Zach Braff: "I've definitely suffered from depression. It's something I deal with."
Resident Scrubs clown Zach Braff gets serious, talking depression, Judaism, Dogme and darkness. London, October 2006
I read an interview with your brother Joshua and he was saying that his Jewish upbringing was quite restrictive, and this was the impetus for his novel, The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green.
"Yeah, well, they sent him to yeshiva, so he did have a strict upbringing. In his early years my father was very religious. We were kosher, but my two older bothers [Joshua and Adam] went to yeshiva, and didn’t have a very positive experience. I think it was so strict that it pushed them away from Judaism, a little bit. But I think that was not the best school in the world."
Yes, it sounded particularly strict.
"It sounds like when you hear these nightmare stories of strict nuns for people who go to Catholic schools. It was kind of like that. Have you read his book? It’s great. I’m not just saying that because I’m his brother, it’s wonderful. And the Jewish community in America is just embracing it and he’s like on a permanent tour of Jewish community centres [laughs]."
Do you think he is speaking for a lot of people in the book?
"I think there are a lot of people his age that grew up in Jewish communities and had Judaism sort of pushed, in a narrow way, a little too hard. They were given the hard sell and in a way that pushed a generation back a little from it as opposed to having them embrace it. The book’s about Judaism but also just about his life growing up in the early 80s in a suburban Jewish community. It’s very powerful and very funny."
He calls the book a primal scream.
"Yeah, it was [laughs]."
Garden State didn’t seem like a primal scream for you.
"Well it was. If you remember I get up on a tractor and scream into a chasm [laughs]."
Of course, you’re right. You, Natalie Portman and Peter Sarsgaard do that. What were you screaming about?
"Just feeling the malaise of being in my mid-20s and having my life be wonderful, but feeling depressed and lost, and not knowing why. Dying for someone to come along and rescue me and open my eyes to the miracle of being alive. In the case of Garden State I wrote that in this sort of angel character that is this young girl who is just like sent from God. She comes and rescues him from himself. So that’s what it was about."
When you say “depressed”, are you a depressive person?
"I’ve definitely suffered from depression at times in my life. It’s something I deal with. Not always, but anyone who suffers from depression knows that it hits you at times like a flu. So I think some of that comes across in Garden State."
Some people believe that depression and creativity are connected.
"Well I do think, as awful as it is, your best art comes out of it. I wrote Garden State at probably the saddest time of my life. It’s scary because you all of a sudden go, ‘My life’s perfect and I’m so happy. Everything’s great. Why am I just sad?’ That’s when you know you suffer from depression, when you can’t find the reason why you’re sad. It’s sort of a chemical thing. So it is a bit of a burden but at least it’s good for some art [wry laugh]."
Do you find doing art therapeutic and cathartic?
"Yeah, I think so. It’s definitely cathartic to write about what you’re feeling and then be able to share it with people. And then the best thing in the world is when people go, ‘Oh my God, I can relate,’ and you go, ‘Thank God, I’m not fucking crazy. I’m not a lunatic.’ If you can create something out of your own sadness, and then have millions of people go, ‘Wow, that movie changed my life. Wow, I related to that. Wow, that movie made me cry. Wow, that’s so me,’ that makes you feel like you’re human and you’re normal."
And if you also felt quite lonely - which I think is how you have described the period when you wrote Garden State - does that kind of response also give you kind of a sense of community?
"It does. It does feel like a communal thing. I’m on MySpace now and the internet on these sites trying to stay in touch with my fans. It does feel like a giant global community of people that can relate. I’m just very loyal to my fans. They’ve been so incredibly supportive of me. So I love that there’s now a technology where you can have a dialogue with your fan base, which is amazing.
"When someone writes you a letter, especially with The Last Kiss, it brings out a lot of emotion. People have written very personal things about an affair they haven’t told anyone about, or the way they felt when they were betrayed. It’s just so moving sometimes that people feel they can entrust this information to me. I think they feel it’s so anonymous. It’s like that old psychologist’s exercise of writing a letter but not sending it. I think people feel like they’re doing that. And this isn’t to say [laughs] to millions of people, ‘All start sending me your problems.’ I don’t want this to be an advertisement like I’m a Dear Abbie! And I should say that most of the mail is not that. It’s letters of encouragement, and people going to see the movie then telling me their reaction.
