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Actor, writer and director Zach Braff has his name all over a new and deeply personal film project. So why is he tetchy?

By Susan Chenery.

Zach Braff’s back with new film Wish I Was Here

Zach Braff goes behind the camera.
Credit: SUPPLIED

What a strange and tenuous thing it must be to trade on your adorableness for a living. To make your fortune from your winning smile, your perky personality. To be universally loved and never hear a negative word as the compliments roll in. To live in the world of the sitcom, where everybody is always witty and there are no awkward pauses, sloppy sentences or lame ripostes.

For Zach Braff the applause went global during nine years as Dr John Dorian (J. D.) in the surreal comedy Scrubs. His humiliations have been hilarious, his jokes uproarious, his pratfalls have earned ovations in almost every corner of the world. Wherever there is a television there he is. In your house. On repeat.

With that kind of attention you could start believing in your own dazzling infallibility. His fans, he knows, are in the many millions.

“I can’t tell you how many remote places I have been where someone comes up and quotes lines from Scrubs,” he tells me. “Not just in a major city like London or Sydney, but I am in the middle of nowhere and somebody makes an inside Scrubs joke. It was bigger in the UK, Russia and Germany than it ever was here in the US. But it is almost never that fans are inappropriate or cross the line.”

The problem with popularity, though, is that it can be so easy to lose it. And after all the hyperbole of Hollywood, even to temporarily misplace it must come as a terrible shock.

To his consternation, Braff, 39, has recently entered the unfamiliar world of criticism. And there are moments during this interview when he is somewhat less amiable than his perky screen persona. Perhaps it’s because he is getting ready to go on stage on Broadway in the musical adaption of Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway – “Eight times a week,” he will say. “Eight times! It is exhausting, but the show must go on, doesn’t matter what mood you are in.” Or maybe it is just plain impossible to be adorable all the time.

The thing is, he is sick to death of having to defend the decision to crowdfund his latest film, Wish I Was Here. “You shouldn’t just read headlines,” he snaps when I mention a recent article on the subject in The New York Times.

In 2004 he had written, directed and acted in Garden State, a tepid, quirky indie hit about twentysomething ennui. The soundtrack he put together went on to win a Grammy. More recently, Braff and his older brother Adam had written Wish I Was Here, a comedy drama about an unsuccessful actor whose family life is falling apart. Zach planned to also direct and star in the film. But studios were turning it down flat. 

Garden State had been passed on by the studios, too, but a fabulously wealthy mortgage broker who was a fan had stepped in and come to the rescue.

Finally, Braff had a finance deal with Worldview Entertainment on the table for Wish I Was Here, but with the confidence and weight of his success behind him, he was not willing to compromise control to the money men who might demand the final cut. “It would have involved a lot of sacrifices that would have ultimately hurt the film,” he said at the time.

Now, he says, “It was the same thing as Garden State, people not getting my intention, wanting to make cuts, wanting to change it, not wanting to shoot it in Los Angeles, which is almost a character in the film. Dictating who I could cast. I was pulling my hair out.”

He turned to the funding platform Kickstarter and his loyal fans. Within days he had raised $3.2 million from 46,000 supporters.

And so the controversy started and the golden boy started to lose his lustre. Should a multimillionaire – who is said to have earned $350,000 an episode on Scrubs – be panhandling? Why didn’t he use his own money? Was it fair for a big star to hijack crowdfunding from unknowns who really do need help to get a project started? Even though he referred to them as “producers”, those who donated money would get no return on their investment, whereas Worldview Entertainment and Braff would presumably make a pile of dough if the film was successful.

In the middle of an online onslaught he told the Los Angeles Times that he did not have “Oprah Winfrey money”. Now, he says tetchily, “I spent months and months and months correcting the internet.” Explaining “why filmmakers don’t get final cut, why movies get fucked up and why I would be so bold as to try this experiment. And yes, of course, I put my own money into it.”

The downside of asking the public for money and almost magically having $3.2 million thrust at you is that “you have to constantly fight the PR battle of explaining it to people who are detractors”.

He was able to get away with it possibly because his fans thought they were buying a little bit of Hollywood glitz for their ordinary lives. Now they, too, would be in on the joke of a comedy movie, a part of that alluring world.

“They have to know that you are trying to do something different,” he says. “For people like me, you have to have a unique fan base, which I am so blessed to have. And many of them, by the way, are in Australia and New Zealand who really rallied around this project. This experiment was about trying to make a film for the people who like what I do – not for the detractors.”

It is a deeply personal film, if exaggerated – a big part of the reason Braff wanted to protect it from bankers. “I mean, there is plenty of fiction but it is inspired by your own life, especially your feelings, your ideology, your love of family, your aspirations to be a good father. All that stuff. For me it is honest and true, the things we were thinking about,” he admits. His character, Aidan Bloom, refuses to give up on his acting dream in spite of overwhelming evidence that he is wasting his time. He is supported by his wife (Kate Hudson) who is in a menial job she loathes and who is getting dangerously tired of being the sole provider.

