Interview: Zach Braff Kickstarts His New Film ‘Wish I Was Here’

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CHICAGO – Zach Braff is an amiable personality, making his mark as “J.D.” on the TV sitcom “Scrubs” and the cult film “Garden State” (2004), which he wrote and directed. For his most recent project, he made show business headlines by using the website Kickstarter to “crowd fund” his latest film, “Wish I Was Here.”

“Wish I Was Here,” like “Garden State,” is a coming-of-age film. But this time Braff – who stars in the film, co-wrote it with his brother Adam, and directed it – portrays a 35 year old struggling actor with a wife (Kate Hudson) and two kids, coming to terms with his father’s (Mandy Patinkin) illness and possible passing. Like “Garden State,” it has a dream-like quality to it, while dealing with a different phase of life.

Zach Braff
Zach Braff Directs a Shot Sequence in ‘Wish I Was Here’
Photo credit: Focus Features

Zach Braff is best know for his lead role as John “J.D.” Dorian in the long running TV series, “Scrubs.” He was born in South Orange, New Jersey, and attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Within four years of graduation he landed “Scrubs,” and was on the show for nine seasons. Since he hadn’t directed a feature film since “Garden State,” Braff turned toward the crowd funding site Kickstarter to partially finance “Wish I Was Here” – which caused a bit of controversy because of his status as a mainstream actor and director. Currently, Braff is performing in the Broadway musical version of Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway,” which opened in April of this year.

HollywoodChicago.com talked with Braff about all the circumstances behind “Wish I Was Here,” and the other elements of his successful career.

HollywoodChicago.com: I was intrigued by the overt religionism and tribalism in the film. What were you trying to say about the influence of Judaism in your life, and the lives of those around you?

Zach Braff: It wasn’t specifically about Judaism, but I was commenting on organized religion in what I was seeing in my circle – whether it was my immediate circle or on the internet. People were saying that they were given this organized religion by their parents and it worked for them, plus they love the culture elements, the holidays and the food. In terms of dealing with my existence, on this spinning rock in the middle of infinity, the religion wasn’t really helping me.

There are plenty of people out there that have faith, and it works for them, and even in the film I go out of my way to say they are lucky. But for those of us who don’t believe, who think we’re animals and when we die will go into the ground like other animals, how do we make sense about why we’re here? What do we teach our kids? And how do we come to terms with ‘coming out of the closet’ to our parents about our differing viewpoints, and saying that we love them, but the religion doesn’t work for all of us. For us, for our spirituality, that’s what we wanted to communicate in the film.

HollywoodChicago.com: The purpose of the way you funded the film was to get creative control of your product, both in casting and final cut. How important to your film was casting the right people in the roles, and how does that make a director’s job that much easier?

Braff: Casting is everything. The quickest way to make a good script into bad is wrong casting – I’ve seen it a thousand times. Sometimes I’ll read a film because I’m up for it as an actor or director, and don’t do it, but then see it after it gets made and released. And sometimes I think ‘Oh my God, how did they f**k that up so badly?’ There are usually two reasons for this – one is too many cooks in kitchen, messing with the script. And second, it is actors who are wrong for the roles they are cast in. They might not be bad actors, but they’re not right for the roles.

They were given the roles because they have giant overseas box office numbers, and that is what studios and film financiers depend on. I learned that most people don’t know this when I did the Kickstarter campaign. Today, a cast is determined by how big a draw an actor is in the international markets, which is determined by how their films translate overseas – and that’s how likely they are to get a leading role in a studio or independently financed film. Many times those people are jammed down the filmmaker’s throat, and they’re just wrong for the part, and it ruins the film.

HollywoodChicago.com: Since this was co-written by your brother, what kind of compromise did you work out when there would be a creative difference? Did any of that compromise become personal?

