Blame Zach Braff. The Shins are warbling at Cucina inside the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, a power lunch spot frequented by Hollywood’s most cold-blooded players. Over the restaurant’s speakers, “The Simple Song,” — the same one used in the trailer for Braff’s new film, the partially Kickstarter-funded “Wish I Was Here” — interrupts a bite of his steak salad. ¶ “You’re going to put that in the story, right? Here we are . . . in a nook in the Four Seasons . . . and the Shins come on,” the 39-year-old “Scrubs”-star-turned-auteur wisecracks in his most meta-ironic narrator’s voice. ¶ Praise Zach Braff. By making the Shins the “change-your-life” contretemps of “Garden State” (and its Grammy-winning soundtrack), the New Jersey native introduced the mid-’00s indie pop avatars to the masses, allowing them to anesthetize lunches in hotel restaurants with $19 short rib burgers and menus entirely in Italian. A decade later, actor and band are as intertwined as John Travolta and the Bee Gees.
“Everyone’s seen an amazing band and thought, ‘How does no one know about them?” Braff speaks animatedly, powder-blue eyes bulging. “I love being able to occasionally pull out bands and say, ‘Check these [guys] out.’ ”
To his acolytes, Braff is the every-nebbish — the alienated but empathetic “nice guy” struggling in a world that has rewarded his talent generously, but not absolutely. He’s the patron saint of those slightly thwarted in their ambitions, lucky to be where they’re at and unable to escape the neurotic black hole of their heads.
Yet others see him as an emblem of musical gentrification, a privileged incarnate of “Stuff White People Like,” a glib tipping point in the eventual Urban Outfitterization of indie rock.
Regardless of your axis on the Braffian spectrum, “Garden State’s” impact was unmistakable. Made for $2.5 million, the 2004 word-of-LiveJournal sensation grossed $26.7 domestically, sold enough DVDs to fill the infinite abyss, and won a Grammy (Best Compilation Soundtrack) and Independent Spirit Award (Best First Feature).
The success shocked Braff. It transformed him from a pratfalling TV doctor to an indie heartthrob — a writer, director, actor and co-architect of the modern Manic Pixie Dream Girl blueprint (manifested by co-star Natalie Portman). The film’s screwball psychosomatic wanderings set to sad-sack indie rock gave “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Juno” a style to run with. It happened before he was 30. Brafflash was inevitable.
“He’s not afraid of being emotionally accessible, tackling big issues, or being too cool for school,” explains Stacey Sher, an executive producer on “Garden State” and a producer of “Wish I Was Here,” opening in D.C. on July 18. The new film chronicles the travails of Aidan Bloom (Braff), an out-of-work actor struggling to cope with the death of his father and the rigors of parenthood and marriage.
“He’s completely authentic in what he wants to express,” Sher says. “It’s easy for cynics to take potshots at someone who wears their heart on their sleeves. But that’s what endears him to his fans.”
Today the heart-on-sleeve metaphor is rendered literal by a pin affixed to Braff’s olive denim work shirt — it reads, simply, “Love.” The pin was a present from a friend who offered it as a reminder for when he’s feeling “down, stressed and overwhelmed.” It’s the Braff binary writ small: you either identify with someone pushing 40 striving to stay loving in spite of existential woes, acknowledged flaws, and petty irritations. Or you find a “Love” pin irredeemably corny.
“I didn’t know that ‘Garden State’ would be this astronomical hit,” Braff says, his voice rising in agitation. He notes that “90 percent” of his most vitriolic attackers describe themselves online as writers.
“Was some of it didactic? Sure. Was some it, quirk for quirk sake? Sure,” he continues. “But to go back and diss it, and say we were so young and naïve, that’s insulting and silly. It was pretty good for a first effort.”
Some celebrities insulate themselves from criticism by staying offline, but Braff actively engages his 1.4 million Twitter followers. He lauds its ability to joke with fans in Australia when fighting bouts of insomnia. But his Twitter bio tellingly reads: “I block people quicker than I should.”
“He goes out of his way to be nice to fans and reward them for liking him,” says Donald Faison, his “Scrubs” and “Wish I Was Here” co-star. “He was in London doing a play [2012’s Braff-penned “All New People”] and some German fans wrote to him; he was so touched, he ended up traveling to Germany to visit them.”
A Braffian takeover seemed imminent after “Garden State.” You don’t need to know about out-of-state production tax credits to understand that when your first movie makes its money back 20-fold, someone usually quickly finances a follow-up. But that didn’t happen. Listening to Braff explain his decade-long odyssey to make its successor doubles as an indictment of modern film financing.
