Zach Braff Talks Directing and Starring in ‘Wish I Was Here’

Griffin Conlogue ’15 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Zach Braff behind the scenes of Wish I Was Here. Photo Credit: Focus Features.
Zach Braff behind the scenes of Wish I Was Here. Photo Credit: Focus Features.

Wish I Was Here film tells the story of Aidan Bloom, a struggling actor living in LA who’s father is dying of cancer. His wife has hit a wall in her life professionally and romantically, and their children struggle after having to switch schools. Parallell to the story of Aidan is the story of his brother, Noah. Noah is a recluse living in a trailer near the ocean. A gifted genius, he spends most of his time bullying celebrities on twitter. Emertainment Monthly got the opportunity to sit down with Zach Braff to discuss his new film.

Do you listen to music as you’re writing, do you wait to write then add music? What is your process like?

I create a giant epic playlist of just songs I love, I don’t listen while I write cause it is too distracting for me. But I create this epic playlist. When I hear a song I go “oh this feels cinematic, there’s just something about that.” Certain songs can be great but they don’t strike me as cinematic, and so I make just a giant playlist of songs that I think would be good in a movie. And those can be songs that came to me from a friend, or I heard online, or I shazamed in a coffee joint or whatever. And from there we’ll try stuff out in the film as we’re cutting and it isn’t until you find that perfect match and the hair on your arm raises up and you go “ooh that’s a possibility.” I don’t know the song is right until we’ve lined it up, and my editor MAYA KERNSTEIN is super influential in this. And we just find that moment and we’re like “alright, that’s the song” but until then it’s just like anybody collecting songs that we feel could be possibilities.

Were there any songs you didn’t get the rights to that you thought fit better than others?

Almost everybody said yes, but one band, that I won’t call out, that isn’t even that big of a band… The problem is often that bands don’t get to hear stuff, their managers are bad managers, and say no for dumb reasons. So a band that the world doesn’t really know that well, their manager out-managed them from being on the soundtrack with all of these fancy people, and they probably don’t even know that they ever had the offer.

What was the dynamic between you and your brother as far as writing the script went?

The way we wrote is we got together and hammered out the overall spine of the story and then we broke it down in an outline. And we spent that time together, but he lives in Honolulu and I live in LA. So we would sort of write like “I’m gonna take a stab at this Aston Martin scene, why don’t you take a stab at the scene with the young rabbi” and we’d little by little switch it with each other and give each other notes, tweak, change, and little by little begin filling out the whole script, until we have this giant thing and we start shaping it.

Josh Gad in Wish I Was Here. Photo Credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features.
Josh Gad in Wish I Was Here. Photo Credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features.

*Was Josh Gad’s character supposed to be a mirror of your brother?

There are three brothers in my family, and so Gad’s character was sort of a amalgamation of different aspects of our personalities, that was the idea, to write about a brother dynamic that was inspired by aspects of all three of our personalities. There’s a lot of personal stuff in the film but also a lot of stuff we just totally made up.

What about Gabe’s character, he’s very down on acting. Was that inspired by someone?

No, in fact one of the things that’s most different about this film is my father is the president of my non-existent fan club. He’s the most supportive, ever, of my creative endeavors. But, like all fathers and sons, we all have issues with our parents and we want to impress them and no matter what we do sometimes we feel like we can’t live up to their expectations of us. I just felt that was pretty universal for most men I knew, and brothers and sons and fathers, I just felt all that stuff was something that people could relate to.

So how much did your father contribute to the Kickstarter fund?

I think he did actually get the New York Q&A.

Can you talk a little about your experience with Kickstarter?

Yeah, naively I didn’t understand that the onus would fall on me to explain the perils of independent film financing in 2014. Rob Thomas had done it very successfully and everyone sort of cheered him on. When I went out to do it the first wave was “oh that’ll never work” then when it worked in 48 hours everyone had to rethink their think pieces, and so those who were detractors were making a lot of talking points that weren’t true. And that caught me off guard. I had to explain, again naively. You know when you know something, you guys are writers, you know what you do, if you have a hobby you know that hobby really well. My life is trying to get money for movies. I’ve dedicated my life to trying to get movies financed. So I know it really well and stupidly thought that everyone knows how hard this is. So I then sort of had to go on a campaign if you will, and explain all the different reasons on why I had decided to finally decided to try and do the crowd funding. It’s worked phenomenally well. We had to take care of 47,000 people while making the movie. We shot the movie in 26 days and if that isn’t hard enough you had to make sure that every one of those 47,000 people felt taken care of. We had them visiting set, we had them being extras, we had them doing cameos, we created a whole online video blog of behind the scene’s content. I don’t know if you guys watched Project Greenlight back in the day, but they are actually bringing it back. That was my idea, people’s attention span on the web is like two and a half minutes, so I’m gonna make two and a half minute ‘Project Greenlight’ behind the scenes videos of the making of the movie. I try to do all this stuff to make it worth their while and they seem pretty happy. The most fun of all is these Q&A. It’s awesome, it’s an experience that a lot of people haven’t had before. I hope that everyone who participated thought it was worth it.

