A little more than two years ago, Zach Braff did something that very few people of his level of fame had even attempted. He launched a Kickstarter campaign to supplement funds he had already collected (including a great deal of his own money) to finance WISH I WAS HERE, his latest directing effort (co-written by his brother Adam). The campaign was so successful that he ended up raising more than $2 million in three days, and before too long, as is often the case, people saw something good happen to someone and immediately wanted to shit on it.
There were actual article written on mainstream outlets questioning whether Braff would payback his many Kickstarter investors, because as we all know that’s EXACTLY how Kickstarter works. I get my Kickstarter reimbursement checks every week. I have no particular connection (personal or otherwise) to Braff; I liked GARDEN STATE as much as most people, and I find him a funny guy, good conversationalist, and a great interview. Beyond that, I’m a moderate admirer of some of what he does. But when new organizations (or anyone really) takes aim at someone whose worst crime is having some level of popularity and using it to get his next movie made, that’s idiotic.
And I found that Braff has a few things to say about the controversy as well in our recent chat, but I tried not to get lost in this ancient history and actually focus on WISH I WAS HERE, a contemplation on family, escapism, responsibility, faith, and the things we pass on to the young whether we want to or not. Please enjoy my talk with Zach Braff…
Zach Braff: Hey man, how are you? Good to see you again. You are Chicago.
Capone: That’s right.
ZB: My friend who’s a mega Ain’t it Cool obsessor was like, “He IS Chicago.”
Capone: [Laughs] Whatever. I completely forgot until last night that you are in the middle of a Broadway musical right now [Braff is currently starring in the musical version of Woody Allen’s BULLETS OVER BROADWAY].
ZB: Yeah, man. I didn’t think it was going to line up like this, because when I signed on to do the Woody play, we hadn’t sold it yet at Sundance, so I assumed it would be released in the fall, so I had negotiated to have September off. But then Focus bought it, and they were like, “No we want to do exactly what you did with GARDEN STATE, counter programming in the summer.” And I was like, “Uhhhh...” So now every Sunday and Monday... I do a matinee on Sunday, I fly, do a screening on Monday, and then back to New York on Tuesday morning. We have all these advance backer screenings, which is unique to this thing, with Q&As. So this all had to be like so intricately scheduled. And in September, we do the ones in Europe, so we do a September release in Europe.
Capone: As a journalism major, I should inform you, you probably know this already, that your title is grammatically incorrect.
ZB: I know, I know. I hear from all of you. I have two rationales for it, and you can choose.
Capone: I have one, but yeah go ahead. You tell me.
ZB: Well, the first is that it sounds better, and it’s in the spirit of “Wish You Were Here,” the famous postcard saying. Then the second is that he’s not an academic, but he’s trying to home school teach his kids, and so he would get it wrong.
Capone: That’s the one I was thinking. It reflects his terrible teaching skills.
ZB: Well, it’s funny. You can imagine on Twitter how many grammar Nazis wanna tell me it’s wrong, and I’m like, “Guys, it does have some sort of reason”—raison d'etre.
Capone: I don’t want to linger on the Kickstarter part of this…
ZB: You’re Ain’t it Cool. How could you not ask?
Capone: Oh, I’ll ask. When VERONICA MARS did it, and they basically did it first at this scale...
ZB: Yes, except that they were a known brand.
Capone: That’s what I was going to say, yeah. They were a known quantity. People knew what they were sort of signing up for, and as far as I could tell. I wasn’t really tracking it, but there didn’t seem to be much backlash, and there wasn’t that much time between what they did and what you did, but the response was so, so different.
ZB: Yes, I know. That’s for you to interpret. That's your job. I have no idea why. I do know that someone wrote a “Psychology Today” article about it, because it was so bizarre, which you can track down. I also know, and because you’re as savvy about the industry as anyone, that a lot of it was me having to correct people's information about the way films are financed. And so I naively didn’t know that that was going to be on my shoulders. All of the sudden, I’m explaining film financing to earth, and that was not something I was expecting. It was a very polarizing response.
