Zach Braff should be as exhausted as he looks. On his day off from his eightshow- a-week lead role in “Bullets Over Broadway,” Woody Allen’s musical comedy that opened in April, he is not relaxing and renewing. Instead, he was in Boston on a publicity blitz of interviews and appearances in support of his favorite thing in life: his filmmaking.
“Wish I Was Here,” which opens in Boston on July 18, is his second time both behind and in front of the camera. It has been 10 years since his indie film, “Garden State,” which he also directed, wrote and starred in, blazed its way from the Sundance Film Festival to cult favorite, picking up a Grammy for best soundtrack along the way. Braff is passionate about this project, his newest film, which he funded through a Kickstarter campaign. He deflected the criticism he attracted from those who felt that celebrities should bankroll their own projects. “You can’t make a movie these days about Jews,” he stated. “We’re 2% of the population and shrinking, and none of the studios want to make a movie for or about us. Part of the crowd-funding was to be able to tell an honest story about a Jewish family.”
In this new film, which he co-wrote with his older brother Adam, Braff stars as Aidan Bloom, a 30-something secular Jew whose kids attend Yeshiva (paid for by their observant
grandfather, Gabe (played by the always captivating Mandy Patinkin), and whose wife works a job she hates to support his “career” of auditioning for acting jobs he never gets. When Gabe is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Adam is forced to transition from child to parent, from cared for to caregiver. Along the way, he taps into his own spirituality and reconciles with his father and his faith.
The plot, however, is secondary to Braff’s real purpose in making the film.
“This film is about people who are searching for their spirituality and haven’t found it yet,” Braff stated. “I identify with the cultural aspects of Judaism. I grew up with stories of the Holocaust. I relate to the stories of Jews being persecuted and forever being killed and chased from wherever they lived. You can’t help thinking, ‘Wow, I am descended from these people that nobody wanted to be on this earth.’ I want to protect that.”
The three Braff brothers (older brother Joshua is also a writer) were raised in New Jersey in a strictly Orthodox home. Although Zach and Adam scripted the film, Joshua collaborated on developing Aidan’s character.
“My brother and I wanted to write about our faith and we wanted to write about growing up Jewish. Because we’re 10 years apart, our father raised us differently. Adam went to an Orthodox, very strict yeshiva and it pushed him away from Judaism. It had the opposite effect my father had hoped for,” Braff explained.
“By the time I was going to school, we were conservative and kosher, but I was going to secular school and Hebrew school three times a week instead of yeshiva,” he continued. “We knew we could approach the subject of a secular man’s search for spirituality because we were raised from two different stances.”
“We were a great yin and yang for each other,” he shared.
Braff’s father, who welcomes Shabbat every Friday with prayers and dinner, was concerned that his sons might be taking digs at organized religion in general, and Judaism in particular. “I made it clear to him that this movie isn’t about condemning Orthodoxy at all,” Braff said.
Rather, it is about the yearnings of a young man to tap into something which he knows is there but which he has yet to experience.
Two characters in the film, an old man and a young rabbi, illustrate Braff’s point. “The old rabbi isn’t surviving well in a modern world, let alone trying to enroll a secular man in faith. Then there is the opposite with the young rabbi, who goes out of his way to tap into the spirituality that Aidan has. He untangles him from needing the exact right words of Judaism and instead focuses in on exactly where he is.”
He smiles broadly. “This was the dream rabbi my brother and I always hoped for, but never met, and so we created him. My father cries his eyes out every time he sees it.”
For his soundtrack, Braff again enlisted bands he loved to create original content for the film (“Garden State” launched The Shins from the indie to mainstream realms). The playlist includes songs by Bon Iver, Cat Power, Coldplay and The Shins.
A Trivial Pursuit tidbit about Braff is that he is related to Mitt Romney, whom he met when flying to Utah last fall. When asked if his mother is really Romney’s ninth cousin, he laughed. “It’s a very bizarre fact, but it’s true. The research was done by a genealogist who clearly has too much time on his hands.”
He paused and then leaned forward, blue eyes thoughtful and somber. “I fought hard to keep this a Jewish movie with a Jewish star and I hope the Jews of Boston and Massachusetts will go see it. I’d like to make more films about my Jewish experience.”