Zach Braff may be a first-time filmmaker, but he already knows a little something about publicity. In Washington to promote Garden State, his semiautobiographical debut about 20-something angst, Braff expresses concern as a photographer, stepping backward for a shot, edges toward the far reaches of the balcony at Braff’s Fairmont Hotel penthouse suite. “If you fall, it would ruin the press tour,” Braff says. “They would say I pushed you.”
Avoiding homicide investigations isn’t Braff’s only strategy in marketing what he calls his “little movie,” which he shot in 25 days on a typically modest indie budget. The lack of funds also prompted Braff to take a grass-roots—if decidedly hip—approach to promotion by adding “blogger” to his already lengthy hyphenate of Garden State director-writer-star. At mention of his blog, Braff, who initially seems a little dazed from a timetable so tight that “even my bowel movements are scheduled,” perks right up.
“Cool Web site, huh? That’s been crazy. When I first started it, there were like three people [who posted]. And last I checked, there were like 60.” (Currently, the average number of comments on each of Braff’s entries has grown to around 400.) “It’s great when you’re trying to do what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to tell a story, and I’m trying to find people who will listen to it. It’s like traveling players in the 16th century going around saying, ‘Come on down to the trailer tonight—we got a show for you.’ It’s about rustling up interest so when it comes out, people don’t go to The Village that night.
“The blog thing is cool,” Braff continues, “because you can start a discourse on any topic. It doesn’t even have to be anything related to the movie. It can be, like, ‘Something happened to me yesterday,’ and then you get all these people responding, ‘Oh, that’s happened to me!’”
Bug-eyed, mopheaded, and dressed in jeans and sneakers, the nasally 29-year-old from South Orange, N.J., comes across like Ray Romano’s prettier younger brother. He certainly seems the kind of goofy Everydude whose experiences anyone could relate to. But Braff admits that his leap from waiter to auteur—aided by what would prove to be a star-making turn in a little TV show called Scrubs—in a scant three years is rather rare.
“It was—what do they say?—preparation meets opportunity,” he says. “I’ve been trying to [act] since I was 14 or younger—I actually started when I was 9, 10—so I pretty much had 14 years, 15 years of people saying no to me and almost getting parts and then not getting parts. And I just kept persevering and sticking with it and not giving up. I had done a few indies—I did a movie called The Broken Hearts Club, and it was playing at a theater around the corner from where I was waiting tables. People would come to the restaurant after seeing the movie, and I’d wait on them.
“Finally I got a break in Scrubs, and the first thing I did was say, ‘Hey guys, look at all these ideas I have to make movies!’ It took a while for that, too, but eventually someone gave me a shot.”
Braff wrote the first draft of Garden State over a four-month period in 2001, though he says he had already been working on the story of Andrew Largeman, a 26-year-old struggling actor who returns home after nine years for his mother’s funeral, “in bits and pieces. I went to film school [at Northwestern University] and thought that some of those stories about growing up would end up in a movie, but I wasn’t sure.”
So does he actually, um, have a friend who speaks Klingon? “No, that’s something I saw on TV! It’s stuff like that…would make me laugh so hard, so I’d always make a note like, ‘That’s gotta go somewhere.’ And so, as a result, about 75 percent of what happens in the movie is true. It didn’t necessarily happen to me—it’s just anecdotes and sound bites and things all mixed into a big stew.”
The icy relationship that Large, as Garden State’s numb protagonist is known, had with his parents throughout his late teens and 20s is another something borrowed. “My parents are great,” Braff says. “They’re the kind of parents who said, ‘Life is short. Do what makes you happy—do what you love.’ And that’s the greatest gift you can get as a kid.”
Though neither of Braff’s parents was an entertainer by trade, his family devoted much of its free time to creative pursuits. “My family loved movies,” Braff recalls. “Before there were VCRs, my dad would get ahold of 16 mm prints of movies and have dinner parties and project them on the walls. And we always had Super-8 cameras. We were always a family very interested in storytelling in any form.”
Braff’s father was also involved in community theater, which is what drew Braff to acting. “I loved magic as a kid, and theater just seemed like one huge magic trick,” he says. “Especially with the big sets and the lighting. The curtain would close and then the set would change, and it’d open it up again and I was like, ‘How’d they do that?!’ As a 9-year-old, it was so intriguing to me.”
Braff hopes to convey some of that sense of wonder with his next project, a collaboration with his brother Adam. “My brother and I took this idea from a children’s book we both loved, Andrew Henry’s Meadow, and we used it as a jumping-off point,” he explains. “We’re both big fans of Terry Gilliam and highly stylized concept films—City of Lost Children, Amélie—so we’re taking this [book] and we’re just really spinning it out of control into this big, fun, kids-save-the-world crazy movie.
“The basic story line is that these kids are completely disenchanted with their really boring suburban lifestyle….So they find their way to this meadow, where the leader of them is Andrew Henry, who’s an inventor, and he builds them all these elaborate treehouses that are tailor-made to their special interests. And they form this utopia in the meadow. And then they realize why their parents are so robotic and under control by this enormous corporation. So the kids go on to take on this corporation, using their individual skills à la A-Team.”
The actor-director says that though his first attempt at entertaining people from both sides of the camera was a positive one—“I had great producers; I had a great assistant director, an awesome cinematographer”—he plans to be less ambitious next time out. “We pitched it around, thinking that this is so far out there, no one’s going to go for it. But Fox loved it, and they bought it, so we’re writing it right now,” he says of the Meadow adaptation. “I’m going to produce it.
I’m not going to direct it, because it’s way too big a movie for me to do in a five-month hiatus from Scrubs.”
Still, Braff hopes to get back into the director’s chair someday. “I have a lot of fun doing Scrubs,” he says. “It’s a great job. I laugh a lot making that show, and I love to laugh more than anything. But I’d like to keep making movies if people keep letting me.”
Given that Braff’s “little movie” sparked a bidding war at Sundance, selling to Fox Searchlight and Miramax for a reported $5 million, and has opened to overwhelmingly positive reviews, it’s likely he’ll keep getting his chances. And even if he doesn’t, Braff isn’t worried. After all, he already sees his own life as if through a lens: “It feels…good,” he says. “And surreal. And like somebody else’s life.”