When Vulture sat down with Zach Braff to talk about his new movie, The High Cost of Living, he had a bone to pick about the recent post that called Living’s trailer “unbelievably depressing.” Admitted Braff, “I’ve had worse things said about my projects on the Internet before, but I hope it doesn’t sway people away.” Still, he knows that the movie represents a change of pace for him: As a drug dealer who accidentally hits a pregnant woman with his car, then forges an unlikely connection with her as she grieves the loss of her child, Braff’s performance is totally unlike anything he’s given before on the sitcom Scrubs or even in his directorial debut, the dramedy Garden State. After clearing the air, he talked about his onscreen transformation and the perils of snark.
So how do you sell people on a drama like this?
Look, this movie’s not going to appeal to a mass audience. It’s for people who like really challenging, sad movies — but it’s not sad like you’re sitting there sobbing, because it’s hopeful, and it’s about redemption. There’s an audience for movies like this, and you find a way to appeal to them. The ultimate example of it — and it’s a weird analogy — is Tyler Perry, because the guy has become preposterously successful making movies for his audience. A movie like this is not going to be Pirates of the Caribbean, but when you make it for very little money, you can say, “Hey, you people who like challenging little movies at film festivals, you might like this.” What’s so cool is that it’s working. This movie has no press other than Internet interviews that I’ve done, there’s been no ads or billlboards, there’s been not one dollar spent, and yet last night it was the No. 1 streaming independent movie on Amazon.
You must be used to the pace of making independent movies.
I am! It’s the only pace I’ve ever known. In fact, people ask me, “What is it like working at this pace?” and I go, “Look, this is what I’ve done: student films, Garden State, serial television, and two more movies that were a little bit of a bigger budget, but we weren’t exactly sitting around in our trailers playing video games.” I’ve never been on a movie like that! I hear stories from people, “The whole day, we only did one shot.” I’d love to have that experience, but I never have. Running and gunning is all I’ve ever known.
Did you drop your voice an octave for this movie? What kind of physicality did you want?
I really wanted to try to approach everything differently. You have comedians like Jerry Seinfeld who say, “I’m going to go back on the road and never do a joke that I’ve done before,” and it’s like that. A lot of actors will tell you that they have these go-to acting tricks…
And are you conscious of your own?
Oh, sure, after eight and a half years of Scrubs, I had a lot of go-to things. They weren’t lazy things, they were just things in your comfort zone that you do well and without giving them too much thought. With this film, I wanted to throw all that out. It’s a really hard role because most of the audience is going to hate him for half the movie, if not longer. I really put everything I had into it and didn’t do too much thinking about it, other than thinking, Don’t do any of the fucking stuff that comes easy to you.
A lot of actors who become writer-directors tend to put themselves in their first movie, and then realize it’s a lot of work. Would you want to appear in the next film you direct?
I would do it. I wouldn’t play the lead. I came very close to making this movie called Swingles [with Cameron Diaz] and I still might, but it’s fallen apart for the moment, and I was going to be the buddy. It’s a smidgen less insane than playing the lead in a movie and writing and directing it, which is a prescription for Xanax. And look, the truth is, that in Garden State, no one would have given me that part. If I hadn’t written and directed it, I wouldn’t have gotten that role. So that’s always nice, being able to cast yourself. [Laughs.]
Have you seen any of the Sundance movies recently that get compared to Garden State, like (500) Days of Summer, or Josh Radnor’s happythankyoumoreplease?
I saw and liked (500) Days of Summer, yeah. Except for the very last sentence.
Have you heard of this concept, the “manic pixie dream girl”?
No. It sounds like something Vulture’s gonna write about in a super snarky way, though.
We’re not going to be snarky.
Vulture should be called … I mean, don’t get me wrong. I like Vulture, I read it. But it’s so snarky.
You think so?
A little bit. Don’t you?
Irreverent sometimes, but not snarky.
Irreverent, maybe. I like irreverence. But when it dips into snark for snark’s sake, I’m not a fan of that. But I’m entertained by Vulture, so I should shut up.
Speaking of online snark, do you think there’s been an Internet backlash to Garden State? I feel like a lot of people who liked it when it came out are now trying to pretend they didn’t, just like Scrubs didn’t really get its due.
It’s funny, because the online fan base to both of those things is insane. The online fan base to Scrubs is what kept it going for eight and a half years even though it never had ridiculous ratings. I think the second you do well, there’s going to be snark on the Internet about you. I mean, find a single person online that doesn’t have something nasty written about them. I think Tina Fey is pretty universally thought of as amazing, and I’ve seen her comment multiple times about how she doesn’t read about herself on the web because of what people are saying.
With Tina Fey, it’s almost like the Internet has gone through the backlash to the backlash to the backlash on her.
Oh, yeah. I mean, I’ve got almost 900,000 Facebook fans and they’re all amazing, but of course there’s the occasional negative one where you’re like, “Oh, that one hurt.” But what are you gonna do, stop creating shit? No.