His father (Mandy Patinkin), an observant Jew, is paying the fees for their two children to attend Orthodox school. Aidan, however, is a scathing non-believer, calling his children “indoctrinated matzo balls”. When his father reveals he has terminal cancer and can no longer pay the school fees, Aidan decides to teach his children at home rather than face the horror of the Los Angeles public school system. This despite the fact he is barely a grown-up himself. In devising his own irresponsible curriculum, he finds parts of himself that were lost. And in discovering a gift for teaching acting, he sets out on a more productive path. “He has,” says Braff, “found a version of his dream that is even better and more fulfilling than sitting in that miserable casting room. If you have a partner you have made commitments to at a certain point, you have to show up for your family and provide for them.”

Though Braff himself is yet to marry or have children, he has said one thing he learnt from this film is that he wants to be a father.

Conservative upbringing

Zach Braff was brought up in a religious family in New Jersey. His father, Hal, a trial attorney, was strict about Judaism. His mother, Anne Brodzinsky, was a clinical psychologist. That must have been helpful, I venture. “Well she was understanding as a good mother because I have now made two movies with a deceased mother [featuring in the plot] and fortunately she doesn’t read too much into it,” he answers cheerfully now that we are off the touchy crowdfunding business.

He was forced to attend a conservative religious school which he later said he found “ludicrous”. Failing to be indoctrinated and not connecting to his family’s religion has left him searching – publicly in this film. “In the film my daughter asks me if people are wrong if they believe in an afterlife and I say, ‘No, I think people are lucky if they have that comfort.’ But for those of us who don’t and are always struggling and looking for answers it can be very lonesome and scary and so that is what the film is about. For us it was Judaism, but most people can insert their own religious experience into it. We just try to write what we know, what was so for us.”

If there is a manic quality to his Scrubs character and his fierce work ethic, it’s interesting to note he was an anxious child who suffered OCD. “But,” tetchy again, “I don’t think that is something I want to lightheartedly talk about for this article.” 

In both his films there is a difficult relationship with a punishing father who expected more and better from his son. Surely this is not coincidence.

“Trust me, like everyone, we had our issues with our father, but he was completely supportive of us going into the arts … My father got us a Super 8 camera and we used to run around the house emulating James Bond movies. At the heart of it is our fear of losing our father, who we love so much and is 79. At a certain age it starts to register in your brain that this person will not be here forever.”

Both Braff’s parents were such avid theatre and film buffs that his father once had an Annie Hall dinner party with the film projected on the wall.

“We would tell him what we wanted at the video store and of course it was something a kid would want to see and he would bring back an art movie or something beyond our reach. We would groan but then it was the only thing we had to watch so we were forced into an early film education.”

At the age of 13 Braff was spotted by a talent agent at a summer theatre camp. At 18 he played Woody Allen and Diane Keaton’s son in Manhattan Murder Mystery.

After studying film at Northwestern University he was working in a Vietnamese restaurant with $250 to his name when he got the call to say he had landed Scrubs. Thus he became one of the chosen few who would traverse the great chasm between being broke and global fame and wealth.

In both his films his character is a despairing, out-of-work actor. In Wish I Was Here there is a scene that illustrates how excruciating auditioning can be. On a row of seats in a room full of black men he discovers his agent has not told him the producers had decided to “go black”. In desperation he assumes a Spanish accent for another role in the production, under the pitying gaze of the casting director.

“I never sat in a room with black men but I definitely got the call, ‘Okay, that audition you memorised all week, they have decided to go African-American with the role.’ I have definitely sat in an audition room where I was the only one who wasn’t a male model with ripped abs and gone, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ It is very, very, very hard, and LA is so competitive and so tough and you damn Australians keep taking all the roles.”

Had he not got lucky would he have hung on as long as Aidan does in the face of constant rejection and the reality of the dream diminishing? “I always say to young filmmakers or young actors. ‘Have your back-up plan be within the industry.’ I would have been a member of the crew, I would have been an assistant director or an assistant cameraman. Or cinematographer or a producer. I would have pursued a job in the industry by which I could make a living.

“Making a living as an actor is such a lottery, but you don’t have to give up and become a dentist. If you love the arts so much there is a job you can find in the industry.”

In many ways Braff’s refusal to conform to the Hollywood system is heroic. A rebel yell. An iconoclastic seizing of the day. Had his film been brilliant it would have been the ultimate Fuck You moment. 

But so far the reviews have been lukewarm. The New York Times went so far as to call it “deluxe fast food disguised as haute cuisine”. He has put his heart and soul into it, his considerable reputation on the line. But even with all his warmth and quirky charm it doesn’t quite rise to the required soaring heights. The jazzy one-liners came with too much bathos to come close to emulating his hero Woody Allen. This is the undiluted voice of Zach Braff, who got his own way.

“I am,” he says, “just trying to forge a unique path.”

You can’t fault him for that.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 13, 2014 as "Zach's back". Subscribe here.

Susan Chenery
is a journalist who has lived and worked in Sydney, London, New York and Italy.

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