Zach Braff may be best known to audiences as the star of NBC’s hit comedy series “Scrubs,” but the twenty-nine year old studied at the film school of Northwestern University and has just completed the hat trick of writing, directing and starring in his own first feature, “Garden State.” As Braff explained during a recent Dallas interview, the fact that in his senior year at Northwestern he won a grant that allowed him to direct a 25-minute short with a full crew was important in helping him make his new film. “I sent the short to Natalie [Portman] and Peter [Sarsgaard] and Ian [Holm], and them liking it gave them the trust that I could pull it off,” he said.

The “Garden State,” of course, is New Jersey, where the story of a dour, over-medicated young man named Largeman, or Large for short (Braff), who, when returning home for his mother’s funeral, reconnects with a slacker buddy (Sarsgaard) from his high school days and finds unlikely romance with a free-spirited gamin (Portman)–though he fails to communicate with his estranged father (Holm)–is set. “It’s where I grew up,” Braff said, “where I spent the first eighteen years of my life. And in the spirit of writing what you know, I thought I’d tell a story that isn’t specific to New Jersey but is focused there, because that’s what I knew….One of the things I wanted to show [is that] New Jersey is a beautiful, beautiful state. Obviously it has urban industrial areas,…and what a lot of people see of New Jersey is the area around Newark Airport, but I grew up in a very lush suburbia with parks and reservations, and the joke of New Jersey never made any sense to me. I wanted to show how pretty the state actually is.”

But “Garden State” is hardly a travelogue–it’s a quirky coming-of-age story about a young man finally liberating himself from the dark effects of his unhappy childhood with more than a little help from his friends. Braff wrote the script over a long time, part recollection and part imagination. “It started with just anecdotes,” he explained. “Growing up I would just write stuff down–something funny would happen and I’d write it down on a napkin or matchbook or something. I’d just throw them in the drawer. When I went to film school I just had this huge box of stories. Sometimes these were things that were in the newspaper…and sometimes they were just things my friends did….It started there, and then I just began free-writing the movie and not really knowing how it was going to unfold, but using those as sort of guidelines or signposts.”

Braff noted that many of the characters are based on actual people, but not slavishly so. He pointed to two of Largeman’s old friends–Sarsgaard’s Mark and Denis O’Hare’s Albert–as examples. “The two guys are based on people I know, but not anyone specific–[they’re] sort of a conglomeration of different people.” Albert, a fellow who’s become fabulously wealthy by inventing a silent version of Velcro, is a particular audience favorite. “I thought, oh wow, imagine if you came into a hundred million dollars at, like, twenty-two–you’d be a little bit lost. The whole point of this country would be sort of thrown on its head, and you wouldn’t know what to do. Thar’s why I kept this character that has more money than he could ever imagine he ever would and is completely bored and lonesome ‘cause he has no idea what his life’s going to be about now.” The company that makes Velcro, surprisingly, agreed to let the filmmakers use the name, but there was one proviso. “We weren’t allowed to say ‘annoying,’ [as in] ‘annoying Velcro sound,’” Braff said, laughing.

Asked whether he’d always intended to both direct and act in “Garden State,” Braff replied, “Directing was first and foremost what I wanted to do. I wavered on acting in it. But eventually I thought, you know, in the spirit of the movie, life is short, and there are people willing to give me a shot at this–it would be sort of wimpy for me not to just go for it. I thought as an actor if I hadn’t written it, I never would have gotten the chance–ten people would have been offered the part before I ever got a chance to read for it. So I just felt like where I was in a position where I could give myself a big break, and I wanted to go for it.”

As to the actual shooting of the picture on a limited 25-day schedule, Braff said, “I storyboarded every frame of the movie. I had a very specific way that I wanted to shoot the movie. I wanted the film to be very static. I’m an amateur photographer myself, so I love composition, and my favorite filmmakers are those that really use the camera not just to document what’s going on, but have it be a character in and of itself. And also be still enough to let the acting speak for itself, and instead of trying to augment the emotion that’s going on, just letting the camera be still and letting the actors act. I hate shaky-cam, so there’s not a single hand-held shot in the movie, and only one or two steady-cam shots. I wanted the film to mimic how Large was feeling, so I wanted it to be very still, so when the camera does move I took it to extremes with these huge crane moves [as] moments of release in the film. And I thought that if it worked out right, they would really stand out even more because the film had been so still and static.”

Braff especially appreciated a comparison a questioner made to “American Beauty,” a picture he greatly admires, and which in some respects he was trying to emulate with “Garden State.” He said, “One of the things that I took from it most was the tone, in that you can have a movie that is incredibly dark and about really sad, lonesome things, but you can have a smile on your face the whole time. And that’s what I set out to do–to make a movie about some very painful things, but…to make it so that most of the time you’ve got a smile on your face.”

From the reviews that “Garden State” has been getting, Braff has pretty clearly succeeded in that.