Adam Braff is a realist. “My brother’s the one who’s got the juice,” says Braff, a writer and big brother of big-time Hollywood star Zach Braff.
The brothers, who grew up in Maplewood and South Orange, have co-written a new movie, Wish I Was Here, due in theaters this summer. Working together “was an exercise in putting my ego in the proper place,” says Adam. “We didn’t really clash that much, because I knew from the beginning this was going to be a Zach Braff movie.”
Indeed, Zach also directed and stars in the film, a comedy about an actor struggling to keep his crumbling family going amid a career crisis.
Zach—known to audiences as the star of the well-loved TV series Scrubs, which aired from 2001 to 2010, and as the auteur responsible for the equally beloved 2004 indie film Garden State—demonstrated his substantial “juice” last year when he turned to Kickstarter, a crowd-funding site, to raise money for Wish I Was Here.
“It was kind of a fun experiment to see if enough fans would be into this wacky idea,” says Zach during a recent interview at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan.
“When you make a film with a financier or a bank or a corporation, there’s so many interests at hand,” says Zach. “We thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if we tried to do it without other influences?’” With a budget of $5.5 million, the brothers set out to raise $2 million from fans on Kickstarter. The rest would come from Zach’s own pocket and from foreign distribution rights.
Instead, they raised almost $3 million—and in just two days. “The naysayers’ jaws dropped to the floor,” says Zach. “It became the conversation of the month, the subject of an infinite number of think pieces.”
Some of those pieces questioned the propriety of a millionaire movie star asking fans for donations. But Zach feels the funding allowed him to give moviegoers what they wanted.
And not only because no one with deep pockets was around to tinker with his writing, directing and acting. Casting, for example, was committee-free. “I still pinch myself that they all said yes,” he says of his handpicked co-stars, Kate Hudson (as his character’s wife), Mandy Patinkin (as his crotchety father), and Joey King and Pierce Gagnon (as his good-natured kids). “In a normal situation, you’re provided with a list” of who might be considered for the cast, says Zach. “In this situation, I was able to say, ‘This is who I’m going to cast,’ without having to run it by anybody.”
Zach was also able to choose the location for the film, which could well have been set in New Jersey like Garden State, his only previous directorial effort.
“I actually thought of putting it in Jersey because there are a lot of actors who commute to work in the city, and it was crucial that [Aidan, his character] was in a place that a struggling actor would be,” says Zach. “But I switched to L.A. because it’s a city where everyone goes to pursue their entertainment dream. It’s about how long you can hold on to that dream and when you should give it up. L.A. became a sort of character in the film. And my brother and I both have spent a lot of time there.”
These days, Zach, 39, splits his time between New York and Los Angeles; Adam, 10 years his senior, lives in Hawaii.
“We were so far apart as kids that if we ever played make-believe games, Zach was always like a prop, the little alien guy you could pick up and run around with,” says Adam in a phone interview. “But we did have a good environment for playing. There was this great forest behind us”—Essex County’s South Mountain Reservation, his little brother later clarifies—“and we had great imaginations. We’d do James Bond moves in the forest. But it wasn’t until we were older that the age difference became less of a thing.”
In fact, the brothers have worked together before. “We wrote a children’s movie that we have not yet made,” says Zach, “and Adam wrote a pilot for Fox that I directed that didn’t go.”
The Braffs have two other siblings: Josh Braff, a novelist, and Shoshannah Braff, a fashion designer, as well as three stepsisters, one who lives in Livingston. Zach sometimes sees her when he visits his 79-year-old father, who still lives in South Orange.
Maplewood and South Orange manage to poke their way into the new film by way of recollections of the childhood dreams that sprouted there. In one scene, Aidan dons a superhero costume and fantasizes about his destiny —saving the world. The image is taken from those make-believe sessions in the South Mountain forest.
“Like I did with Garden State, my brother and I took aspects out of our own lives and interwove them with fiction,” says Zach. The fatherhood part is based on Adam. Zach has never married; Adam, on the other hand, is the father of an 11-year-old and a 6-year-old. Like the character Aidan, “he’s really involved in raising them,” says Zach. “He’s sort of an out-of-the-box, funny dad. Sometimes I laugh because he talks to them like adults. That’s what inspired me to create that character. He’s a funny but struggling dad. We both understand struggle. Both of us have been struggling at times in our lives with the question of whether we could go on pursuing our dream.”
Adam is the first to acknowledge that he has had an uphill battle making a name for himself in Hollywood. “I’ve sold a lot of pilots,” he says. “But only one was actually produced. It’s a tough road to get even that far in TV.”
But uphill battles are central to Wish I Was Here.
At one point, Aidan shares a hard-won insight about unrealistic expectations and the dreams they hobble. “Perhaps we set the bar a little high,” he tells the audience via voiceover, walking purposefully toward the camera in that superhero costume. “Maybe we’re just the regular people. The ones that get saved.”
Being saved turns out to be a common thread in Zach’s work. “Garden State was a fantasy about being rescued by romantic love,” he says. “This is a fantasy about being rescued by familial love.”
Tammy La Gorce is a frequent contributor.