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Interview: Zach Braff Talks Micro-Budget Movies & The Challenges Of Playing An Unlikable Character

Photo of Christopher Bell By Christopher Bell | The Playlist April 29, 2011 at 7:33AM

After making a name for himself as the lead in the hit TV show "Scrubs" in 2001, Zach Braff stepped behind the camera in 2004 and unleashed "Garden State" on the world. You might have heard of it. This little indie that could earned over $35 million worldwide on a $2.5 million budget, had a best-selling soundtrack and resonated with a huge audience. Braff rode the rocket up, scoring lead roles in the comedy "The Ex" with Jason Bateman and Amanda Peet and, more notably, in a remake of the Italian film "The Last Kiss" with an adapted screenplay written by "Million Dollar Baby" and "Crash" writer/director Paul Haggis.
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After making a name for himself as the lead in the hit TV show "Scrubs" in 2001, Zach Braff stepped behind the camera in 2004 and unleashed "Garden State" on the world. You might have heard of it. This little indie that could earned over $35 million worldwide on a $2.5 million budget, had a best-selling soundtrack and resonated with a huge audience. Braff rode the rocket up, scoring lead roles in the comedy "The Ex" with Jason Bateman and Amanda Peet and, more notably, in a remake of the Italian film "The Last Kiss" with an adapted screenplay written by "Million Dollar Baby" and "Crash" writer/director Paul Haggis.

And while those films didn't match the success of "Garden State," the actor not only continued to focus on his TV show but tried to get a few more directorial projects off the ground (including a remake of Susanne Bier's "Open Hearts" with Sean Penn that fell apart at the last minute), all of which failed to move into production.

And though "Scrubs" is now over, Braff has plenty on his plate. He's attached to star in Bill Purple's "The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" alongside Chloe Moretz and Jessica Biel; he's written "All New People," a play that will be produced this summer in NYC and is already being considered for a feature film adaptation. Presently, Braff is making the press rounds for the dark drama "The High Cost Of Living," an indie pic that focuses on the aftermath of a hit-and-run. Directed by Deborah Chow, Braff plays Henry, a drug dealing American in Canada who finds himself in a sticky situation after he accidentally hits the very pregnant Nathalie (Isabelle Blais) and causes her to lose her child. After she is released from the hospital, the once-expecting mother finds herself spiraling downward into a deep depression. Henry befriends her and, withholding his true identity and motives, takes her into his care in an act of redemption. However, no amount of good intention can change what he did, and the knowledge of his crime continually eats away at his conscience.

The Playlist had the opportunity to sit with Mr. Braff and talk about this project and the polar-opposite character he ended up portraying, also delving into his upcoming slate and his recent fondness for micro-budget filmmaking. "The High Cost Of Living" is currently playing at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival and is available On Demand as well from digital outlets Amazon, iTunes and Vudu. The film is playing theatrically in Canada and will be hitting Los Angeles theaters in May.


The Playlist: This role is way darker than anything you’ve done before, but the character is not without his sweet moments. How did you approach this?
Zach Braff: The big challenge for me was to not rely any of my old tricks. After doing 8 and a half years of comedy you sort of develop your go-to moves, just get lazy with everything. The challenge with me was calling myself on my bullshit go-to acting comfort zones and really try to throw that out the window and start new. You know how stand up comics, when they go back on the road, they throw everything out and start fresh. That’s kind of how I did this, I've never taken on anything like this, it was very intimidating and I wanted to do the best job I can. Really that was just stripping everything away and being very simple.

You mentioned that you wanted to do something completely different after “Scrubs.” Do you think you’d continue down this route, or have you fulfilled that desire?
No, by no means have I fulfilled it. I’ve been doing theater since I was 8 years old, I want to continue to get better in all aspects of what I do. As a director, actor, comedian; I want to continue to learn and challenge myself and do things that I think are intimidating. I think that’s how you push yourself.

Your character is very cool, sure of himself and smooth – but after the accident this persona disappears. Where did that guy go?
I think he’s just traumatized by what happened. I think he’s a pretty lonely person, he’s pretty depressed and he medicates himself with pills, booze, sex… but he’d probably say it was pretty hollow. This traumatic experience just destroys him and makes him obsessed with making things right. I think he’s probably popping pills to help him get out of bed in the morning, but he’s not in a place where he’s going to want to go out and party.

