Interview: Zach Braff on Writing A Good Person for Florence Pugh, Casting Morgan Freeman and Processing Tremendous Grief

New Jersey-born, Northwestern-educated (with a degree in film) Zach Braff is probably known by many for his comedic acting in films such as Manhattan Murder Mystery, The Broken Hearts Club, The Ex, and the Cheaper By the Dozen remake, as well as the hugely popular sitcom "Scrubs." But since his directorial debut, 2004’s Garden State, Braff has been making a name for himself as a writer/director, with additional works such as Wish I Was Here and Going In Style, as well as a great deal of series work on such shows as "Ted Lasso," "Solos," and "Shrinking."

But his latest work as a filmmaker, A Good Person, is a different animal altogether, starting with the fact that it’s the first film he’s written in which he doesn’t act. It’s also by far his most dramatic work, as it tells the story of a young woman named Allison (Florence Pugh), whose life falls apart following her involvement in a fatal accident that killed her fiancee’s sister and brother-in-law. The film had its origins in several places, many of which had to do with Braff losing several close friends and family members in the span of just a couple of years. 

But the film is also unique for Braff because he wrote the part of Allison for his then girlfriend Pugh, a role that pushes her in new ways. After the accident, Allison becomes addicted to pain medication, breaks off her engagement, and ends up moving back in with her mother (Molly Shannon). Eventually, she attends her first Narcotics Anonymous meeting, which just happens to have amongst its members her ex’s father, Daniel (Morgan Freeman), whose alcoholism has put a permanent rift between himself and his son.

A Good Person is less about substance abuse and more about the many ways people opt to mourn, including numbing their pain with drugs and/or alcohol. It’s a subject matter that Braff and Pugh aren’t afraid to dive into headfirst, and the results are sometimes shattering and quite moving. I had a chance to sit down with Braff in Chicago to discuss the origins of the screenplay, writing with Pugh in mind, and a great deal more. Please enjoy our talk…

Credit: Jeong Park / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

When you write and direct something, it’s often something more personal, more of the moment in your life. We’re coming up on 20 years since Garden State, and I feel like A Good Person is as much a snapshot of your state of mind now as that film was then. Can you talk a bit about why that is necessary for you in your writing, and where were you when you started writing this one?

That’s interesting, when I finished the screenplay, I said to my therapist, who I gave it to read, “This is the first thing I’ve written that really isn’t about me,” and he started cackling and said, “You think this isn’t about you?” It’s so hard to write a screenplay—no one will disagree with that statement—so for me to be in the chair and stare at the blinking cursor and look up at the daunting Mt. Everest that is writing a screenplay, I really have to relate to it and feel like it’s something I need to get out of me. It’s something I need to say; it’s cathartic. So that’s what happened. It was during the pandemic, I had experienced a lot of grief: in 2016, my sister had an aneurism, and that was horrible for my family. She lasted about two years after that, which was even worse because she was a fraction of herself, and then she eventually passed. My father who was 84 did not survive that trauma and died soon after. Then the lockdown came, and my best friend was living in my guest house with his wife and child, got COVID at 41 and died, so the thing that was gurgling up that I wanted to get out was grief. 

Plus, I knew I wanted to write for Florence. We were a couple, we were doing lockdown together, and I’m in awe of her talent, so I started with those things. I knew I didn’t want to be in it; I wrote it for Florence. I want to talk about how the hell you fucking stand up again after this trauma. It doesn’t have to be vehicular manslaughter in everyone’s life; whatever the thing is in your life that has brought you to your knees, how do we get up again and move on? I was also looking at Amanda Kloots, my best friend’s widow, and watching her hold their baby and wondering how do I do this with one income? How do I do this all on my own now? So all of those things were in the mix. I was furious about the opioid epidemic; I read Dopesick, and it made me so fucking mad. So all of this is swirling around my brain as I sat down to write it.

I know a lot of people are focusing on the film’s take on addiction, but when I saw it, I recognized it as a film about the many faces of grief, and how some people want to numb themselves from the pain.

Right. Like I said to that woman last night during our Q&A, I was writing from the perspective of what would happen if this was me and my thinking. So that’s how I approached it. I’m dealing with grief from death, but imagine if I’d caused the death. Where would that headspace be?

