Interview: Zach Braff

No one could make a monkey out of Zach Braff quite like director Sam Raimi. Okay, one could probably guess that the comically talented actor who spent several years on the hit (and almost surrealist at times) sitcom Scrubs could very well find a playful enough tone to play a character like the monkey man-servant Finley in Raimi’s Wizard of Oz prequel, Oz the Great and Powerful, but to actually see his voice coming out of a monkey can be slightly disarming at first.

The still incredibly dreamy-in-real-life actor and director of the surprise indie hit Garden State shows up in Raimi’s return to the magical land with the token yellow brick road, but both are versions of the same character. In the film’s dusty Kansas set prologue, Braff plays the beleaguered assistant to the selfish and egotistical carnival charlatan and illusionist Oscar Diggs (James Franco). Once the magician gets swept away to a magical place somewhere over the rainbow, Braff becomes… well, the beleaguered (but this time duty bound) assistant to the confused and almost anti-heroic Oz.

Braff sat down with Dork Shelf about working with Raimi on making another tale in one of cinema’s most iconic locations, the multimedia based nature of his performance as a talking and flying primate with a jaunty hat, his memories of the original Oz, and why there hasn’t really been a follow up yet to Garden State.

You’ve done a couple of things for Disney now. Were you more excited to work with Disney again or work on a new Oz film?

Zach Braff: When I did Chicken Little, it was so much fun, and just the response from kids… I don’t have any of my own just yet, but my nieces and nephews playing the Chicken Little video game and I just loved it. I love being a part of history. I watched these movies when I was a kid and when they asked me to do another one, particularly one like this where it was live action and it was a whole new experience, I jumped at the chance.

This movie had many more actual sets then I thought they would have considering what they can do with CGI these days…

ZB: Yeah, me too!

You have a decent part in the beginning of the film, but for the rest of it you’re playing an animated monkey. Were you able to visit the sets a lot?

ZB: I was on set. Just so you know, it wasn’t a full mo-cap thing because Sam doesn’t like that style so much, but what he really wanted to do was capture my performance on set. He wanted me interacting with everyone. He wanted us – James and I – to improve just so it could feel live and organic. We had a couple of ways that we did it, but at its most basic I was in a blue screen onesie –  super cute (laughs) – on my butt scrunched down and just acting with everyone. Then he had three video cameras on me at all times. Then Sam edited himself that footage of me together and handed it to the animators. So when I would go see rough cuts of the movie before it was animated in the upper right hand corner, picture-in-picture both me and Joey King who played the China Girl would be on either side, and you’d see our faces acting out and doing all the things he wanted the animators to copy. I was even be there sometimes, when Sam would pause it and say to the animators, “See what Zach’s face is doing? I want it to be more like that.” So he really wanted the humanity of the characters to come through and I don’t think he was such a fan of the mo-cap because he sort of felt like it was a computer interpretation of what you’re doing.

So if you were on set for that, were you in a separate booth if it wasn’t mo-cap?

ZB: Well, there were three different ways we did it, and we basically discovered how to do it as we went. The first and most common way and the way we thought was the best for us was that I would be on set when I could physically be where the monkey was. I would literally sit on my butt, hunched over, and I’d try to be 36 inches tall and then they would just paint me out. I would just be literally doing everything.

When I couldn’t be where he was, sometimes, there was a full scale puppet, and I would operate the puppet. That way I could kind of do stuff like leaping up and that sort of thing. Then when I was flying or doing something where I couldn’t even operate the puppet, we… (laughs) We. I mean, Scott Stokdyk, the head of effects, created this thing called a puppet-cam, which is essentially where I’m in a video booth, and another puppeteer has essentially something like a boom pole with an iPad sized monitor on it, and James would have an earpiece in his ear, and he can see me and I can see him from a lipstick camera on the end of the same boom pole, so we’re essentially looking at each other like it’s a video conference and we’re acting it out, but he’s actually on set. That way the puppeteer could make him fly and do all sorts of things.

One day down the road it would be a really rad Blu-Ray feature, but in the meantime you guys have to use your imaginations. (laughs)

Kind of going off that same sort of thing, if you’re on set and you’re scrunched down and playing the monkey in a movie like this it seems like the kind of thing where you would be tempted to go really physical with it and you wouldn’t really be thinking about the effects or a puppet. Did you ever find yourself trying to push it a bit harder physically to sort of capture that essence?