Do you think this wake up call is permanent? Or will he just go back to his old ways?
No, I think this is a total life-changing moment. I think that’s what the movie’s about. These two weeks contain the biggest life-changing moments in these characters’ lives. It’s up to the audience to decide if they have much more contact with one another at the end, but it’s about how this super random, crazy moment – two people literally collide – and it changes their lives forever. It’s not like he’s totally healed and he’s a better person, I think the movie’s smarter than that, but I think it does wake him up.

How did you handle the character being, for the most part, such an unlikable guy?
It made me nervous. When I met the director, I was like “People are going to fucking hate me!” Like, how do you have a protagonist that the audience is going to hate? Well, the first answer is, you make the movie for a million dollars… (laughs) Because no studio head is going to let you do that, even if you make a movie for three million dollars, you can’t have a protagonist that the audience could potentially dislike this much. So I think in the spirit of a small movie you can really challenge that audience. You say hey, guess what, the guy you’re gonna be following isn’t necessarily a good person. But he’s like you and all of us that he’s done some shitty things in his life and some good things in his life, and we can all relate to not being perfect human beings. I think it’s his redemption that people are drawn to. [Audiences] can relate to wanting to have a new chapter in their lives to start or wanting to forget something horrible in their past and find redemption.

The production seemed like the most intimate and small that you’ve been a part of. What was that like?
It was really cool. There wasn’t a huge crew, and with this movie in particular, after they were done lighting and setting up the shot, any of the crew that wasn’t needed would leave. We shot on the Red, a lot of hand held, so you’d have the camera operator, the boom, and pretty much just us (the actors and director). It created this intimacy between [Isabelle] and I, and when you see the movie you really kind of feel that, it feels small and intimate. I think that really helps give the audience access. I liked it, there was something really nice about working with a small crew and just being able to be malleable, like improvy and less about hitting your mark, just going where you felt like going.

What has kept you away from being behind the camera?
Well, when I made “Garden State,” my producer was like "This never happens." It came together so easily – I mean, there was some trouble, a lot of studios passed on it, but it did come together with our dream cast and we got a dream financier who came in at the end and paid for the whole thing and saved the day. They were all wide eyed and were like… "Dude, don’t get used to this." I learned after that how incredibly hard it is. Now more than ever with there being more chefs in the kitchen. People always ask me why I haven’t made another movie, but I really have in all honesty tried, several times, to make something that I really wanted to make something to put my name on and stand by and be as good as I thought my first film was. Three times now they’ve fallen apart. I continue to pursue it as much as possible.

Is there anything you learned from working on this set that you would apply to your future films?
This experience did open my eyes to eliminating the whole roll of the dice thing and just making something super small. I love those kinds of movies. I continue to pursue the larger movies that I have on my burners, but one thing that is appealing about this movie is the way it’s being handled. I know there’s a lot of controversy about VOD but one thing I can say for a movie of this scale is that it’s amazing to put it in millions of homes and have it streaming on Amazon. It’s the #1 independent on Amazon, and this is a movie with no press, not a single commercial on television, with barely any mainstream press other than web press – it’s pretty exciting to see what you can do these days. So this experience has inspired me in that regard.

So you’re going to be in a play that you wrote, “All New People”?
I’m just the writer for that, not going to act in it. Since I’d be there as the writer in rehearsals and helping shape it, I figured it’d be best to step back. It’s not like you can watch play back of your performance, you know?

You mentioned you’d do a film version of it. How would you make it fit the film medium?
I’m not positive I will do that, it’s one concept that I might do in the micro-budget way. The guy who financed “Garden State” loves the play and he’d be into making it as a small budget movie. The play all takes place in real time in 90 minutes in a beach house in Long Beach Island in the dead of winter. For a movie, that could get a little static, so you say, okay, well how about it’s not all in real time, but it’s all in one night. And it’s not all in the beach house, they go around the island a little bit. So you find ways of expanding so that it’s more cinematic, which you can’t do in a play because you can’t have ten sets unless you’re in the Met. In a play it can be in one room all about the words, whereas in the movie you have to fold in the cinematography and the style, the music, etc. That’s one thing I’m considering.

Would you carry over the cast of the play?
We’re casting right now, the play is all I’m thinking about this summer. I just want to make the best play I can, it’s been a dream of mine so I’m not doing any multi-tasking. We’ll see how it goes, we might get off the play and not be sure if it’s going to work as a movie or not.

What else do you have brewing?
This January I started my first completely original movie since “Garden State.” It’s too early to talk about that, it doesn’t even have a title yet, but when I say I’m kind of rethinking my approach to everything, it’s going back to writing something that’s totally my own.

This article is related to: Films, Actors, Interview, Zach Braff, The High Cost of Living


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