IT’S BEEN A QUIET DECADE FOR ZACH BRAFF. After writing, directing and starring in 2004’s sleeper hit Garden State—the millennial bildungsroman that nabbed the former Scrubs star voice-of-a-generation plaudits and a Grammy for its meticulously curated soundtrack—it seemed like Braff was destined for a career as a celebrated auteur, the Mike Nichols to Wes Anderson’s Hal Ashby. Instead, the 39-year-old chose a lower-key path: he wrapped up his stint on Scrubs, acted in a handful of mostly small, mostly unseen movies, and wrote an off-Broadway play called All New People.
Now, finally, Braff is back with another film of his own making. Funded in large part by a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, Wish I Was Here is as Braff-ian a tale as can be: a struggling actor in his mid-30s searches for his purpose in life while home-schooling his two quirky, adorable children. It’s proof that despite his relative absence from the limelight, these past 10 years have done nothing to harden or change Zach Braff. He’s still as earnest as ever; still the kind of guy who believes that a Shins song can change your life.
I don’t want to alarm you, but I feel it’s necessary to start by giving you a little background on who you’re speaking to: between the ages of 13 and 16, I think I watched Garden State roughly 479 times.
[Laughs.] That’s very, very nice to hear.
Why did it take so long for this follow-up? You were attached to a bunch of directing gigs over the years, but nothing ever came to fruition.
The headline is that I was doing a TV show. I had a job. It’s like saying to someone with a full-time job, “Why didn’t you ever write your novel?” I mean, I tried. To make a movie at all is so fucking hard. To make a movie during a hiatus when you’re the lead of a network TV show is even harder, because there are so many variables. Dates get pushed. You finally line up your celebrity, and they say, “Oh, he can’t do September. Can you do November?” The money falls apart over and over and over again. And that’s what kept happening. The other part of it is that I didn’t want to make crap. I wanted to make something I believed in. The classic trope is for a filmmaker to have a hit at Sundance, and then they rush out and take the first paycheque that the studio gives them. More often than not, that second movie isn’t good, because the artistic integrity and passion and love and years of hard work they poured into their first project doesn’t carry over. Instead, they got handed their star by the studio and had to make all these compromises on their true art. And so, since I had success with Scrubs, I was able to take my time and wait for the right opportunity.
You co-wrote Wish I Was Here with your older brother. Co-writing with anyone—let alone with a sibling—seems like it invites just the kind of creative compromises that you’ve spent so long trying to avoid. What was that process like?
The film is about family and the relationship between two brothers, so there are aspects of it that reflect our lives. My brother has two children and is a really great dad, and the main character in our movie is a fun, out-of-the-box wacky dad. My brother is also 10 years older than me, so we could span that age difference and comment on your mid-thirties from different perspectives.
My brother is an amazing writer, but when it comes to any writing relationship, you just have to set who’s going to make the final say. That’s what’s tricky. In this case, because I was directing and playing the lead, I’d have to say, “Look man, trust me. I’m going to do it this way, because I’m directing it.” Ultimately, if you don’t have a final decision-maker—if it isn’t 51-49—you’re going to be screwed.
In both movies you’ve directed, the protagonists’ fathers play a central role, and in the case of Wish I Was Here, the protagonist is a father himself. What is it that you find so captivating about the relationship between fathers and sons?
It’s funny you say that. I know nothing about sports—couldn’t care less about sports—but when the father in Field of Dreams comes back to have a catch, I just start bawling. I’m a sucker for father-son relationships. It’s very moving to me. It’s something that I react to, and I think you should write what moves you if you’re trying to move other people. That’s why I’m drawn to those stories.
What’s your relationship like with your own dad?
We’re very close. He’s the reason I got into acting, and he’s been a very important mentor to me. But like any father sometimes he can drive me crazy.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from him?