ZB: Well, the funny thing is that James had just come off Rise of the Planet of the Apes with Andy Serkis and I was like, “Oh my god, I have to fill the Andy Serkis monkey shoes!” (laughs) I think there was a part of me that wanted to prove it and not be in my own head. Some actors often get into a trap where they say “Oh man, I don’t want to look stupid or anything.”  But I did Scrubs for nine years and there was a lot of moments where I was doing stupid stuff, so I just dove in and I was on the ground just being the monkey and Sam loved it. Obviously you want to please your director, so I just went for it. All the gestures you see in the movie and all the things he does I helped come up with. I had this idea where he would be an easy crier, so I always had him sort of swatting tears away, and those were the kinds of things we came up with on the spot and in the moment and that is what Sam really wanted. When I first met with him he said that he hadn’t really figured out this guy. We knew he was Oz’s conscience and we know we wanted him to be a little comic relief, but we wanted to really develop it with an actor. We wanted to cast it and figure it out together, and that’s a dream role for me.

What was Sam like to work with? He’s known mostly for his horror movies and the original Spider-man trilogy, but this is really the first kid-friendly film he’s done.

ZB: He is the most collaborative person I’ve worked with and on this scale with so many hundreds of people working for him it was amazing how much he was able to give every single person their one-on-one time. He’s so zen. We’ve all heard the stories of even if it is 2 a.m. he’s still got his tie fully knotted all the way to the top. He has five kids and even though he’s made all those crazy horror movies, he really is a dad and loves children and is such a good storyteller. Obviously there’s a couple little scare moments that he couldn’t resist, but if we remember the original we all still have nightmares about those baboons. (laughs) He wanted to have a couple of those moments, but I think he really relished the idea of being able to tell it like a movie that his kids could go see.

Sam also has a way of sort of torturing his actors in a really loving and joking way. Was there anything that he did to you that really stood out?

ZB: Oh, yeah. We did an interview for Entertainment Tonight in the states and they wanted us to walk in like they do on those shows, and at the last second as we’re walking in he grabs my ear and starts pulling me in by my ear and I’m, like, “So that’s how we’re enter this interview, with Sam pulling me by my ear!” (laughs) But it’s all super playful and I’ve heard all these stories about directors always yell at people, but he is literally the sweetest human being you’ll ever meet in your life. So much so that at some points some of us more cynical types were, like, “What’s this guy’s angle with all this niceness?” (laughs) In Canada you might be a little more used to it, but he is literally, like, “Canada nice.” But yeah, he playfully likes to tease everybody.

Since you guys didn’t really have much of an idea about the character going in, how did you begin to develop Finley?

ZB: There wasn’t much written for him yet when I first started. Like, I said they were still very much developing him, and I met with Sam in his office early on and he showed me an early animatic of a scene. It was the scene in the movie where they’re all running up a cliff and Oz is panicking, and there were no lines there for the character, and since it was really early on and just an example of it and I just came up with (some lines) for the character, and Sam started to laugh, so I figured that was a pretty good sign (laughs). I just started doing that where he would show me animatics, and I would just start riffing jokes, some of which made it into the final movie two years later. That’s was just cool about this whole thing. He was hiring me not only to be the voice, but also to be a really critical developmental partner, which as a filmmaker myself working with him is a dream come true.

Sometimes the biggest challenge was to do things in scenes where I didn’t speak. It was because I knew what I was doing was going through a few different filters. It would go through the camera and then not only a lead animator, but several animators that would all hopefully be on the same page in terms of creating this character, but I really wanted to do a good job, but the scene where we meet China Girl for the first time in the ruins of her city was probably the hardest thing to do. It’s one of my favourite scenes in the movie, though, because there we are sitting in a giant tea kettle – it was me, James, and the marionette because for Joey (King)’s character it was actually small enough to have this amazing puppet for it, with Joey off to the side, and, of course, Sam – and it was just really intimate. On a film this size with all these sets and hundreds of extras all the time, and this was such a quiet scene and had so much heart and it shows the capacity of Oz’s heart, and the monkey is such a pivotal part of that, but it’s all in facial reactions. That was kind of where I got the swiping away the tear. I really wanted to do a good job in that scene because I figured that was where the whole movie shifted. I don’t know what page it’s on in the script, but it’s definitely a chapter change.

You’re playing Oz’s conscience in two different ways at the beginning of the film as his assistant in Kansas and again as the monkey in the fantasy world. Did you guys kind of switch up the kind of dynamic that you would have?