Zach Braff behind the scenes of Wish I Was Here. Photo Credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features.
Zach Braff behind the scenes of Wish I Was Here. Photo Credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features.

Why did you have to defend yourself so much? There was a lot of negativity that came with it, it was kind of shocking.

Well, you think you were shocked. I don’t know. At the core of it I don’t know. Like a lot of things on the interwebs it starts with a seed of misinformation. That’s the internet man. You’ve seen it, we’ve all seen. Twitter can be terrifying in how quickly someone is tried and accused. Thank god mine is crowd funding. Perfect example from me, here’s something I’m guilty of. We all heard that story of the McDonalds woman who spilled coffee on herself and burned herself and sued, and we all went “what a fucking idiot.” I don’t if you guys saw that documentary then you go, “oh my god.” This woman was almost mortally wounded by coffee that was 20 degrees too hot. The tidbit we saw on the internet was wrong. Now that is an extreme example of someone being hurt, but that’s the way click bait shit happens in our society today. So I think when “Rich Guy From Scrubs Wants Fan’s Money” gets sent out there without any explanation it needs some explaining. The good news is I shut up a little bit because the detractors that were spewing a lot of stuff that was wrong, were driving an insane amount of traffic to the Kickstarter page. So the best advice I ever got was just to shut the fuck up. And then as people calmed down a little bit Kickstarter put out an announcement saying here’s why everything you’re saying about Kickstarter is wrong, Zach drove more traffic to the site then we’ve ever had. These high profile projects drive an insane amount of traffic to the site, and we have the data that shows that they not only stay, they stay and fund other projects. When I go to the screenings I often say “How many of you, the first time you went to Kickstarter was to fund my project and then went on to fund something else?” 70% of the hands go up. So I had to go on a campaign of sorts and explain that to people.

And nobody forced you to say “give me your money.”

The thing that drove me the most insane was even Veronica Mars has a corporate entity behind it. It’s still Warner Brothers that is going to release this on VOD. The seed of this is artistic integrity. The seed of this is wanting to give my fan base something that isn’t fucked up by a corporation or a bank. It’s not a get rich quick scheme. If I wanted to get rich I’d go and do another TV show, that’s the only place an actor can make a lot of money anymore. Unless you’re one of the 10 movie stars. You don’t go make a movie about sad Jews in California.This is the opposite of a scam. I’m just about artistic integrity.

And you may even still lose money?

Yes, of course. And had everything gone awry and not found a distributor every single aspect of the fulfillment form t-shirts to screenings would’ve been on my financial shoulders.

My question was gonna go to your choice of Joey King as your daughter, did you develop a relationship while you were on set?

I just love that kid. She makes me want to have babies. I met her on Oz, we spent so much time together on Oz, Sam Raimi insisted that even though we were animated we were there every fucking day. At first I was like oh god, I’m gonna be in this booth with this 13 year old for six months, and she turned out to be the coolest kid in the world. And she was just so cool and so talented. And she was just so cool and so talented as you saw in the movie. When she had that wig on and she was just so good she reminded me of Natalie [Portman] in The Professional. She’s just that good that early that young. And Pierce I saw in Looper. I didn’t know how the hell we were gonna find this kid cause as you guys know bad kid actors will just ruin a movie. They pull you out of a movie and you go “oh my god, a bad kid actor alert.” I was really nervous about finding this kid cause it was a tough part for a little boy, and I saw Looper and I never read another kid. His mom videotaped him reading a scene on her iPhone, sent it to me and I never read another kid. They’re religious though so at first I was like ruh roh, you should read the script. And they came back and the only thing he wasn’t allowed to say was fuck. I was like “so you’re telling me he can say like, hairy balls?” And she was like sure. Drew the line at fuck. Well then my brother and I had the most fun, like fuck’s easy, what can we make this kid say! Hairy balls it is!

Mandy Patinkin and Zach Braff in Wish I Was Here. Photo Credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features.
Mandy Patinkin and Zach Braff in Wish I Was Here. Photo Credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features.

How great is it working with Mandy Patinkin?

He’s my favorite, man. I had a lot of pressure before I went crowd funding, with even someone like Mandy. It’s like “Yeah man, he’s great. But let’s first try Dustin Hoffman, let’s try Alan Arkin.” And these guys are legends, I love them. But in my mind I pictured Mandy. I grew up on Mandy. Princess Bride is one of my favorite movies. I’m a musical theater geek and he’s a musical theater superstar. You know, Homeland now-a-days. I just love him. And he’s such a sweet guy. I only had him for four days. I had to really crank it out.