Zach Braff
Zach Braff in Chicago, June 16, 2014
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for HollywoodChicago.com

Braff: Of course we brawled, but we did make a deal that I think was crucial. I told him I was starring and directing, so the decisions have to be 51 to 49. I couldn’t imagine doing it 50-50, because we would have reached too many dead ends – it’s like Congress. [laughs] It got intense sometimes, because we’re brothers, and there were days of silent treatments, but then we’d have a heart-to-heart, hug it out, and move on. I had to be the boss on it, because so much comes down to opinion. I was the conductor, he could be first violinist, but somebody had to conduct.

HollywoodChicago.com: You were raised Orthodox, correct?

Braff: Sort of, my brother was, and he was ten years older than I. By the time I went to Hebrew School my family ‘downshifted’ to Conservative. But we were Kosher.

HollywoodChicago.com: What do you think that sect of Judaism loses in their extreme patriarchal traditions? In this day and age, shouldn’t women – like in Catholic Orthodoxy – get a clear and more distinct voice in these ancient religions?

Braff: I’m not the right person to comment on that, because I’m not religious. I find the Orthodox sect very intriguing, and my brother had exposure to it. If you subscribe to a certain philosophy within a religion, more power to you. If you sign up for it, live by it. To each their own, I don’t fault anyone for their beliefs.

HollywoodChicago.com: You were playing a father in the film, and you’re not one in real life. What did you learn about your own patriarchal leanings in the journey of the story and film?

Braff: I’m a uncle, and my brother has two kids, so obviously I leaned on that experience. Joey King, who portrays my daughter, was on the set of ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’ with me, and we spent six months in Detroit together. I just love that kid and actually learned a lot from her. My character is also not supposed to be the greatest dad. He has checked out to a degree and is narcissistic, so that was right for me. [laughs]

HollywoodChicago.com: One of the key scenes in the film is the cattle call auditions for actors. Since you have a particular younger looking persona to your look, what kind of actor rejection feedback have you gotten over the years, and what was your takeaway from that commentary?

Braff: For me, the feedback was I’m not a ‘leading man great looks’ type. I’m not being self-deprecating when I say I’m not Leonardo DiCaprio. I would go into these auditions and look around me, and every one of these guys are GQ models, and I’ve got a giant schnozz and no chin [laughs]. But fortunately I would often hear these guys in the audition room, and they’d be horrible. So at least I could act, I had that going for me. It became about getting the lead role, without necessarily being GQ.

HollywoodChicago.com: I’m sure you’re sick of answering questions regarding the Kickstarter campaign, but I just want to know what lessons would you pass along for somebody else, if they were in your position and reached out to crowd funding to finance a film?

Braff: First, I would say to them, ‘I’ve helped you by taking all the shit myself.’ So, you’re welcome [laughs] The biggest lesson was that I know a lot about what I do, that I stupidly thought everyone knew. I know a lot about independent film financing and all of the many intricacies and roadblocks. I naively thought everyone understood that – 90 percent of the shit I took for the Kickstarter campaign was misinformation that I had to explain to everybody on earth.

What was really frustrating was that most of the criticism came from entertainment journalists, who could have Googled the fact that Kickstarter is not about recouping the equity stake. That was frustrating. They were basically writing misinformation. If you wanted a debate, I would have debated it, because it’s a new concept; is it right or wrong? Should celebrities use it? That’s a fine conversation to have discourse about, but the amount of misinformation about Kickstarter and this project that got thrown out there took an extraordinary amount of work to correct.

HollywoodChicago.com: When you Google your name, and Kickstarter, those articles do pop up.

Braff: Those articles will be associated with my name until I’m buried in the Google Earth. But you know what, it was a wonderful experiment, and the film wasn’t made for those people who wrote snarky things. Those people aren’t fans of mine, and took the opportunity to throw their tomatoes. This was made for my fan base, if you’re not a fan of mine, it’s probably not for you.

HollywoodChicago.com: I really want to talk about the full circle you have achieved with Mr. Woody Allen, going from portraying the son of Woody and Diane Keaton [in ‘Manhattan Murder Mystery’] to performing in his Broadway musical version of ‘Bullets Over Broadway.’ What did you want to communicate about the joy and legacy of Mr. Allen through the character in the musical, and when was the last time you’d done a musical before taking on this one?

