BOSTON — He's been collecting the stories since high school, penning observations about the world around him in the hopes of writing them into a script some day.
The scenes are very personal. A poolside conversation about the meaning of home; confrontations with a pathological liar; standing over a cliff and screaming into the infinite abyss.
But Zach Braff, best known for his role as J.D. in NBC's offbeat TV series "Scrubs," didn't realize those moments would make their debut so soon: The recent Northwestern University film-school grad has written, directed, and starred in "The Garden State," one of the most anticipated independent films of the summer.
"I just wanted to make a movie about what it felt like to be in your 20s today, without doing it in a really silly way," says Mr. Braff, looking disheveled but full of intent after a day of back-to-back interviews in his anonymous Ritz Carlton hotel room in downtown Boston. "Like 'Reality Bites,' and before that films like 'Harold and Maude' and 'The Graduate' - those are movies I [wanted] this one to be like."
Braff's main character in the film - Large, a struggling actor in L.A. who, on a trip home to New Jersey for his mother's funeral, decides it is time to wake up from his nearly lifelong lithium-induced coma - is based largely on his own life.
The actor, who launched his career as a teen when he played Woody Allen and Diane Keaton's son in 1993's "Manhattan Murder Mystery," studied directing at film school. Ever since then, he has wanted to tell the story of what it is to discover the meaning of home, and to come to terms with pain and loneliness instead of medicating oneself into numb acceptance.
In one scene, Large and Sam (played by Natalie Portman), an awkward but adorable pathological liar, are sitting in a pool at a friend's party, their faces illuminated by the rippling light beneath. Large explains what it is like to come home from an extended absence and realize that home is not some fixed, permanent thing - that it lies within the bonds of a family, and perhaps within their collective imagination.
"Maybe that's all a family really is - a group of people who miss the same imaginary place," he tells her.
That the young and largely unknown Braff was able to pull together such a reputable cast - Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, and Ian Holm, to name a few - is a testament to the script, which Braff says convinced each actor to sign on. "We were shocked that every person we asked pretty much said yes," he says. "And Natalie is just so lovable. You fall in love with her in this movie."
Some of the more notable scenes are visual masterpieces that Braff has envisioned for years. In one scene, Large tries on a shirt his aunt made and finds himself blending in with the bathroom wallpaper. In another, Sam sits fully clothed with Large in an empty bathtub, holding a cup to his eye to catch the first tear he has shed in 20 years. And then there's the key moment when Large, Sam, and a friend stand on a cliff edge, their bodies drenched in a downpour, as they scream as loudly as they can.
"I feel like your teens are your body's puberty, and your 20s are your mind's puberty," Braff says, leaning forward so that he's framed by a halo of light from the window behind him. "Everyone can relate to feeling lost and feeling lonesome and feeling like you're long overdue for a new chapter in your life."
Even though "Garden State" is tailored toward 20-somethings - the soundtrack, for instance, includes recent hit bands Frou Frou, Coldplay, and the Shins - Braff is delighted so many viewers are connecting to the movie.
"I had a reporter here today who must have been 70 years old, and she started to talk about the scene in the bathtub with the cup and her eyes welled up," he says. "It's just so great for me. I'm excited that it's reaching people on a deeper level."