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Zach Braff talks 'Wish I Was Here,' its soundtrack, and more

To put things in perspective, the "Wish I Was Here" interviews took place in the ballroom of the hotel. I was expecting a gathering of people of sorts or maybe a reception, but there weren't even a dozen people total. There were maybe three or four other press members there besides myself as Donald Faison and Zach Braff were each kept separate in their own room. I interviewed Donald first and then Zach. Zach even said as I came in, "Welcome to our own private ballroom."

Zach Braff behind the camera for his film "Wish I Was Here."
Photo courtesy of Focus Features, used with permission.

Zach was also quite funny and easy to talk to. He fidgeted a lot during the interview; folding the edges of a piece of paper as he spoke over and over again. Being given permission to pick the brain of a talented writer, director, and actor for just a brief moment to not only peak behind the curtain but also tell them what I took away from their film was a completely new and refreshing experience for me. I know I thanked them in person, but it was a privilege to be able to speak to both of these very talented individuals.

"Wish I Was Here" opens in select theaters July 18. A Houston date is currently TBD.

Chris Sawin: The "Garden State" soundtrack introduced me to The Shins, basically. So thank you for that. How did you go about picking what would be on the soundtrack for "Wish I Was Here" ? Did anything not make the cut that you wish would have?

Zach Braff: Well, this was really cool because this time I got to go to bands I love and show them the movie and say, "Would you consider writing original music?" We have an original Shins song. We have an original Bon Iver song. We have an original song by Coldplay that Cat Power sings. So that was extra cool this time because the idea of collaborating with artists you love and having them write music that was inspired by their viewing of the movie--that's just like..for someone who loves music there's just nothing cooler. In terms of the other music, what we do is me and my editor assemble this massive playlist of probably a couple hundred songs and those songs come from our own libraries, from friends, we have lots of people who love music, we have a music supervisor that sends breaking music from the labels--they're all pitching. And so we just amass this giant playlist and then we try it in different spots and wait until something gives us goosebumps. You can have a song you love more than anything and try it everywhere in the movie and it just doesn't work, but when you get goosebumps on your arm or a chill, you say okay that's a candidate. I like it. That made me feel something in the right way. So we just keep auditioning, auditioning, auditioning for months until (snaps fingers) the perfect song lines up. Fortunately, these artists, we don't have much money to pay them but they like my work, they liked "Garden State." A lot of them ended up seeing this movie and then approving it for an affordable cost.

Chris: There had been some online backlash regarding you using Kickstarter for the film. Has it affected the film in any way? Do you plan on using Kickstarter again?

Zach: It didn't affect the film at all because 47,000 people got and are getting exactly what they signed up for. In fact, that's why we're here in Austin because for one of the most fun things is I get to not only sit with the people who backed the movie and show it to them a month and a half early, but then do a Q&A with them and answer any bizarre questions they have. Then bring Donald out and answer "Scrubs" questions or whatever they want. So we had people on set, we promised T-shirts. Anything and everything that we promised we've followed through and are following through on times ten including this crazy private website for them where we share backer/insider videos and all this stuff. The backlash on the web was frustrating because I felt like it was almost like a political conversation where the facts weren't being debated correctly or like when the science guy debated the creationist. It was a little like alright this is going to be a hard debate if we're not working off the same set of facts. I remember Bill Nye going like, "There are trees older than you think Earth is," and sometimes that's how I felt with the Kickstarter debate. Finally they released a statement saying not only is this the most traffic we've ever had on the site, but these people, Kristen Bell/Zach Braff fanbase, they go on to donate an insane amount of money to other projects. I think at the time it was $200,000 that he quoted and that was like while my campaign was still going, I think. So that quieted a lot of it down. Any time new things happen and something breaks there's always going to be people or detractors who are upset about it, but it doesn't seem to be hurting them. Levar Burton is going to break all records with this one. It's unbelievable. He actually has a cameo as you know in my film. I think you saw it, right?

Chris: I did, yeah.

Zach: When the right project lines up with a creator who has a fanbase who has a project they want to get made but no one else will can have success and Levar is going to break all records.

Chris: There had been a couple of early reviews for the film that were saying it was too similar to "Garden State." How would you describe the differences between the two films? Are there any similarities at all other than the obvious?

Zach: Well I think A: quoting reviews out of Sundance is not wise because anyone who is reviewing has seen it at Sundance and you've seen a very early cut and to go and blog about a review out of a festival is what it is. There's been tweaks to it since the festival. I wasn't really done with it yet. It was just a festival cut of it. But fortunately we had a standing ovation and sold it to Focus, so I guess in the end we won out. If that is a criticism that it's too similar to "Garden State," I'll take it because I aspire to have my films have a vibe the way that all my favorite filmmakers have a vibe. You watch a Woody Allen movie, you know it's a Woody Allen movie. You watch a Hal Ashby movie, you know it's a Hal Ashby movie. Fincher, Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson, you name it; they have an oeuvre. I've only made two films but I aspire to have them have a vibe, so I'll take that criticism as a compliment.

Chris: I love that...I enjoyed the film. That was just a...

Zach: Make sure you put your article next to that comment. (laughs)

Chris: Without giving too much away, would you explain what you were going for with the sci-fi sequences in the film?

