GARDEN STATE - Q&A with Zach Braff
A familiar face from his role as Dr John Dorian in the popular TV series SCRUBS, Zach Braff makes his feature writing and directing debut with GARDEN STATE. Inspired by life, and events, in his native New Jersey the film follows the reluctant homecoming of struggling actor Andrew 'Large' Largeman, his slow reconciliation with his widower father Gideon (Ian Holm) and the blossoming romance with habitual liar Sam (Natalie Portman).
As well as stage and TV work, Braff's other credits include the movies THE BROKEN HEARTS CLUB and MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY.
How autobiographical is GARDEN STATE?
The movie was based on a lot of anecdotes from when I was growing up in New Jersey. Things that happened to me, things that I read about in the paper, things that happened to friends of mine. I sort of wove them all together. I say that about 75% of the movie is true, it just didn't necessarily happen to me. I would write down anecdotes and scenarios on scraps of paper, and when I went to film school I ended up with this box of notes and it was from those stories that I started weaving together what would eventually become the movie."
You weren't as screwed up as the character you play, Andrew Largeman?
I would say the character of 'Large' is really where I was at when I was 26. I was living in Los Angeles, waiting tables - that conversation in the Vietnamese restaurant is word for word the exchange I had with a group of people one time. I really experienced this lost, lonesome feeling in my 20s. I've started to think that your teen years are your body's puberty and your 20s are your mind's puberty. But no-one really ever tells you that.
How did you settle on Ian Holm for the role of your screen father?
I've always been such an incredible fan of his. I'd obviously seen so many of the films he's done but THE SWEET HEREAFTER a couple of years ago was one in particular that moved me a great deal. So we offered him the part. I was on the set of SCRUBS, and we were in the middle of a scene and my phone rang and he said 'Zach, it's Ian Holm'. I went 'oh my God', and he said 'no, Ian Holm'. That's when he said he wanted to play Gideon. He was incredibly gracious, for a man of that stature to take direction from me, this kid, I thought was incredibly generous of him. I hope he'll be in every movie I make.
How close is his character to your own father?
He's not my father, I joke that my father would hug the postman. But I think what does hold true to my relationship with my father is this time in your 20s when you're trying to figure out what your relationship is going to now be with your parents. You're no longer a kid, you're starting your own life, so what is your relationship going to be? Are you going to be friends, are you going to confide in them, are you going to tell them everything. I remember that first time in my teens when I realised that my parents weren't perfect, that they were flawed and sometimes made stupid choices. So for me it was always a question of trying to figure out what your relationship with them was going to be.
As you began to become established as an actor, and achieved what your friends at home would regard as celebrity status, what changes did you notice in their attitude to you?
I had done some after school specials, which are these really awful programmes for children and teenagers that air over here. They always teach you a lesson, they're awful. I'd done some things like that, and other things that I wasn't incredibly proud of, so the fame level that Large experiences when he comes home was sort of inspired by that. I was working as a waiter but when I came home, because I had been in a couple of things, I was really commenting in the film on my friends' warped view of what celebrity and Hollywood was actually like. There I was getting screamed at, waiting tables in a Vietnamese restaurant in Beverly Hills and they have this image of me on ecstasy, hanging out with the beautiful people at poolside. Or that I was living in OJ Simpson's mansion smoking stogies with Playboy Playmates.
You have assembled a very strong supporting cast in the film, were they easy to get together?
I wanted to shoot the entire film in New Jersey, and one of the main reasons was that I knew it would give me access to New York actors. And because of the way we scheduled the film, because it's this journey and you run into people along the way, you could get really great quality actors - people like Denis O'Hare and Jean Smart - to come in and work for just a day. That's one of the reasons why we were able to get a lot of those people.
How easy was it to get the rights to the terrific songs you include in the film?
I wanted it to be the music that I felt was scoring my life, particularly while I was writing it. First and foremost that meant Coldplay and Colin Hay and a couple of other bands. So what I did was put together this CD. Whenever I gave out the script to try to get people to finance the film I would also give them the CD saying this would be the soundtrack never really imagining that I'd be able to get these amazing bands. In fact when they first came back with how much they wanted, you could have made a short film for the amount of money they were asking for and rightly deserved. Eventually we were able to show them, one by one, the scenes in which I wanted to place the music. And, credit to the artists, they were unbelievably generous. I wrote them impassioned letters, and we showed Coldplay the first ten minutes of the movie and they told us we could have it pretty much for nothing. I'll always be grateful to them for that.
Is it a straightforward affair, directing yourself?
The hardest thing for any director is conveying exactly what's in his head to his lead actor. But that was taken out of the mix here because all of that was taking place in my head. I didn't have the time to sit and debate it out, and rationalise each individual choice. We shot the whole movie in 25 days, so a lot of those debates and conversations happened in my hotel room. That actually saved a lot of time and was helpful in a lot of ways.
That was an incredibly short shoot, how did you feel by the end of it?
I felt amazing. People always ask me if it held up to what I imagined it would be, but if I'm totally honest it's even better. I put together my dream team in terms of actors and crew, I just didn't imagine that it would come out as well as it did. I knew Natalie Portman would be good, but I didn't think she'd be that good. And the cinematographer and production designer, I hired them without ever having worked with them before. I imagined they'd be good but I didn't imagine they'd be as good as they were. My editor too. I feel extraordinarily grateful to the crew and the cast that I was able to assemble.
What about casting the animals in the film, especially the dog who 'bonds' with your leg?
If you're ever looking to make a movie where a Guide Dog humps your leg I can give you some advice. It's very hard to find one that can hump on cue, it's much easier to find a regular dog to do that. So you have to find a dog who can pass as a Guide Dog and also have that particular skill. We found Ice on the complete opposite side of the country, in the Pacific Northwest, we shipped him in from Seattle. That humping dog had the highest transportation cost of anyone who worked on the movie. Getting him to perform on cue sounds a little crass, but the first part began when the trainer said: 'love him up Ice' and he would mount my leg. And the second part was 'who's your b****! Who's your b****!' and at that point the dog would then begin thrusting. And in terms of the masturbating dog, my buddy contacted me when I was location scouting in New York city and he said 'I don't know what the hell your movie's about but you've got to see this dog!' It just so happened that I did have this sort of thing with animals in the film, and I saw the dog, who's name is Magoo, on video and I agreed this was probably the funniest thing I'd ever seen in my entire life. I knew I had to find a place for him in the movie.
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