When we sit down at a Manhattan bar, Zach Braff tells the waitress that we'll have two beers. This I didn't know about. On our way out, he gives a smooth Jersey nod to a table of college-age women. His laugh is so loud, explosive and startlingly self-assured that it's normally heard only from aliens pretending to be human. Braff exudes more confidence than Donald Rumsfeld in 2003.
The lead in NBC's hit hospital sitcom Scrubs had the cockiness to write and star in his directorial debut, Garden State (which opens July 28). The film is a love song to suburban New Jersey that is so smart and touching, Bruce Springsteen might be able to retire soon. "I kind of wanted it to suck. I wanted it to be a big, noble failure," says Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence, who will have Braff, 29, direct some episodes this season. "I was extremely jealous. I might have to put myself on the show as an actor to even the playing field."
For years Braff kept meticulous notebooks of overheard stories, personal experiences, friends' lives and local newspaper clippings (thus saving from being lost to history the tale of the Jersey hotel workers who drilled holes in the walls to watch guests have sex). He used them in a romantic comedy about a young, depressed Hollywood actor who comes home to his mother's funeral, confronts his father and meets a woman. He wrote the script in 2000 while working as a waiter in Los Angeles after graduating from Northwestern, where he majored in film. "Almost everyone had passed on it," he says of his script. "They all said, 'Make it a three-actstructure movie.' If I submitted it to a screenwriting class, I would have failed. It should have been harder for the main characters to start liking each other. And I said, 'Why can't they like each other from the beginning?'"
Eventually Braff got Danny DeVito's Jersey Films to co-produce it, partly by trading on the fact that the company had never made a film about its eponymous state. Then he got Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm, Jean Smart and Method Man to be in it. At Sundance he sold it to Miramax and Fox Searchlight for a $5 million distribution deal. "He's a very confident guy. To be a director, that's what you have to do," says Portman, 23. "He demands confidence in others. You just have to talk back."
As preparation, Braff had Portman watch one of his favorite films, Harold and Maude. Like that movie, Garden State quickly establishes an off-kilter tone, using odd pacing and such surrealistic touches as the giant pet cemetery in Portman's character's backyard to create a marijuana-like haze between the main character and his surroundings. "I love stuff that's totally realistic, then dips across the line," he says. "Sometimes I crossed the line."