Zach Braff, perhaps best known for his role as J.D. in the TV show Scrubs, is also a highly esteemed writer and director with projects like Garden State, which won a Grammy for it’s soundtrack, and most recently his work as director on the Apple TV series Ted Lasso, for which he was nominated for an Emmy. With even more writing and directing credits to his name like Going in Style, Alex Inc., Wish I Was Here, and Solos, he is a brilliant creative in the world of filmmaking and a great example to look up to.
Zach Braff was born April 6, 1975 in South Orange, New Jersey. His mother, Anne Brodzinsky, was a clinical psychologist and his father Harold Irwin Braff, a trial attorney. Zach was the second youngest of four children with two older brothers Adam and Josh, as well as a younger sister Shoshanna. Since he was a child, Braff loved movies, growing up on filmmakers like Woody Allen. But more than just watching films, Zach had a real love for theater, acting, as well as cameras and other more technical aspects of the process. He was a member of the AV club, feeling proud that he could set up a projector in his classes, and also went to a theater summer camp called Stagedoor Manor. While he had to subdue the theatrical parts of himself to fit in at school, Stagedoor Manor was his happy place. Every summer he could be himself, act, learn, and be fully accepted by the people around him, doing the thing that he loved the most. An added benefit to Stagedoor Manor is that managers and agents would come to performances to scout out young talent, which ultimately led to a young Braff being taken on by an agent and sent out on auditions. Further, this led to Braff getting cast in the role of the son of Diane Keaton and Woody Allen’s characters in Allen’s film Manhattan Murder Mystery.
Following graduation from high school, although he could have used his acting credits to continue working in the industry, he decided he’d rather go to college to learn more about filmmaking. He applied to schools and ultimately got into Northwestern in Evanston, Illinois, majoring in film. While in film school, it was like four years of being at theater camp. He was fully immersed in the study and creation of film. In particular he found himself deeply inspired by the works of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the French filmmaker who made Amelie, Delicatessen, and The City of Lost Children. He made a number of pretentious Jeaunet-inspired student films while at Northwestern and upon graduation jumped immediately into more acting. Fresh out of college he got a role in George C. Wolfe’s New York Public Theater Production of Macbeth. At just 23 he was acting alongside the likes of Liev Schreiber and Michael C. Hall, killing it on stage. It wasn’t long after that that he booked a lead role as J.D. on the new medical comedy show Scrubs.
As many probably know, when shooting a television show the pilot is shot and then it must go through several months of editing and testing before they even know if the show will be picked up for a full season. This meant that after getting such a great part, Braff was left with about four months and nothing to do with them. As he has put it himself, he doesn’t idle well, so it’s no wonder these four months didn’t go to waste. Although he, like all writers, self-admittedly struggles with procrastination, he knew that he would regret letting these four months go to waste, so he got up the courage and the mental energy to knock out his first feature script for Garden State.
The writing of Garden State, like many artists’ first novels, movies, paintings, songs, was a deeply personal process. While Braff faced a lot of success in his career and had a loving and supportive family, he is no stranger to hardships. Around the age of 8 his parents divorced. They implemented a routine of the kids switching houses every other week, which although decided on with the best of intentions, made it difficult for Zach and his siblings to ever feel settled. On top of this, around the same time Braff began exhibiting signs of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, for which he received treatment as a young boy. Braff has explained that OCD, for him manifested mostly as compulsive hand washing and compulsive tapping. Although, even at a young age he realized that tapping certain things a certain number of times or washing his hands excessively wasn’t logical, like many others who suffer from this disorder he felt he had to do it “just in case” the obsessive thoughts correlated to the actions could come true. For those who don’t have it, it may be hard to comprehend, but OCD really wreaks havoc on the mind. Although through treatment he outgrew most of the compulsive behaviors from childhood, as he got older, the obsessive thoughts and anxious disposition have stayed with him. But, like many great writers and artists, rather than feel bad for himself about the cards he was dealt, Braff used his experiences in his art, in particular when writing Garden State. As an adult dealing with psychosomatic cluster headaches he was given advice from a neurologist that he later turned into a line in the movie, “Sooner or later...whatever’s going on in your mind will find a way to peek it’s little head out of the water.”
Great writing attracts great people and soon enough Braff had coalesced an incredible cast including himself, Natalie Portman, Peter Saarsgard, and Ian Holm, to name a few. And soon enough, with a budget of about $2.5 million, he embarked on his feature directorial debut. Garden State was a Sundance hit being bought by Miramax and Fox Searchlight for $5 million. On top of that it made $35.8 million at the box office, was critically successful, and has also stood the test of time as one of the best indie films ever.
Although being open and sharing personal experiences and life’s hardships can feel scary, Zach Braff has shown through his work that vulnerability forges connections. With Garden State, Wish I Was Here, Going in Style, his episode of Solos, Ted Lasso, and many more films and TV shows, he perfectly blends comedy with real life and real emotion to capture something special on screen, and ultimately capture the adoration of the audience. Braff has mastered the ability to connect to people through his art. His creative abilities paired with his relentless work ethic brought on by his inability to idle well, he is another perfect example of what we should all be striving for as filmmakers. Tell the stories that you want to hear and that mean something to you. Be relentless with yourself. And most importantly...
Always Be Writing.
Follow Hannah on Instagram: @hannahwagner3932
Always be writing.
Tell better stories.
Never give up.