You'd think starring in a well-known sitcom like NBC's Scrubs would open doors in Hollywood. But Zach Braff got a harsh reality check when he first went looking for a studio to finance his feature-directorial debut, Garden State (now in limited release).
"It was harder than I thought," says Braff, who also scripted and stars in the film. "I had envisioned that being on Scrubs, having Natalie Portman attached to star and Danny DeVito producing would make it a cinch to get money. I wasn't even asking for that much anyway. But I couldn't find anyone willing to take a risk."
Braff says part of the studios' reluctance had to do with his screenplay, which deliberately avoids following the conventions of most twentysomething dramas. "It's not a movie a studio would ever generate and, as I learned, it was not a movie a studio would ever even produce," he explains. "It was what they call in the studio system 'execution dependent.' Which really means, 'We want to see it when someone else has taken the risk and it's done.'"
After months of pounding the pavement, Braff eventually found a producer willing to take the risk. So during his hiatus from Scrubs, he assembled his cast (including Ian Holm and Peter Sarsgaard) and crew in his home state of New Jersey, where they embarked on a lightning-fast 25-day shoot. The fledgling filmmaker says "it was tricky" balancing his dual role as Garden's star and director.
"There were times when I'd be acting with my right eye and watching a camera crane with my left," he chuckles, "but it was also helpful, in a certain way. Normally, a director would have to cut and give direction, but since I was an actor, I could steer a scene the way I wanted it to go by what I was giving the other actors. So, in a way, it helped speed things up."
Garden State premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. There, Braff took pleasure in watching many of the same studios that passed on the film the first time around bidding for the distribution rights. Eventually, Miramax and Fox Searchlight teamed up to purchase the film, a move that surprised Braff at first. But he says he now realizes that it was a "dream scenario. The two strongest independent distributors are pooling their resources."
Ads for the movie have slowly appeared around the country for some time now, and the movie's trailer and website take full advantage of one of its strongest selling points: a killer soundtrack. A big indie-rock fan, Braff assembled a terrific mix of music from such bands as the Shins (whom he dubs "the greatest band in the world"), Coldplay and Remy Zero. "Basically, I just scored the movie with my favorite music," Braff laughs. "It's really cool that people are responding to it the way they are. It's going to be a great opportunity for a lot of these bands that are having trouble getting exposure. Plus, there are some people on the soundtrack that aren't even signed! That always freaks me out more. I'll go to a concert, and I'll see these guys who are great, but can't get signed to a label. It makes me wanna become a record producer." One career at a time, Zach.