Zach Braff was born in South Orange, New Jersey, on April 6, 1975. He attended Columbia High School in Maplewood where he was friends with hip-hop diva-to-be Lauryn Hill.
Zach studied film at Northwestern University where he earned a B.A. before heading to Hollywood. As an actor, he’s best known as Dr. John “J.D.” Dorian on Scrubs, the Emmy-winning sitcom which enjoyed a nine-year run on network TV from 2001 to 2010. As a director, he made an impressive debut in 2004 with Garden State, a semi-autobiographical offering which he also wrote and starred in.
For Zach, Wish I Was Here is the culmination of personal filmmaking at its best. As the movie’s co-writer, director, star and producer, he was involved in nearly every aspect of the picture’s creative development. A decade ago, in Garden State, he perfectly portrayed the plight of a young man trying to find his place in a crazy world
This go-round, he and his co-writer brother, Adam, examine what it means to have a family today. Zach plays Aidan Bloom, a struggling actor with a wife (Kate Hudson) stuck in a soul-crushing job. The couple have two kids (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon) who are being forced out of private school due to financial constraints, since Aidan’s dad (Mandy Patinkin) is facing life-threatening health issues.
Despite such harsh realities, the picture nevertheless poetically weaves a wonderful tapestry of an enchanting world worth living in. This is in no small part thanks to the power of the imagination which has fueled Zach’s own evolution from a wide-eyed kid from New Jersey into a gifted filmmaker capable of connecting with his audience emotionally.
Hi Zach, thanks for the interview. I’m honored to have this opportunity.
Oh, thanks Kam. It’s nice to talk to you.
I loved the film. Garden State made my Top 10 List for 2004, and Wish I Was Here is definitely one of my Top 10 favorite films of 2014 so far.
Thanks, man. You just put a smile on my face.
Everybody in the small group I saw it with cried at the end and all the way through the closing credits.
That’s a good sign.
Why a decade between movies?
It was just so hard. I tried my best, but I didn’t want to put out a picture that I wouldn’t want to put my name on. I didn’t want to let my fans down, and all the scripts that were coming my way were really commercial and felt like something we’d already seen a thousand times.
A couple times I had movies put together, only to have the project fall apart because we lost a star or I lost the money. There are so many pieces that have to line up. And I was also still doing Scrubs, so I just couldn’t work it out with a piece of writing that I was willing to put my name on until I was able to collaborate on this original script with my brother.
I watched Garden State quite a bit. Often we see the final product but aren’t aware of the creative process that goes into a script or filming. What does your scriptwriting process look like?
Well, it was different for Garden State, because I wrote that on my own. This one, I wrote with my brother, so we got together for about a month to hammer out the characters and the outline of the story. The main character’s sort of a combination of us. My brother’s about a decade older than I am. We wanted to write about a guy in his mid-30s, so we were able to attack it from the angle of two men born 10 years apart. He’d work on one scene while I’d work on another. Then we’d switch scenes and sort of give each other notes, and debate what was right and where it should go. And little by little, through all these conversations, the whole script took shape.
To what extent is this film autobiographical, given that it was written by you and your brother, and it’s in part about their relationship?
A lot of it is… the search for spirituality… the struggle to question how long you’re allowed to pursue a dream, especially when you have mouths to feed and a mortgage to pay. All of those things that my brother and I are asking. It’s also about relationships between fathers and sons and mothers and daughters. We all have those battles with our parents where we want to be our own person but they’re still saying something else. A lot of it is autobiographical, although our father couldn’t be more supportive of our pursuing the arts, whereas the father in the movie is pretty against it.
One of my readers, Peter, says that while watching the film, he thinks he spotted a flaw, namely, a brochure at a Jewish funeral home offering the option of an open casket.
If that’s the case, it would be a prop master mistake, and I apologize for that. There is no option for an open casket at a Jewish funeral. For Peter to have detected that he must be able to speed read and have zeroed in on the pamphlet. The casket is always closed in Judaism, although the family is allowed to view the deceased before the ceremony, if they so choose.
What auteur message does this film and Garden State seek to deliver?
I believe, personally, that this experience we have on Earth is finite, and that there is nothing else. I know not everyone agrees with me, but that is my personal belief. So, I think that the message is both about trying to celebrate the present, trying to get out of our heads, and about being present with the people we love. For me, that’s the great quest of life, the struggle to be in the moment. That’s why the film is called Wish I Was Here, meaning I wish I was here in the moment.
Why the grammatically incorrect title?
