Zach Braff’s very first directing credit was more than a decade ago, but he found there were still lessons to be learned and challenges to overcome when directing his new ABC family comedy “Alex, Inc.”
“From student films to the big studio movie I directed and everything in between, this was the hardest thing I’ve done,” Braff tells Variety. “As executive producer and I’m not credited as a writer but I participated in the writing and the acting and the editing and directing, it was overwhelming, to be honest.”
Although Braff directed multiple episodes of his prior ABC comedy “Scrubs,” he shares that the episodes he took on then were usually shot right after a hiatus, which gave him more time to prep. But wearing so many hats on “Alex, Inc” required him to multi-task like never before.
“I directed four of these, and while we were shooting you’re getting notes back from the studio on the script for next week and notes back on the episode you have to be editing,” he says.
Ahead of the series premiere of “Alex, Inc,” which Braff directed, the multi-hyphenate talks with Variety about the setting the tone for the show, balancing his time, the importance of making the show PG-rated and whether any “Scrubs” cast members will appear.
The pilot episode not only tells the audience what the show is but also tells the other episode directors who come on week to week what style they need to match. What was most important to you in setting that bar?
I like the camera to move and create energy. You have 21 and a half minutes in a broadcast comedy without commercials and it has to fly — it has to have pace. Obviously you slow down for the heart, and in our show we have a little bit of physical comedy on the other side, too, but for the most part you just have to be punchy. For us, the cinematography has to be a character. I do want style. I don’t want you to just come in here and do master, master, over, over — that’s boring. But what I set up for the [other] directors was that the joke is what’s more important — so you have to make sure you’re not sacrificing the time we’re going to want to nail the punchlines and the comedy.
What have you found is the key to best utilizing your time so that you get all the jokes in — maybe even with some improv — but still get to do visually interesting shots?
You have to pick your moments where you can do a big crane move or a cool Steadicam oner. But a little scene in the kitchenette, I have to build up some time there, so I’m just going to going to shoot two overs and a quick little master because in the next scene we’re shooting after lunch I really want to do a long dolly move. As a director-producer you’re really thinking about how to maximize what you want to get in five days and have it have style.
Do you like to leave room for your actors to improv?
[Executive producer] Matt [Tarses] and I both have 10,000 hours in half-hour comedy, and one of the things we stole from that that’s always worked is making sure we have one as it’s written that’s good and then we play around. That’s what we would do on “Scrubs.” I think a lot of the stuff fans love came from us just being in the moment and being silly and riffing and playing around. So that’s what we try to do here. It gives us more options in post, so we try and budget our time for that. Style is important and tone is important and the look is important, but when it comes down to it, you want people to laugh, so the thing we need the most of is the jokes.
How did the kids on the show handle improvising?
[Elisha Henig] is so great — he’s like a savant! I joke with Matt that “Family Ties” was originally a vehicle for Meredith Baxter and Michael J. Fox stole the show, and I keep saying, “This f—ing kid is going to Michael J. Fox me!” He’s so smart and so funny and such a natural, and he came in 13 going on 21, so he can riff. With [Audyssie James] she’s a wonderful little actor, but she’s younger, so you could literally watch on a graph when she got more comfortable throughout the 10 episodes and started improvising herself.
Did you do anything differently with Audyssie to get the reactions you were looking for?
We just keep the cameras rolling. One thing I do try to do with kids in particular is just to keep talking to them because in their minds sometimes it’s, “Oh we’ve cut and he’s just playing around,” but I end up putting some of that in the show.
Your character in the show starts a podcast, which is not usually a visual medium. What did you want to do to make scenes of him at work, recording, visually interesting?
The audience will sometimes be aware of the mic and sometimes not be. It’s there as a prop, and of course the podcast is a character, but because that’s so specific we wanted the show to be more about people going after a dream. Obviously there’s jargon and podcast stuff happening, but it’s really about a startup — it’s really about a group of people who are going after something that seems impossible, inspired by this true story. So I think it’s fun for people to watch and insert their own dream that they’d love to go after there. And we have other startups in the incubator and there’s comedy that comes from them. We try to have it be more accessible by the fact that it could be “Insert your dream here” and not podcasting all the time, specifically.
What has been the key you have found to being able to split your personal time and focus between acting, producing, and directing?
Having a great partner — Matt is an amazing partner and I couldn’t have asked for anyone better. There were times when I had to be like, “As much as I want to micromanage what the texture of the brick is in the new restaurant set, you have to go over there and handle it!”I’m such a micromanager that I do want to do everything — I do want to talk to the production designer about the drapes in the new set — but there’s times when you have to be like, “There’s not enough hours in the day” and you have to delegate. And on his side, he’s running the writers’ room and doing other things too, so there were times where he couldn’t come to the rehearsal and said, “Just make sure so-and-so does the joke like that.” And I got it. We had a great team — in addition to Matt we had a great crew who understands what you want and a great line producer who isn’t going to sneak things behind your back.
What have you noticed is the biggest difference stepping back into television in today’s broad landscape of 450+ scripted shows?
There’s so much amazing TV that you and I are watching, but I would say 95% of it you can’t watch sitting next to your kid. And I think we really felt like, “Here’s where there’s room.” Matt was telling me about rewatching “Scrubs” with his 13 year old, and he said he had to leave the room because he had forgotten how much sex there was in the show. And for awhile I was dating a woman with a nine year old, and I was keenly aware that there was nothing we wanted to watch together except, bizarrely, “Shark Tank.” So I referenced “Family Ties” and I think what was in our minds were all of those shows I grew up on — the shows that after dinner we’d watch before we went to bed. And I think that’s where there’s still room for content. And I’m not just saying this because they’ve been good to me in my career, but I really think ABC does that best. If you look at “Black-ish” and “Modern Family” and “The Middle” and “The Goldbergs,” I think that’s what we thought about. “Let’s be funny but let’s be PG.” We’re not dumbing it down for kids, but it’s not something you’re going to feel awkward being around with them.
Recently revivals have become quite a trend. What are your feelings on someday revisiting “Scrubs”?
We might do a TV movie — we daydream about that. We’re all doing so many different things that we love, so the idea of going back and signing a long contract doing years and years of “Scrubs” is not on our minds. What’s more realistic is Bill and I are very close and we often laugh about what would it look like to do a two-hour movie — like what “Psych” did.
Or you could bring cast members onto “Alex, Inc.”
I plan to! I really want to do that, but we only had 10 [episodes] and I didn’t want to confuse the audience by having all of my posse from “Scrubs” come on right away, but it goes without saying that if it comes back we’ll try to get [people] on.
Watch Braff behind-the-scenes below:
“Alex, Inc” premieres Mar. 28 at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.