The industry loved it; hey put me on the cover of “Variety.” They thought it was fascinating. It was predominately male writers on the web, whether they be bloggers or movie writers, who took umbrance with it. Some of their complaints are fine, and I’m totally cool with it. It’s a giant, new conversation; let’s have it. But where it frustrated me a little was like “Guys, at least get some of your facts right.” The one that hurt me the most was that I was somehow harming Kickstarter. Finally, Yancey [Strickler], the CEO of Kickstarter—he left me out there a little while--but he finally released that letter, which if you haven't read you can read. But he said, “Fellas, you’re actually wrong. These celebrity projects, if you will, drive an insane amount of new eyes to Kickstarter, and those people do stay and they do fund other stuff.” And when he wrote the letter, which was about a month in, he’s like “So far, $200,000 has gone from just Kristen Bell and Zach Braff’s fan base to these other projects.”
So that talking point is wrong, so stop saying it. Because actually, in discouraging the high-profile projects, you actually are losing eyes from the other projects. Because why not have Spike Lee shuttle his whole fan base to the site? They weren’t there before. Now they’re there, and they’re browsing other stuff. It’s like putting a Macy’s at the end of a mall. You’re going to bring in Macy’s people, and then they’re going to stroll the mall, and they might buy some jelly beans at your kiosk.
Capone: There was a lot they were getting wrong about it. Some said it was a sequel to GARDEN STATE—I can’t believe how many people reported that. But the weirdest articles came out a little bit later. People were asking, “Is Zach Braff going to pay back his Kickstarter donators?” I don’t know a lot about Kickstarter, but I know that’s not how it works.
ZB: That’s fine if you’re a John Q Twitter writer, but if you’re a journalist writing that, doesn’t that make you look like an idiot?
Capone: Those were headlines. I was running through some of them last night and was going, “Oh yeah, I remember those stories.”
ZB: I’m so glad that you’re saying that, because I have read you, and I know that you’re quite informed and savvy, and it was driving me crazy. It’s one thing if you’re like, “I’m John Q Twitter who opines on what I read in 141 characters.” But if you’re a media journalist writing, Am I going to pay them back?, you know that I can’t pay them back. You know that that’s not what Kickstarter is. You know that that’s illegal. If you didn’t know that, Google it.
That conversation is a fascinating one. It’s what Hollywood Stock Exchange has been trying to do forever, and actually there’s been some moves from the SEC to get closer and closer to being able to actually financially invest with equity and have it upside. “I like Zach Braff; here’s 20 bucks; if it’s a hit, I’ll see stock upside like a stock.” That’s not legal. Anyone who has two seconds to Google search will learn that. So I couldn’t do that. What I was able to do was say, “Hey, I’ll come to your city a month before the movie comes out; I’ll show you the movie, and then we’ll sit and have a Q&A about it.” The response in Chicago was so insane we had to break it into three screenings. I can sell you a t-shirt. I can pre-sell you merch, I’ll do a wedding proposal. Do you know how many proposals I’ve done over the last month?
Capone: You did some voicemail messages.
ZB: Outgoing voicemail messages. I will whore myself. I will do anything and everything. We’re shipping like 37,000 t-shirts across earth. Can you imagine the logistics? So I’ll do anything and everything I can to make this movie, including investing a shit ton of my own money. But just for the love of god, get the story right. Don’t report the story wrong. That drives me crazy.
Capone: I read there were a couple of other things you tried to get off the ground between GARDEN STATE and this, one of which I remember last time you were here, we talked about you doing a remake of [the Danish film] OPEN HEARTS.
ZB: [laughs] You think this is hard to make.
Capone: Well, that’s a depressing movie.
ZB: You think this movie’s hard to get made. Imagine trying to get a Danish tragedy through the fucking system. I couldn’t get a made, man. At one point, I had Sean Penn and Michelle Williams attached to it, and it was a go, and it all fell apart. It was just, I couldn’t get the movie made. I’ve given up on that one. That one’s cursed. I was also attached to a giant movie called SWINGLES, which was a big studio movie. It’s so hard to get anything made, and if you’re going to hold on to your integrity... I mean, look at Edgar Wright leaving ANT MAN. I don’t know the details, but obviously he was like, “I’m not going to make that movie. I’m going to make the movie I wanted to make.” And especially, I’m not making a Marvel movie. Imagine I’m making a personal movie about my family, and I’m being told by a financier that I have to change the story, and I’m not going to have final cut, and we’re going to shoot it in Vancouver, and I just said, “I’m not going to make that movie.”
