Zach Braff Visits Life’s Infinite Abyss in “Garden State”
by Jonny Leahan
Zach Braff, who plays Dr. John ‘J.D.’ Dorian on the sitcom “Scrubs,” is not just another TV actor trying to make the leap to the big screen. In fact, television is likely just a pit stop on his way to a goal that he’s had since childhood: to direct movies. A film school graduate, Braff wrote the screenplay for his debut feature film “Garden State” long before being cast on “Scrubs,” and was shopping it around Hollywood with little success — partly because he was a relative unknown who was insisting on directing. In true Hollywood form, that all changed when his newfound fame as a TV star suddenly created a bidding war around the project. (The film was Sundance 2004’s biggest buzz project, attracting an unusual joint acquisition from Miramax and Fox Searchlight.)
Any concerns about whether the 29-year-old Braff could pull off writing, directing, and starring in his first feature appear to have been unfounded, as he’s deftly delivered a dark comedy of real substance and heart. In “Garden State,” Braff plays Andrew Largeman, a struggling TV actor living in Los Angeles who returns home to New Jersey (after a lengthy absence) for his mother’s funeral. To his surprise, “Large” runs into all kinds of old friends who never left, like Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), begrudgingly working as a gravedigger.
As the story unfolds, the saga of Large’s complicated and painful family life is incrementally revealed to the audience, including the discovery that his controlling psychiatrist father (Sir Ian Holm) has kept him on heavy doses of Lithium since he was a child. When Large meets the quirky and colorful Sam (Natalie Portman) in a neurologist’s waiting room, they eventually become friends, and embark on a series of random adventures that bring them closer together. As Sam’s radiance begins to break through the fog of Large’s otherwise mundane existence, a romance develops, and he gradually begins to embrace life’s “infinite abyss” in all its beauty and pain.
Recently, indieWIRE sat down to talk with Braff about his lust for learning, his worship of Woody Allen, and his next film project, based on a children’s book. “Garden State” opens in New York and Los Angeles tomorrow, and goes wide in August.
indieWIRE: You wrote, directed, and starred in “Garden State.” How did that all happen?
Zach Braff: I always wanted to direct movies. That’s what I set out to do. When I was a little kid I just dreamed of making movies, and I went to film school [at Northwestern University], and in a roundabout way I ended up on “Scrubs.” But as soon as I could, my dream was to go back and direct.
iW: What was the biggest challenge in directing your first feature?
Braff: The biggest challenge were the scenes where there was so much going on. We didn’t have a lot of big scenes… but we had a scene where we had this huge 80-foot pool at night with 30 extras, and the pool wasn’t warm enough. It was raining, and we had a 50-foot Techno Crane, and it was just mayhem. I remember thinking, “What am I doing? I’m so gonna fuck this up.” And people are panicking and yelling, and ordering in a water truck with heated water to try and make the pool more tolerable for the actors… There’s definitely times when you go, “I’m fucking this up, I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”
iW: But you didn’t fuck it up. It’s a wonderful movie. I saw some interesting influences in there, like a little “Harold and Maude.”
Braff: Oh, of course, that’s one of my favorite movies of all time.
iW: Mine, too. So what else influences your work?
Braff: Hal Ashby in general I think is great, and Woody Allen, of course, especially films like “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan.” Todd Haynes‘ film “Safe” believe it or not — just the way that he documented suburbia I thought was so chilling and lonesome. And I like Alexander Payne a lot, too.
iW: Speaking of Woody Allen, didn’t you work with him when you were 18 years old?
Braff: I did. I was in a scene playing his and Diane Keaton‘s son in “Manhattan Murder Mystery.” It was particularly surreal.
iW: What was it like working with the master?
Braff: He’s very shy. It was fun to see him in action, the way he and Diane Keaton would improv together. They would go totally off the script, saying very funny things that were nowhere near anything I had seen in the script, and I’m in the scene with them so I’m trying to keep up. But I was 18 and really wide-eyed, and didn’t know what I was doing. When I watch the scene back now I just look terrified, I mean I’d never really worked before and it was me, Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, and Anjelica Huston in one scene. But a great life experience to have early on, to see him on a set and how quickly he moves. He’s an eccentric, but that’s what makes his movies so good.
iW: By the way, the soundtrack for “Garden State” is phenomenal. How involved were you with that?
Braff: It was all my favorite music. I have a lot of friends who are musicians and they would occasionally tell me to check something out. For example, a good buddy of mine turned me on to Nick Drake recently and now I love him. But a lot of it was just stuff I was listening to over and over again, and I wanted to score the movie with my favorite songs.
iW: What was it like going to film school at Northwestern? Is that where you started making shorts?
Braff: Yeah I made short films there. I wanted to make sure in film school that I just did everything with production that I could think of. So I just studied and studied, worked on every student film I could. I’d do every single position… I just wanted to learn everything. My appetite for learning behind-the-scenes production was insatiable and as a result, by the time I was directing shorts myself I really understood each position and each job, and could then direct people how I wanted. I directed about four short films when I was there, and the final one was the one that opened some doors when I graduated, because it looked pretty good.
iW: Did you take it to the festivals?
Braff: I did, but I made the mistake of making it 25 minutes long, and nobody wants a 25-minute short at a festival because you can’t put it before a feature. So that was my own lesson. When people that ask me for advice now, I say, “Keep ’em short, shorter the better.”
iW: As if directing, writing, and starring in a picture weren’t enough, now you’re adding executive producer to your list of film credits?
Braff: Yeah, it’s an idea I had. I optioned a children’s book that was one of my favorites [“Andrew Henry’s Meadow,” by Doris Burn], and my brother and I are co-writing it, and we sold the idea to Fox so now we’re developing this big fun project, in the spirit of “Goonies.” I’m co-writing it with my brother and executive producing it, since it’s too big a movie for me to try and do for my second film and also within a hiatus window for “Scrubs.” We’re gonna find some awesome badass director who has the same vision that we have for it. I describe it as “Brazil” for kids.
iW: Aside from that project, what do you see yourself doing in the future?
Braff: I want to make more movies like “Garden State.” I mean Woody Allen was my hero. He’s someone who in his heyday, in the era of his films that I love the most, he was making movies that were just taking the social temperature of his group of people in New York City, and I’d like to make more movies like that for people my age.