Next year brings the 20th anniversary of Garden State, which at the time marked the directorial debut of Scrubs star Zach Braff. It became an indie sensation, and over the last two decades, Braff has continued to direct while balancing the demands of his acting career. He has even earned Emmy and DGA nominations for directing episodes of the hit Apple TV+ series Ted Lasso, which just returned for its third season.
Braff’s latest effort behind the camera is A Good Person, which stars Florence Pugh and Oscar winner Morgan Freeman as Allison and Daniel, two people who are brought together by grief and addiction following a tragic car accident that lands them in the same AA meeting. Pugh and Freeman give performances that some may consider the best of their careers (which is saying something in Freeman’s case, especially), and Braff has surrounded them with a talented supporting cast that includes Molly Shannon as Allison’s mother, Chinaza Uche (Dickinson) as Allison’s ex-fiancé, and Celeste O’Connor (Ghostbusters: Afterlife) as Daniel’s teenage granddaughter, whom he must care for after the death of her mother.
Above the Line recently spoke with Braff over Zoom about how he came to write and direct A Good Person and how the movie deals with its difficult subject matter, as well as how he plans to balance his career in front of the camera with the growing one behind it. And yes, we also wondered if he has anything special planned for Garden State‘s 20th anniversary next year.
Above the Line: This is a really wonderful film, one that made me cry a lot, which is always awkward when you’re sitting in a theater full of other people.
Zach Braff: Are you kidding me? I like that. I find it very therapeutic to cry at movies. I love that feeling, because you’re getting to experience the emotions, and then, obviously, it’s tapping into your own sorrow that you felt throughout your life. But it’s somebody else’s problem, so there’s something about it for me that I really find cathartic.
ATL: I must feel the same because every year, my favorite movies are the ones that get me to cry. The first time I saw this film, I didn’t know much about it. I knew you directed it and that Florence and Morgan were in it, but that was about it, so it caught me off-guard. What got the ball rolling on this one and spurred you to write about this subject?
Braff: It was in lockdown, in the pandemic, and I could procrastinate no more. I was out of excuses. It was time to finally write something. I can procrastinate like nobody else. I just made a commitment that I was going to sit in the chair and write something every day. I had been through a lot of loss in my life — I had lost my sister, I lost my father, I lost a good friend of mine to COVID, [Note: On a morning talk show, Braff recently mentioned this good friend was Nick Cordero.] so this is what came up for me.
I guess what came out of me was wanting to write about grief and how we stand back up from grief in our lives — the resilience of humans. I wanted to write something for Florence, in particular, because I just think she’s so incredibly unique and talented. That was the jumping-off point — writing something about my own experience with grief and wanting to numb myself from that grief, and making Florence the main protagonist.
ATL: You already knew Florence so you must have known she’s a songwriter as well. I was amazed, during the end credits, when I saw that she wrote the two songs she performs in this movie, both of which are great songs.
Braff: Yes, I knew that Florence was a singer/songwriter herself, so I was able to write that into the movie. I thought, “Let’s use that,” because I knew that Florence would sometimes write music as a way of almost journaling, to help her get through something she was working out in her life. I thought, “Well, that’s beautiful. Let me give that to the character because then it’ll be so unique and specific [since] Florence can write the songs as the character.” That’s not something you get the opportunity to do very often, so she wrote those songs herself.
ATL: How did you connect with Christine Vachon and Killer Films? Did you meet her during some of your film festival forays?
Braff: No, I know the legend that is Christine Vachon, just from being a movie lover and a cinephile and going to Sundance. My first Sundance was in ’99, so I know the legend of Killer Films. Actually, what happened was, Pam Abdy, who was running MGM at the time with Mike DeLuca, wanted to make the film — they loved the script — but I didn’t have a producer at the time. It was literally just me, Morgan, and Florence, and that was it. I was gonna produce, obviously, but I needed a real boots-on-the-ground movie producer to help me execute this thing, especially during COVID.
There were so many pitfalls and things that came up, and it was Pam Abdy’s idea. She said, ‘I bet Killer Films — Christine Vachon and Pam Koffler — would love this. Let’s send it to them, and they could help you produce it.’ And that’s what happened. They loved it, and really helped me do it at a very hard time to make movies. So much of your budget goes to the COVID protocols, so it was very tricky to make a movie when we made this in 2021.
ATL: But it’s still a fairly small cast, and a lot of the scenes are with just one or two actors, which must make it easier to follow those COVID protocols, right?
Braff: That’s all we could afford.
ATL: Once you had Morgan and Florence, was it easier to cast around them? I was really impressed with Celeste and Chinaza…
Braff: Once you say you’re making a movie with Morgan Freeman and Florence Pugh, people want to be a part of it. We had wonderful actors that read for us, and I saw a lot of people for both Chinaza and Celeste’s parts, and they were just far and away the winners; they were just incredible. Florence read with them over Zoom, just so we could have a chemistry read. And then, of course, both Florence and I are big fans of Molly Shannon. So we offered it to Molly Shannon. We have Zoe Lister-Jones, who did an incredible job in this film. Even Alex Wolff shows up for a really intense scene with Florence in the dive bar. We were just so lucky. One of the things about shooting a movie near New York City is you can get such great access to incredible talent.