I have a two-fold answer. First, it’s a play off the classic postcard salutation, “Wish You Were Here,” but switched around to reflect the perspective of the individual sending it. Second, the premise of the film revolves around a father who’s homeschooling his kids but doesn’t know how to teach them grammar. We see his daughter [Joey King] correct her mom [Kate Hudson] on the proper use of “who” and “whom,” and that’s something that he would get wrong as well.
How would you compare the experiences of shooting Wish I Was Here and Garden State? How many members of the cast and crew worked on both films?
I tried to reunite all the top creative heads from Garden State, and I got some of them. Others weren’t available. Both my cinematographer [Lawrence Sher] and my editor [Myron Kerstein], who do amazing work and are really good friends, are back for the film, and that was really crucial to me. And my producers were the same. As far as the cast, Jim Parsons is back and Michael Weston, who played the cop in Garden State, is back. And I tried to find as many cameos as possible for people I like to work with.
In terms of the shooting, this one was unique because of the crowdfunding aspect of it. We had our incredible backers visiting us on set, serving as extras, and generally hanging around. That was fun because it gave us a chance to show them how movies are made. Ordinarily, you and the crew just get so caught up in doing it that you don’t ever pause to explain the process to people it’s foreign to. But here, you’d look over and see an electrician showing a backer why we are hanging a light a certain way. Or you’d look over and see Kate [Hudson] saying to someone else, “Oh, yeah, this is where my little hidden microphone goes.” The process was very educational for a lot of people.
Would you use Kickstarter again for your next film project?
No, this was always meant as an experiment, not as the permanent way in which I plan to finance my films. It was sort of like, “Hey, wouldn’t this be a crazy idea if this worked?” The dilemma in holding onto your artistic integrity is removing any corporate or other sort of involvement that might influence the art. The question for us was, “What would it be like if we took that out of the equation?” That was my vision, and it worked. So, it proved to be a wonderful experience, although it was always conceived as a one-off experiment.
Are you friends with Donald Faison in real life?
Yeah, he’s my best friend. He truly is my best friend, and we do everything together. He’s so supportive of me that he’s been promoting the movie and making the rounds even though he only has a smart part in it.
How do you get your hair like that?
(Laughs) My hair? People always like to talk about my hair. It’s just bed head. I often take showers at night. So, when I wake up, my hair’s crazy.
Reader Grace says: You’ve had an extraordinarily diverse and interesting career. If you had to choose one or two of your favorite types of work could you do that, or is it the variety of your professional activities that gives you most satisfaction?
That’s a great question, Grace. I always think it’s good to shake things up. You know, I’m doing a big Broadway musical [Bullets Over Broadway] right now at the same time that I’m releasing this indie movie. They couldn’t be more different from each other. But that’s what makes being a creator of entertainment so much fun. Shaking it up! I would be incredibly bored if I just did the same thing over and over. I like trying new things and really being brave. Doing the crowdfunding was a brave experiment, and singing on Broadway is another brave experiment. I like to attempt things that I’m fearful of.
Where do you see your career being 10 years from now?
Well, I hope it won’t be 10 years before I make another movie. My hope is to be making a lot more movies in the next decade. It’s certainly what brings me the most joy.
What was the most challenging scene to shoot in Wish I Was Here?
Probably those fantasy sequences, because they were very elaborate and we didn’t have much time. We shot the whole movie in 26 days. The fantasy sequences involved a lot of special effects and a costume built by a great company called Legacy Effects, and all sorts of camera toys. Those were the most challenging, especially since I had to direct from inside the suit, which was really hard. But I did have a body double for when my face wasn’t onscreen.
Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
Wow! That’s a great question… [Pauses to reflect] But I’ve been asked so many questions that I can’t think of one.
What was the last book you read?
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick.
What is your favorite dish to cook?
I can’t cook, so I’ll say ice.
When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
Someone who’s extraordinarily tired because he’s doing eight shows a week on Broadway while he’s releasing a film.
What is your earliest childhood memory?
I don’t even know. But I can remember my earliest movie memory. My father used to somehow get a hold of 35mm prints and project them on our living room wall way before I could understand them. My earliest movie memory is of my parents having a dinner party and showing Annie Hall which, to this day, is one of my favorite films.
Thanks again for the time, Zach, and best of luck both on Broadway and with Wish I Was Here.
Thanks for all your support, Kam. That really means a lot to me.
Zach Braff’s latest film, Wish I Was Here, is in theaters now. For more information on the movie, go to wishiwasheremovie.com.