There is a particularly telling scene early in "Garden State" that captures the strange world between obscurity and celebrity to which young Hollywood hopefuls often find themselves relegated. The film's writer-director, Zach Braff, who also stars as Andrew Largeman, a doped-up struggling actor working at a Vietnamese restaurant in L.A., knows the moment well -- he lived it not that long ago.
An actor since adolescence (he was in high school when he had a featured part in Woody Allen's 1993 "Manhattan Murder Mystery"), he moved to Los Angeles after college and in 2000 had a role in the romantic comedy "The Broken Hearts Club." Here, let Braff tell the rest.
"I was working at Le Coloniel on Beverly before it closed and my film 'The Broken Hearts Club' was showing at the Sunset 5 and people would come to the restaurant after seeing the movie and I'd wait on them. They'd say, 'I saw your movie.' 'Oh, cool.' They'd say, 'We really liked it,' and I'd say, 'Oh thank you, thank you very much, and let me tell you about our specials. We have the cod ...' "
It was a humbling experience for Braff, but it made good material for his film. He started working on the script in the four-month period in 2000 after he was cast as J.D. on "Scrubs," where he is the star, comic foil and emotional heart of the NBC hit comedy.
Those lean times also helped prepare Braff for the indie film world. While "Scrubs" attracts more than 10 million viewers per week, making it one of NBC's top comedies, and although his script became a hot property -- particularly after Natalie Portman was attached as his costar -- he still couldn't assemble the $4-million budget for the film. It was only when he whittled the cost down to $2.5 million that investor Gary Gilbert finally just wrote the check himself, ensuring Braff the final cut he wanted.
"In TV, there are so many chefs in the kitchen, between the network and the studios," Braff noted. "I was amazed at how much freedom I was given on the film. Once we got the financing, they basically just let me go.
"I remember the first day of shooting, and the executive producer saw the dailies.... He said to me, 'You know, you can shoot more film. You can shoot close-ups.' "
When it began to generate buzz at the Sundance Film Festival early this year, Fox Searchlight and Miramax quickly bought the rights to distribute it (Searchlight is handling it in the U.S.). Since the film hit theaters Wednesday, it has grossed $267,000 in nine locations, fine for an art-house opening but barely registering against No. 1-ranked "The Village," with an estimated $50.8 million its first weekend.
Labor of love
"Garden State" is a dark comedy -- emphasis on the dark -- about the struggles young adults face as they enter their 20s. As Braff explains it, he wanted to make his feature writing and directing debut with something that was intensely personal for him.
"If my first film was something I had no relation to, I think it would be too hard to be as passionate and thus harder to deal with every single door in town getting closed in my face," Braff says.
"Garden State" tracks four days in the life of Largeman, a young actor who returns to his New Jersey home for the first time in a decade, for his mother's funeral and for his own rites of self-evaluation.
He reconnects with some aimless friends -- particularly Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), now a grave-digger; confronts his distant, controlling psychiatrist father (Ian Holm); and meets quirky, uninhibited Samantha (Portman), who has all the spontaneity Large (as he's called) lacks. Key details about his life, and his nearly lifelong reliance on Lithium, emerge along the way.
And that's pretty much it. The tall, engaging 29-year-old, who studied writing and directing as well as acting at Northwestern University, purposely avoided the three-act structure that shows up in nearly every studio film. Instead, he opted for a more improvisational feel.
"Garden State" had just the sensibility Portman was looking for. Like Braff, she wanted a role that was markedly different from her signature part, that of Padme Amidala in the current "Star Wars" trilogy.
"I read the script and it was like no other part I'd had the opportunity to play," Portman said, "someone so uninhibited and unreserved and lets all her flaws shine. That was really exciting to do, and liberating. I'm a pretty inhibited person myself. I try not to be, but years of adolescence train you to be embarrassed about everything that's weird about you.... A lot of what this movie's about is how can you be different and find your unique place in the world."