Q&A: Zach Braff
Scrubs star branches out in directorial debut of Garden State
By Abby Wilner
Zach Braff -- often found crashing into medical equipment and being called female names by the other doctors on Scrubs -- exposes a slightly more serious side. At a roundtable on the release of his new movie, Braff talked about his life as a twentysomething and as a newcomer to the directing world. He seems to have an experienced perspective on both.
Did you ever have a quarterlife crisis?
This whole movie’s about my quarterlife crisis! I remember thinking when I first heard about the book (“Quarterlife Crisis,” Penguin Putnam, 2001), “Wow, that’s an awesome articulation of life as a twentysomething.” I’d never heard that before, so I quote it all the time.
So, did you write the movie before you got the part in Scrubs?
Yeah, well, particularly from 22 to 28, I’d feel really “in it” as we say in the movie -- really “in the shit,” trying to paddle myself above water, I was just feeling really lost and depressed, and I got a big break with Scrubs in 2001. The first thing I did was quit my waiting tables job -- which, by the way, that conversation in the restaurant was verbatim something that was said to me. So I quit my waiting tables job, and the next day found out we wouldn’t be shooting Scrubs for four months, and I like to keep busy and thought I would go crazy just sitting and watching TV, so I said, “I gotta write this.” Even getting the show didn’t really put me out of the depression I was in. So I just sat down and wrote for four months straight, and that was the first draft of Garden State.
And do you feel that writing the movie helped you get through your QLC?
I did, but I think people who are prone to go through a quarterlife crisis are prone to be dealing with these same issues their whole lives. I feel like life goes in waves. The way I describe it is it’s like being long overdue for the next chapter of your life to open up. I think everyone can relate to that. Life is a series of beginnings and changes, and then there’s times in your life where you’re like, “I am so due for an epiphany, I am so due for something new to happen to me, a new girl, a new job, an epiphany, somebody please send me an epiphany.” And this is somebody [Large, his character from Garden State] who’s, like, 15 years overdue for an epiphany, for a new chapter to start in his life.
I took a lot of character traits from people in my life, like I had a buddy who would shoot arrows in the air and thought that was the funniest thing in the world -- not on fire, but he did have a joint dangling from his mouth. I started writing this during the dot-com phase when you’d open up the paper and find out about kids making $100 million. I always thought that the whole plan in our society is to get a job, get educated so I can make enough money to start a family, have kids, send them to college and retire -- that’s all programmed out for you. But what if you’re 23 years old and make $100 million -- you must be really confused because what the hell do you do with your life? I created this character who was completely confused and just bored to death -- just so happened he stumbled on 100 million bucks. Couldn’t even get himself to buy furniture because that seemed boring.
I never saw a movie that talked honestly about what I was going through. I saw a whole lot of movies marketed toward twentysomethings -- I’m not talking about having sex with a pie -- that did huge business with twentysomethings. And don’t get me wrong, I love silly movies, but that’s what I feel is most often marketed to my demographic, and it’s been a while, with the exception of Lost in Translation, that I can remember a movie that said, here’s what it feels like honestly to be a twentysomething. I wasn’t trying to speak for a generation, I was not nearly that cocky or thinking I know the answers, I just wanted to write about what I was feeling and thought there have to be other people who can relate. So that’s what I set out to do in the spirit of those movies, write something that was really personal, about me in my twenties.
What keeps you going, chasing your dreams?
Even with a hit show on TV and Natalie Portman signed on, it seemed like every single person in Hollywood was passing on the movie. It was damn difficult ... you have to really persevere, a whole lot of doors close in your face. Scrubs got me in the door, got the script to the top of the pile, but didn’t necessarily sell the movie. But if you believe in what you’re making and have a passion, all you need is access to the right people. It’s like being a salesman, enrolling them in your passion.
Movie-making is my real passion, my dream. I went to school to be a film director. I took a detour by taking acting jobs in New York, which I loved doing and made more money than trying to climb the ladder as a PA on a Mariah Carey video.
Do you have a philosophy, a mantra for life?
I once read a quote, I forgot who said it, that life is way too important to take too seriously, and I’ve always had that taped to my desk, and it always reminds me of how fast life goes and how whenever you start attaching so much meaning to everything and creating all this drama that it was best to strive to laugh it off. And Sam [Portman] wasn’t saying she was great at that, she was saying, “Do I cry? Of course I cry. Do I have pain? Of course I have pain. But at the end of the day, I just try and laugh because it’s silly to take anything too seriously."