“My ego was humbled,” Braff says. “I know I haven’t been able to make a movie in 10 years, but I’ve tried. They just all fell apart. Of course, I could’ve gone and made a big studio romantic comedy with stars. But ‘Scrubs’ put me in a position where I could say no. I didn’t want to put my name on [crap].”
That’s not to say that there were no industry dalliances. The 2006 DreamWorks release, “The Last Kiss” was a romantic comedy misfire that promised him the chance to rewrite the script in a more “gritty and real” tone. (“Yeah, right,” he rolls his eyes.) That year saw the release of “The Ex,” another critical and commercial failure.
High points included a 2005 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor on “Scrubs” (he left the show in 2009), and a hilarious turn as a “Girls Gone Wild” sleazoid on “Arrested Development.” His dream deferred was the adaptation of a dark Danish film called “Open Hearts.” Sean Penn reportedly agreed to star, but production stalled when Braff’s lead actress (whose identity he declines to divulge) bailed for another role while he was location scouting in Atlanta.
“Everything is celebrity dependent, and celebrities’ schedules are always in flux. It’s fascinating that anything gets made,” Braff says. “Eighty percent of a movie is the cast, but money guys treat it like a Chinese food menu. ‘You can only make it with him if you pair him with her.’ There’s people on lists whose names you don’t even know and when you ask, they say, ‘Oh, they’re in a giant franchise coming out. By the time your movie comes out, they’ll be huge.”
Frustration mounting, Braff co-authored a spec script with his older brother, Adam. When financiers balked at giving him final cut (the power to control the version of the film released into theaters) he turned to Kickstarter, the crowd-funding Web site that had recently helped finance the “Veronica Mars” movie.
“I’m making a tiny movie about my spirituality, my family and my biggest fears. And I’m supposed to give final cut to a banker, who’s going to make his cuts totally based on a test screening in the suburbs of L.A.? No. [Screw] that,” Braff thunders in a mild-mannered way.
“Everything everyone loves about ‘Garden State’ wouldn’t be in ‘Garden State’ if I hadn’t stumbled into a rich guy who knew nothing about the business and gave me final cut,” he says.
Without a similar life raft, Braff filmed a wry video pitch seeking $2 million to help offset previously procured funding and Braff’s financial investment. Within about a month, 46,500 people had contributed a total of $3.1 million.
The gambit elicited a firestorm of Internet criticism, with the tactic being branded as a publicity stunt or vanity project. People carped that Braff’s project detracted from other prospective Kickstarters. They groused that an actor who once made $350,000 per episode on “Scrubs” shouldn’t scrounge for loose change on the Web. One Flavorwire headline bluntly read: “Why Zach Braff’s ‘Wish I Was Here’ is Becoming a PR Nightmare.”
“I drove more traffic to Kickstarter than they’d ever had in a single day,” Braff retorts. “And these people stayed and invested in each other projects. I put in the biggest risk of anyone. If I didn’t sell this at Sundance, all the fulfillment costs fell on me. There’s a scenario in which we don’t get into Sundance or no one buys it, and I still have to ship T-shirts and host screenings all over the globe.”
In person, Braff retains the screaming-in-the-rain sincerity of his cinematic alter egos. His blue eyes narrow and turn silvery at the mention of haters. The passion is unmistakable. At one point, while comparing camera crane movements on “Wish I Was Here” and “Garden State,” he pounds his fist loudly onto the table. He describes himself as a loner, now more than ever after the recent dissolution of his five-year relationship with model Taylor Bagley.
The ennui of his films is replicated at lunch. He can go from amiable to aloof between sips of Diet Coke. He’s candid about the themes coursing through “Wish I Was Here.” The title comes from his struggles to stay present and engaged. A spiritual sequel to “Garden State,” it raises personal and religious questions: how to reconcile personal limitations with childhood dreams, the fantasy of being saved by the love of your family, the crushing nothingness of death.
“If I have a religion, it’s just aspiring to be a good person and to live to the fullest in every moment, because I don’t think there’s an afterlife. I think we’re animals and they put us in the ground and we’re eaten by worms,” Braff says.
As he says this, his face tightens and his eyes zone out in the familiar 1,000-yard stare of his on-screen characters. Fame has made him wary, but he refuses to entirely close off. He seems uninterested in making others believe in him. He’s more concerned with doing things that allow him to continue to believe in himself.
“I can talk all day about living in the moment, but you’ve got to practice it and catch yourself. It doesn’t mean you don’t have be on your phone or that you’re not going to do dumb [things]. We all do,” Braff continues. “It doesn’t work for me to believe that Noah’s Ark was real. The only religious sentiment that does is to go, ‘I’m here now. How can I be a good person to those around me? How can I express myself artistically, honestly and truly, without compromise?’ ”
Wish I Was Here Opens in area theaters on July 18. Rated R for language and some sexual content. 120 minutes.