"And by the way, it’s not all positive. People have plenty of criticism of my work [loud laugh], but it’s always heart felt. I’ve had people write me, ‘I fucking hated the movie’ and then a week later they write back, ‘Alright, I realised why I was so upset, because it hit me too strong. Now, a week later, I can tell you that I didn’t hate the movie, I really liked the movie, but this is why I had this visceral reaction to it.’"
I was taken aback by the brutal honesty of the film. I wasn’t expecting it at all.
"Yeah, well, I just felt like wasn’t it time for a brutally honest film about relationships? I couldn’t believe an American studio was going to release this movie. When I met the producers, I said, ‘Oh, come on, you guys are going wimp out and take all of the grit out of this movie.’ And they didn’t. So I was very pleased - even though it will alienate a lot of the audience. It’s not a giant crowd pleaser this movie. One of the things I wish I had said in the States a little bit more in interviews was, ‘Please don’t go expecting Garden State 2. This is very gritty.’ Not that Garden State was a light-hearted romp, but this movie makes it look like one. This is a very gritty, real movie about relationships, and people shouldn’t go in looking for a broad comedy."
Do you think the attitude to marriage has changed since your parents’ generation? This film seems to suggest that there is a lot more scepticism around it today.
"I think so, because people don’t stay married now. The thing about marriage was you stayed in it even when it wasn’t working. Maybe that’s worse, I don’t know. It seems to me that there’s an attitude about people getting married now that’s like, ‘Well, I want to do it, I want to have kids. Let me try it out, see how it goes.’ And I’m not saying that’s wrong but it’s definitely a new way of looking at it."
I wonder if it’s part of this culture of disposability that we have now. If something doesn’t work you don’t try to fix it, you throw it away and replace it.
"Once all the taboo of divorce is out of the way, and it becomes so commonplace, then you start to wonder, what is the point of marriage? Personally, I’d love to get married and have kids, so I’m not anti marriage. But I think one of the things the movie does in interesting ways is say, ‘Then what is the point of the contract?’ People say, ‘Well if you’re going to have kids, it’s good for the kids.’ Well, is joint custody and divorce? That’s what I did. Is that good for the kids? I went a week and a week, back and forth."
"Yeah. Every Sunday I moved houses."
"Yeah, crikey’s right [said sadly]. So the movie doesn’t try and answer all these questions but I think in a really great way it asks the questions about commitment, life long commitment, monogamy and why men in their 30s - and women too, although this is told from the male perspective - have this fear of that commitment."
Yes, although people are focusing on your character, Michael, the women in the film are just as anxious about marriage and about what that commitment means as the men.
"Yeah, they’re very anxious about it. In this particular film it manifests itself in them being neurotic and distrustful of it as well. I think in a comedic way Sex and the City was years of the female perspective of fear of marriage and commitment, blah, blah, blah. This is sort of a much more dramatic male perspective of that same anxiety. But I don’t think it’s a male thing. I think men get a lot more crap for it, for being afraid of commitment, but I think women have it as well."
How old were you when your parents divorced?
"I was eight."
How do you think it has affected or informed your view of relationships and marriage?
"It just made me very sceptical of whether or not it’s possible. But then my parents are both so crazily, happily re-married the second time. So maybe you have to get through your first time to get to your second time. I don’t know. I don’t have any answers. For me it was a very painful thing, as an eight year old, to have them get divorced. But they’re wonderful and, um, did everything they could have done to make it easy. I mean I joke about joint custody being hard, and it was, but the alternative was not having my father in my life or going once a weekend. So, to my father’s credit, it was very important to him to have joint custody of us."
Were they still in the same town?
"Yeah, they did that on purpose so we were in the same school system. We could all go to the same school."
Were you and your siblings still altogether at home?
"Well, it’s sort of two waves. I have two older brothers and my sister was just a little older. So my brothers didn’t deal with that so much as my sister and me."
I have read you say you wanted to make your first film before you were 30, and Garden State was about a man dealing with his 20s. The Last Kiss is about a man about to turn 30, and in interviews you have said that now you’re 31, it’s perhaps time to start a new chapter. You do seem quite focused on age.
