When Zach Braff launched a Kickstarter campaign for his film, Wish I Was Here, the public had mixed reactions. But in the end, the film was made and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to, again, mixed reactions.
“I saw some of [the Sundance reviews], but I didn’t dive too deep into all the bloggers because I know how some of them feel about me, and I didn’t imagine that they’d give the movie a fair shake,” Braff says. “I read The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, which is pretty much how people feel about me. The Hollywood Reporter may have been the nicest review I’ve ever gotten and Variety may have been the meanest review I’ve ever gotten. I guess it’s safe to say I’m polarizing.”
As Braff talks about what people think of his work, he says it with a genuine smile. It is clear that he’s learned how to view both the criticism and the praise from the proper perspective.
Wish I Was Here is a story about Aidan (Braff), a man in his mid-thirties going through a significant existential crisis of family, career and life in general. Braff co-wrote the film with his brother Adam, and it is clear from our conversation that he has been passionate about the project from the very beginning.
Paste: What lessons did you learn from using Kickstarter to help make this film?
Zach Braff: The good news is I learned to never give up on something and to not listen to naysayers because everyone told me it wouldn’t work. Everyone said it’s going to be humiliating, and it’s never worked with a new title, and it’s never worked on this level. It had worked for Veronica Mars because they were building off a brand. Then when it funded in 48 hours, and the Internet went crazy opining for or against it, it was really exciting because a lot of the things I’ve accomplished in my life that I’m most proud of were preceded by people saying, “That will never work.” Everyone passed on Garden State. Everyone passed on this. I started auditioning when I was 13-years-old. I didn’t really get a meaningful role until I was 26-years-old with Scrubs. That was exciting. I stuck with my gut. I bet on myself and it worked.
Paste: What was your reaction when you read the Internet reactions?
Braff: I didn’t anticipate that there’d be so much vitriol from some people on the Internet about it—but most people don’t understand the intricacies of film financing. John Q. Movielover is shocked that I can’t get a film financed because I’ve had successes. I had to go on a political campaign of sorts, correcting talking points that were out there, saying this is why I can’t get a film made. The idea that I was somehow harming Kickstarter was heartbreaking because I love Kickstarter. I didn’t want to hurt Kickstarter at all. Finally, the CEO of Kickstarter put out an announcement saying that— he emailed it—that actually this project drove the most traffic to Kickstarter in the history of the site, and that those people in fact stayed and funded other things.
Paste: But it’s all good now, right?
Braff: It was a little shocking to deal with the debate of it all, but now that it’s all quieted down, here we are. I’ve been traveling the country going to these early screenings to fulfill my commitment to the backers.
Paste: Let’s talk about the Wish I Was Here. It really focuses on the Jewish faith.
Braff: We grew up very religious. My brother Adam and I wrote this together, and he’s 10 years older than me. My parents, when he was young, they sent me and my brother to a orthodox Yeshiva. We were force-fed the religion heavily, and we didn’t really take to it. I identified as Jewish, and I loved the culture and the humor and so many things, but my brother and I both felt, “God we’re surrounded at this age with all these secular people, whether they were force-fed Christianity or Judaism or whatever religion.”
Paste: And you wanted to connect that with the story in the movie?
Braff: So many people we know relate to the customs and the tradition and the family of it all, but don’t relate to the doctrine. Those people now, who have children or who are dealing with death, are looking for some spirituality. That’s what we wanted to write about. That was the jumping off point.
Paste: The movie has characters played by Michael Weston, Alexander Chaplin, Donald Faison and people that have been on Scrubs. How important was it for you to cast friends and people that you’ve worked with before and also people that you haven’t?
Braff: We made this movie in 26 days. I only had Mandy Patinkin for four. You have to move so fast. I can’t roll the dice on someone who’s not going to deliver, so all these people I know, they come in and crush. Obviously, it goes without saying. I know Donald’s going to come in and be hilarious in the one scene. I know Jim Parsons, Michael Weston—even the guy who played Sarah’s dickhead boss. I know all those guys. They were all amazing character actors out of L.A. Bill Lawrence, the creator of Scrubs, used to call them his comedy assassins. They would just come in for one scene and just crush. You don’t have time to sit there and direct someone to find the comedy. You need someone to come in like a sniper and nail it.
Paste: You worked with Joey King in Oz the Great and Powerful. How was it like working with her again—this time as your daughter?
Braff: If anything makes me want to have a child, it’s Joey King. I fell in love with her on Oz. We spent so much time together. Not only is she an amazing actress, but her parents have done such a good job raising her. She’s my buddy. I love her, and she makes me want to adopt. I don’t want to deal with a baby. I want to adopt a 14-year-old Joey.
Paste: When you were writing and creating characters, do you think of who you want to play these characters?
Braff: It helps to daydream. When I wrote Garden State, I definitely didn’t know I’d get her, but in my mind, I was like, someone like Natalie Portman. I loved Natalie so much in The Professional and in other things she’d done as a child. I had pictured … we had always had someone in the spirit of Natalie Portman. When writing Wish I Was Here, I knew Joey already, so I was thinking someone like Joey. Everything I’ve done since Garden State, I’ve tried to get Kate to do. Mandy’s one of my favorite actors living. When it comes to old, Jewish, crotchety, that’s his specialty.
Paste: Josh Gad as your brother was pretty fun. He was always trolling the Internet.
Braff: I did “Mean Tweets” for Jimmy Kimmel. I try and picture these people in their house like, “All right, time to start my day.” They just go trolling. I wanted to take a little dig at that kind of person who’s angry, and I picture them as a recluse who’s just angry and tightly wound and trying to scream at the world in some way by yelling at people who they think are happy. We all know that just because you’re in the public eye doesn’t mean you’re happy. That’s why I did that little social commentary.
Paste: Do you Google yourself?
Braff: No. You learn pretty quickly where not to go on the Internet if you’re in the public eye. You learn not to go to comment sections. You learn not to go read YouTube comments or IMDb comments. There’s certain places where the meanest stuff accumulates. It’s like masochism. Why would you want to do that to yourself?
Paste: The Garden State soundtrack left a significant impact when it comes to movie soundtracks. Did you feel much pressure to create another soundtrack that had just as much impact?
Braff: Tons, obviously. First of all, iTunes has happened, and in 10 years, no one buys albums anymore. Record stores are gone. So much has changed. It’s hard to try and compete with something from a different era. It’s hard to believe that 10 years ago, how different things were. I remember the Garden State soundtrack being at the Virgin Megastore in Union Square. It was selling so much, they put up a sign in the soundtrack section saying, “We do not have the Garden State soundtrack.” Now that Virgin Megastore is a bank … tear shed.
Paste: What kind of music did you include on it?
Braff: We tried to make it unique by having original stuff. Coldplay wrote a song for Cat Power. Bon Iver wrote a song, and The Shins wrote a song. We tried to create original content. There’s an Imogen Heap song that Allie Moss plays on the ukulele. There’s an unreleased Weepies track. I just tried to curate a lot of stuff that people wouldn’t find elsewhere so that it would feel special.
Paste: Are you looking to take another long sabbatical between projects like you had before this one?
Braff: No, that wasn’t by design. It was just I didn’t want to put my name on shit. If you don’t want to put your name on shit, it takes a while. Obviously, I could go direct a romantic comedy for a studio. That’s not my thing. I’m trying to make movies that I would want to see.