“I wanted to make a smart love story for young people, and I wanted to make a movie that got across the genuine feeling of what it’s like to come home,” says Zach Braff, the writer, director and star of GARDEN STATE.
To do that, Braff felt he needed to abandon the traditional three-act Hollywood movie structure taught in screenwriting classes. “I got tired of watching movies with the same outline, where X needed to happen 30 minutes in, or else,” he says. "So many films follow that structure because it's so hard to get a movie made if it doesn't."
Instead, Braff created a film in which events unfold “as they would if you’re this guy who comes home all of a sudden. You run into people you once knew, you hang out with them. Then maybe you never see them again. In the case of my character, he also buries his mother and falls in love. A lot happens in this one weekend.”
GARDEN STATE is a comedy, but as Braff’s co-star Natalie Portman observes, “It also has a heart. A lot of funny stuff these days is so cynical, but there’s nothing cynical about this movie. It’s untraditional and unlike anything I’d ever seen before. That’s what made it exciting.”
In a larger sense, the film is about the awkward period between adolescence and adulthood. "I remember when I went away to college, I was so ready to get out of New Jersey," says Braff. "But when I got to school I was completely homesick, even though I didn't feel like the house I grew up in was my home anymore. So I was missing a place that didn't really exist. When you become an adult, your job is to create the concept of home for yourself and your children."
Braff, who plays Dr. John "J.D." Dorian on the NBC sitcom “Scrubs,” originally came up with the idea for a film homage to his native New Jersey while still in college. Over the years he collected anecdotes and wrote scenes here and there, but it wasn't until 2000 that he finally sat down and banged out a draft of GARDEN STATE in three months.
"I originally called the film LARGE'S ARK," says Braff. "I always liked the biblical story of Noah's Ark, the idea of some great power starting the world again. For me, the idea was that Large himself is trying to begin anew. He's trying to rescue all the parts of himself that he likes and start a whole new chapter of his life, the way Noah put the animals and people on the ark and saved them from the apocalypse and started again. He's trying to find his ark."
Pamela Abdy, a former executive at Jersey Films, the production company owned by Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher, says of her first reading of the script: “I finished reading GARDEN STATE and I had the most desperate need to meet the person it came from. I knew it was special, and even though I had a meeting with Zach the next day I wanted to get in my car right then and find him.”
Richard Klubeck and Jersey Films subsequently signed on as producers of GARDEN STATE, followed by Gary Gilbert and Dan Halsted's Camelot Pictures, who also provided financing for the film. “We read the script and loved it," says Gilbert, "and after meeting Zach and hearing his vision for the film, and getting a sense of his passion for the project, we were in."