"I think I’m just afraid of dying [laughs]. I think I’ve always been, oddly, for some reason, without being too crazy, just very conscious of how fast I feel life is moving and I feel like every year I get older, it moves quicker. There’s just an idea in my own mind to do as much as I can and live life. I’m not a big believer in the after life. I mean if it happens it will be a nice cherry on top, but I really believe that this is it and want to do as much as I can. Maybe I’m hard on myself because I don’t want to stop and want to live life to the fullest."
Are you hard on yourself about the work that you do and the choices that you make?
"Very hard. I am consumed with my work. It’s the most important thing right now in my life. So I’m very hard on myself about it."
Can you watch yourself on film or on TV?
"Yeah, I watch what I do and I sometimes think it’s funny, and sometimes think it’s awful [laughs]. You know, my friends tease me that I laugh harder at myself on Scrubs than anybody else does. I think that’s because it’s the exact bull’s-eye of my sense of humour. So even though it’s me I laugh at it because even if it was someone else I would still be laughing. I find it very funny [laughs]. But yeah, I’m very critical of myself."
Growing up were there high expectations placed on you that you had to live up to?
"Um, I’ve just always had a lot of drive to be better and better at this. I never played sports, none of that ever interested me, so my competitive drive, I guess, came with trying to be an actor and trying to be a filmmaker. I just want to be really good. And I don’t think I’m good yet. I think I’m passable, but I want to get better and better [laughs]."
And your work seems to be getting darker and darker. You’re working on an adaptation of the Dogme movie Open Hearts, which is pretty heavyweight stuff.
"Yeah, it’s going to get even darker [laughs]. I wrote on my blog, ‘Open Hearts is going to make The Last Kiss look like Naked Gun’, because there were people who commented, ‘Oh, The Last Kiss is so dark, it was not what we were expecting form you.’ I wrote back [laughs], ‘Well get ready because I’m going to make a really dark film.’"
How are you going to do it because obviously the original was made according to the austere Dogme rules?
"Yeah, the first thing I’m doing is un-Dogmefying it. I love the movie but I’m not a fan of shaky video camera. As you can see from Garden State, I really love film and composition and structure. [Getting excited] When I saw Open Hearts, I thought, it’s like a play . . . it’s like Glengarry Glenross. When you see Glengarry Glenross, it’s six guys in a room talking. And it’s a very small story. But in so many ways it’s about everything a man can go through in his life. I saw that in Open Hearts. It’s a very small story - it’s about a car accident and how it affects these two families – it could be a play, and at the same time it is about everything that a man and a woman can go through in their lives. It covers fate and lust and love and loneliness and depression and joy, all in a little hour-and-a-half movie. I was just so blown away by it. I thought, ‘Wow, no one in my country watches subtitled Dogme Danish movies. I could bring an American version of that to the screen.’"
Part of the challenge must be to keep it from slipping into melodrama.
"That’s the trick. I thought they did that in a pretty effective way yet those Dogme movies are so heavy handed. So yeah, one of the things I’m doing in my adaptation is finding a couple of moments to lighten it up a little bit. I don’t think you can sustain that note the whole time. I’m making the kids a little funnier and adding some humour to it. By no means making it light hearted, but I have found in the work that I have done that you can’t sustain that – it’s like a whole movie of shouting – you have to have moments of levity."
Part of your character Michael’s anxiety in The Last Kiss comes from turning 30. How was it for you in the end? Was it as bad as you might have feared?
"Um, I don’t miss my 20s at all. My 20s were rough. I learned a lot and I feel very lucky in what’s happening in my life now. So I don’t, like, miss my 20s. But there is a feeling when you get to be 31 of no more playing around, you’re an adult. You know, there’s a Colin Hayes song, ‘Waiting for my real life to begin’. Well, your real life’s begun. So are you going to live it or are you going to obsess about the past? Or are you going to worry that life is short? I think for me, turning 31 was like, ‘This is it’. It’s kind of like the line in Garden State, ‘This is it. This is life. So what are you doing?’"
©Stephen Applebaum, 2006