Zach: I had this idea of like what is a heroic man in 2014? What does that mean? We're all obsessed with "Game of Thrones" and a lot of us are obsessed with video games, heroic movies, and a lot of people are into comic books. As a child I was obsessed with cops and robbers and being the bad ass cop that came to the rescue; being the knight in the forest that came to the rescue. I had this kind of idea that what would it be like if that childhood idea manifested itself with an adult's manifestation and it served almost like a Greek chorus to who he was now. Now he's not a hero. He can barely get a job, he's not providing for his family, everybody is mad at him, he's selfish, he can't make money to save his life, and he's just lost. He's lost track of everything. He's the anti-hero. He's his own worst enemy, in fact. And so, I liked the idea of this sort of metaphoric Greek chorus kind of guiding him and having that be the childhood fantasy of who he daydreamed he'd be; this great, heroic, futuristic knight. It served as kind of a touchstone for him. He doesn't really know what it means. He just sort of daydreams about it and he gets a sense that maybe it's a form of spirituality for him. Since he has no touch with any sort of spirituality. Maybe this can be a means of spirituality. I guess it's a bizarre way of saying or a surreal way of saying that spirituality can be anything you want or need it to be as long as it helps you.

Chris: (nods, goes to move on to the next question) Um...

Zach: Did you get any of that out of it? What did you think it was?

Chris: (nervously laughs) I mean, I understood it but at the same time it felt like there was this cohesive story moving along and then the sci-fi sequences seemed to kind of throw it off track a little bit. But at the same time I understood why they were there.

Zach: That's a fair criticism and I'm sure I'll get that, but I just I liked the idea of those things that guide us in life. We're so driven by what's in our head, what we end up doing, and what we don't end up doing and the choices we make. In cinema, I thought it was interesting to have it manifest as a fantasy. I thought it was cool.

Chris: It was. I mean, it was very different. Which is something not a lot of movies can say these days. I did enjoy that.

Zach: Thanks.

Chris: You were able to put together a pretty incredible cast for this little film. What was it like working with them?

Zach: It's really cool. Mandy Patinkin is from "The Princess Bride" to Broadway and musicals, which is something I like a lot. I'm doing one now. To "Homeland," he's been a lifelong hero of mine. I think he's a phenomenal actor. As much accolades as he's getting for "Homeland" now, I think he's an underappreciated actor because he's such the real deal and I was thrilled he said yes. And Kate I've known for a long time and she does these big romantic comedies because she's pretty and funny and they do well, but I just fell in such love with her with "Almost Famous." In my mind I thought like I want to bring her back to just...take all the makeup off, don't straighten your hair, just be a normal--obviously you're going to be a pretty woman but don't be a movie star (laughs). Just be like a normal person because she's such a good actress and she really allowed me to do that. She really allowed me to just like strip it down. And that scene between her and Mandy in the hospital, she's f---ing so talented. It's just two people sitting across from each other. Talking. Camera is barely moving. And you see how talented she is. And I really wanted to get that...tease that out of her.

Chris: This is the last film James Avery was credited for. How was he on the set and what was it like working with him?

Zach: Well, he made up that joke. My joke was...first of all I wanted there to be two recognizable character actors in the scene just because I thought that would be funny. One was Leslie Baker, Stanley from The Office, and the other was him (James Avery). I wanted the audience to go, "Oh, those are famous black character actors." And when Leslie brags that he did Othello, James says, "We all did." And he said wouldn't it be funny because if you're a black actor, you played Othello in college. (laughs) I remember that day was so stressful and I was racing around. I was like, "Maybe James. That is funny. I'm going to try to get it in there," (Zach said all of this really fast) because that's how you are on set. I kept thinking about it in my head. And I said, "You know what? That is funny, James. Try it." He says it and the whole f---ing crew starts breaking out laughing, so it was a home run. Then we added the guys doing that mumble of acknowledgement, so then it got even funnier. To his credit, may he rest in peace, not only did he go out on a laugh but he went out on a laugh that he improvised himself.

Chris: My girlfriend likes to wear and has a large collection of wigs. I was wondering if anything in particular inspired you to write the sequence for Grace or if it was something you thought up on the fly?

Zach: I always have thought that that orthodox tradition is really bizarre, which is a real thing; the women shave their heads and then put on a wig and the shaels as we discussed in the movie. I just thought that was a really...everyone has their weird traditions but that one always struck me as odd. And then Joey King was in the Batman movie ("The Dark Knight Rises"). She was the...when Christian Bale is down in the pit and you think it's a little boy, but it turns out to be a girl.

Chris: Oh! Yeah.

Zach: That was Joey. When she came to do "Oz," she was the China doll and I was the monkey ("Oz: The Great and Powerful"). She had that shaved head, so she was always wearing wacky wigs because she likes wacky wigs too. And then I always imagined the character to look like Natalie Portman in "The Professional," so it was a hybrid of all three: Natalie Portman in "The Professional" meets Joey King loving to wear wigs because she shaved her head for Batman meets the odd orthodox tradition. That's where it came from.

(our time ran out right around here)

Zach: I think that's it.

Chris: Oh, alright.

(Zach glances at my questions and sees the one about Guy Love)

Zach: Do we still sing Guy Love? Yes, we do. (laughs)

Chris: (chuckles) I was going to ask that, too.

Zach: We're singing it tonight, actually.

Chris: Yeah, that's what Donald said.

Zach: Nice talking to you, man.

Chris: Nice talking to you, too. Thank you.

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