Zach Braff on directing: I'm like a wedding planner who wants you to have a good time

After signing to RSA for commercial representation, Braff could soon be appearing on UK screens.

Zach Braff on directing: I'm like a wedding planner who wants you to have a good time

This month marks 15 years since Zach Braff released his directorial debut Garden State, the film that made him an indie darling and whose Grammy Award-winning soundtrack played on repeat in hipsters’ bedrooms. Braff, also known for starring in the sitcom Scrubs, continues to split his time between acting and directing, and we might soon be seeing more of him on UK screens. 

Braff has signed to RSA for commercial representation in the UK (he’s already represented by the company in the US) and he is keen to bring his brand of humour to advertising. His ad creds include work for Adobe, US salad-dressing brand Hidden Valley and Dunkin’ Donuts, for which he got Naomi Campbell to throw her shoe through a window. 

While in London to direct an episode of a TV series, Braff spoke to Campaign about wrangling celebrities, making people laugh on set and avoiding haters on social media. 

What have you been up to in London?

I saw Clive Owen in The Night of the Iguana. I love going to the West End and seeing as much as I can. I was in a play in the West End [in 2012] and it was one of the highlights of my life. Otherwise, I've just been exploring and I’m going to see my friend Ed Sheeran perform in Ipswich. I’m excited to hopefully direct some great spots here back with my RSA crew. 

Why advertising?

When I was a production assistant fresh out of film school in 1997, it was the height of the music-video era and commercials in New York were big jobs with insane amounts of money being spent. As PAs, we all wanted to get an RSA job because they had the best gigs and we thought of them as the cool kids. When I signed with them, it was like my career came full circle.

I’m up for a cool ad now. I did five spots for Hidden Valley Ranch and this short film for Adobe. I really loved that assignment because Adobe gave us the keys to the castle and said run with it. It was a contest where college kids designed movie posters and the prize was I would write and direct a short film inspired by the movie poster. I decided to turn the winning student’s poster into a film about the life of a social media influencer if it were the 17th century.

You can’t have any ego about [directing ads] because the brand has hired you to execute their vision. Some directors can get stuck because they’re too attached to what they want to do with it. You hired me because you hopefully like my take on it, but of course I’m going to yield to you because it’s your baby. 

How do you create the right environment for comedy?

The director sets the tone on any set and it’s about creating an environment that’s fun. Some people get stressed about dealing with the client, but I like to have fun with the client too. When you’re finally on set making something with all these wonderful people, I want everyone to be in a silly, fun mood and to create an environment where everyone feels confident and inspired to come up with their best material. It’s like you’re throwing a wedding – my job is to make sure everyone’s having a good time. There might be stress in my head as the wedding planner, but I don’t want my guests to know about those stresses. 

You’ve had a lot of celebrities in your previous ads – what’s your secret to directing them?

I’m a good celebrity wrangler. I’m an actor and I’ve had 10,000 hours of experience being on the other side of things. Also being in the public eye, I get the things that would be on their minds as well. Because I’m a known actor who’s done comedy, clients have rightfully said maybe he’ll be good for this because he’ll be able to have a shorthand with the star. So before RSA, all my ads were celebrity comedy. 

With the Dunkin’ Donuts commercial, they wanted Naomi Campbell to throw her heel through the window like she was mad. We had rigged the window to break apart, but everyone was nervous to ask her. I went into her trailer and just asked her, and she said: "Yeah that’d be funny as hell, let’s do it." She was so game and cool about it. 

I’m here to make you look funny; I’m on your side. I have nothing to gain here other than to make this hilarious. I can do it if you trust me – it’s all about trust.

Your soundtrack for Garden State was hugely popular. What would you put on a playlist now?

I listen to a lot of new music and love to discover it, but I’m probably not as on the forefront of the latest sound as I was in my early twenties. That soundtrack was really a special collaboration with my friends, a lightning-in-a-bottle kind of experience. When I was cutting that movie, I put all those songs in and every person said they’d have to be replaced because I’d never clear them on our budget. I was so pissed off by that negativity that I used it to put a fire under me and got every song approved. 

Since you started your career, creators have become much more susceptible to criticism through social media. How do you deal with that?

I just don’t read that stuff any more. When I was younger and all that was new, I was super-active on Facebook and other people would read it all day long, but I don’t think that’s healthy at all. I don’t focus on it; I post every now and then, but I don’t sit there and scroll through what random people have to say. 

They should teach classes on how to deal with it for young new stars. I come across people who are newly in the public eye and obsessively reading it, and it will ruin their day. It will also make them insecure and can be very detrimental to someone's unique voice. It’s like a kid getting burned by the stove – afterwards you learn not to do that again. If you have a unique voice and are trying to do something different, don’t pay attention to that. 

I’m sure people might look back and not like Scrubs or my work, but it’s silly to reassess things years later. I don’t subscribe to that.