Zach Braff’s new movie, A Good Person, stars Florence Pugh and Morgan Freeman as two very different people thrust into an unlikely friendship in the wake of a horrific tragedy. This tender dramedy is Braff’s fourth feature film, though the Scrubs actor has recently directed episodes of Ted Lasso, Shrinking, and more.
I sat down with Braff in San Francisco to talk about the film and what went in to making it. He discusses the grief and tragedy in his own life that formed the story, his longtime love of model trains, how he feels about directing movies he’s not starring in, and a whole lot more.
It felt a little weird watching a movie like this on the big screen in this day and age.
Isn’t that sad? I mean, my first reaction to you saying that is that’s so sad, but true, I get it. In fact, when I tell my fellow filmmakers that MGM has given this a theatrical release, they’re like, “Really?! You lucky *******!”
Did you try to position the movie as a theatrical release? How did you work that out with them?
I was terrified. I made it for MGM and then MGM got sold to Amazon in the intervening time since I completed the film. So I was very nervous that they would just release it on Amazon. But I really wanted a theatrical release for the film. I think the performances warrant it. I think the cinematography warrants it.
There’s also something about seeing a film like this with a community. Obviously, there’ll be strangers, but also just with friends and family and strangers in a movie theater. I find that movies like this are really appreciated best in a group. And like you said, we used to do this all the time. A movie like this coming out theatrically is happening less and less, but to their credit, MGM and Amazon both said, “No, no, we’re going to stick with theatrical. We want to give it its day in the theaters.”
You made this movie during lockdown. But did you come up with the idea before all that happened?
It evolved. Florence and I were dating at the time, and I’m in awe of her talent, and I wanted to write something for her. I really liked the idea of collaborating with her. And I’d had a lot of loss in my life. I’d lost my sister and my father in the last four years. So grief and pain and trauma were on my mind, and then the pandemic hit and we went into lockdown and my best friend was staying in my guest house with his wife and child and he got COVID at 41 years old and checked into the hospital and never left and died.
This was Nick?
Nick Cordero, yeah. So the answer to your question is, I began knowing I wanted to write something for Florence about grief and standing back up after grief. And then I think what happened to Nick and Amanda, really just being on the frontlines of that, solidified this path, and so that’s what I ended up writing about during lockdown.
There have been movies about the pandemic, but I haven’t seen many besides this one that are about the grief and struggle with loss you’re talking about.
Yeah, and the film of course isn’t about the pandemic…in the micro. But for me, I finished it at the end of 2021. It was ready to come out in 2022 but we saved it for this year because Florence had other films. So my point is, I’ve had a little bit of time to be separate from it. And now when I watch it, I have this new reaction to it that I see, in the macro, it’s so obviously a writer wrestling with the pandemic itself and the trauma of the pandemic itself. The film is not about COVID, but I see it in the voice of the person making it.
This is your fourth feature film. What do you think you’re able to do now as a director that you couldn’t do or do as well when you were just starting out?
Yeah, I didn’t think anyone was going to see Garden State. I wrote it when I was 25 years old. I honestly thought that my family and the choir at temple would see it. I didn’t think that it would go on to be the “little engine that could” that the movie has been over 20 years.
I’ve learned a lot, I think. I’ve learned a lot about directing, I’ve learned a lot about collaborating. I like to think that my writing has evolved and that I allow things to unfold more naturally instead of pushing as much. So that movie had a slightly heightened reality, that was sort of the tone of it, that it was a smidgeon of a heightened reality.
I mean, I don’t think in the real world, there’s a diploma on the ceiling, but in the world of that movie there is a diploma on the ceiling. I don’t think in the real world, the friend has invented silent velcro and gotten rich, but in the world of that movie, he has. And this one is, I think, way more based in a frank reality.
Do you think it’s harder or easier to direct a movie you’re not starring in?
I always say to young filmmakers when I get asked for advice, I say the funny thing about starring in my films and directing them, at least the two that I did and of course the episodes of Scrubs that I did, the hardest thing for a filmmaker is making sure you’re on the same page with your star. Because if you’re not on the same page, it’s going to be disastrous. So I at least got to take what in my mind was the hardest thing off the table because I knew the star and the filmmaker were trying to make the same movie. A lot of things are just completely disastrous because the filmmaker and lead aren’t on the same page.