Zach Braff
Zach Braff in ‘Scrubs’
Photo credit: Buena Vista Home Entertainment

Braff: I hadn’t done a musical since the musical episode of ‘Scrubs,’ and before that as a kid. Interestingly, the musical play version of ‘Bullets Over Broadway’ is so meta about my life, because it’s about a playwright struggling to do anything he can not to compromise his art. He’s getting arrows from all sides, from the mob, floozies and producers. It was like me on the internet, [laughs] He finally collapses near the end, but the ‘play within the play’ has become a hit. I can only hope that happens to me in real life.

HollywoodChicago.com: You seemed to really develop a troupe of circus players in the TV series ‘Scrubs.’ What are the three most significant ways the style and humor of that show developed you as a performer and filmmaker?

Braff: Being able to do things quickly. We shot this film in 26 days, and ‘Scrubs’ was the ultimate training ground, because we had to shoot an episode in five days. The skill set of being able to do it funny and quickly – and still be able to have time for style – ‘Scrubs’ was grad school for me. Whether you love or hate the film, I think most people would come away being amazed that we did it in 26 days.

HollywoodChicago.com: What is interesting about ‘Garden State,’ as we sit here ten years later, is how free of phone devices it was, given that everyone necessarily didn’t have a phone back then. What do you think is the price that we’ll pay for our technology, and how do you think the current technology would have affected the characters of ‘Garden State’?

Braff: It’s funny you mention that, because there was a scene in ‘Wish I Was Here’ where everyone in the family was on their devices. Someone I guess could write a term paper on how ‘Garden State’ would be different with mobile phones, I just don’t know the answer to that, [laughs]

HollywoodChicago.com: You have a Chicago connection in attending Northwestern University. When I was in the Big Ten, the NU people would chide the sports lovers – when their teams were bad – with “We’ll be your bosses someday.” What is it about the altitude of being an NU grad that perpetuates that remark?

Braff: They used to say we were ‘the Harvard of the Midwest,’ but I think every Midwestern school says that. There were a lot of smart people there, certainly smarter than I was. I was in the film school, I just had to be creative. I learned a lot there, and got a excellent education.

HollywoodChicago.com: What can you tell us about your fictional nemesis, John C. McGinley, that the rest of the world doesn’t know?

Braff: That he is the biggest sweetheart in the world. He is an amazing dad and a giant teddy bear. All of his characters are these weird tough guys, but when they yell ‘cut,’ he emotional and extremely nice. It’s just funny that he never gets to play that side of himself.

“Wish I Was Here” has a limited release, including Chicago, on July 18th. Featuring Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Jim Parsons, Josh Gad, Joey King, Ashley Greene and James Avery. Written by Adam J. Braff and Zach Braff. Directed by Zach Braff. Rated “R”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Senior Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2014 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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For future reference: Actors

For future reference:
Actors of fully Jewish background: -Logan Lerman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mila Kunis, Natalie Portman, Bar Refaeli, James Wolk, Julian Morris, Esti Ginzburg, Kat Dennings, Erin Heatherton, Odeya Rush, Anton Yelchin, Paul Rudd, Scott Mechlowicz, Lizzy Caplan, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Gal Gadot, Robert Kazinsky, Melanie Laurent, Marla Sokoloff, Shiri Appleby, Justin Bartha, Adam Brody, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Gabriel Macht, Halston Sage, Seth Gabel.

Actors with Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers -Jake Gyllenhaal, Dave Franco, Scarlett Johansson, Daniel Radcliffe, Alison Brie, Eva Green, Emmy Rossum, Jennifer Connelly, Eric Dane, Jeremy Jordan, Joel Kinnaman.

Actors with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, who themselves were either raised as Jews and/or identify as Jews: -Andrew Garfield, Ezra Miller, Alexa Davalos, Nat Wolff, James Maslow, Josh Bowman, Ben Foster, Nikki Reed, Zac Efron.

Actors with one Jewish-born parent and one parent who converted to Judaism -Dianna Agron, Sara Paxton (whose father converted, not her mother), Alicia Silverstone, Jamie-Lynn Sigler.

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