The system is the same whether you’re making it on a $200 million Marvel movie or you’re making a $5 million indie movie about your life. The system is so fucked that. Your readers wonder a) Why more stuff doesn’t come out, and b) When it comes out, why has it been ruined. It’s because there are so many fucking chefs in the kitchen, that by the time something gets through the meat grinder, it’s shit. And I read a lot of scripts, because I’m either up for directing them or up as an actor, and sometimes they’re amazing, and they come out and you’re like, “Aw, what the fuck happened?”, because it went through the machine. A
This was an experiment. I’m not going to now make all my movies crowd funded, but the experiment was for the fan base. What if I give you something that was 100 percent pure? If you don’t like me, and you’re on the internet writing about how much you hate me, this isn’t for you. [laughs] You’re not going to like this. Your think piece was written before I started production. But if you’re part of the fan base and you like what I do, this was totally styled for you with no compromises, and I hope that you like it. I know I got Kraken crying his eyes out at Sundance [laughs].
Capone: Are you prepared for that backlash from men crying in this movie.
ZB: I loved his piece. I thought that was really funny. Men are so funny about emotions. I cry my eyes out in movies. I watched FIELD OF DREAMS, and I’m not a sports guy, but when they have that catch in FIELD OF DREAMS, I’m a mess. Fathers, sons, I mean obviously, it gets me every time. But it’s so funny watching men in the screenings, how they have to like covertly act like there’s an itch, and you watch them, because now I know when the emotional scenes in the movie are, and you watch men who are like, “Oh, my elbow itches.” It’s so funny. Where as like women just like let it happen, let it flow.
Capone: You mentioned earlier, this is very personal, it’s about your family, and just about fathers and children, and it’s co-written by your brother. How personal and accurate are some of the things here? Should we take this as your journals placed on this big screen?
ZB: It’s very personal in terms of me and my brother’s beliefs and our concerns and worries and fear of death and fear of losing our father; he has two young children of these ages, so it’s like he’s the guy going, “God, I don’t even know what I believe let alone what to teach them.” So all of that is real. But like GARDEN STATE, I folded in a lot of fiction. But there are things that like, if it’s a little anecdote. Like, I was in a doctors office, and there was an empty pamphlet holder [that is labeled “This pamphlet could save your life”], and it made me chuckle to myself, “That was probably important if you put it there.”
So, little moments like that, I just love. And little antidotal moments like that are from my life, and the themes are from my life, but the actual story is fiction. Like cosplay, for example. I’m not a cosplayer, but when I went to Comic-Con I just thought cosplay was the coolest thing. I thought, here are these people that are probably some of them quite shy in their own life. But when they become these characters, they are fully self expressed, and I thought that was so cool. To have [Josh Gad’s] character be a guy who’s a hermit, he can’t find himself, and because a hot girl is doing it, he takes it on. All of a sudden, he finds this courage and this pride that he never had. I saw that all over Comic-Con and I was really turned on by that.
Capone: You bring up an interesting thing in the film. When you’re getting to 40, and if your parents are still alive, it’s around that age when you start worrying about them dying, and you don’t really think about it before then.
ZB: I certainly did. Yeah, my dad’s 79, and thank god he’s healthy. But I think that’s why we wrote it. My brother and I, he’s 10 years older than me. I think GARDEN STATE and this film, I wrote them in a way to deal with my own worries, whereas GARDEN STATE was about feeling it in your 20s, being lost and having no direction and this fantasy of being rescued by your first love. I think this is being in your 30s and looking for a spirituality to help you cope with the insanity of being a human being on earth, of being on this rock spinning in the middle of infinity. People deal with that in different ways. They either find an organized religion, or they find their own spirituality. But I just thought it was really relevant to people that I knew, and I thought the themes were very relevant to a lot of the things my friends and I were all talking about, which is what made GARDEN STATE work, so I just thought I’d just do that again.
Capone: You mentioned spirituality, and there’s a lot of religious discussion here, both critical to a certain degree from your character, and embracive. Where does that come from? Do you struggle with it?
ZB: Of course. All of it is my thinking and my brother’s thinking. I’m not trying to dis religious people or organized religion at all. In fact, my character actually says they’re lucky. “I envy them.” But I do think for those of us who were given this organized religion, we might love the cultural aspects. If you’re Christian, you love having a Christmas tree, and if you’re Jewish, you love having the food on the holidays. But in terms of dealing with life and death, and if there is an after life, or do you just go in the ground like an animal? I don’t believe that. I think that we’re animals, and we get put in the ground, and this is it. And so if that’s your belief system, how do you live life to the fullest? What do you teach your children? What are your coping mechanisms for losing your loved ones? I just thought that was a story no one really was really writing.