Outside of college, I know you didn’t stay around Chicago long…

No, I did my four years and had to get out, sorry .

Is there anything from that time that you look at today and say, “I do that today because I was in that part of the country or specifically at film school at Northwestern”?

I love the people, and I loved school, loved Evanston. I came into Chicago a handful of times, mostly because I didn’t have a car and it was freezing, so we would come in sometimes to have nights out, but for the most part, my life was in Evanston. I loved the people and school. Some film schools are in major cities like New York or LA, but I really wanted to have the collegiate, liberal arts campus experience, and I really enjoyed that at Northwestern. And it’s beautiful. It’s funny, they give you the tour in the spring, and you walk the campus and you’re like “This is the most beautiful campus I’ve ever seen,” and then you arrive in the fall, and you’re like “Uh oh.”

You still find ways to insert humor into this story, and I’m sure some percentage of people will see your name on this and think it’s going to be funny. It’s the most serious thing you’ve done as a filmmaker, yet there are moments that are very funny. Tell me about the search for places that can be funny, and where does that intuition come from?

The intuition comes from my own experience. I have a memory of sitting in the ICU waiting room with my whole family waiting to hear if my sister was going to live or not, and we’re all staring at the stained ceiling tiles, and my father says something that he doesn’t even mean to be funny but it comes out funny, and we all just start belly laughing, tears from belly laughing, because we need the fucking release. That’s how I experience great trauma in our lives. As Amanda is going through the death of her husband, I would tactfully try to find ways to make her smile and laugh, because that’s what we need. That’s how I personally navigate this stuff. You’re so grateful when someone says something funny. Also, it’s my sensibility. I don’t want to tell a story that doesn’t have humor in it. That’s not my taste. If you look at movies like the James L. Brooks movies, I don’t think I’ve ever cried harder than I did during Terms of Endearment, but I also remember laughing. I don’t think I ever cried longer after a movie than that one, to the point where my dad was like “Are you okay?” I was like “Why did you bring me to this movie?” I was a kid!

That’s still a good question. You said you wrote this for Florence, and I believe you said this was the first time you’d done that for someone other than yourself. Is it different writing attempting to capture someone else’s voice?

I think it’s great if you know who’s going to play the part. Most often, unless I’m writing for myself, I don’t know who it’s going to be. Even with Garden State, I literally was thinking “Someone like Natalie Portman.” I never thought in a thousand years it would be Natalie Portman. But in this case, I knew who it was, and we were a couple, so I knew her so well. I knew that she could sing and perform songs, so I wrote that in; I knew her sense of humor and what she liked and wanted to play. So it as like making a custom suit. Then when she read it, she would weigh in. The hair cutting thing was totally her idea, and it was a logistical nightmare. She was like “You’ll figure it out.”

Well that’s my next question, about the hair-cutting scene. That feels like such a significant moment. What does that sequence represent?

That really came out of Florence. She said that in her own life, when she’s battle tough times, she would always try and do a makeover, cutting her hair, or giving herself a manicure, or order some random beauty products online. She said that was her go-to, and she loved the idea of finding the character a year later, making this manic, dramatic change to her appearance. It was logistically impossible until we figured it out. We shot the movie in 26 days out of order, and the lead wants to chop off her hair. It was tricky, but we made it happen.

I was going to ask if that forced you to shoot it chronologically.

To a certain degree, of course. All the prologue stuff we had to film up-front, except…well, I won’t tell you. There are a couple of magic tricks in there.

When I saw Zoe Lister-Jones pop up in this film as Allison’s sponsor, I felt like the two of you are cut from the same cloth. She’s a filmmaker known primarily for comedy as an actor, but also dabbling in drama. How did you two connect?

She’s just so talented. To be honest, I was lucky she was willing to read for the part. I did want there to be good chemistry between her character and Allison, and I wanted Florence to weigh in on who the person would be. So many incredible actresses read, and I loved Zoe’s take. Some people at her level wouldn’t read, and I showed it to Florence, and she was like “Yeah, that’s her.” Florence was really helpful in the casting process, because I wanted her to really like her scene partners. Obviously, people like Morgan and Molly aren’t reading, but certain people who would read, I wanted there to be this chemistry. Florence was not only the star but is a really great gauge of acting, as you can imagine. So when she saw Zoe, she said, “Stop reading people.”

