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The dark humour and acute observations of Garden State come from its creator’s vision of the world – a dark place, nothing like the world of Scrubs on television, where Zach Braff has made his name. His debut as writer/director, Garden State, gives him a chance to articulate that sense of uncertainty of the late 20 year olds, as he tells Andrew L. Urban.

The studios in Hollywood were passing on Zach Braff’s debut feature script, Garden State, for exactly the same reasons that actors like Ian Holm, Natalie Portman and Peter Sarsgaard were keen to sign on: “It has no guns, no major explosions and the characters do a lot of talking,” says Braff by way of explanation. “Actors love that.” He should know: he’s a seriously funny actor with a significant profile through his role as a somewhat goofy Dr John ‘JD’ Dorian, on the TV series, Scrubs.

Braff, 30 in April 2005, wanted to write a screenplay about the conundrums, fears and insecurities of a modern 20 something guy in America. “It’s not a new idea,” he says, “but it hasn’t been well articulated in films recently.” It wasn’t until his agent sent the script to Danny De Vito’s company, Jersey Films, that the project began to gather financing speed. “Jersey Films knew where and how to get it financed,” says Braff. The US$2.5 million budget was harder to raise than if it had been US$50 million; it’s a highly specialised job, making low budget films in America.

"a lot in common with its creator – psychologically, not literally"

Inspired “by lots of stories when I was growing up,” the film is set in his home state of New Jersey (‘The Garden State’) and its central character has a lot in common with its creator – psychologically, not literally.

Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) returns to his New ‘Garden State’ Jersey home for the funeral of his mother, after yet another phone call from his father (Ian Holm) whose calls he never returns. Andrew is a mid-range tv actor in Los Angeles these days, and on his return, his few old friends gather round. Until now, Andrew has been taking a vast array of lithium-based pills, prescribed by his psychiatrist father, since he was 9, when in a fit of frustration with his depressed mother, he gave her a shove, which sent her flying over the faulty door of the dishwasher and broke her neck. The pills have kept him in a state of emotional and intellectual limbo, and he takes a break from them for the funeral. Simultaneously, at a party with his friends, he meets Sam (Natalie Portman), whose offbeat personality and natural warmth give Andrew a new look at the joyous pains of life.

If the synopsis, above, reads solemn and unlikely ground for comedy, that’s because Braff’s view of life is rather dark. The film is, indeed, dark, but it’s wry humour and well observed characters make it a mature work, considering this is the film that loses Braff’s directorial virginity. He found the acting and directing tasks a challenge but he’d do it again, “although perhaps I wouldn’t put myself in every scene,” he adds with a wry grin.

He admits he’s attracted to dark comedy; “that’s how I experience the world… but that doesn’t mean I’m depressed. I’m the guy who, at a funeral, will notice the two workmen 20 yards away on a tractor puffing impatiently on their cigarettes waiting for the mourners to leave so they can bury the coffin and finish up…”

Braff has come to Sydney to promote Garden State, and we’re talking just hours before he attends the premiere. In the hotel room overlooking the Woolloomooloo waterfront, he’s dressed like anyone might be in the streets of Sydney, a nonchalant air trying to insinuate itself over the jetlag that is making him yawn. (I assume it’s the jetlag, not me…)

“I love directing,” he continues, “I love working with creative people, I love collaborating on the wardrobe, the music, the production design…I’m not at all dictatorial.” Portman Holm can attest to that: “He’s got an amazingly confident way about him without being dictatorial,” says Portman. “Zach’s a brilliant young director,” says Holm.

But Braff loves acting, too: “I always think of acting as adjusting the volume dials on different aspects of your personality. In Garden State I turn up the introspective and pensive dial, while in Scrubs, I have the goofy dial up.”

"I had always fantasised about a character nicknamed Large, - especially if he wasn’t."

The name of Braff’s character, Andrew Largeman, comes from a long way back, when Braff was at high school, and nicknames were de rigeur. “I had always fantasised about a character nicknamed Large, - especially if he wasn’t. So I worked backwards and wondered what his name would be…” Large is the straight man in Garden State, and he sets the tone. Braff wanted the audience “to be sitting on Large’s shoulder and seeing it all from his point of view. I wanted the audience to feel as though they were on his medication and experience his world….and then gradually see how the medication wears off and reality fades in.”

The film begins with a scene in a plane, Large sitting in the middle as passengers all around him shriek and panic, the plane tosses and churns. “Stress always gives me nightmares,” he says, “and mostly they’re about plane crashes…and I had to quickly establish how Large is, before he goes on his trip home. Then he wakes up… and then when the story ends at the airport, Large realises that he’s about to do what he always does – the safe and comfortable, instead of taking action - now.”

In his contract with Scrubs, Braff gets five months off every year, and in March 2006, he hopes to be directing a film again. Garden State has opened a lot of doors, although he’s knocking back 99% of the scripts he is sent. He doesn’t need a quick payday, thanks to Scrubs, so he can be selective. On his next break, in March 2005, he will star in a remake of The Last Kiss (Gabriele Muccino, 2003). “It’s a perfect follow up to Garden State,” he says smiling, “as I hit 30… Garden State was about being lost in your 20s, this is about which road to take as a 30 something….” 

Published December 2, 2004

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