No secret: Zach Braff is a Woody Allen fan. Braff's 2004 emo indie, Garden State, which he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in (opposite Natalie Portman), drew comparisons to Annie Hall, to Manhattan. More than 10 years before that, a teenage Braff had a small part in Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery, as the progeny of Allen and Diane Keaton's characters.
So, landing the lead role in Bullets Over Broadway, the Tony-nominated musical adapted from Allen's 1994 comedy, was "a dream come true" for the actor.
Allen attended every preview of the Roaring Twenties-set show back in March. "He would follow up with notes, with changes," Braff recalls. "To be working so closely with someone who is one of the inspirations for me becoming a filmmaker, one of my heroes, how great is that?"
Braff's new film, Wish I Was Here, is, like Garden State, more than a little autobiographical, and more than a little Allenesque. In it, Braff is a struggling actor whose wife (Kate Hudson) is the family breadwinner. The couple have two kids, a boy and a girl, attending a yeshiva school in L.A. The children's granddad (Mandy Patinkin) is paying tuition, but when the payments stop, the kids get kicked out.
Pretty much everything in Braff's character's life starts to unravel. But as the monetary, marital, religious, and filial crises mount, so does the comedy. There are even whimsical superhero/sci-fi fantasy sequences. Wish I Was Here opens Friday at the Ritz Five, expanding to more screens July 25.
"One thing that I liked about Annie Hall was that there were no rules," says Braff. "Nowadays, you try and get anything made, there are just so many rules. 'You can't do this, you can't do that.' 'No, this is just a drama,' or, 'This is just a comedy.' Annie Hall was such a wonderful throw-the-rules-out-the-window archetype.
"It was hilarious in parts, it was slapstick in parts, it was heartbreaking. All of a sudden there's a scene that's fully animated. And I really thought that that was the way to make a movie - as long as you tell a good story, why do we keep being told that we have to follow all these rules?"
Not having to follow the rules was one reason Braff - the New Jersey native (South Orange) who became a star thanks to the long-running medico sitcom Scrubs - decided to go on Kickstarter in 2013. He wanted to raise money to make Wish I Was Here without being beholden to the studios, to producers demanding script changes or cast approval.
In 30 days, Braff raised $3.1 million - $400,000 in the final four days alone. More than 46,500 people pledged anywhere from $10 to $10,000.
"It was always meant to be an experiment," says Braff of his crowdfunding campaign. "What if we got the fans involved? What if we just flipped the whole thing on its head and created this community around making the movie?
"And in selling T-shirts, or online access to videos, or set visits, or extra roles, or cameos, you could finance a film and give everyone a fun experience. Wouldn't that be crazy? And then it worked!"
And then it backlashed. Critics jumped all over Braff, suggesting he already had financial backing in place, that he was unwilling to put his own money into the project, that he was soliciting donations, not investors.
"I think a lot of it was misinformed, to be frank," Braff says of the vehement, Web-driven reaction to his Kickstarter drive. "Anyone who takes the time and does a little bit of research realizes that most of the detractors' talking points are incorrect."
And that's that.
Here are a few, somewhat more agreeable talking points about Wish I Was Here:
Writing the screenplay with his brother, Adam: "We really wrote well together, and he's diligent and good at keeping us working. I can get distracted . . . and so it's helpful to have a schedule. One of the greatest things about having a partner is that it helps to make sure you don't procrastinate. It's like keeping an appointment. You make sure that you do it. You don't get distracted by the leaves that are blowing."
Mirroring his own life, his own experience: "Not so much. . . . It's more like there are aspects of Adam and myself in [my character] Aidan. Adam's a dad with two young kids whose wife has a day job, a normal job, and he's very involved with raising the kids, so I think that we combined aspects of both of our lives into one character."
Casting Kate Hudson as Aidan's wife: "I was just so blown away by Kate in Almost Famous. And I just remember thinking at the time, wow, Cameron Crowe has really discovered a new super-talented actress. Not just a movie star, but a talent. I've been trying to work with her since then."
Casting Mandy Patinkin as Aidan's dad: "I'm a long-time fan. So many things that he's done - Princess Bride is one of my favorite movies. And I love musical theater, and he's a musical theater star. . . . He turned in this performance that was beyond any of our expectations."
It is a Wednesday, the day Braff does a matinee and an evening performance of Bullets Over Broadway. He's about to eat an early dinner, and so he's ready to get off the phone. He expects to be in the show, on Broadway, through the end of the year, "as long as the nice people from Philadelphia keep coming - and I hope they will," he says.
His experience on stage, he says, is something he'll keep with him when he goes back to making movies.
"This is the hardest I've ever worked in my whole life. . . . There's nothing more challenging than doing a big, giant musical eight times a week.
"The next time I'm on a movie, and I'm sitting in my trailer sipping coffee, I will remember how exhausting it is to dance your ass off and try to make 1,700 people, eight shows a week, laugh."