During a pivotal moment in Zach Braff’s new movie, A Good Person, lead actress Florence Pugh stands on the platform at the South Orange train station waiting for her ride into Manhattan. It’s the same place where Braff, who grew up in South Orange and Maplewood, waited countless times as a teen on his way to auditions in New York, yearning to make his showbiz dreams come true.
Braff, who wrote and directed A Good Person, could have filmed that scene—and the entire movie—in any town in the United States. He could have set the story—which revolves around a woman (Pugh) dealing with tragedy, addiction and an unlikely and complicated friendship with her ex-fiancé’s father (played by Morgan Freeman)—anywhere. But for Braff, it’s always been about New Jersey.
“I love my hometown and I want to tell stories about my hometown,” he says.
In recent years, a growing number of productions have opted to shoot in New Jersey, after Governor Phil Murphy reinstated tax incentives for film and television projects in 2018. But what sets Braff apart from many of his colleagues is that, to him, New Jersey isn’t just a backdrop. He not only works here, but builds storylines around the place he grew up because his home state means something to him. “We love him for that,” says Steven Gorelick, executive director of the NJ Motion Picture and TV Commission.
Braff’s Jersey pride could not have been spelled out any more clearly than with the title of his directorial debut, the highly lauded 2004 film Garden State, which he wrote, directed and starred in alongside Natalie Portman. Referring to A Good Person (which his theaters on March 24), he says, “Of course I could have told the story anywhere, but I wouldn’t have related to it.”
Braff spent his formative years in New Jersey; it was where he experienced the joys of being a class clown, the pain of his parents’ divorce, the wonders of catching the acting bug. Five years ago, New Jersey was where he saw his father, Harold Braff, who imbued in him a love of theater and of New Jersey, lose his battle with cancer. “I don’t know what the equivalent of patriotic for your state is, but he was that; he just loved Jersey,” Braff recalls of his father. “And I think he instilled that in me.”
Braff describes himself as a “bit melancholic” during his childhood. After his parents divorced, they shared joint custody of Braff and his siblings. “I think I had OCD and I was dealing with anxiety. I was a bit lost,” Braff says.
Braff had “zero interest in sports” (today he uses exercise, specifically riding on his stationary Peloton bike, as a stress reliever), which was “tough,” as team sports are often an important part of making friends. Instead, Braff made movies with his pals and tried to make other kids laugh.
He remembers a seminal moment in fifth grade, when he was assigned an essay. “I wrote mine using other kids in the class as the characters in this funny essay, and I got up in front of the room and read it,” he says. “I remember the kids cracking up and belly laughing, and I remember seeing the teacher in the back of the room belly laughing. And I was like, This is the greatest feeling ever. I wrote this, and they’re all giving me this affirmation. It was kind of at that moment that I was like, So is this a job that you can do?”
Braff got his first taste of acting thanks to his dad, an attorney and law professor at Rutgers, who acted in local community theater performances on the side. Starting around age 10, Braff would tag along to his dad’s rehearsals with the Livingston Community Players and Florham Park Players and help out behind the scenes. “I was kind of like their mascot,” Braff says. Despite his age, the stage crew soon started taking him seriously because “they saw what a hard worker I was.”
He truly fell in love with acting while attending Stagedoor Manor, a prestigious theater camp in upstate New York. He soon began auditioning for professional gigs and landed his first at 14, a pilot for CBS produced by the famed Bruce Paltrow, called High. It was a gritty high school drama set and filmed in New Jersey. Interestingly, High was also the first role for Bruce’s daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow, who was cast as the “pretty high school senior, and I was sort of the nerdy high school freshman,” Braff says.
Fast-forward thirty years, and Braff was back at his old high school, Columbia, to shoot A Good Person in the fall of 2021. Locals will appreciate the location-spotting opportunities in the movie. Braff features places that are meaningful to him, including Columbia, from which he graduated in 1993; the South Orange Duck Pond, where as a kid he loved to steer an electric boat and feed the ducks with his mother; and the South Orange train station, which, to a teenage Braff, represented the possibility of pursuing what he loved most.
“One of the special things about being in South Orange and Maplewood was that direct line to Penn Station,” he says. “When other kids would go off to soccer or lacrosse practice, I was going into the city to audition.”
During one scene in the movie filmed at a soccer game at Columbia, you can even see an apartment building where Braff’s father lived following his divorce from Braff’s mom.
The movie was filmed mostly in South Orange and Maplewood, but also includes scenes shot in Clifton (Colonial Pharmacy), Elizabeth (the now-shuttered Pastime Tavern), Morristown (Loyola Jesuit Center) and other area towns. Braff wanted to shoot at the Livingston Mall, where he hung out as a teen at the arcade (which has long been closed), but the film’s budget wouldn’t allow for an additional location.
The movie’s subject matter is also very personal for Braff. He wrote it during one of the most difficult periods of his life. In a four-year span that included a portion of the pandemic, he lost his father to cancer, his sister to an aneurysm, his manager Chris Huvane to suicide, and his best friend, the Broadway actor Nick Cordero, to Covid-19. Braff says he “needed to write” in order to deal with the grief and to “find some purpose.” “It just felt completely inauthentic to write about anything other than tragedy and the human desire to stand back up after tragedy,” he says.
However, Braff says he wanted to stay true to himself and not make the movie maudlin. As any fan of Braff’s hilarious work in the long-running TV series Scrubs can confirm, Braff has serious comic chops. A Good Person has funny moments, particularly some with Freeman and with Saturday Night Live legend Molly Shannon, who plays the mother of Allison (Pugh).
“It’s how me and my family deal with loss—we find humor and we find ways to laugh and have a release,” Braff says.
Braff does not appear in this movie, something unexpected for him; he starred in both Garden State and his 2014 film, Wish I Was Here (which he wrote with his brother Adam Braff). “I wanted to tell, for the first time, a story that was what I was feeling in my heart, but not necessarily about me.”
He wrote the movie for its star, Pugh, whom he was dating at the time. “We were dating, and she is just a phenomenon to me,” he says. The two are no longer together, but speak fondly of each other.
Pugh says that having “someone who knows me so well write a character for my voice only has to be one of the most unique and bonding feelings.” She also says living and filming in New Jersey was “the highlight for me. Especially with Zach’s personal history and ties there, it felt so special to be bringing this story to life there.”
These days, Braff no longer lives in New Jersey. He studied film at Northwestern University in Illinois and has homes in Los Angeles and New York. But he comes to New Jersey to visit family, and, of course, to make movies.
His impact on the state is important. Gorelick, of the film and TV commission, says A Good Person spent $11 million in New Jersey (In comparison, some TV series spend $80 million-$100 million on one season, he says). In addition to economic growth for the state, Gorelick says that a movie like A Good Person gives New Jersey publicity that no amount of advertising can provide.
For Braff, his home state is so much more than a location: “New Jersey’s a character in the movie.”
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