Also…I think I’m a decent actor, but I’m not an actor on the level of Florence Pugh. She’s just a savant. So to be able to write for someone that genius, and of course Morgan (Freeman) goes without saying, I think it was an opportunity to make an even better film because not only could I fully focus on shaping and watching the performances, it’s like I had a much better instrument.
I didn’t watch the trailer or see the poster before seeing the movie last week—
Oh, you went in totally blind!
Yeah, that’s how I like to do it. I remember seeing the poster right after and thinking, “Wow, here you have Florence Pugh, one of the best actors of her generation, and Morgan Freeman, one of the best actors of his generation, in a single movie together. But I guess the movie is also about a sort of unlikely duo.
Yeah, that’s what I had in mind. I pictured the diner scene and I knew Florence was going to be in it, so I was like, “Who do I want to see? As a lover of movies, like a lover of actors, who would I want to see in that profile shot of the diner booth?” When Morgan said yes, I literally had a concept artist draw the image. I can show you the picture. This image I’m about to show you is the frame once it was fully realized on the day.
(Hands me his phone) That’s really cool.
Isn’t that cool?
You really managed to recreate that concept image.
Yeah. This image…as someone who loves movies and who loves actors, I was like, “I don’t know what this movie’s about, but I want to see that movie.” That’s kind of why I opted for those two.
It’s a great ensemble, too. There’s a moment in the movie when we find out Nathan (played Chinaza Uche) wears a hearing aid, and it’s a symbol for something I won’t give away. But what struck me is that you’re not meant to notice the hearing aid until it’s pointed out. And I actually wear hearing aids in both ears.
Wow, yours are amazing, I didn’t notice!
When that happened in the movie, I was like, “holy ****, that’s so true. Where did you get the idea to include that?
I don’t want to give away too much. It’s hard to talk about that aspect of the story without any spoilers, but I will say that one aspect of it that I can talk about was that there’s plenty of people like yourself who wear hearing aids and their life isn’t affected and people wouldn’t even know. So I thought that was cool to show that represented, that Chinaza deals with hearing deficiency, but it doesn’t affect him in any way. No one would notice unless they were told.
How long did it take to shoot the movie? I know you shot it in your hometown in Jersey.
26 days. Very intense to accomplish this whole thing in 26 days. I like to write and set it in my hometown because I just felt like I know that so well. If I was going to write a really authentic story, I felt like at least I have the safety net of “I know that world.” I know what a dive bar in Jersey looks like. I know what a church in Jersey looks like. I know what a run-down house looks like. I know that duck pond is a duck pond I used to go to as a child and drive my remote control boat. The high school was, with the soccer field and the principal’s office, that’s my high school. I just felt like I could bring another level of authenticity to it if I wrote what I knew.
Was the model train and miniature set also a personal thing to you?
Yeah, I had a model train set as a kid. I was a very anxious child and my parents gave it to me and I didn’t know this at the time, but there was something very meditative about focusing on tiny things and working in such a small scale. And I think it really quieted my mind. And I didn’t really appreciate that until I was an adult and looking back.
I always loved model trains, I continue to think they’re so cool. So it was a really fun thing because I not only got to give the hobby to Morgan, but we got to commission this incredible display from guys who really do this as their hobby and make a really bespoke one for Morgan’s character of my hometown. So that was fun because it was both meaningful to me but also cool because I’m a geek who loves model trains.
I found this movie to be a dramedy. Maybe equal parts drama and comedy. How as a filmmaker do you feel out which moments need to be comedic and which moments just need to be still and dramatic?
That’s a great point. The stuff I work on usually is going to lean one way with…they’re always going to be like 60/40, if you will. So for example, I think Shrinking is 60% comedy and 40% drama. I think A Good Person leans the other way. I think this is more like 60% drama with 40% humor. But my point is that I really am drawn to a mix of both. I find I’m most entertained by things that find a way to have both. If something is just too maudlin and dark, it’s like sustaining a musical note for too long. I think you need releases.
At this point in your career, do you see yourself more as an actor or a director?
I’d love to continue to do both. I enjoy acting, I just did an indie as an actor with Vanessa Hudgens called The French Girl. I do an arc on this new Vince Vaughan show called Bad Monkey. I really enjoy doing both. But I’m having this great experience directing. It started with Ted Lasso and now Shrinking, and Shrinking got picked up and I’m going to direct three episodes of that in Season 2. And A Good Person is really my baby. So I’d love to keep doing it all, but I guess I’ll probably lean most to directing.