Instead of giving up creative control to his investors, Zach Braff turned to crowdfunding site Kickstarter to raise $3.1 million from nearly 47,000 backers for his new movie, Wish I Was Here, out July 18. In the film, Braff plays a thirtysomething father of two experiencing an early mid-life crisis as his father's health declines and his marriage hits a rough patch. Here, the 39-year-old actor talks with TIME about writing the movie, his co-stars and why studios just don’t want to make family dramas anymore.
You play a struggling actor in the film. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever auditioned for?
You know those “I feel like Chicken Tonight” commercials where the characters are all flapping their wings? That was when I was a young actor. I traveled in from New Jersey an hour on the train and waited in a packed waiting room. They said, “I want you to flap your wings like they’re chicken wings and sing, ‘I feel like chicken tonight.’” That was the moment that I promised myself I would never go on another commercial audition.
You wrote this movie with your brother. I hope your relationship is more functional than the one between the two brothers in the movie.
Yeah. We wouldn’t have gotten very far if we were like the two brothers in the movie. But the film is about family, and everyone can relate to both loving and having their family drive them f-cking crazy. That’s what we wanted to write about. It’s about a family rallying together when they need to when it’s time — when life calls upon us to stand besides our loved ones and put our bullshit aside.
Is your own dad like, “Why did you make a movie about a dying dad? What are you trying to say?”
No, I think my dad really realizes that it’s clearly a catharsis of trying to make sense of the prospect of losing loved ones when you don’t have the comfort of a religious faith to fall back on. He understands that we’re writing about spirituality and how a secular man deals with and finds his own spirituality in 2014. My dad thought that was really cool. My dad has seen the movie more times than I have, so I think he’s pretty behind it.
Mandy Patinkin plays your father. Does he gave you fatherly life advice?
Well, he’s not an old sage rabbi like you’d want him to be. But, actually, as I say that I’m contradicting myself, because I’m doing eight shows a week in Woody Allen’s first musical on Broadway, and he’s a Broadway legend. He sent me a very long email about how he makes it through eight shows a week, so he was my guru in that regard.
No Homeland spoilers?
He won’t give any. And I dont even think they know. Those showrunners are good at keeping it all under wraps.
Were you friends with everyone in the movie before they joined?
A lot of them. Kate [Hudson] and I are friends. I’ve been wanting to make a movie with Kate forever because I really like her. I think not only is she a cool person, but I’m such a fan of her acting, ever since Almost Famous. I think a lot of people know her from funny romantic comedies because she’s funny and beautiful and she does those movies, but I know her as a person and I know her ability from Almost Famous.
That scene she has with Mandy is fantastic!
It’s incredible acting! It answers my thesis. To anyone who thinks Kate Hudson is just a romantic comedy actress, I say to you, watch this scene between her and Mandy Patinkin and you will see the depths of her ability.
The movie addresses what makes a marriage work, and your Scrubs co-star Donald Faison cameos later in the film. Is this your way of saying the J.D. and Turk are the model partnership?
The answer to all your problems is J.D. and Turk! No, that was just a nice wink to Scrubs fans who have been so supportive of me and so supportive of the crowdfunding aspect of this. We thought it would be a fun to have a nice little wink to them, to have me and Donald do a scene together. We’re planning on doing something together where he has a bigger part.
Were you aware of trying — or not trying — to give the people what they want, so to speak?
No, what works is the truth, and truth is those are all things I like. What I did feel responsible for, of course, was the 47,000 people who backed me. It is in the spirit of aspects of Scrubs and aspects of Garden State, but that’s my taste, that’s what I like. I’m not putting the Shins in to cater to anyone. I’m putting the Shins in because they’re one of my favorite bands and they wrote an original song after they loved the movie. I’m not doing a couple of surreal sight gag jokes for the fans, I’m doing them because I like them, and I felt like if I’m true to what makes me laugh, it will hopefully entertain a core of the fanbase as well.
You’ve said that this film is in some ways a thematic sequel to Garden State. Are the questions you grapple with in these movies ones you’ll always come back to as you make more?
No, no, it’s only my second movie, man. I definitely want to have a style. All my favorite filmmakers have a style that you can so clearly see it’s them. I don’t want to be making a movie that anyone can make. But I don’t think they’ll all be like this.
What’s harder, picking the scenes that make the final cut or picking the soundtrack?
Probably the scenes making the cut. I cut an hour out of the movie. The same thing with Garden State. You really have to shape what the story is in the edit room. Obviously you have a rough shape, but you really do find your movie in the edit room, and the songs you just know. You could try a 100 songs, but until the hair on your arms stands up and you get goose bumps, you haven’t found it. Me and my editor have this joke where where we point to our arm hair standing up when it’s working. “Alright, thats a candidate!” That’s so clear. It really is a visceral reaction, whereas cutting scenes out is painful because you’re like, ugh, I love this scene, but you know what? For the good of the film, we’ve got to lose it.
You’ve explained how traditional funding sources would have required you to give up some creative control. Was there anything you wouldn’t have gotten away with without Kickstarter support?
All, dude, all! Who’s making a movie about Jews looking for spirituality? Find me the studio that’s making that movie.
At a panel at BookCon in May, the director of This Is Where I Leave You, Shawn Levy, said studios have no interest in making family dramas anymore.
They aren’t! And the only reason that movie ever got made was because Shawn Levy is as big a box office success filmmaker as there is. [He] can get something like that through the studio. Also, he put giant stars in it — Tina Fey, Jason Bateman. So only Shawn Levy with giant stars can get a movie about [sitting] shiva made.
Does it just come down to the money? Is that simple?
I dont know, man, but it sure is sad. Who amongst us doesn’t feel that there aren’t enough good movies getting made? Those scripts just can’t get through the system. I guess they’re just not sure things. Studios and financiers would rather just bet on sure things. The five-, 10-, 15-million dollar movies aren’t getting made anymore. Studios don’t even make movies like this, they buy them at festivals. [Director Steven] Soderbergh’s speech on the state of cinema? No one has said it better than him. To release a movie in 2014 on a national scale is so incredibly expensive that you’ve doubled your production costs by the time you’ve bought TV ads. It’s very, very hard to compete for eyeballs, and they don’t want to risk it, so they don’t. And the films stop getting made. That’s why everyone’s going to cable TV. Look at the actors going to cable TV! There are no great roles in film, they’re all dried up.
With Kickstarter, you’ve had a lot of interaction with fans and backers ahead of the release. Do they ever point out anything mind-blowing to you?
Oh my God, I’ve been traveling the country doing these Q&As, and it’s so fun. These people have these interpretations and you’re like, woah! I f-ckin’ wish that was what I thought of! That’s cooler than what was on my mind, but that’s the fun of art. How did that land for you, what did that mean for you. Especially because they’re some surreal elements to this, the fantasies, this Greek chorus metaphor for being a hero. There’s just hopefully a lot of room for interpretation of it all.
One last question: Your character in the film has a go-to spot for having epiphanies. Do you?
No, but I’ve definitely learned some things by doing drugs in the desert.
I’ve learned to not tell what I’ve learned to TIME.