Star of hit TV comedy gets serious in film-writing debut


August 08, 2004|By Jonathan Taylor | Jonathan Taylor,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOLLYWOOD - 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 Los Angeles, 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 ... 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 a 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 about medical interns.

Those lean times also helped prepare Braff for the indie-film world. While Scrubs attracts more than 10 million viewers a 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 co-star - 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 said. "I was amazed at how much freedom I was given on the film. Once we got the financing, they basically just let me go."

When the film began to generate buzz at the Sundance Film Festival early this year, Fox Searchlight and Miramax quickly bought the rights to distribute it. The film, which opened in a few theaters late last month (it is scheduled to open Aug. 20 in Baltimore), grossed $267,000 in its opening week. That's fine for an art-house opening, but barely registered against No. 1-ranked The Village, which earned an estimated $50.8 million its first weekend.

Four days in a life

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; confronts his distant, controlling father; and meets quirky, uninhibited Samantha (Portman). Details about his life emerge along the way.

And that's pretty much it. Braff, a 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.

Taking tips from TV

It might seem an odd transition to move from a broad, physical comedy like Scrubs to a small, personal story like Garden State. But, if anything, Braff found Scrubs a master class.

"Let's not talk about sitcoms; let's talk about a single-camera half-hour show that's shot like a film and in fact is more like a low-budget indie film because you shoot so fast," says Braff. "I think of it as film grad school: We have a different director every week, we shoot a short film in five days . ... "

Bill Lawrence, who created and produces Scrubs, had no inkling his star was an aspiring filmmaker when he first came in to audition.

"It was funny, because we knew him as an actor," said Lawrence, who jokingly refers to Braff as "my new young diva." "So it was very easy to be very condescending about his writing when we learned about it. Then I saw the movie, along with some of the writers, and we were prepared for our supportive `great try' speech.

"I'm annoyed it was so good; it's very upsetting."

Braff is getting set to begin the fourth season of Scrubs. He's also going to turn up on the big screen next year in a very un-Garden State film, as the title voice in Disney's animated Chicken Little.

As for his next writing-directing project, Braff said he's in no hurry.

"I'm lucky I have Scrubs, because I want to do a lot more acting. I think I'll wait until I find something I'm as passionate about before I make my next film."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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