Zach Braff's 'Wish I Was Here' Q&A: 'I Wasn't Shy About Being a Struggling Actor Again'

Braff seen here with actors Pierce Gagnon (middle) and Joey King in a scene from Wish I was Here
Merie Weismiller Wallace, SMPSP/Focus Feautures

Zach Braff is pretty confident the soundtrack to his new film, Wish I Was Here, won't be a platinum blockbuster like the one from his 2004 directorial debut, Garden State. "Selling 1.5 million copies in this day and age is ridiculous," the actor-director tells Billboard. "People don't buy music like that anymore." To keep his signature indie soundtrack style relevant, Braff assembled a lineup of covers, rarities, and originals "so people would want to relive the film through the music," he says.   

Wish I Was Here, in which Braff plays a 35-year-old unemployed actor struggling to find his purpose in life, isn't a direct continuation of his first effort, but the two films share elements of depression and introspection. "I wasn't shy about being a struggling actor again," he says, adding that he aspires to make identifiable films "like Woody Allen's." That also goes for the soundtrack: Braff commissioned songs from the Shins' James Mercer, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, and a Cat Power/Coldplay tag-team; tracks from Paul Simon and Hozier were included as well. 

The Vernon and Cat Power songs both peaked at No. 3 on Billboard's Twitter Trending 140 chart, a phenomenon that reflects Braff's and, increasingly, the music industry's reliance on crowd-sourcing. A $3 million Kickstarter campaign funded Wish I Was Here, which received criticism from some who thought Braff didn't need the money. "The cost of releasing something is so great, smaller films are struggling," he says. "Social media allows you to go directly to fans."

The methodology for choosing the soundtrack's other songs was more intuitive. "We'd point to the arm hair on our arms, and when it's standing on edge because the music has clicked so well," he says, "that's a candidate." 

Billboard: This is a big question, but how do you think the definition of indie music has changed since you made Garden State?

Zach Braff: I'm not a specialist in your business -- I just know music I like. One thing that's definitely changed is that in 10 years all record stores closed. One positive effect is you can find music you like easier. If you put a band you love into Spotify or Pandora, it's gonna help you find music in that vein with greater ease than just whipping through CDs in a record store without knowing anything. If you're someone who seeks it out, there are so many blogs and websites that help you continue to do that. 

Twitter also came out, and that seems to have had a big part in the promotion for Wish I Was Here -- from the Cat Power/Chris Martin song and Bon Iver's "Heavenly Father" trending on Twitter to the #FamilyFridays photo submission.  

Braff: The web is changing all the rules. Netflix, Apple TV -- you can click on it as a network like ABC or NBC or whatever. All of these paradigms we're watching shift now in the film industry like they've shifted in the music industry. My point is that as a part of that paradigm shift, you can target [your fans] specifically because the cost of advertising to earth for something small is cost-prohibitive, you can't do it. Steven Soderbergh said it really well in his "State of Cinema" speech. 

What was the most difficult song to come together for the soundtrack?

Braff: I was working with the manager of a lesser-known band who negotiated his way out of being on the soundtrack. I won't tell you the band, but they're an awesome band and I bet he never brought it to them. He was so overplaying his hand, and so being a douche, that we finally had to give up on this band that I love. One day I'll run into [this band] and tell them how his manager was talking to us, the tone of his voice, the tone of his negotiation, asking for things that Paul Simon and Coldplay weren't asking for. It happened on Garden State, too.

How did you decide which artists should watch the film and which didn't need to?

Braff: It was a matter of what we could work out in the time we had. I didn't have time to produce a whole album of originals, so I started out with my dream asks: Coldplay, Cat Power, the Shins, Bon Iver. When they all said yes, we said, "That's a pretty healthy grouping." Imogen [Heap] had written ["Wait It Out"] for another film of mine, and my idea was to have Allie Moss -- she's such a great guitarist and a great ukulele player. 

For the songs that weren't directly inspired by the movie, how did you decide which scenes they would go with?

Braff: My editor Myron Kurstein, my co-pilot in all this, we amass a a major playlist of songs that come from us, [music supervisor] Mary Ramos, friends -- and we just keep trying things until we get goosebumps. We have this inside joke where we point to the arm hair on our arms and when it's standing on edge because the music has clicked so well with the imagery, we go, well, that's a candidate. It's just trial and error until you find that perfect thing. So you could have your favorite songs in the world, that's your go-to crank, and it doesn't work in the moment. 

I have to ask -- did you pick Kate Hudson because of her role in Almost Famous?

Braff: Not because of the music, but because of her performance. I love that movie, and I think like everyone else I was blown away by the discovery of her. Cameron Crowe discovered her, and there are a lot of pretty actresses in the world, but you look at that performance of Kate's and you go, "Wow!" This woman has a lot of talent. She does a ton of romantic comedies because she's funny and pretty and good at that, but I was really anxious to get back at that dramatic side of her. She's a real talent.

Do you see Wish I Was Here as a continuation of Garden State

Braff: Not really. There's overlaps of course. It is from my perspective, and that's why I wasn't shy about being a struggling actor again. Both movies have someone who can't swim. I learned to swim late. They both have missing mothers. If anything I aspire to be someone who makes movies that you can tell it's their film, for the same audience, the Garden State and Scrubs audience. Scrubs is doing something in a broader network TV sense that Garden State did, which is not be afraid to mix comedy and drama (and in this case, fantasy). But first and foremost I was trying to make a movie for the 47,000 people who believed in me and made it.