Why Zach Braff Has Only Written Two Movies Since Garden State

Zach Braff's directorial debut, "Garden State," was an event unto itself in the indie movie scene circa 2004. With its award-winning soundtrack — a mixtape of then-contemporary indie-rock titles and vintage classics like "The Only Living Boy in New York" — and its quirky-dramatic tale of post-college graduation ennui, Braff's Sundance sensation was practically tailor-made for disaffected 20-somethings coming of adult age in the early '00s like himself. (Not to mention, teenagers fresh out of high school who fancied themselves as being far more sophisticated than they were ... not that I would know anything about that.) That it's also fairly hackneyed while being fully earnest in its convictions and observations about life kind of makes it the perfect embodiment of what the world looks like through the eyes of a 20-something.

Up until 2023, however, Braff had only directed two other films, one of which he also wrote (2014's "Wish I Was Here") and the other which he directed only (2017's "Going in Style"). "There has to be a catalyst that really puts me in the chair," he admitted in an interview with Total Film Magazine, laughing as he did. "Like so many people who write, I'll do anything to procrastinate." (Speaking as a fellow writer, yup, that checks out.) As such, whenever he does direct a movie, Braff admitted it "has to be something that I'm really willing to dedicate so much time to, and also something that I feel like I have to say that's hopefully worthwhile to people."

Standing up to grief

"Wish I Was Here," a dramedy in which Zach Braff plays a 35-year-old actor, husband, and dad who's forced to re-examine his priorities when his father reveals he's dying from cancer, plays as a spiritual sequel to "Garden State," both in terms of its story and the apparent self-reflexive elements. Speaking to Total Film, Braff confirmed the ideas for both films were born out of his real life. Where "Garden State" was the result of his own "post-collegiate quarter-life crisis," the "Scrubs" veteran came up with "Wish I Was Here" as a way of confronting his fears about his parents' inevitable death. 

Unlike those movies, "Going in Style" is a remake of Martin Brest's 1979 heist comedy that Braff had no hand in scripting. It's certainly a topical film for the post-Financial Crisis world, what with its story centering on a trio of working-class senior citizen friends who decide to rob the bank that's directly responsible for their current financial predicaments. Still, the lack of immediate connections to Braff's personal life may explain why he seemingly didn't talk about it during his Total Film interview. His new film, "A Good Person," on the other hand, is firmly rooted in Braff's own experiences just before and during the early years of the pandemic.

"I had a four-year period where I just kept losing very important people in my life," he explained, including the death of his father, his sister, his dog, his manager, and even his friend and "Bullets Over Broadway" stage musical co-star Nick Cordero (who was staying at Braff's guesthouse in 2020 before contracting and dying from COVID-19). Still, for as much as "A Good Person" was Braff's way of "standing up to grief," there was another aspect that made it genuinely personal for him.

The healing power of Pugh

Few actors are having a moment like Florence Pugh is right now, which made it a bit of a boon for Zach Braff that he just happened to be dating the "Midsommar" and "Little Women" star at the time he was writing his latest movie. "We were partners [the couple split in 2022]," Braff explained. "I was, and am, in awe of her talents, and I thought, 'Oh my goodness, it would be such an honor to write for her.'" So he did exactly that.

"A Good Person" stars Pugh as Allison, an engaged pharmaceutical rep whose life is going swimmingly, right up until a terrible car accident results in the deaths of both her would-be sister-and-brother-in-law. In dealing with the trauma and her own self-loathing in the aftermath (coupled with the misuse of her prescribed medication, OxyContin), Allison winds up growing closer to her prospective father-in-law, as played by Braff's "Going in Style" star Morgan Freeman. Like "Garden State" and "Wish I Was Here," music is a key part of the film's storytelling. In that case, though, it's that of Pugh's own original work as a budding singer and songwriter. As Braff recounted:

"She gave me thoughts on the script, and I shaped dialogue and monologues around her input. I knew, of course, that she was a singer/songwriter, and I wanted to introduce this idea that there'd be one or two songs in the films [by the character]. She really loved that idea, and really ran with it."

As for the future, Braff already hopes to collaborate with Pugh again on a script he's actively developing. "I'm not going to take this long again," he promised, chuckling. Until then, you can check out "A Good Person" when it hits theaters on March 24, 2023.