Zach Braff on Florence Pugh singing and the "Garden State" Easter egg in his new movie

The director talks about being "A Good Person," grief, landing Morgan Freeman and lessons learned from "Scrubs"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 30, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

Zach Braff (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Zach Braff (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

It's been an intense few years for Zach Braff. In fairly short order, the actor and director lost his father, his sister and his best friend.

"I have experienced a lot of grief and loss in the last four years," he admitted during a recent "Salon Talks" conversation. Yet while his new film "A Good Person" explores the impact of tragedy on the lives of two very different survivors (played by Florence Pugh and Morgan Freeman), the story also brims with a delicacy and wry humor you'd expect from the director of "Garden State." "I wanted to explore this," he explained, "but find a way to do it with humor."

Braff talked to me about the lessons he learned from "Scrubs" in balancing comedy and darkness, the challenges of writing about grief while we're all still in the thick of it, and why he was eager to write and direct for his former partner Pugh, who he calls "one of the finest actors there is." Watch the "Salon Talks" episode with Zach Braff here or read a Q&A of our conversation below.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

The plot of "A Good Person" is not taken from your life, but a lot of the experience and the emotion of it is. Talk to me about the inspiration for this story.

You're right. The plot itself is fiction, and I made it up. But the inspiration for what I wanted to explore came from my own life. I have experienced a lot of grief and loss in the last four years. I lost my sister and I lost my father. Then in the pandemic, my best friend got COVID, and he was living with me and died. He was 41 years old. He left behind his wife and a young baby.

All of this was at the forefront of my mind, standing up from my own grief, and then also watching my friend Amanda Kloots and just feeling shattered for her and wondering how she was going to start over again. When I sat down in the lockdown to write something, this is just what was on my mind. I wanted to explore this, but find a way to do it with humor so it wasn't too maudlin. That's what I set out to do. I also wanted to write for Florence [Pugh] because I think she's one of the finest actors there is. That was really the genesis of it.

The dynamic that she and Morgan Freeman have together is just electric. Even though you had worked with him before, you've said you didn't think you would be able to get him.

I directed Morgan on a big studio heist comedy called "Going In Style." Morgan's incredible, it goes without saying, but he doesn't traditionally do zero-budget or low-budget indies. When I was asking him to do it, the movie wasn't even financed yet. He also doesn't usually sign up to do movies that don't even financing yet.

But we did have a relationship, and we do have a friendship. He just really responded to the script. He read it right away. He called me, and he said, "I see myself on every page of this script." I was like, "Does that mean, yes?" So then he said, "Yes," and he came aboard. 

"I pictured Florence, this young ingenue that the world is so excited about [... ] opposite some older, amazing legend."

When I was writing it, I didn't know that I'd get someone like Morgan. But I pictured that diner booth scene. I pictured Florence, this young ingenue that the world is so excited about, that people who love movies are just really excited about, and I pictured her opposite some older, amazing legend. That was already interesting to me. I didn't know who it was going to be.

Then when it became Morgan, I was like, "Oh my God, that's really cool." Picturing the two of them going toe-to-toe in the film just felt fascinating to me because they're both the highest level actors that we have. It just felt like a really interesting pairing.

You wrote Florence's part for her and even put certain quirks and attributes that she has into this character. What's it like writing when you have one character you're writing for the actor, and then another character that you're really inventing whole from cloth?

It wasn't too much tweaking, but because I know Morgan pretty well, I also went back once we got him and tailored it a little bit to him, just because not only do I know him from all the movies I love that he's been in, but we made a film together. I know him and the way he talks, and we all love his voice so much. I went back and tailored it a little bit and made it a little more bespoke for Morgan.

But Florence, even down to the fact that she sings and writes music and often does it as a means of therapy for herself — she said it's almost like journaling for her — I folded that into the film. Florence actually wrote the two songs that her character performs in the film.

When I first heard the voice — you don't see that it's her singing at first — I thought, "Who is this?"

I know. I keep hearing that people are Shazamming the track, and it's not coming up, although it is going to come up soon because Florence recorded it and it will be Shazam-able. But at these early screenings, it's not up yet. I love hearing that people are like, "What is this?" And it's her.

Music is such an integral part of the way that you tell stories. There are so many different musical beats in this movie and well-timed and really delightful and surprising musical cues in it. How does that come together for you?

Well, it's funny, back in the "Garden State" era, I copied another writer who did this thing where he would put the musical cues into the script and then he provided a CD with the script. He'd say, "OK, when you're listening to this scene, play Track 2." I did that actually with "Garden State." They weren't ultimately the exact same cues that ended up in the film but I thought it was a really clever thing that I took from this other writer.

"In the script it would say something like 'A killer song kicks in.'"

Nowadays, in the script, it would say something like, "A killer song kicks in." I didn't specify because I knew from experience that you can love a song so much, but until you watch it to picture and this magical alchemy happens that causes the little hairs on your arm to rise, you just don't know. I create playlists and stuff. Playlists like "songs that would be awesome in a movie."