I read that when Morgan Freeman called you back after you sent him the screenplay, he said “I see myself on every page of this.”

He didn’t even say “Hello.” He just said, “I see myself on every page.” And I was like, “Does that mean yes?” He could have meant it like “I don’t do independent films.”

It’s remarkable that you’d worked with him before, but you weren’t sure he’d consider this.

Well, I worked with him on a big studio comedy. Morgan doesn’t traditionally do independent fair. Also, this wasn’t set up , and I don’t know if he’s ever attached himself to a film that wasn’t set up. There was really no money. He did it solely for the love of it.

It’s one of the best things I’ve seen him do in a long time.

I think so too. Also, what was such kismet and perfect, we had so much fun doing Going In Style. It was a hard movie to make, an action movie with senior citizens in New York. It was a big crew, big shoot, and we bonded; he really liked me, so I had that going in. So when it came time to make this movie, I think I had a little more license than someone who had never met him before to push him. I knew he liked me, even though he can be surly. But I was going to push him to be his best, and he let me.

When you hired him, did you know he would also narrate the story?

It was a total blessing, but that was always written that way.

I want to talk about the granddaughter character, because it feels like every choice she makes it not good for somebody.

But isn’t that a 16-year-old who’s gone through a tremendous loss?

It’s not her fault, but some people might come out of this movie thinking she’s a bad judge of people.

I think people will see her as a teenage girl who has lost both of her parents instantly, and now she’s forced to move towns. She was living down at the beach in southern Jersey; now she’s living in a suburb where she knows no one. She’s being raised by an out-of-touch grandfather, she’s dealing with her own grief, she’s being promiscuous, she’s fucking up at school—she’s a troubled teen. But then she finds a purpose: she can do what she thinks her mom would have wanted, and she sets off to fix this broken relationship, she finally has a goal.

I recently saw you in this other film called A Little White Lie.

Oh yeah, I just did this tiny part in that. What happened there was, when Michael Shannon calls and asks “Will you do two days on my movie?” you go “Yep!” I’ll do anything with that guy.

Let’s talk about shooting during a pandemic. You said it was a short shoot, but then combining that with all the safety protocols on top of that.

What happens is that by the time you spend 10 percent of your budget on COVID testing and safety protocols, that all comes out of screen time, and that’s a chunk of days actually. It was the reason we had to shoot in 26 days. It is what it is, and there’s no way around it, but I have to credit my amazing producer Pam Koffler, who figured it out how the hell we were going to shoot this in 26 days. The COVID of it all slows it down, in addition to the cost, the communication is all slowed down because of the masks. And you’re terrified because if one of the stars gets COVID or me, would have been devastating for us.

You shot this close to where you grew up, in some cases exactly where you grew up. Is that a comfort blanket of sorts to shoot somewhere you are intimately familiar with? Does it blow your mind, for example, that there’s a scene where Morgan Freeman walks into your high school.

Yeah. I think the way your phrased it is perfect. It is a comfort blanket. I’m going to do something so raw and do it in 26 days, and I’m going to have these big stars. There was something about, I knew I wouldn’t fuck up this world because I know this world. I know what a dive bar in Jersey looks like, I know what a broken-down house looks like, what the duck pond looks like, what the principal’s office looks like. It’s the ultimate example of writing what you know. When you’re writing for a town you know, you can say “This old man, I bet he would sit at the duck pond and watch the remote-controlled sail boasts.”

I’m excited to hear that you’ve already started writing something new.

Yeah, for the first time in my life, I began before the other things came out. And also, I’m not taking so many years between films; I’m working on being a little bit more prolific.

Without saying what it’s about, can you say what some of the things that influenced its writing are?

I really wanted to write about the New York theater world; it’s something that very important to me, something I love. My very first part out of Northwestern was in a production of Macbeth at the Public Theatre that George C. Wolfe directed. That’s a world I really want to explore.

Well best of luck with this film and the next one. Much thanks for chatting.

Thanks so much, and thanks for moderating the Q&A as well. Take care.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.