Zach Braff got a lot of flak when he used Kickstarter to fund the making of his new movie, Wish I Was Here, which opened in theaters July 18. But flak or not, the star of Scrubs got to make his second feature film exactly as he wanted.
With the help of some 47,000 fans from around the world, Braff was afforded a creative freedom usually reserved for Oscar winners and mega box-office grossers. So for good or bad (reviews have been mixed, at best), Braff was able to do it his way, which meant shooting in tax-break-free Los Angeles and not having to face the obstacles that studios place in front of filmmakers. "To have a studio saying, ‘I don’t understand this, so you can’t do it,’ sucks," says Braff, citing one of the film’s early sequences, an allegorical fantasy sequence involving flying droids in a forest that leads into a synagogue where yeshiva boys are singing a prayer. "Try pitching that to a studio. In a room it’s hard to pitch, but when it’s executed they can see it. If they never let me do it, I never get a chance to show them."
Braff sees such lack of vision as the bane of the movie business. "That happens every single second in this town that we’re sitting in." He gazes out from a hotel terrace overlooking Beverly Hills. "Every moment, someone’s going, ‘No, ‘cause I don’t get it. No, ‘cause I don’t get it.’"
Here, for those who do get it, are lessons learned from Braff's (almost) notes-free collaboration, and his experiment on Kickstarter.
Braff and his older brother, Adam, didn’t get to collaborate a lot as kids because there was a 10-year age difference between them. But Adam, a childhood James Bond fanatic, gave Zach his earliest peek at the magic of moviemaking. "Our dad bought us a Super 8 camera—or bought him a Super 8 camera—and he’d film me as Bond getting in a suitcase. Then he’d cut and I’d get out. He’d film the suitcase being thrown out the window. Cut. He put me in and filmed me getting out of it. When it came back from the lab I was like, ‘Oh, my God!’"
They first worked together almost 10 years ago when the brothers optioned and adapted Andrew Henry’s Meadow, a children’s book they had both loved. "It was all set up at Fox to be a big tentpole movie, and Barry Sonnenfeld was about to direct, and then the whole thing fell apart."
They didn’t let that setback deter them, but when they decided to write a script about brothers and family, inspired by, but not necessarily based on, themselves, the younger, more famous Braff laid down a few rules. "We had to establish that it was going to be 51/49 in terms of decision-making because I was directing and starring. So when we do come to a crossroads, I said, We can battle it out, debate it, let’s give each other the silent treatment for a day—but ultimately I’m going to make the final decision because I’m the director of the movie—as any director of a movie would."
So, how’d that go? "Yeah, we’d disagree and have it out and fight passionately. But that’s good."
Braff calls himself "a giant procrastinator." Of course, he’s rather busy, between the movie and the Broadway show he’s starring in ("I sing and dance!" he marvels). "My brother helps me stay on track. When you’re obligated to someone, it’s like going to the trainer at the gym. It’s a commitment. You’re going to go. When my brother and I commit to each other, 'we’re writing today,' you write. Getting your ass in the chair is the hardest part for me. I get distracted by a moving leaf."
"One of the things I’ve learned in my success has been that yes men are completely useless," says Braff, who’s seen people’s careers flop because of them, and recalls SNL’s Tiny Elvis segment as the perfect illustration of it. "If you’re surrounded by people who are kissing your ass you’re not really examining what you’re doing."
And yet, one of the producers on Wish I Was Here was definitely not kissing Braff's ass, and that drove him crazy. "I’d look her in the eye and say, ‘Don’t you dare give me that note again. I’ve made my decision.’ Two days later, she’d give me the note again. And it would drive me fucking crazy! But I loved her for it. She's young. It was her first producing job. I loved her balls. And I changed the moment." He realized that she was right. The note was about a beat that Braff was hitting twice in one section of the movie. "I was fine with repeating the same beat twice because I found them both moving. But when I got into cutting the movie I saw that ultimately she was right. We only have time for that beat once and overall you’re hurting the piece if you’re taking time to do it again when that time could go to something else."
Braff realizes that the people in his life who don’t give up on giving him feedback can be the most valuable advisors. Bill Lawrence, who created Scrubs, the show that made Braff famous, is one of those people. "I brought him into the editing room twice early on [to view both Braff's first film, Garden State, and Wish I Was Here]. He said, ‘You can’t see it now, but this, this, this and this will never be in your movie. See you later!’ He’s really a savant at cutting and going, Here’s why that can’t be in the film. When you first start you can’t see all that. It’s like, Oh, Jesus, Where’s the movie in this?"
"I wouldn’t Kickstart again. It was always meant to be a giant social experiment, a Wouldn’t it be cool if…? A fun exercise. We were totally gambling that it would work at all, let alone happen in 48 hours. And then it worked and it got into Sundance. If I hadn’t sold the movie at Sundance, I would have been on the hook for all of these obligations that I’ve promised the Earth." During the 26 days of production, he kept a weekly video diary that was given to more than 9,000 backers. There are director’s-chair backs, T-shirts, signed posters, and screenings to be hosted across the country and in Europe. In fact, Braff is taking a month off from Bullets Over Broadway to do what essentially amounts to a Kickstarter tour of Rome, Berlin, London and Paris. He was blown away by the response to the campaign in Europe.
All of that allowed him to shoot the film in Los Angeles, where there is no meaningful tax break for filming. "So everyone leaves," Braff says. "If you’re fund manager, you have obligations to your people, so you can’t turn down a 30% tax break. I was able to stay in L.A. because I’m the CEO of this corporation, and I can say, Fuck the 30%, we’ll make it up elsewhere." A lot of that is made up for by the quality of the crew and day players, cast members who would not be able to travel for a day’s shoot. "Jim Parsons is not going to come to Vancouver to do a day in the movie. Betsy Heimann, my costume designer—look at her fucking credit list! She’s not going to Vancouver." He secured Mandy Patinkin to play his father because Braff was willing to make an agreement that a traditionally-funded production couldn't. "A financier would never sign on to getting Mandy in second position, which is to say, his first obligation was to Homeland. If Homeland had gone over schedule it would have fallen apart, but we were able to say to the Homeland people, who were super nice, Can we have a gentleman’s agreement with a handshake? Can we trust you that he’ll be there? They said yes, and he was."
When it comes down to it, Braff says, "I get to go out on this scavenger hunt for 26 days. [Kickstarter let me do what regular producers wouldn't]: Give me 12 hours a day for 26 days to collect everything I think is right, all the imagery I want. Then let me exhale and now let me find the movie."