graduate" for the arrested-development generation.

He plays Andrew Largeman ("Large" to his friends), a frustrated, melancholy, 27-year-old actor -- not unlike Braff once was -- who heads home to New Jersey for the first time in nine years to attend his mom's funeral. Having decided at the same time to wean himself off lithium and a cornucopia of other mood drugs prescribed to him by his unethical shrink father since he was a teenager, the story of Large's emotional awakening quickly becomes at once insightful, sharply witty, and a candid reflection of the emerging adrift-in-adulthood but clinging-to-the-carefree culture.

Braff recruited a fantastic cast that includes Ian Holm as the father, chameleonic Peter Sarsgaard ("Shattered Glass," "Boys Don't Cry") as Large's slacker-stoner best friend from high school, and the sweetly sublime Natalie Portman, giving the best performance of her young career (no "Star Wars" stiffness here) as a quirky-girl possible soul mate for Large (there's far too much depth here to just call her a "love interest").

How did an energetically loquacious first-time filmmaker with no behind-the-camera credits hook his first choice for every role in the movie? That was the first question I wanted to ask when Braff was on recent trip to San Francisco, where he looked comfortably out of place in his Ritz-Carlton hotel suite -- sporting a day's scruff on his friendly face and a hole-riddled grey sweat jacket that looked like a faded favorite he just wasn't ready to part with yet. But first I had a curiosity to get out of the way.

Q: So tell me about the original title, "Large's Ark," and why that changed.

A: It changed because no one knew what I was saying. I always liked the story of Noah's Ark and the idea of starting anew by rescuing the things you like and leaving the rest behind. For me, that's what I hoped Large was going to do over the course of the movie -- save all the things he liked about himself and, over the course of four days, let the rest of the things he didn't like go. But sight unseen, to say "Large's Ark" -- everyone I said it to would say, "What?"

Q: "Garden State" is a good title, because I think the movie has a very Jersey personality.

A: Yeah. I think Jersey is a character (in the film), and there's a dual meaning with a state of mind -- a garden is where things begin. Stuff like that.

Q: I read something from Sundance in which someone was saying, "It must be largely biographical. He is an actor and he is from New Jersey." But has he spent half his life on lithium and is he estranged from his parents?

A: No. I have a great relationship with my parents. I have not been on lithium. But there are large pieces of myself that are in the character and definitely large pieces of the story that are in line with things that have happened to me. Being an actor, coming home and feeling alienated, feeling estranged and lonely -- all those things in the character are definitely myself. But the film is a collection of stories, things I collected growing up, some things I read about in the paper, some of it was stuff people told me.

Q: All pieced together from bits and pieces. How about the 10 years of mood stabilizers from the parent shrink who shouldn't be prescribing drugs to his own son?

A: That wasn't (a collected story). But my mother's a psychologist, my stepfather's a psychologist, my stepmother is a therapist and my dad's a lawyer. So it was all prominent in my life. I don't know anyone who doesn't know someone on some form of prescription medicine. It's very prevalent in our society today, and I think it's important for my generation to talk about it. I'm by no means condemning prescription medicine for mental health. I've seen it save a lot of people's lives. But this was a story about someone who didn't necessarily need to be on them, but stayed on them out of comfort and safety because he'd grown up on them and they were like a security blanket to him.

Q: It's a great social touchstone for the movie. It really speaks to an element of our society right now, with that sort of thing being both a fact of life and a punchline.

A: I think it's an interesting discussion. As medicine gets better and better, and more effective, the debate will be like when computers came out and teachers were saying, "Should we still teach math? I mean, kids can have a calculator." So should we suffer in our own depression and misery if there's a pill that can make us happy all the time?

Q: And that leads to the question, if you don't know what sadness is, how can you know what happiness is?

A: Exactly. I was first introduced to this ideology and thinking when I read "Brave New World" (Aldous Huxley's cautionary sci-fi classic about a future emotionlessly mollified by mood stabilizers). I was really blown away by that idea. It was supposed to be this fantastical book, then all of a sudden I saw some of that coming to life. In fact, one of the characters (in "Garden State") says, "You won't believe this town. It's like 'Brave New World' -- everyone has their drug of choice."

