Sundance 2014: Zach Braff returns with 'Garden State' follow-up, gets standing ovation

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Image Credit: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Ten years after Garden State became a breakout hit — and the unofficial soundtrack — of the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, Zach Braff returned to Park City yesterday with his long-awaited, Kickstarter-financed follow-up, Wish I Was Here. Braff said when he made Garden State that he “just wanted to write a movie that describes how I felt about being 28 in 2004.” With Wish I Was Here, which he co-wrote with his brother Adam, he’s taken a similar approach. He plays a struggling commercial actor whose judgmental, conservative Jewish father (Mandy Patinkin) is dying of cancer. When he and his overburdened working wife (Kate Hudson) can no longer afford tuition for their two children’s private school, he decides to home-school them in an unconventional way while clinging to hopes for a resurgence in his acting career.

Garden State was all the things me and my [20-something] friends were obsessing about and talking about and worrying about, and I put it into a movie,” Braff told the audience after the film’s premiere. “And with this, my brother and I were sharing the things that we’re talking about. He’s got two young children. What are the things he’s wrestling with in teaching them. And with me, it’s my own spirituality. I find the films that I love the most — as a film lover — are the ones that are someone’s unique story. This isn’t a film that anyone else could’ve directed, or something that got passed around and got eventually made. No one else could tell this story that my brother and I wrote.”

The new film is filled with a family man’s search for meaning. But while Garden State was very inwardly introspective — remember the “infinite abyss”? — Wish I Was Here is more about how we are often stymied in making connections with the people we love in, as the film notes at one point, the “infinite universe.”

Still, there’s no denying it’s a Braff joint, with some hilariously absurd scenes — three words: Comic-Con cos-play sex — and an evocative, eclectic soundtrack. “Well, people called me back quicker,” Braff said, answering a question about how the music for the film came together in light of Garden State‘s hit-making soundtrack. There’s some classic Bob Dylan and Paul Simon sprinkled in, as well as original music from Bon Iver and the Shins’ James Mercer. “In this case, it was unique because we sent [music supervisor] Mary Ramos to Wisconsin to show the movie to Bon Iver, and they wrote a song pretty much on the spot,” Braff said. “She sat there in Wisconsin while they wrote a song.”

Like the upcoming Veronica Mars movie, Braff’s film is another high-profile project financed primarily through Kickstarter. Almost 47,000 fans contributed to the online effort — many are thanked by name in the lengthy closing credits — and Braff, who’d hoped to raise $2 million in a month, was stunned when producers reached their goal in just three days. However, he soon faced a backlash from people who objected to wealthy Hollywood actors using their celebrity to fund passion projects when they presumably  have more conventional sources of financing available to them. Braff noted that his movie also required traditional financing — including his own wallet — and he defended the Kickstarter route since it allowed him total creative control, something a studio or strings-attached money would never allow. “We were presented with all the obstacles that every filmmaker is presented with: ‘You’re going to have to cut all this, you’re going to have to shoot in Vancouver, the [science-fiction] fantasies [scenes] will go,’ You know, ‘Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut,” Braff said. “My brave producer Stacey [Sher] said to me, ‘It is kind of ballsy to put yourself out there [with Kickstarter] and there will probably be a few people who go ape-s—, but if it works, there would be no compromises. You and your brother can make the exact film that you have in your brain, with all its weirdness that people might not understand yet.'”

The Sundance audience certainly seemed to appreciate the film’s off-center sweetness, giving it an enthusiastic standing ovation. Outside, following the Q+A, Braff said he was still buzzing from the experience. Though the story is mostly fictional — the brothers’ reallife relationship with their father is not the distant one depicted on film — there are obvious themes that are as representative of Braff at age 38 as Garden State was of his life at 28. As he said in the theater, “We just try to be super honest and put it all out there, for better or for worse. Rip open your jacket and be like, ‘Whether you like or not, this is what’s in us.'”

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