ZB: I think that the slight difference that we made was that Frank at the start of the movie was sort of beaten down and that Oz had already had is effect on him by browbeating him and making him feel less that nothing and paying him pennies. Frank just wants to be his friend and he’s being treated like dirt. Finley was Frank back to his innocent form. He had never told a lie before, and we have that sequence where he’s trying to lie for the first time when introducing Oz to the kingdom, which Frank wouldn’t have hesitated doing back in Kansas. I was like Finley was Frank stripped back to a time before he was beaten down and there was a lot more wide-eyed, child-like innocence that would occur only in the land of Oz.

It’s kind of like character development in reverse in a lot of ways.

ZB: That’s a good way to put it, and I hadn’t really thought of that, and he and the china girl are both innocents, and you can see that Oz operates in a world of carnies and trickery and con-men, and here he is all of a sudden dealing with these two child-like figures that bring out the goodness in him, and that was the idea and that was always my sort of interpretation of it.

The past couple of years you’ve been doing a lot of stage work. Was this a refreshing challenge to jump back into something with sets instead of being on stage with your own material?

ZB: Yeah! And here’s the thing: when you do a TV show for nine years, the way I thought about it was that I really wanted to stick this landing. I don’t want to do what happens to most people on a show that runs that long where they’re always stuck being “that guy” or they disappear totally. I knew I didn’t want to go right into another TV show, which sometimes works for people, but the successes that have come out of TV, you know like how George Clooney came from dramas or how Tom Hanks was on a show that only ran for a year and a half, shows that there aren’t too many people that have successfully transitioned extraordinarily well, and that’s hard. You get so known as that one guy in people’s hearts. So I guess I’ve been trying to choose wisely what I wanted to do. I’m going to try and make my next film this year and the play was something I had always dreamed to do. I had never even been near a giant, big tent pole blockbuster, so that was something I wanted to try.

Maybe it took so long just because I was so precious about it. I didn’t want to just be in one that I wouldn’t go see. My mantra to myself as I make choices is: “Would I see that?” When I read this and saw the cast I would be, like, “Yeah, I’d see that in a second.” That’s kind of how I make my choices, and Scrubs gave me the luxury to be picky and try new things that I know that my fan base has been so supportive of me will like.

And a lot of these fans have been asking all over the internet and through your Twitter when it is you would be making one of your own films again.

ZB: Yeah, the web fan base has been so cool to me and I’m about to hit a million people on Twitter, which is cool because there are a lot of musicians that have crossed that threshold, but not tons of actors. I feel a lot of support from them. I’m really trying to direct this year. It’s hard, you know? Everyone passed on Garden State and people think that because it was such a big hit that I can go get a movie made in a second, but that’s not the case. If I just wanted to go and make something boiler plate I could get it made. Something like a big studio rom-com would be easy, but in trying to make another elaborate, unique, interesting, and quirky tale or an indie, it’s just as hard again. But now I think I have a script that people are really responding to, and we’re casting it now.

What are your memories of the original The Wizard of Oz? Did it impact your performing over the years before this?

ZB: I love musicals. I grew up going to Broadway and my father got me super into musicals, so I always loved that aspect of it, and really the physical comedy aspect of the Tin Man, The Lion and Scarecrow. As a kid I really early on at a young age to that style of physical comedy, which a lot of kids do. I remembered loving the way they moved; just the unique way that they moved like they were cartoons come to life. That’s a testament to them, so that’s what stuck to me the most. That and those friggin’ baboons. (laughs)

Would you ever consider directing a film this big yourself?

ZB: You know, I never would have said yes before, but this was like grad school. You know how many hours there are on set and how much sitting around there is, but even when I wasn’t in a scene on this one, I was almost always in one of the director’s chairs next to Sam because for me it was great, because I’m a film geek and I’m sure you’re one, too. Then I think of someone like Jon Favreau, who was someone I’ve looked up to since back around the time of Swingers, and I thought of how rudimentary and genius that was and now I look at him with the Iron Man films, so I think he’s kind of a perfect inspiration for me. I would love to take it on when I find the right one. I should probably get a few more movies under my belt first, though, since I only have the one. Interestingly enough, though, I did direct the Scrubs Wizard of Oz themed episode, which was about as epic as we ever got on Scrubs, so I think that was great training. (laughs)