Well, Josh Gad… Ashley Greene?

You guys haven’t seen that guy and you’re like “how the fuck did he get that girl?” I have. It’s comic con man. Look, [Chris] Hardwick’s a handsome guy but have you seen his girlfriend? She’s like the hottest girl in the world.

But he’s on TV…

Anyway… In the world of movies… Well, with the cosplay thing, I love that aspect of comic-con. I think it’s so rad that people, I guess maybe it’s a sweeping generalization, but lets just say are perhaps marginalized in their everyday lives can become these great heroic characters and go and meet up with each other and become these awesome characters. I just thought that was so interesting and something I wanted to write about. The idea of Gad sort of being a hermit and being lost. Granted, maybe in the real world a girl beyond his reach, but even in the movie a girl beyond his reach, that he was like “holy shit to try and flirt with her I’m going do this thing that I would never do which is come out of my shell and use my creativity” and yeah, in this world of this movie it turned her on.

They did more than flirt.

Yes, on the DVD outtakes you’ll see, that sex scene went on for so long. He used to yell while he was fucking her “fuck me like you’re Eeyore from the Winnie the Pooh books.” That was a little too much I had to tone it back. It was really weird improv that I cracked up at but audiences found a little off-putting.

Kate Hudson and Zach Braff in Wish I Was Here. Photo Credit: Focus Features.
Kate Hudson and Zach Braff in Wish I Was Here. Photo Credit: Focus Features.

You don’t really see Kate Hudson in a lot of serious stuff like this.

I love Katie. When Cameron Crowe discovered Kate in Almost Famous I was like “holy shit.” Not only is she so pretty, but she’s got those chops. It’s in the genes. And she does a lot of those romantic comedies because she’s hot and funny and they make a lot of money but of course, as a fan, I’ve been always saying she’s been on my radar as someone who can really handle a meaty and juicy role. And kinda like I said to Natalie on Garden State, you’re always gonna be super pretty but I want you to be the most real person versions of you that we can summon. Obviously they are uber pretty women but in the movies they don’t look like movie stars they look like real people. At least real, beautiful people.

Back to the production.

Yes, I could’ve written a mumblecore movie and made it for a million bucks on my own dime. Of course I could’ve done that. But what you guys saw, working within the unions in LA, with no tax break, 5 and a half was about as cheaply as we could figure out how to make it. So I did need somebodies help to do it with me.

Why no tax breaks?

LA is hemorrhaging work because they have no tax incentive. What they have is a lottery system. It’s kinda a mess. That’s why Massachusetts is booming, that’s why Louisiana is booming, that’s why Georgia is booming and that’s why Vancouver is booming is that all of that work is coming out of LA.

Did you ever consider making the movie somewhere else then?

LA as you saw is such a character in the movie.

I didn’t know if perhaps you were almost forced to make it somewhere else.

I was almost forced to make it somewhere else. If I had not done the crowd funding of course. Because nobody is letting you turn down 30% in tax incentives. But, if I’m the CEO of the corporation I’d look outside of that box. Here are all the benefits. We are gonna get the most sick crew in the world. Look at the credits of all my top designers. They wanna stay in town, they wanna kiss their kids goodnight. So they are willing to take a lower check to stay in the same town. They can’t believe you are making a movie in LA. All of the day players from Jim Parsons to Donald [Faison] I can’t fly those people to Georgia. They are gonna come in and do a scene. LA is a character in the movie. All of these things little by little are worth the 30% to me. And thats a decision I can make that my fans allowed me to make that a corporation or fund could never make. That’s ludicrous, you’re gonna give away 30%?

Zach Braff in Wish I Was Here. Photo Credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features.
Zach Braff in Wish I Was Here. Photo Credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features.

Do you see yourself doing the Ed Burns thing where he does a Hollywood movie for a 2 million dollar salary to pay for his own movie a year later?

Hollywood doesn’t hire me that much. Ed Burns has had more luck with that. I’m usually the wacky monkey side kick. At this point TV is where all the great shit is happening. So I see myself going back to TV eventually because there’s just not enough roles. No one is making five, ten, twenty million dollar movies where the juicy roles are. Everyone is going big. It used to just be the summer tent poles now everybody is all in Marvel-esque giant blow ups. And that’s why Clive Owen is on a TV show. Billy Bob Thornton is on a TV show. Dustin Hoffman was on a TV show. My point is that even these seasoned, amazing actors are going “well this is where the good shit is.” Cable TV. So I’ll do that, probably.

If you return to TV would it be something that you would create on your own?

