Zach Braff is the type of guy you’d want to be stuck with on a deserted island. An actor, writer and director who may have retained some medical knowledge from his long-standing portrayal of J.D. on the hit sitcom “Scrubs,” the man is an undeniable multi-talent.
His latest feature film, “A Good Person,” stars Morgan Freeman and Florence Pugh: two legendary actors, one of whom just so happens to be Braff’s ex-girlfriend (hint: it’s not Freeman).
“She’s the finest actor of her generation,” Braff said, singing Pugh’s praises in an interview with The Daily Californian. “The camera can’t take its eye off her, and you don’t want the camera to take its eye off her. She just has this magical gift. It’s like you write a piece of music and now the best musician is going to play it. You’re like, ‘Oh my god, I get to hear my song played by this incredible musician!’ ”
In the movie, Pugh’s character Allison experiences grief, addiction and regret after surviving a brutal car crash and self-medicates with narcotics. Braff clearly has an affinity for telling hard-hitting emotional stories — from his first indie feature “Garden State” to a recent episode of the Apple TV+ series “Shrinking,” both of which cover themes of loss and mourning.
“I’ve battled depression. I’ve battled anxiety my whole life. I had OCD pretty bad as a child, and I’m constantly working on myself,” Braff said. “With ‘Garden State,’ I sort of tiptoed out and said, ‘Hey, this isn’t me, but it’s kind of me.’ And that was so long ago. But now, I feel way more open about being more comfortable in my own skin and saying, ‘Hey, I battle a lot of this stuff, and I want to write about it and I want to talk about it.’ ”
Unlike Braff’s “Garden State,” which he wrote, directed and starred in, “A Good Person” asks its architect to illustrate sorrow through the eyes of a woman. One might doubt a man’s ability to answer this challenge with class and nuance, but with a deft hand and a collaborative spirit, Braff welcomed creative suggestions from Pugh and let her feminine rage shine on set. Among a collection of other less-than-healthy coping mechanisms, Pugh’s character responds to heartache by impulsively cutting her own hair in the mirror and shoplifting a pack of hair clips.
“I have to give credit to Florence because those both came from her,” Braff recalled. “She was very collaborative on the script — she came up with the haircutting. I was like, ‘That’s brilliant, but shooting out of order in 26 days, that’s going to be mayhem.’ And she was like, ‘You’ll figure it out.’ … And then, she was like, ‘I think she should steal hair clips on her way out from the pharmacy.’ And I was like, ‘That’s brilliant.’ Eventually, we did figure it out.”
Another stand-out moment that occurs early on in the film is an all-out brawl between Allison and her borderline-alcoholic mother Diane (Molly Shannon). Providing an intimate glimpse into one of the dark realities of drug abuse, the film shows Allison pushing and screaming at her mother for messing with her drug supply.
“That was totally impromptu. It was just raw. I mean, obviously, there are certain scripted lines that were there. But they were really wrestling — that was not fake,” Braff said, describing his strategy for crafting such a candid fight scene. “That’s one of Florence’s favorite moments of the movie, actually. She just thought that was so raw and real.”
Given its heavy subject matter, “A Good Person” may not seem fit for the faint of heart. But for every graphic depiction of desperation and darkness, Braff surprises his audience with tasteful moments of humor and hope. In his eyes, as the filmmaker explained, these emotional contradictions are crucial for those torn between love and loss.
“In my own experience with grief, I remember being in an ICU waiting room because my sister had an aneurysm. The whole family was there, staring at the ceiling. And then, someone would say something that probably wasn’t even meant to be funny, but you’d just start belly laughing with tears coming out of your eyes,” Braff said. “I wanted the movie to have that tone, you know? It is about grief; it is about addiction; it is about redemption, but it’s also funny, hopefully.”
Despite recalling some of the darkest points in his life, the director maintained a warm smile. He explained that he never tires of sharing personal stories because, for him, the greatest joy of filmmaking comes from connecting earnestly with fans through the big screen.
“I think that sharing and being authentic and spreading the word is the only way for people to have the experience of seeing the movie, especially in the theater,” the director said. “I’ve worked so hard. I’ve never worked so hard on anything as I worked on this movie. And I’m just so lucky to have a theatrical release — that’s super rare these days. It’s coming out everywhere on the 24th, so I’m just happy. I feel lucky.”