Q: How did you assemble such an amazing cast for this little movie being made by a guy on a sitcom who wants to be a writer-director? You know, that must have been what a lot of people in Hollywood thought of it at first.

A: Well, I think first and foremost, they all knew I wasn't just a guy on a sitcom, and that I'd gone to film school and made a couple short films. They all saw my short films, and I think that changed their opinion of me as just a guy on a sitcom because they liked my movie.

Q: How did they see your movie?

A: Jersey Films (Danny DeVito's production company) got attached early on -- they really responded to the script -- and then we submitted the script to all our first choices, and one by one they all came back and seemed very interested. Then we showed them the shorts, then I met with them, and one-by-one they said yes. We were shocked! My producers at Jersey Films, who have made so many movies, were like, "This doesn't happen like this. You know that, right? Don't get spoiled." And I was like, "Shhh! It's working! Don't talk about it!"

Then once I had that cast, it actually proved harder to find financing than I thought (it would). Jersey Films doesn't finance movies, so we had to go out and find financing -- and even with all those people attached, still everyone in town passed on the movie. It was pretty much the last person we found -- an independent financier who paid for the whole thing out of his pocket.

Q: Really? That surprises me.

A: Yeah, surprised me too.

Q: I assume that was before Peter Sarsgaard's Oscar nomination.

A: Yes.

Q: But with Natalie Portman! I mean, Natalie Portman should have brought some heat.

A: Well, it's a character piece. It doesn't follow three-act structure or any of the conventions so beautifully made fun of in "Adaptation." I was untested, and I wanted to play the lead and direct. So there were a lot of things (that might scare off studios). I was surprised because we weren't asking for a lot of money, but no one was willing to take the risk. Then we met this guy (first-time producer Gary Gilbert) and he was willing to take the risk, and it paid off because he doubled his money (when the film was sold at Sundance).

Q: On the subject of Natalie Portman, I think this character and this performance fulfills all the promise she's always shown in movies that didn't step up to her level.

A: That makes me feel great! I've always been a huge fan of hers. I remember seeing her in "Beautiful Girls" and "The Professional" and being like, This girl is genius! This girl is ahead of her time. This girl is a prodigy. And I think she got lost a little bit in some of the "Star Wars" stuff, where she wasn't given a chance to really do anything. I caught her at a great time, when she was just getting out of college, and she was opening a new chapter of her life, and she was gonna attack acting with a new verve. She really was looking for something where she could be uninhibited and free. She brought so much courage to the part, and she was just...uninhibited. That's what you're picking up on.

Q: I love the sort of wonderful, beautiful -- well, there's an attractive dorkiness to her character, especially in that first scene. She's a dorky little chatterbox who is genuinely unaware that she makes herself fascinating by being that way.

A: Yeah! Yeah. [Smiling.] She's not pretentious. There's no "look how clever I am." She's just so adorable, and like you said, she has no idea how cute she is.

Q: You create a really specific world in this movie. It's much more detailed than most movies are. It's a very specific sense of place. Between the characters and their homes -- even the stores -- how long did you work on getting this atmosphere?

A: Let me say first and foremost, that I love production design, and I love great photography -- I'm an amateur photographer myself -- so the look of a movie is very important to me. A lot of it was in the script -- a lot of the quirkier details, like the hamster labyrinth (a maze of pet-cage plastic tubing that runs throughout the eccentrically messy home of Natalie Portman's character).

That image is a couple different people's homes that I knew growing up. Some of my more wealthy friends, their families had all the money in the world, but their houses were very cold and sterile -- like McMansions. Then I'd go to visit some of my friends' families who had very little money and yeah, there may have been a big rip in the couch, and maybe there was animal hair everywhere, and maybe there was a towel on one of the windows to keep the light out -- but it was so cozy and warm, and there was so much love in the house. Some of the best nights' sleep I've ever had were crashing on the couches in houses like that. So I really wanted to highlight that.

Q: The film is so full of those great touches. I also wrote in my notes a whole bunch of the film's dialogue. It's infinitely quotable, and yet the dialogue has this natural, unassuming, everyday quality. They're not rim-shots or one-liners. Is that something you worked on, getting the dialogue to seem that natural? Or does it just come out of you that way?

