Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Miramax Films and Fox Searchlight Pictures ponied up $5 million for Garden State," by Zach Braff.

PARK CITY — It isn't the comparisons to Woody Allen that bother Zach Braff — it's that they're coming already.

"I just directed my first movie," Braff said. "I think there's a longer waiting period to get a gun than there has been for this."

Continuing the Woody Allen comparison, he jokingly added, "Though I'm wondering if they're actually making a statement about my off-beat good looks."

"Garden State" is the first movie written and directed by the 28-year-old Braff, best-known as the star of the TV sitcom "Scrubs," and it has become one of the biggest hits at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. In fact, Miramax Films and Fox Searchlight Pictures joined forces to pick up its distribution rights — for $5 million, which is the biggest marketing deal so far at this year's festival.

Braff also stars in the film as Andrew Largeman, or "Large," a struggling twentysomething actor who returns to New Jersey for his mother's funeral and falls in love with the similarly neurotic Samantha (Natalie Portman).

Though much of Large is obviously based on Braff himself, other parts of the story are a "composite" of experiences and tales been accumulating since his days in Northwestern University's film school. Ironically, he trained as a filmmaker at Northwestern, but, upon graduation, he started making a name for himself as a comedic actor, starting with a minor role in Woody Allen's "Manhattan Murder Mystery" in 1993

"Ah, yes, there's that Woody Allen connection again," Braff said. "Actually, it's really flattering to get all the comparisons. The thing I've always loved about his movies is how he's able to speak for an entire generation. I hope someday I'm able to do that."

He said he also hopes to emulate Allen in another way, using of a repertory group of actors who would appear regularly in his films. For example, Braff said that he would like to work with Portman and his other "Garden State" co-stars Peter Sarsgaard and Ian Holm again.

The feeling's mutual, at least coming from Sarsgaard. "Zach's one of those people who makes it easy to work with them. He's a natural at this, someone who's only going to get better with time."

Both men were "blown away" by the reaction the film has gotten at the festival. "We really didn't know how people would react to it," Braff said. "Obviously, we were really fond of our little movie. But when (festival director Geoff Gilmore) called us to say he loved it, we knew we might really have something here."

Still, both Braff and Sarsgaard have one complaint about the festival — the parties. "Oh, man, they just suck so bad," Braff said. "Even I can't get into most of them. I keep saying, 'Don't you know who I am?' And the people at the door just look at me with a blank face like, 'And you are . . . ?' "

"Frankly, we've had more fun partying in our condo," Sarsgaard said. "At least there are real people there and not all these pseudo-show-biz phonies."

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