Probably a collaboration. My first gut would be to do it with [Scrubs creator] Bill Lawrence again since he’s so good at it and we have the same sense of humor. He knows how to navigate the TV waters better than anyone. You can’t cancel his shows. People try to cancel him and he’s like alright, I’ll move it to another network. And so, TV is so incredibly cutthroat and insane that you need a power hitter like Bill Lawrence to be your partner.

*Do you think you’d want to do comedy again or try more dramatic?

A mix of both like Scrubs. Maybe not as broad as Scrubs but the amount of hours you have to work and not make people laugh and riffing is not worth it to me. The fun of Scrubs was sitting there trying to make the crew laugh. We didn’t have a live audience so we were trying to make the crew laugh, and just doing a procedural with the chalk outline of the corpse and “I think I know what happened!” I can never do that.

Can you watch Scrubs on ABC? Like the episodes that were on ABC.

Do you mean season 9? I will admit to you something I have never written to writers ever. I have never seen an episode of Scrubs post my exit on season 9. Not for any mean reason it was just too bizarre and weird. I’m in a broadway show right now it’d be like going to the sow after I’ve left and watching someone else do it, it’d be too weird. So the rest of season 9, I’ve never seen. You’ve asked a question I’ve never been asked before.

Joey King, Pierce Gagnon and Zach Braff in Wish I Was Here. Photo Credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features.
Joey King, Pierce Gagnon and Zach Braff in Wish I Was Here. Photo Credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features.

*With how big Dave Franco is getting now it could’ve caught on if it was four years later.

I know! I wish we could get Dave Franco back! We discovered Dave Franco I like to think. Now he’s this giant super star.

Back to Wish I Was Here, the part I thought was the funniest in the whole film was how you presented the Hebrew school. As a kid who grew up in a half-Jewish family my dad was always trying to get me to go. I went for a few days and I was like nope. What I wanted to know was that your experience as a child?

Well, I wrote this with my brother who is ten years older than I. So when he was a little kid my parents sent him to a very religious school even though they weren’t that religious. I mean, they were religious, they just weren’t as religious as the school. We always thought that was bizarre. So we accentuated that in this, making them completely secular and only sending them there because of the situation. But when I was a kid my dad toned it down and we were conservative jewish, and we went to Hebrew school and the whole thing. And that story about the cheeseburger is true. When I was 13 he said I was a man and I said as a man I want to have a cheeseburger. And he was just like (mimics bomb noise), I fucking mind fucked him. And it worked though, “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” He let me stop being kosher. I wanted to write about, whether you are Christian or Jewish or whatever you are, my brother and I both felt like there were so many people out there that we knew that were force fed this faith, and now more than ever you see it with this battle of science and creationists. We felt like we needed to stand up for the people who said “I’m not poopooing anyone that faith works for. But I’m someone who that didn’t land for, and so I’m allowed to have my own quest for spirituality.” This is what I believe, I believe in science, I believe I’m an animal that goes in the ground. That doesn’t mean I don’t love Hanukkah.

Was it difficult to be both the director behind the camera and the actor in front of the camera?

It is tricky, you have to totally be bipolar in a sense, and really switch back and forth. Sometimes it’s really helpful, I started to use it to my advantage, when you have a scene when it’s me and the kids or me and Kate, I can sort of steer the scene from within. So if I’m doing a scene with you and you’re not being aggressive enough back with me I’ll just increase the fucker I’m being with you. So if you’re a half way decent actor you’ll naturally come back harder with me. In a lot of ways I think of it as being undercover within the scene. It was great with the kids too, cause they are so great at improving and being themselves that I would go on longer lenses and push the cameras farther away. So we would just be sitting around that campfire and I’d be talking to them and the kids little by little forget that the cameras are there. And that’s stuff that a director can’t get as easily because you have to call cut and whisper in everyone’s ear and go Kate, be a little more aggressive and Joey tell a funny story and make it up I’m not gonna tell Zach. And that’s what a director who wasn’t in the scene would have to do. But I can just sit there and roll the cameras and talk to Pierce and just talk to him. That campfire stuff is him just riffing, him going “tell me a ghost story.” Then that whole montage of them playing was just us for a half an hour just fucked around and told ghost stories and the cameras were way far back and they just shot the whole thing and you get these performances out of them that you just wouldn’t have been able to get.

Do you see yourself directing anything you’re not a part of?

Yeah, I mean I love acting, I can see myself doing a small part in something. But I would always give myself a part because I like to act and I think it’s fun, I’ll always hire myself. Fortunately I’m adding Sam Raimi and Woody Allen to the list of people that will hire me, but little by little I would like to work with other filmmakers as well.

* Questions denoted with an asterisk are questions asked by Emertainment Monthly.

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