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INT: Zach Braff

07.27.2004

You’ve seen Zach Braff portray the hilariously weird Doctor John Dorian on TV's "Scrubs" for the past three seasons. On July 30th, GARDEN STATE will open in select theaters, and you will have the opportunity to knock innocent pedestrians to the ground, as you dash anxiously towards the ticket counter. He not only stars in this brilliantly touching movie about a 20-something depressed man looking for happiness under the most bizarre of circumstances, but he also wrote and directed it. Not bad for a guy who is best known for starring in a sitcom.

I foresee great things happening in his career. As you’ll read in the interview, he is like a modern day Renaissance man, tackling a variety of different artistic outlets and excelling in all of them. He is not yet 30 years old, but he has the presence and talent of someone way beyond his years. He has a very relaxed demeanor, self-deprecating sense of humor, and a silly endearing way about him. You immediately feel like you’ve known him for years, even though he just stepped into the room. He’s all brains and laughs with no trace of ego, which is a nice change from typical Hollywood folk. To top it off, he’s got some killer musical taste, and the soundtrack to his new movie is amazing. Here is what he had to say:

ZACH BRAFF

This film has some of the best side gags I’ve ever seen. When you had the wall certificates (scene in the movie), was that purposely done or is it something that kind of happened during shooting?

Thank you! No, because I was going to act in the movie, everything pretty much had to be storyboarded out. I had to take as many things out of the directing mix as possible on set, so I storyboarded every single frame in the movie. That’s not to say occasionally we wouldn’t be like “Oh that’s cool, let’s try that,” but things like that (side gags) were completely planned and in the script.

What was it about Natalie Portman that you wanted for the movie, and what did she bring to it?

For me, there’s a very rare thing to find in certain actors and actresses, and she has it. There are a lot of pretty actresses in Hollywood, and there are a handful of those pretty actresses who are good actresses. And then there’s the occasional one who has that weird thing that everyone can’t describe, where she walks in a room and you can’t take your eyes off her. It isn’t just the beauty-- it’s something else, and you can’t put your finger on it, and she has that, I think. I always saw that and wondered how lucky I would be if I one day got to work with her in any capacity, let alone have her star in my first film. I’ve just been such a huge fan of hers since she was a kid.

Did you know you had so much in common with her beforehand? For instance, you both did Shakespeare, etc. Did you realize that when you wanted to work with her?

No. We went to the same theater camp--I knew that--in Loch Sheldrake, New York. I knew that she was a nice Jewish girl from the east coast, but I didn’t really know much about her. I didn’t know anything about her until we met and had lunch together.

You’ve directed lots of short films and music videos, but when you walked into the office saying you might want to direct a feature, was it initially hard to be taken seriously?

Well, it was harder than I thought. I had envisioned in my head that being on Scrubs, and having Natalie Portman attached to star, and Danny Devito producing, that it would be a cinch. I thought, wow, I’m not asking for that much money, come on, you know? And I couldn’t find anyone that wanted to take a risk. It was a risk. The screenplay is not a traditional three act structure; it’s not a movie a studio would ever generate. And as I learned, it was not a movie a studio would ever really produce (laughs). Even as I got Peter, and I got Ian, I was like, you’ve got to be kidding me! I’m asking for like a little bit of money here. And the people would be like, okay, if you do ‘this’ to it.

Things that freak them out for example, are introducing a character that doesn’t come back. I’m like, well, that’s life! I go home for four days and if I meet somebody, they’re not going to teach me a lesson by the time I leave. They’re like “Well shouldn’t Titembay come back, and teach them a lesson?” No! We met Titembay and that’s it. So yea, they wanted things like that. They wanted a bigger fight between the father, etc. So I’d leave a meeting going okay, they want me to make a big studio movie--but it’s not that.

Then eventually, I found a young gentleman who said yes, and was willing to take a risk, and say I like it, I believe in it, and I’ll go for it, and that’s how I got this made. And then the studios when they saw it done, they were all very into it, but it was “execution dependent”. If you’re ever trying to get a movie made, you’ll become very familiar with that term. “We love the script but we feel it is execution dependent”. (laughs) It means like, we want to see it when someone else has taken the risk and it’s done.

Is it difficult to direct yourself in scenes that you’re acting in, which is pretty much the whole movie?

It is tricky. There were times when I’d be acting with my right eye and watching a camera crane with my left eye. But a lot of times it was helpful, because a lot of the scenes are one-on-two or three people, and I felt in a certain way that I was the director undercover. I was undercover in this actor and I could steer a scene how I wanted it to go by what I was giving the other actors. So normally, a director would have to cut and go “Okay, you need to give him a little more this” and “I think that’ll make her come back,” so I didn’t have to do any of that. I would just go “I have to give her a little more that”. The main communication a director has in a film is talking to the lead actor, and a lot of time is spent communicating and trying to get the right thing. So for me, that was all in my head, so in some ways I think it helped speed things up and enabled us to shoot the movie in 25 days, which is pretty obscene.