Just to never take “no” for an answer. My whole career, all the successes I’ve had have been preceded by a thousand nos. I’ve been trying to act since I was 14 years old, but I didn’t get a real cheque until I was 25. Everyone in Hollywood passed on Garden State three times. And this new movie, we couldn’t find financing for it. But you just can’t allow yourself to get stopped.
Let’s talk Kickstarter. It’s been a great success for you, but it also came with a fair share of criticism from those who disagreed with the idea of a filmmaker asking his fans to fund his film, and then reaping all the profits. Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
There’s nothing I would have done differently. I learned so much. I learned that there’s so much that’s unknown to the general public about film financing, and the onus was on me to explain it to Earth, virtually. And I wasn’t expecting that. As someone who is constantly trying to get financing for films, there are things that I know that I’d naïvely assumed were common knowledge. So, the backlash and the controversy mostly stemmed from people not fully understnading the way film financing works, or the way Kickstarter works, or so many other aspects of the debate. I was naïve to not understand that before I could even have the debate with people—and it’s an interesting debate because the Internet is changing every model there is—I had to calm them down and explain the facts. Then we could have a conversation. And I felt alone out there because no one else was doing it.
Finally, Kickstarter was able to quiet down the firestorm by making a public statement and releasing data to show that a lot of the con side’s debate points were incorrect. I was a little bummed they took so long—they left me out there a little while to take the heat. I’m a big boy, I could handle it, but it was a little frustrating to be debating people that didn’t have the right facts.
Do you think this is something we’ll be seeing more and more? Filmmakers choosing to forego the studio system in favour of crowdfunding?
I don’t think so. It might happen more if and when it becomes legal to give people a financial upside—that is to say, when a film becomes like a stock. As of right now, that’s totally illegal, and I don’t want to go to jail. Unlike Martha Stewart, I have no skill set to endear myself to prisoners. I can’t teach them knitting. I can teach them how to crowdfund, and that’s about it.
But for now, without profit participation, I think most people will look at me—or Spike Lee or Kristen Bell—and think, “Wow, they took so much heat. Why would I want to deal with that?” The backlash probably rightly freaked a lot of people out, which is a shame for Kickstarter because high-profile projects drive an insane amount of traffic to the site. All the data proves that if you’re Spike Lee and you bring in your entire fan base, they don’t just fund your movie—they stay on the site and go on to fund other things. So, sadly, in a way the debate not only scared other filmmakers from doing it, but it also stopped the growth of Kickstarter on the exponential level that it was going.
What about you? Can you see yourself returning to the crowd-funding well again?
No. It’s been an amazing experiment and adventure, but I wouldn’t do it this way again. Our backers have been incredible, though, and we’ve been able to create a really fun community. Those people will have an inside scoop and inside access to everything I ever do.
Wish I Was Here covers very similar territory to Garden State, but it focuses on a different period in a man’s life. What have you learned about life—about your place in the world—in the decade that’s passed between your two movies?
Wow, what a loaded question. How many pages have you got for this? For me, life isn’t really so much about answering questions. It’s about asking them. We all wonder what the hell we’re doing here. It’s such a mindfuck to be on this planet, in this solar system, in this galaxy, in this endless universe. Some of us have religion to help us cope with that, some of us don’t. It’s such a mindfuck to be a living being that that’s what I write about: those questions that we’re asking about ourselves.
I don’t want to be like Tony Robbins, going, “I’ve figured it all out and here are my answers.” Instead, it’s about saying, “Hey friends, you’re not alone. We’re all asking these questions. We’re all suffering. We’re all lonesome at times, and we’re all confused at times.”
Do you think this might be the beginning of something for you along the lines of Richard Linklater and his Before series? Every 10 years, you’ll check in with a new film about a different phase of life, armed with another Shins song?
[Laughs.] That’s a great question, but no. As much as I love Linklater and Before Sunrise, that’s not what I’m aiming for. I am going to make more movies, though. I’m hoping to direct something by the beginning of next year. I have no idea what that is yet, but I’m going to spend the rest of the year looking for it. And I’m excited for that search.