Capone: You create a parenting scenario that on paper it makes sense: the dad has time to home school his kids, and you him an out-of-work actor. You could have made him any number of things. Was that some sort of that nightmare scenario for you?
ZB: Again, I was just writing what I know. I heard someone say, “Oh, he made himself an out-of-work actor again.” Well, I write what I know. I was an out of work actor. Most people aren’t out-of-work actors, but you can insert your personal dream here. Insert the dream that you wanted to come true that has yet to come true. I think most human beings can relate to that. So for me that was, yeah, sitting in those waiting rooms, looking around. I’m in a waiting room with all black actors going, “Something’s wrong here.” And the casting guy is like, “Oh, you didn’t get the memo? We changed it.” Just being miserable and lost and going “How long am I allowed to hang on to this goal, this dream?” And that’s what it was. It was metaphoric. So, hopefully people will see that.
Capone: Speaking of that scene, James Avery is in it with you. I didn’t know he was in this, and it must be the last thing he did.
ZB: Not only is it his last speaking role on film, but he improved his joke. So I’m so happy, may he rest in peace, that he not only went out with a big laugh, but it’s his improv. I was so scattered that day. We shot this movie in 26 days, and every day was like “Ugh.” He was supposed to be there as a cameo next to Leslie David Baker. I wanted two classic character black actors. And Leslie goes “This is bullshit, I played Othello in college.” And James goes, “We all did.” And it was so funny, and it got a laugh. So not only does he go out with a laugh, but he goes out with a big laugh that he himself improved.
Capone: The last time I saw you was on the set of OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL for a couple of days, and it was clear even then that the chemistry and the friendship you have with Joey King was so obvious. You guys had decorated each other recording booths.
ZB: Yeah, I love that kid.
Capone: Tell me just about the bond there.
ZB: I just love her. I never loved a kid so much. She makes me want to have kids more than anything. She’s so smart. And a lot of kid actors are annoying, and she’s not only great, but she’s just the sweetest kid, and her parents have raised her so well. When I was doing that movie with her, I was like, “Please universe, when I have a child let her be this cool.” She was like my buddy. And so when you’re writing this movie, part of it is about a dad who doesn’t know how to talk to his kids really, so he talks to them like they’re his peers, and he learns to be a better dad through that. But there I was talking to Joey—she’s 13—and I’m talking to her like she’s my buddy, obviously in an appropriate way, but she’s like my pal. And so I thought, “I really wrote that into the film.”
And in fact, Joey had a shaved head for THE DARK KNIGHT RISES—I’ll give you some funny trivia—and was wearing wacky wigs, and I think part of that plot, obviously it was related to the orthodoxy, came from Joey and her wacky wigs on the OZ set, because she had had a shaved head for DARK KNIGHT. And when I cast her I said, “There’s good news and bad news. Good news is I really want you to do this. The bad news is you’re going to have to shave your head again.”
Capone: So the scene we see was her…
ZB: She really was shaving it, yeah.
Capone: I think it’s fair to say that there are some heavier issues going on here than maybe in GARDEN STATE, such as life and death. Was it more difficult this time to find that humor-drama balance than before?
ZB: When I was in the car headed to my grandmothers funeral, everyone was so somber, everyone was crying, and then someone cracked a joke that would have made my grandmother crack up too. And all of a sudden, we were belly laughing with the tears streaming down our face. And I thought, “God, isn’t that life? Isn’t that great art?” And that’s what I strive to do is give you that experience. Now, on a very broad comedy sense, that’s why we did on “Scrubs.” You ask the “Scrubs” fan base what they loved about it, and it’s that you could be doing the most broad comedy fantasy sequence with me as a fucking goat or whatever it was, and then come around a corner, and you’ve got us playing it totally straight with a patient on their death bed, and the fans loved that. So now obviously in this, I’m not on that broad spectrum, but I’m trying to do the same thing in that just like we were cracking up in that funeral car, I think you can pull that off here.
But you don’t know until you get to the edit room. The answer to your question is from a filmmaker-savvy point of view, which is your audience, you really don’t know until you get into the edit room, because you’re going to have misfires with the tone, because you’re shooting crazily in 26 days, and you ride that spectrum. And it isn’t until you get into the edit room and you go, “Okay, this joke is hilarious. Sadly, it reaches too far. It’s outside our color spectrum for this film.”
