The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet
T.S. Spivet is a messy, warm comedy about grief, family and imagination. It's also ironically about being seen and rarely heard.
Few films landed in Park City this year with more baggage than Zach Braff's "Wish I Was Here." After years of trying to get the project off the ground through traditional financing routes, Braff turned to Kickstarter in April 2013 to see if his fans could essentially become the producers of a film he felt they would want to see. It worked better than anyone could have expected as funds crested $2 million in three days. And it created more controversy than Braff was prepared for as critics of the actor/director/writer came out against the very concept of a star asking his fans for money. The conversation around the making of "Wish I Was Here" overshadowed the film itself to a degree as more people wanted to weigh in on the future of crowdfunding than actually discuss if the movie worked or not. The film will be released this Friday and a very-open Braff sat down with me last month to address a lot of his critics and basically tell them to move on.
Whenever someone takes this long between films, I’m curious how the time impacts the final product. How would “Wish I Was Here” have been different if you had made it eight years ago?
ZACH BRAFF: I may have given into more compromises. When you have a lot of heat, as I did in the “Garden State” success era, the studios all want to make movies with you. And, in doing that, you have to make a lot of compromises to make what they want to make. I think in trying to navigate the waters on other projects and trying to navigate the film-financing world in 2014 now, it’s just so insane that I wouldn’t have made a film that I’m as proud of as this because I would have been more willing to say, “I’ll give in there. I’ll give in on that.” It would have been a filtered-down version of what my brother and I had written. Whereas with this, I hit rock bottom—no one wanted to make it—and then the whole crowdfunding aspect of it, there was an uber-grassroots vibe about it. Our mantra was “We’re not going to compromise on anything. We’re going to make exactly what we want to make.” I think if I had made it earlier, it would have been through the studio system and it would have been a very different movie.
How do you instill creative checks and balances? You give some people a blank check from studio or crowdfunding and tell them “Go do whatever you want,” and you’re going to end up with a product that doesn’t work.
Yeah, of course. First and foremost, my brother is the polar opposite of a “Yes Man.” We want healthy debate. And I have really good producers. My producers are strong that I would say, “This is the way I’m cutting it. DO NOT bring it up again.” And then, like 48 hours later, [they’d say], “I want to talk about that scene again.” Yes men are useless. The dumbest thing you can do is surround yourself with yes men. You want to be challenged. Bill Lawrence, who’s a mentor of mine—I remember early on in “Garden State,” I had a scene in the movie that I was really proud of and it was kind of jarring but it was cockblocking the ending of the movie. He saw an early cut and he said, “You can’t see this yet but that will never be in the movie.” I was so indignant and got mad at him. And he did that in this one too. I showed him an early cut and he said, “Here’s a couple things that you won’t see for, probably, four months.” He’s very good. The answer to your question, which is a good one, is you’re making a giant mistake if you surround yourself with yes men and women. I surround myself with people who will challenge me. Ultimately, it comes down to you, but you want to be challenged and, then, filter that all, and then go with your gut.
So you’d say that the studios that didn’t want to make this or other projects weren’t “challenging” but “blocking”? I’m trying to get at the differences between creative challenging and blocking productivity at all in the system.
It’s such an obstacle course to get something made, independently and in the studio system. It’s so dependent on fickle movie stars. I had four movies fall apart because of movie stars in and out. And then, when they fall out, you go into months and months of limbo. Ask anyone in the business. You want to bang your head against the wall. It’s AMAZING that anything ever gets made. Big titles are going to get made—”The Fault in Our Stars” is going to made; Marvel is going to get made; things that are sure are going to get made. But anything that’s REMOTELY unique, the fact that it gets made is a miracle.
The mid-level budget movie is disappearing.
It’s gone. By the way, studios don’t “make” these movies. They buy them at festivals. They don’t risk this money.
And, by the way, both of the actors you just mentioned—two of our BEST—are in television now. Why? Dude.
Movies like this stop being made.
No one is making these movies.
So, what do we do to fix it?
I don’t know. I don’t know. The thing about is…what seems to be happening a little bit is that they’re almost becoming their own smaller subgenre. You have Tyler Perry, for example, who’s found his audience, which you can do now in 2014 better than ever, and just make a movie for that audience. And, if they’re successful enough, you just cycle the money back into the next movie. He’s had success at that. He’s the ultimate example. You see that with little subgenres. Jason Statham is another example. Edgar Wright is another example. These filmmakers develop such a core fan base that their films will get made for the fan base for that unique thing. It has to be a substantial enough fan base to warrant it.
The system is so broken because it’s more dependent than ever on the success of actors in foreign box office numbers. Those actors, while often very wonderful, can be very wrong for what you’re doing. And so the movie is often a lesser version of what the filmmaker intended because it’s compromised from the get-go. That’s a big problem. I guess you could pontificate that if crowdfunding goes to the next level, like what Hollywood Stock Exchange has been doing forever—find a way that people could invest in a movie like a stock and have equity stake. That’s fun for people to ruminate on. This was always an experiment. I’m not going to go crowdfund all of my films. The experiment was always “What if…” Sure, people would go apeshit on the internet. But, what if we were able to fully have control and I was the CEO of the corporation making “Wish I Was Here.”
When’s the model as broken as it is, why not try different things?
Try anything. I saw Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, on “60 Minutes,” and they asked him what he says to all of his critics, and he said, “Complaining is not a strategy.” Here’s this guy who had an idea and everyone says it will never work. It works on a level that has FUNDAMENTALLY changed the way retail works on Earth, and now people are upset with it. He says, “You have to keep up.” All I’m trying to do is keep up. Fear not, detractors, I’m not going to go crowdfund on Kickstarter, but this was an experiment—”The system is so broken, what if…” It worked so quickly that the people who had already written their think pieces had to write a NEW think piece about how angry they were that it worked.