For an independent movie, you have a lot of producers. How did so many producers get involved, and were you able to still keep your own vision?

Everyone wanted to produce it--nobody just wanted to pay for it (laughs). Nobody wanted to put up the money for it. Well, the first thing that happened is that Jersey Films got attached. They really liked the movie, but they don’t finance films; they mostly do big movies. They loved the script and they were curious about doing something smaller. So that brought on the bulk of the producers, because there are the three executives of the company, and then the two hands-on producers who were going to actively be on set producing. Then when we got the financiers, Gary and Dan Halsted, who worked with Camelot Pictures, there were a lot of cooks. But they were really great in giving me my space. There are so many nightmare scenarios where everyone is so freaked out about a first time filmmaker, that they’re all over them. They really allowed me to have my space and gave me the final cut on the movie, which for a first-timer is pretty obscene too.

In the Neurologist’s waiting room scene, you have a very specific shout-out to The Shins. How did you choose to highlight them?

I think they’re the greatest band in the world. I love them. I don’t get tired of their music. In fact, on the plane here, that’s all I was listening to. I started getting freaked out when I started falling in love with music that no one was listening to. Like, one of my favorite bands in the world is a band called Remy Zero, and they couldn’t sell albums and I don’t even think they’re together anymore. I have one of their songs in the movie when Natalie’s tap-dancing in front of the fireplace. The Shins were a band I got turned on to, and basically, I just scored the movie with my favorite music.

It’s really cool to know that people are now responding to the music in the way they are. On the internet, it’s crazy the way people are talking about the soundtrack, and are so psyched to find out when it’s coming out. It makes me really happy, because it’s going to be a great opportunity for a lot of these bands that are having trouble getting exposure to get heard. There are a few people on the soundtrack that aren’t even signed! It freaks me out how I’ll go to a concert and be like, oh my god, this guy’s the second coming, and he can’t even get signed to a label! It makes me want to become a record producer.

Was it hard getting rights to some of the music?

Well, Simon & Garfunkel and Coldplay were the ones we were like, come on, who are we kidding ourselves? And in fact, when the label for Simon & Garfunkel first came back, we all had a good laugh at how much money they were asking because we were like, “We could make another movie!” But I have to say, I wrote them a letter, and I appealed to Paul Simon, who I think has the writing rights to the song, and they were very generous. And when we showed them the scene on the crane with the first kiss, they didn’t hesitate to say we could have it for the movie. One by one, all the bands said yes. I only got turned down, out of all my requests, by one person, who shall remain nameless-- because I hate her now (laughs).

This film was acquired at Sundance. Can you walk us through the whole Sundance experience going in with this film, screening it, reactions, etc? And I guess, from what I’m assuming, Fox Searchlight taking domestic and Miramax taking international?

It’s a long story, but the short version of it is that we went there, we premiered it, and immediately the response was really positive. It was especially fun, since all of these people had passed on it, and now it was fun to see them excited about it. Offers started coming in, and really quickly it got down to three companies, and two of them were particularly passionate about it. And, in an unprecedented move, that’s never really I think been done before, Harvey Weinstein called Peter Rice and said “I don’t want to lose it and I know you don’t want to lose it, so why don’t we buy it together?” So we were all sort of freaked out about what that meant, and in a way, when the dust settled, we saw that it was a dream scenario. It was two of the most powerful and respected distribution companies, saying “Let’s pool our resources, what are your strongest assets, what are our strongest assets, we both really love this movie, let’s do it together.” So that’s how that came to be.

Has your experience on Scrubs informed or not informed the way you approach the comedy in this movie?

The comedy in Scrubs, at times, is a lot broader and I didn’t want to have any broad comedy. But occasionally on the show, my favorite kind of comedy is the really funny dry stuff like The Office--I love that. So I learned a lot about straight takes. Large (his character) is essentially the straight man of the movie, which I don’t do on Scrubs. I’m by no means the straight man on Scrubs (laughs). The biggest thing I got from the series was really the pace at which we shoot. Scrubs is a great boot camp for making Indie films, because we shoot an episode in five days.

It’s a tremendous amount of work, and we move, move, move, shoot, move on, shoot, etc. And that’s the way we really had to approach shooting this movie. Also, on Scrubs, we have a different director every week, so it was also a kind of continuing education in film school for me to work with a different director and say “I like the way this person directs, that’s something they really do that I like, I’m going to take that with me”, or “That’s something I don’t like that that person does at all, I’m never going to do that to my actors,” etc. It was a unique opportunity for an aspiring director to have to essentially get directed by a different director every week for three years.