I shot a really broad version of, for example—I’ll put it on the DVD—of the boy’s birthday party that she goes to, and I wanted it to be like public school, raunchy, 180 degrees from her Orthodox yeshiva. And it was big; it was like fucking SPRING BREAKERS. It was too much, and it was the wrong tone, and I didn’t really know that until I saw the piece together and went “Okay, I stepped over the line there in terms of the tone.” And that’s just an example of a scene. But there are jokes here and there.
Yeah, I feel I get away with a Rabbi on a Segway going into a wall, because I play it totally straight, and you see from audiences obviously that it gets a big laugh, so it works. But in terms of a filmmaker point of view, when you’re doing that, the mix of drama and comedy with a touch of the toe in the surreal, you really have to fine tune it in the edit room, and I give my editor Myron Kerstein a lot of credit for that, because he’s the one who’ll tell me, “You can’t put that in the movie.” [Laughs] And my brother too helps me.
Capone: I learned that lesson about how much you can go in one direction or the other from talking with people who’ve worked with Woody Allen before, because I’ll ask them if the movie is it more of a comedy or a drama, they’ll say, “I’m not sure. It depends on how he cuts it.”
ZB: Exactly, that was totally the case with this. I had been told as a film student, you don’t know what your movie is until you get to the edit room, and I tell that to film students when I speak to them now, and everyone smiles like, “What are you talking about? I know what kind of movie I’ve made.” You really don’t. I cut an hour out of GARDEN STATE, and I cut an hour out of this. So think of the shaping that goes into it. To use a really hackey analogy: you collect all that fucking clay, and then it’s about, when you get in there to start shaping it, “What’s my movie?” And your movie can keep changing, because you can go, “God, I never could imagine the movie without this sequence, but if I pull this sequence out, holy shit, look what happens, because this goes here.”
ANNIE HALL, which is my favorite movies of all time, had some amazing stories about how that movie was totally created in the edit room. And both GARDEN STATE and this film, when you pull an hour out, you’re really shaping whether it’s a comedy, a drama, a hybrid, the tone. All that you find in the edit room, because you don’t know what you’ve got. It’s like a scavenger hunt. You go out and you collect as much as you can in 26 days.“Okay, I got all this. Now what am I going to make?” It’s like “Project Runway.” You’re like “I’ve got this fabric, and then it’s like okay, what can I make with what I’ve got?” And you really don’t know that until you make a movie or two.
Capone: Part of that process, and this was obviously a huge part of GARDEN STATE, is the music. Again, you got some terrific music on here. I haven’t looked at a soundtrack or track list yet, but I’m assuming some of it is exclusive to this film?
ZB: Yeah, I have three original songs, and what’s exciting about this film, that I wasn’t able to do in GARDEN STATE, was the first one was so successful so I was actually able to go and get artists, three of my favorite artists: Bon Iver, The Shins, and Coldplay/Cat Power, because Coldplay wrote a song for Cat Power. I said, “Hey, would you watch the movie and see if it inspires a song?” Justin Vernon [of Bon Iver] lives in Wisconsin. My music supervisor flew up to his farm and showed him the movie at his house, and Chris Martin came to a screening. So those three song cues in the movie were written after. It was like the art that came out of them, which is like the coolest thing ever if you’re a music geek. And then the other songs were just like GARDEN STATE. We just hand picked them. Some of them were new bands, some of them are known—all over the spectrum.
Capone: So you’re doing this musical, and you’ve got promotion for this going into the fall, it sounds like. Do you know what you’re doing next?
ZB: No. I’m hoping to line up a film for February-ish. But between this and “Bullets Over Broadway,” I’m booked solid. By the way, bizarrely, because you’re such a movie fan, I don’t know if you’ve refreshed yourself on the plot of BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, but the entire plot is a playwright who will do anything to make his work produced. So not only am I releasing this movie and talking to journalists about the Kickstarter thing, but eight shows a week doing Woody Allen’s version of this, which is, How far will you go to not compromise for your art?, and it ends up with everyone, with gangsters killing each other over not compromising for their art.
Capone: It’s really great to see you again.
ZB: Thank you. And tell Kraken I’m sorry about the tears.