"There’s nothing worse than having to write and nothing better than having written" - Bill Lawrence, the creator of Srubs.
Last week, we discussed Zach Braff, the writer, director, and actor, and his journey to becoming a filmmaker. While our previous blog post delved into how he overcame hardship to ultimately make it in the industry, this week we will look deeper into his creative process, his struggles with procrastination, and the writing of his first feature film and Sundance hit Garden State.
Originally titled Large’s Arc, Garden State is a film about a young actor, played by Braff, who returns home to New Jersey, from Los Angeles, for his mother’s funeral. Through meeting new friends and reuniting with old ones, he finds love and a restored appreciation for life.
The writing of Garden State began like many great films, it was a flurry of scenes, character descriptions, plot points, and random thoughts scattered around Braff’s house on various pieces of paper. While the ideating process and the prospect of writing a feature film was exciting, Braff found that the excitement wasn’t enough to, as he has put it, “get my ass in the chair." He has said, "I should be writing and I have things that I want to write," and yet days ticked by and no screenplay rose from the creative mess. All of this changed, however, when Braff booked a lead on the new NBC show Scrubs. After landing the role and shooting the pilot, Braff knew this was his big break, but his big break had about a four month waiting period, and seeing the opportunity laid in front of him, he hiked up his boots, got his ass in the chair, and finished his feature. While this sounds so simple, so easy, the reality was much less so. Although he wanted to write his screenplay and he knew that with his newfound fame he had a real chance at getting a film made if he had a screenplay ready to go, it still took him endlessly berating himself to fight through procrastination and actually do the writing.
As Lawrence Kasdan once said,
"Writers are people who have agreed to do homework for the rest of their lives."
While the internal battle to get out of your own way and write is a hard one, there is a point in the process where something breaks down, creativity and one’s boundless imagination kicks in, and something magical comes out on the page. As is clear by the brilliance of the film, Braff experienced this, and despite the struggle to begin, he recalls one of his proudest moments being when he shared the finished script with his mom and her reaction was, "you wrote this?" She didn’t mean it in that she had doubted his writing abilities previously, but moreso, it was so bewildering and filled her with so much pride to see what her son had created. There really isn’t much that compares to the euphoria experienced when you have put your heart and soul into a screenplay, and better yet when it is received well. Not only had Braff produced 120 pages worth of material, but it was also really good. His script connected with his reader, even before it was anything other than a script. No financing, no producers, no cast, just a world illustrated through ink on paper. Craft a beautiful script and they will come, and so they did.
The next part of the process for Braff was attracting financiers, finding a cast, and acquiring music rights. After a while of sending his script around he was finally set up with producers and had an ample enough budget, and near endless creative freedom to make the movie he wanted to make. The next step was getting people to act in his film. As an actor, casting himself as the lead character was a logical first step, but the other characters, in particular the two co-leads, were not quite as simple. Through the writing process and the beginning phases of turning the script into a film, Braff had written a cast list. Oftentimes this is a step that directors or writer/directors will do. It can be helpful to envision the character and know the type of person you want for the role. Dissimilar to a legitimate cast list this one says: role - “in the spirit of…” and then some Hollywood star or well known actor. For the roles of Sam and Mark, the main character, Andrew's love interest and childhood best friend, Braff had written: “in the spirit of…” Natalie Portman for Sam and Peter Saarsgard for Mark, two very reputable and incredibly talented actors. Little did he know, with the momentum building under his feet from his role on Scrubs, Braff now knew the right people to get his script out and before he knew it Saarsgard and Portman had read his screenplay, and both agreed to act in it! A bit of a phenomenon, as this is not something that typically happens to first time directors, however, it just goes to show the power of good writing.
Another huge component of the creative process, especially for this film, was the music. Music is often a huge creative motivator for a lot of people. Through writing, through production, and in post, music can guide the emotional tone of a film and deeply affect how a scene lands and ultimately how it impacts the audience. For Braff, he had a list of songs he wanted in his movie dating all the way back to the early stages of writing the screenplay. But, like the cast list, based on what he knew of the process of getting music rights for a movie, his music playlist was merely a temp soundtrack, a temporary vision of what he knew would most likely never be. I mean, the list of songs seemed near impossible to get, as obtaining rights for music is notoriously one of the most tedious parts of the filmmaking process, and the artists he loved were not exactly independently contracted musicians. However, with I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You by Men at Work’s Colin Hay, The Only Living Boy in New York by Simon and Garfunkel, and Don’t Panic by one of Zach Braff’s all time favorite bands, Coldplay, he got almost every single song that he put on his "wishlist," making one of the greatest movie soundtracks of all time, and ultimately winning him a Grammy for his "mixtape."
The long in the short of it is, writing is hard, but doing whatever necessary to turn your ideas into a well crafted screenplay is well worth the struggle and strain of fighting off the urge to procrastinate. Zach Braff is one brilliant example of many. He pushed himself, he wrote a beautiful script, and he was able to make the movie he wanted with other brilliant artists bringing their talents to match. Nothing great comes without struggle. But, if you push yourself, push past the voice telling you you aren’t good enough, push past the lack of motivation to get your ass in the chair, you may just surprise yourself. And, your creativity will attract other creative minds to turn your scraps of paper scattered around your house, the ideas that you’ve always wanted to develop, into something magical. Always be dreaming, always be pushing yourself, and…
Always Be Writing.
Follow Hannah on Instagram: @hannahwagner3932
Always be writing.
Tell better stories.
Never give up.