When Natalie Portman sees your character in this movie, she says “Oh, you’re that guy on TV!” Do you get any of that now when you’re walking down the street?

Yeah--the Scrubs guy. (laughs). No one knows my name. Donald Faison and I became fast friends on Scrubs and we’d laugh because we’d be walking down the street and people would just yell out “Clueless!” (laughs). He’s like “I’m really looking forward to a time in my life where people don’t yell out the word clueless at me”. So now we’re “Scrubs guys!” which is better than being called clueless.

What are some things you have coming up in the works?

I’m not available to do anything else really until March, and I’m not sure what that’s going to be. I do know that I am doing the lead voice of Chicken Little, which is Disney’s big fun summer 2005 kid’s movie, which is a tremendous amount of fun. It’s their first movie without Pixar, and they’re really behind it. Garry Marshall plays my dad, and he’s hysterical, and (co-stars) Amy Sedaris and Steve Zahn and Joan Cusack, etc. And I’m going to be in a Happy Meal, which is all I’ve ever really wanted (laughs). As long as my nephew can get me in a Happy Meal, I think I’ve won.

Then, my brother and I are co-writing an adaptation of a children’s book that I optioned called Andrew Henry’s Meadow. I love the movie The Goonies--it’s a great fun summer kids-save-the-world live action movie without all the CGI. They built their own sets and we want to do that too. The way we described it would be if Terry Gillian had directed The Goonies, that’s what we’re making. I’ll be a producer on it. I couldn’t direct it, because I have a five month window from Scrubs, so I can do a movie of Garden State scale, but not a movie of this scale. So I’ll produce it, and John Davis is executive producing.

To what extent did you imagine or craft Garden State as a generational statement of some sort?

I didn’t really think of it like that. I think if I sought out to make a generational statement, I would have just gotten really pretentious and self-important, and I hate those movies. I hate them so much. So I just thought, well, there’s got to be people my age who are going through this feeling I have right now. There’s got to be people who feel lost or depressed and are not really sure why, and are lonely, so I just wrote that. I wrote a story about a lonely guy who really is due for a new chapter to open in his life, and I said I’m not going to pay attention to story structure, I’m not going to pay attention to all the rules that are so wonderfully spoofed in the movie Adaptation-- I’m just going to write a story.

And I didn’t really know where it was going, to be honest. I knew I had ideas of things I wanted to do but when I first started writing, I was like, where do we go next? Well, he’d probably go find his buddies. So I wrote that scene, you know? I tried to keep it really honest and I think people responded to it, because I discovered there were a lot of people out there who were going through the same thing, and feel the same thing in their 20’s. And the cool thing that I didn’t expect is that people of all different ages responded. I had a screening the other night and this woman, this 85 year old woman, walked out with tears in her eyes, and I was so moved that she got something out of it. You know, every generation thinks that they’re going through this for the first time.  It’s really a movie about transition. It’s about looking for contentment and dreaming of finding contentment, and I think that every human being can relate to that on some level.

Earlier in the interview, you mentioned Simon and Garfunkel. Do you find that a lot of people in your parent’s generation are comparing this movie to The Graduate?

I don’t like The Graduate comparison just because that puts so much pressure on the movie. It’s like seeing a toddler be good at basketball and saying he’s going to be the next Michael Jordan (laughs). It’s like, don’t do that to him! I love that movie, it’s a brilliant movie, but I don’t think my movie’s that good. But I do think that what The Graduate did was sort of take the temperature for a generation, and say this is the state of the union for what it felt like to be a 20 something in that time, for my parent’s generation. What I hoped was for the film to be able to speak to them in a similar way.

Who are your influences as a film maker, and also, have you ever planned to or wanted to direct an episode of Scrubs?

I am going to direct my first episode of Scrubs this season, which I’m very excited about. As for my influences, I would say Hal Ashby, and Woody Allen of course, first and foremost. Alexander Payne is a new favorite of mine. Also, Stanley Kubrick.

As an actor turned director, you’re surrounded by Peter and Ian, who are two great actors. Are you open to advice from them, or are you sure of how you want things to be ahead of time?

I am very into a collaborative environment. I think the best things I’ve worked on are collaborations. You know, you hire all these amazing talents, creative people, etc, and if you let your ego get in the way and try and be the only one with ideas, that’s going to be a disaster. So I was very open to them having ideas and pitching ideas and they all did. And as a testament to them, they were all able to take direction from me and didn’t let their egos go, “This guy doesn’t know what he’s doing,” and they really trusted me. I was really grateful to them for allowing me to be in charge.

Was Natalie Portman’s character inspired by Annie Hall?

Annie Hall, I think, is pretty close to a perfect movie. So I can’t help but have influences. But I think it’s closer to Harold and Maude. I told Natalie I wanted her to be a 21 year old Ruth Gordon. And I think she did. (laughs).

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Source: JoBlo.com

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