A: The way I write is that I'll actually have a conversation out loud with myself. In a weird way, I just kind of get schizophrenic and play two characters. I'll play with the dialogue back and forth between them, then I'll say, "That's good. Let me try that," and I'll write it down. I write as I go. I didn't necessarily have a total idea when I was writing the movie of where everything was going. I just wanted to have really realistic dialogue and write like people I knew talked. I tried to keep it very real.

Q: The music is terrific too. Was that all your idea or...?

A: Yeah. Actually when I gave out the script, I gave it with a CD of all the music I wanted to put in the movie, and again, we never thought we'd get all that music. But little by little, I wrote the bands, and we showed them scenes from the movie, then one by one -- Coldplay, Simon and Garfunkel, Nick Drake, The Shins -- they all started to say yes, and we assembled this amazing soundtrack.

Q: Speaking of Simon and Garfunkel, this film reminded me in many ways of "The Graduate" -- and I bet you've been hearing that a lot.

A: I have, but for me it's funny. Obviously you have an alienated 20-something coming home and falling in love, so it has that in common. But for me, "Harold and Maude" was always way more of an inspiration.

Q: Ahhh! I can see that. I should be more specific -- it wasn't that this movie reminded me of "The Graduate," but more that it reminded me of some of the moods in "The Graduate." This movie felt to me like the scene in which Benjamin is sitting on the bottom of the pool in the scuba gear...

A: [Enthused] Yes!

Q: ...that's the moment of "The Graduate" that I identified with.

A: I'm sure there are influences. I just heard that Mike Nichols (director of "The Graduate") saw the movie and said the same thing, so that was kind of cool! So, yeah, I mean, there is something universal about that feeling -- that 20-something, what the hell am I going to do with my life, I'm lost and my parents are freaking me out, and what's the point? Every generation has a way of making that unique, but there are certain universals of that feeling.

Q: The characters here are a little bit older too, which is sort of reflective of the way that particular crossroads of angst has inched up in age.

A: That's one of the things I wanted to address in the film, actually. It used to be that you came out of school, and you got married -- those who were going to get married. But my peers are getting married in their early 30s, so now there's like this extra 10 years of that angst.

Q: Right. Arrested development. But you went to film school. You've been a successful actor. You're obviously quite driven. So to put yourself in the mind of someone like Large, who is obviously much less driven, what did that take for you?

A: Well, I wrote it when none of this was going on. I wrote it before we even shot "Scrubs," and I was feeling very lost. I am really driven, but my drive doesn't effect the conversations I have in my head about life, and my worries and fears and insecurities. So that we have in common. And I would like to think that Large will have a little more drive when he's a little happier and goes through a good cleanse.

Q: I got that impression about him. So, if I'm not mistaken, you are in every scene of this movie. Am I right?

A: Yeah. Well, the whole thing, the idea was the audience is like a parrot on Large's shoulder, and they're only privy to things he sees. So we go through the whole thing from Large's point of view. There are shots I'm not in!

Q: [Laughs.] To have your first project behind the camera, you're writing and you're directing, and you're starring, but then to also be in every scene in the movie -- I mean, we were talking about ambition and drive, but that is gutsy. Did it feel dangerous at all?

A: [With an ironic "are you kidding?" tone in his voice] It did! It felt totally dangerous! You know how many people told me like, "Don't do this," "You're putting too much on the line," uh, "It's too early," "It's too risky," "Do one thing and that way if it flops it won't look that bad"? There's no one else accountable if this movie was awful, except myself. But you know, I guess I took a gamble. I said, I'm on this TV show and I love doing it, but I don't want to be known always as the silly "Scrubs" guy...So part of me was like, You know what? Life's short. Let's go for it.

Q: Did you also in some way feel compelled to do it? Was there an element of "this has to come out of me"?

A: I think I felt compelled in a way because if I hadn't written the part, I never would have been offered the part. There are at least 10 guys who would have been offered the part before me. I felt like it's so hard to find a good script, and this one's gonna get made, and I have an opportunity to play the part -- why would I give it away? It didn't feel like a smart career decision to give it away.


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