Zach Braff says his new film is not about him. His therapist disagrees

By Michael Idato

Florence Pugh and Zach Braff at last month’s London premiere of A Good Person.Credit:AP

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As the world slammed into the COVID-19 pandemic, actor, writer and director Zach Braff was already grappling with two waves of grief. His sister, Shoshana, had died in 2018, aged just 46, and his father, Hal, a few months later at 84. Later, during lockdown, Braff’s best friend, actor Nick Cordero, died of complications from COVID-19.

Braff poured his grief and pain into his writing. The result is the film, A Good Person, about a young woman, Allison (Florence Pugh), who forms an unlikely friendship with Daniel (Morgan Freeman), the man who would have been her father-in-law, but for a tragic accident which wrenches all of her relationships apart.

Florence Pugh in A Good Person.Credit:Jeong Park/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

The film is deeply personal, though the details are not lifted directly from Braff’s own life. At first glance, it deals with addiction, but once those layers are peeled open, A Good Person is really a film about grief and loss. For Braff, who is in some ways still emerging from the trauma, the process was both uncomfortable and necessary.

“It’s vulnerable as hell, but I’m trying to do that with my life,” Braff says. “I just turned 48. I never thought anyone was going to watch [my first film] Garden State. And then I think I built up 20 years of trying to live in Hollywood and navigate it with a tougher shell. With this film, I wanted to go back to writing something that was authentically myself, for better or for worse.”

Zach Braff on the set of A Good Person, an exploration of addiction and loss.Credit:AP

A Good Person is Braff’s third produced screenplay. In the first two, 2004’s Garden State and 2014’s Wish I Was Here, the writer and actor, best known to television audiences as Dr “J.D.” Dorian in the 1990s sitcom Scrubs, was writing about himself. “I wasn’t really open about it back in 2004, but I have battled depression my whole life and that I see that all over [Garden State],” he says. “And Wish I Was Here, which I wrote with my brother, is about the fear of losing our father.”

A Good Person is, ostensibly, not an autobiographical piece, even if it is unexpectedly autobiographical. When he finished writing it, he shared it with his therapist. It was not about himself, he said at the time, but his therapist disagreed. “This is all about you,” Braff recalls his therapist saying. “This is you battling the grief that you faced, questioning your relationship to substance abuse, [and] your fear of losing love.”

But it is not, he says, literally his story. “No piece of the actual plot ever happened to me,” Braff says. “When I write, though, I do try and be as authentic as I possibly can with myself. Because that’s what draws me to get back in the chair every day, is to try and write something autobiographical.”

In the film, New Jersey pharmaceutical rep Allison (Pugh) develops a painkiller addiction after being involved in a car accident which takes the life of her fiancé’s sister. Her own relationship with Nathan (Chinaza Uche) crumbles but, while in recovery, an unexpected friendship emerges between her and Nathan’s father, Daniel (Freeman).

From left, Florence Pugh, who plays Allison, Zach Braff, Brian Rojas as Diego, and Alex Wolff as Mark on set of A Good Person.Credit:Jeong Park/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Braff wrote the film during lockdown, when he and Pugh were living together (the pair have since split). In the guest house on their property were Cordero, who died in 2020, and his wife and child.

“I had the pandemic at my front door because I have a guest house where I had a friend dying,” Braff says, candidly. “So I had an awful lockdown, like everyone, but particularly awful because not only was my friend dying from COVID at 41, but his wife and newborn baby were living with me.”

As a result, Braff says, COVID-19 is “a character, a silent partner in this screenplay, if you will. And I’ve really felt that we’re kind of continuing on like someone who was in a car accident and is like, OK, that crazy thing happened. Now let’s move on. Almost with horse blinders on. And it’s the normal human reaction.

“It was so traumatic and scary, particularly if you lost someone, but even for those who didn’t,” Braff adds. “I happen to have had a lot of grief in my life, but also I imagined a lot of people, even if they didn’t have loss in their life, would be able to tap into some hidden sadness that’s related to their own PTSD from what just happened to this planet.”

Florence Pugh and Morgan Freeman form an unexpected alliance in A Good Person.Credit:Jeong Park/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Despite the intensity of the film, it is richly textured in both light and shade. Molly Shannon’s performance as Allison’s mother, Diane, gives the narrative flickering moments of gentle humour. It is intentional, Braff says, though it is also an inescapable part of casting Shannon, whose comedic turns include crazy neighbour Val in Will & Grace, and honeymoon-crashing mother-in-law Kitty Patton in White Lotus season one.

“The funny story about Molly is that the first episode of Scrubs I directed, she was the guest star and I only knew her as the genius comedian from Saturday Night Live,” Braff says. “But [Scrubs creator] Bill Lawrence wrote her a dramatic part and the character revealed she had lost a child and it was incredibly moving. Her dramatic work in that episode just blew us all away.”

He and Pugh, who was heavily involved with the film’s casting, felt they needed someone “who would be a comedic relief, who could play a bit of the flighty, enabling mum, but also be able to handle the drama. I love interesting casting that you haven’t seen before. The scene with Molly and Morgan, what different worlds those two actors are from; it’s one of my favourite scenes in the movie.”

Freeman is also given beautifully complex character notes, including a passionate, almost talismanic interest in model railways. At first glance, it’s just a hobby, resurfacing in the peripheral detail of scenes, but there is an echo of something else in those moments, of being lost in a pastime that serves as a tool for bringing order to chaos.

“I did have a train set, and I had OCD. And I didn’t know this as a child, but when I look back as an adult, I can see that it was so meditative,” Braff says. “The work you’re doing is so minuscule and careful, that it automatically quiets your brain down because you’re focusing so hard. And there’s no one there with you.

“I would just spend hours and hours alone building this little perfect world. So for me, it really quieted my anxious brain. That’s what Daniel does with his train set. He makes the stories go how he wished they went.”

As an exploration of grief, A Good Person is rare and nuanced. It manages to be poignant and affecting without being melodramatic. It is also challenging, tossing the audience’s expectation of how grief ought to be played – in life, and on the screen – out of the window.

“There’s no right answer for how someone grieves,” Braff says. “Everyone deals with it differently; since I’ve lost people, I’ve heard dozens of stories of the way people have experienced it. There isn’t any set way we’re supposed to expect it. And not dealing with it right away is a common reaction.”

Shock also sets in, Braff says. “It isn’t until later when their brain can actually assess and compute what’s happened that a different reaction might come about,” he says. “In the story I have written, the character is medicated for physical pain and then finds the emotional numbing helpful. But it’s addictive, and she’s stuck in a place where, a year later, she hasn’t had a chance to look at this pain.”

A Good Person is now showing in cinemas across the country.

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