Florence had ideas, and I had a music supervisor that had great ideas. So it's a complete collaboration. My editor, Dan Schalk, and I just try things and we play with them. It isn't until the hairs are standing on your arms that you go, "OK, well, that's definitely a candidate. That's doing something to me."

I think that might have started just [from] loving musicals. I grew up going to musicals with my father. He loved them. It was a very early education in the power of song in storytelling. I think I just had 10,000 hours of being moved by music in storytelling so that by the time I made "Garden State," I knew how to do it.

The title of this film "A Good Person," is a loaded term. People use that phrase in the movie. What does it mean for these characters? And what does it mean for this story?

I don't want to answer that directly because I think that's up for interpretation. I'm just one person with a take on it and I don't want to have everyone take my take on it. I'll just say that they're both pontificating on what it means to be a good person and who is a good person. 

Florence's character, Allison, actually brings it up herself when she's talking about her father who abandoned her family and how as a child she wrestled with thinking it might have been her fault. She says to Zoe Lister-Jones's character, "I started to think that maybe just some people aren't good." 

"I don't think that many people have processed what this trauma did to us."

In addition to the time that Morgan mentions it, she does too. They're both wrestling with that idea. I think when trauma hits and horrible things happen to us and to our friends and to our loved ones, it's just a very human response to be like, "Why me? I'm not a bad human being. Why has this horrible thing happened to me?"

This horrible thing that happened to my friend Amanda and her son Elvis, who survived Nick Cordero's death, why them? She's an angel. She's just the sweetest, kindest person you ever met, who happens to be, for what it's worth, a very religious person. Why her? She's a good person. That was the impetus for putting it as the title.

The film explores this idea of how entitled we believe we are to feel grief, and what happens when we feel like we're not allowed to because someone else has lost more than we did. That felt like something I have not seen before in a story.

I would add to what you're saying, and for me, the whole thing is a bit of a metaphor for experiencing the pandemic. I don't think that many people have processed what this trauma did to us as a species, as a country, certainly to all of our psyches. I don't know that we have enough distance yet to see how we're all standing back up  from what happened to us. We're just moving on. Maybe it's too soon to really glance at it with any perspective.

I finished this movie in the middle of last year, I watch it now with a little bit of perspective and going, "Wow, that writer's really writing about a couple things." But also to me, it reeks of coming out of the pandemic.

It also takes on the issues of addiction and the opioid epidemic. Certain scenes are shot from inside this perspective of addiction or substance use. How did you compose that as a director to tell this story of addiction?

A lot of adult audience members can relate to having drunk too much or maybe smoking too much pot. Not everyone, sadly more and more, but not everyone has the experience of being an opioid addict. The challenge was to put the viewer into that mind space. How could I visually and with sound and with, obviously, Florence's incredible acting, and the editing choices, show what it would feel like? Both Florence and I consulted with a woman who had survived a horrible addiction to opioids and talked to lots of people. That's what we did with the cinematography in those moments and with the editing and Florence's amazing performance was try to just give the audience a real kinesthetic experience of what it's like.

This film also has a great deal of humor in it. It has comedic actors in it like Molly Shannon and Zoe Lister-Jones. How do you walk that line? Anybody who's familiar with "Scrubs" knows that show that did that so beautifully. I wonder if that was part of your education in finding that tension between the sorrow and the high comedy?

"I wanted to write for Florence because I think she's one of the finest actors there is."

Certainly, although obviously on the other side of the spectrum. "Scrubs" was a comedy with drama. I would say this was more of a drama with comedy. I was blown away. I would read those scripts sometimes in "Scrubs," where Bill Lawrence and his genius team of writers, they'd go from some insanely surreal, broad comedy fantasy to the next page, to talking earnestly with someone about their death. I would always think, "That's such a hairpin turn. That is not going to work." And he would make it work. He's the grand master of that. If you look at "[Ted] Lasso" and "Shrinking," he continues to be so skilled at that.

Bill is definitely a mentor to me, and I learned so much from him. But it's also just our same taste. It's what we both love. It's like James Brooks movies. I'm so drawn to a drama that will also have some humor. "Garden State" was about very serious things, but it's also, hopefully, quite funny. I guess it's just in the spirit of making what you want to see. I just make what I'm drawn to.

As a New Jersey native, I know that you shot this movie in a lot of your hometown. To me, this movie exists in the same cinematic universe as "Garden State." I believe these characters may know each other.

I did a funny, tiny Easter egg that no one's going to get, except for people I tell probably. But there's a moment when Florence pulls the little CB microphone off the train table, and Morgan's character has clearly used Velcro to attach it. When we were in the sound mix, I was like, "Should we make that really, really quiet?" So in the cinematic universe, Morgan's character has used the silent Velcro. I guess if Morgan bought silent Velcro, then yeah they exist. Maybe not at the same time, but the same world.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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