Did you anticipate the degree of the apeshit?
(Laughs.) NO! Of course not. Asked me if I anticipated that I would have to explain crowdfunding to Earth. As I’m sitting here explaining financing, you’re nodding because you’re savvy and you write about this. I was naïve or stupid enough to not know that the onus would be on me to explain what we just said to EARTH. You and I can talk about this and we’ll get it but there was SO MUCH misinformation and, shockingly, by entertainment journalist blogger folk. I was like, “Guys, gals, report on it. It’s an interesting debate. But report on it correctly.” Google what Kickstarter is. Don’t ask about equity stake. You KNOW there’s no equity stake. If you took 30 seconds to Google Kickstarter.
Listen, someone writing something negative about me who is not a fan of me on Twitter is one thing. That linking to a blogger with 15 thousand followers whose title says “Entertainment Writer”? I was baffled at how irresponsible it was. There is a debate to be had. Let’s have that debate. But be informed. Don’t go into the debate with your facts all wrong.
I was stunned by some of the lazy journalism around Kickstarter contributors not getting into Sundance screenings.
Let me tell you something that you know—clickbait is the only way that anyone makes money. It’s the demise of your profession. If there’s one backer who’s a fan with a sign, the journalist is sprinting to that person for a clickbait story.
There was an agenda [at Sundance].
When all of that happens, do you then feel more pressure to deliver?
It’s clear that I’m a polarizing creator of content. I’m fine with that. So are ALL of the people that I look up to. I became a filmmaker because of Woody Allen. I think it’s pretty safe to say that he’s about as polarizing as it gets.
Does it add to the nervousness to prove them wrong?
This WHOLE experiment was about doing something for the fans. If you’re online talking about how much you hate me, you’re not the market for this. Guess what, I’ve never been to a Tyler Perry movie and look at the fucking size of the guy’s fan base! He doesn’t need me. And I don’t need the people that abhor me. I’m trying to make a film for the people who like what I do. That’s what this experiment was. And it worked so successfully that, here in Chicago, we had to break into three screenings [for the Kickstarter supporters]. There’s a demand for it. There will be a plethora of articles written by people who abhor me about how much they hated the film. Do you think they went into the film with an open mind? Come on.
It’s possible that some were drafting tweets before the screening at Sundance.
Of COURSE they were. I’m friends with a blogger who didn’t even give the film that great a review—he gave it lukewarm review, but whatever—and he said that, “Dude, I wish I had a tape recorder for the chatter before the movie started.” I’m not an idiot. I know that that’s happening. What can I possibly do about that?
Nothing. Does making it for the fans add to your tension at all? Now you have to deliver for those fans.
Of course, of COURSE. When you make a normal movie, you’re just trying to deliver for the financiers. I have 47,000 people!
So, when those three screenings are happening here in Chicago, are you biting your nails?
Of course. I’m pacing. I’ve been to enough now where the response is amazing. There was a standing ovation at Sundance. I’ve been to enough screenings with the core of the fan base and they go crazy. Why? It was tailor made for them. I had a pretty good sense after “Scrubs” and “Garden State” and “Last Kiss” and my play, what the people who like what I do like. If I make something for THEM, I think those people are going to like it. Is everyone going to like it? No. But will the core? Hopefully.
Once you had funding in place, what’s next? Did you have the cast in place?
I cast it like that—bam, bam, bam.
Did you write with any of them in mind?
That’s a good question. I probably wrote for Joey [King]. We had made “Oz: The Great and Powerful” together. She’s a star. She’s a savant, man. She’s like a kid on the web who can play Mozart on the piano. I knew her ability. I wrote a little bit for her. That scene where she calls [Josh] Gad—I was behind the lens [speechless]. She can bring it. She’s a star. She’s a household name next year.
The only one? It seems a part really built for Josh.
Everything gets tailored. I’ve offered Kate [Hudson] everything since “Garden State.” I was so in love with her after “Almost Famous.” I know she’s hot and funny and so her bread-and-butter is these silly romantic comedies. I was so in love with her that I thought I wanted to make a movie with her one day. She’s so pretty but her acting ability is beyond the average hot movie star. Like Natalie [Portman]. We’re friendly. I’ve offered a lot of stuff. She almost did my play in London. Once I cast people, I shift. For example, when Natalie taps in “Garden State,” we were fucking around and she just did that and I found a moment for that. I try to find moments to personalize once people have signed on the dotted line.
If the part was right, would you go back to TV?
Yeah, yeah. I totally would. It would have to be New York because I’m L.A.-ed out.
I was there 14 years, man. Don’t get me wrong. I have a house there. I just don’t want to sign a 7-year contract that says I have to be there. I’m 39 years old and if there’s one accomplishment I have it’s that I don’t have to sign a contract that says I have to be in L.A. for 10 years. It would have to be New York. Probably with Bill. And the right thing. It’s where all the good shit is happening. And if you say, “I’m only going to be a film actor,” you’re going to work every three years if you only want to do things that are good.
Which is back where we started—Macy, Spacey, Don Cheadle…
Dustin Hoffman, for God’s sake! Till the horses started falling. Yes.
Do you know what’s next?
I’m doing a Broadway show—Woody Allen’s first musical. And I’m doing that until the end of the year. In September, I’m off, because there’s so much support for this in Europe that we have a tour in Europe and Russia.
Was “Garden State” big over there?
“Garden State” was big in the major cities—London, Paris, Rome. “Scrubs” was enormous over there. “Scrubs” was bigger in the U.K. and Germany than it ever was in the States.
Any idea why that is?
Sense of humor. I’m told it’s a very British sense of humor.
The Germans fucking loved it. I’m like Hasselhoff in Germany.
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