ATL: I didn’t even realize that was Alex Wolff, even after seeing the movie twice, though he did look familiar…
Braff: Florence knew him, and he liked my work, so he just said he could do a one-scene part, but he’s really great in that scene.
ATL: Were you in lockdown in New Jersey? I feel like, from Garden State to this one, you’re just in Jersey all the time, or is that not true?
Braff: No, I’m never in Jersey. I just like Jersey as a setting, just because I feel comfortable [there]. In the spirit of writing what you know, I feel like I know North Jersey. I can really depict it accurately and authentically because it’s something I know well.
ATL: It must have been tough during the lockdown, but were you able to do any interviews to research opioid addiction?
Braff: I did speak to plenty of people, but reading Dopesick was one of the [things] that made me so livid and furious that I wanted to include it in the film, because I thought, “This is such a gargantuan story. I wonder if telling one woman’s story of how she got caught up in it could be an effective way of spreading the word?” I think Dopesick was one of the reasons that [addiction] got folded into the story.
Also, I had known some women, back when I graduated college, who were pharma reps. Back in ’97, I remember hearing about what their job was, and they were telling me, even themselves, how they thought it was a bit sketchy, but this is what their job was. I always wanted to write about that somewhere. Of course, when it came to specifics on opioid [addicts] in recovery, I got advice from a lot of different specialists to make sure we got it right.
ATL: Addiction is a tough subject for a movie, even though there have been some good ones over the years. It’s tough because the people who have addictions are in denial, and those who aren’t struggling with addiction often pretend it doesn’t exist. Was it tough to get MGM on board for a movie about this subject?
Braff: No, I think MGM just really liked the screenplay and certainly loved the pairing of Morgan and Florence. I think it’s a credit to them that they knew that addiction is a subject we should be talking about more — addiction of all kinds, especially coming out of the pandemic. I think a lot of people fell into their vices because we were in lockdown. I think MGM saw it as a chance to talk about a very important subject that’s facing not only the country but the world.
ATL: I love that this is getting a theatrical release, which isn’t always a given these days, especially when so many companies need content for streaming, and MGM actually has two streaming platforms now.
Braff: I feel so grateful. When Amazon bought MGM, as a filmmaker, I was so nervous that they would just put it on [Prime Video], but MGM just really believed in the movie and wanted to give it a theatrical release. I hope people actually go to the theater. I think this film is one that is best seen on the big screen with an audience, with other people experiencing it as an audience together.
ATL: Everyone knows that you have great musical taste from your earlier films, but one of the things I noticed on my second viewing of A Good Person is that there’s a long period of time with no music at all. You end up really focusing on the characters and their dialogue, and I even started to notice the ambiance around them. I thought maybe some of it was ADR’d, but I could hear a fire engine way in the background, so I knew the dialogue was captured on set.
Braff: That’s something I’m working on as I grow as a filmmaker — when to show restraint, and when to hold back. Even though the film obviously has score and music, I think I was very careful to edit more out than I have in the past, and just let scenes play. I mean, the actors are so incredible, and they hold space in the screen so magically, that you don’t need score, you don’t need anything. You just want to watch them and sit with them in the space that they’re in.
I think that siren you’re referencing really went by on the day and it’s like, “You know what? A siren would go by in the background of this church. And also, the performance is so fucking incredible, I’m not going to fix this in ADR. Just live with it [because] that’s what would happen — a fire engine would go by at this moment.” There were a lot of moments like that where I tried to just keep things really raw.
ATL: I may have just been super attuned to their voices, and what they were saying to each other.
Braff: On second viewing, it’s always cool when you go back and you see a movie and experience the subtleties you didn’t notice the first time.
ATL: Absolutely. You’ve been directing a lot of television recently, so you’ve been busy as a director. Is it hard to keep an acting career going when you’re not doing as much in front of the camera as behind it? How do you balance those things?
Braff: I’ve reached the place where I don’t want to do things as an actor just to do them. I like acting when it’s something I find funny. I just did an indie as an actor in Canada with Vanessa Hudgens that was just really funny and made me laugh. I do a little arc on this new Vince Vaughn show coming out called Bad Monkey. I do really enjoy acting, but I have reached a place in my life where I don’t want to do it just to take a job. I want to find things that I genuinely like.
And then the directing stuff, I just have a wonderful collaboration with [Producer/Showrunner] Bill Lawrence. It’s been 27 years, I think, since I met him, and we have such a shorthand [together]. Whether it’s [Ted] Lasso or now, Shrinking, and of course, nine years of Scrubs, we are just on the same page. We have the same aesthetic, so we’re really good friends.
ATL: It’s kind of scary realizing this, but next year will be the 20th anniversary of the release of Garden State. Do you have anything special planned?
Braff: I don’t know. I haven’t really thought [about it]… but no, there’s nothing planned, I don’t think. It was Fox Searchlight, and they’ve been bought by Disney, so I don’t know that there’s gonna be any fireworks off a bridge or anything. My publicist is gonna get on that right now. I don’t know. There’s certainly not been any plans. It’s amazing that it keeps going. I mean, HBO has been showing it lately. I never could have guessed that movie would have the longevity that it has had.
A Good Person is now playing in theaters nationwide courtesy of MGM.