Real interviews about real love…or not: Charlyne Yi and Jake Johnson talk about “Paper Heart”


Charlyne Yi is one talented woman. Not only is she the lead actress in new “half documentary / half romantic comedy” film Paper Heart, she also co-wrote it, executive produced it, and co-wrote the original music. Yi may not be a household name yet, but many probably remember her as the lone female stoner amongst the many stoner guys in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, and she has been performing standup comedy around the United States and Canada for the past few years.

In Paper Heart, Yi plays herself and is skeptical about love. She doesn’t believe in love, but wants to know if love really exists. She sets off across the US, Paris, and Canada with a camera crew, in search of what love is. Yi, along with director and good friend Nicholas Jasenovec, asked different people in their journey from their movie friends (Seth Rogen, Martin Starr) to complete strangers, college professors, romance novelists, and bikers, all of whom offer different meanings of what love represents. When Charlyne goes to a party with Nicholas one night, she runs into actor Michael Cera (Superbad, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) playing a fictional version of Michael Cera—or not, similar to Yi’s performance—and soon their friendship blossoms into something you could actually call a relationship. As the camera crew grows closer and closer to Yi’s and Cera’s relationship, Yi begins to wonder if she has been struck by Cupid’s arrow and has fallen in love.

Yi and actor Jake Johnson (Redbelt), who plays director Nicolas Jasenovec in the film, were in Minneapolis last week and have been out on the road with the film, talking to fans and the press. They have been enjoying their second trek across the country, this time promoting Paper Heart, which opened last Friday at the Lagoon Cinema. Both of them were laughing and smiling throughout my brief time with them after the screening. They were in good spirits, just thrilled to be talking about the film.

Jim Brunzell: There are puppets in this film, but why is the film called Paper Heart?

Charlyne Yi: Originally, after the breakup scene there is a recreation with puppets that have a paper heart and it splits into two, which is Michael and me and it went through beats of our love story but it was really depressing. It was also in stop-motion animation versus using puppets, and that didn’t work tone-wise. There was a difference in the stop-motion animation and the puppets that didn’t feel right, so that was cut. We were going to change the name but we ended up not doing that since I like the title more now, because it was too literal and there was a paper heart in the movie and we were planning on changing because of that reason, but afterwards we couldn’t think of anything else. We like the sound of the title after everything. I mean the two words together: paper and heart.

Jake Johnson: The movie is through Charlyne’s eyes and so there is something very vulnerable about Charlyne as a character in the movie. That’s why I like the name.

The film won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance. Did you expect this kind of success now that the film has played around since Sundance?

Charlyne Yi: I didn’t expect any of this. All we knew was that it was going straight to DVD [after Sundance and] maybe a friends and family screening in New York and L.A, so at least we knew that those people would see it and it’ll have a life on DVD.

Jake Johnson: The movie feels like “the little engine that could” because it just keeps going. At each step, we feel like that’s going to be it. We were all excited about Sundance and then a screening in New York and then L.A. and then DVD, that’s great. And then all of a sudden something else comes up and it keeps going, and we’re having a lot of fun. We just don’t know when it’s going to end.

Charlyne Yi: Or when it gets released, what the reaction is going to be and if the film will expand and if they [the theaters] will keep it or if it will vanish…I have no idea what will happen, but I hope people like it.

Has this promotional tour has been fun? Have you learned a lot about the film or about yourself?

Charlyne Yi: It has been really fun and so surprising to see how many people like the film and want to talk to us after the screenings. There have been some people who are really honest who’ll tell us that they didn’t like or we’ll say, “It was all right.”

Jake Johnson: At Sundance it didn’t feel like this. There were a lot of questions about what the movie was about; everything was focused on what was real and what wasn’t. Are they a couple or not? And the audiences now get that it’s just a movie and they are having fun with it and that it’s just for entertainment.

In the movie, you travel across the US, Europe, and Canada interviewing different people. Did the casting director know what to expect since the film is a hybrid of half documentary, half fiction? How tough was it for the scouting director to find the right people to have on camera?

Charlyne Yi: All the people we interviewed were real and they were all first takes because there was no script, so you really got their first answers. Like with anything, they were pre-interviewed and so they knew what they wanted to talk about and they were so excited to talk to us and we edited around the little flaws.

Jake Johnson: There was no coaching at all with any of the subjects. There were long interviews and we interviewed some people for two hours to get 45 seconds or five minutes. But most of the time, they would go on tangents and we would let them go and there would be those long lulls in between where the camera would keep going too.

Charlyne Yi: There was something about me, at times, not being a good interviewer, where they would lend themselves—take the train and drive it. They knew what they wanted to say and they had all the stories, I didn’t know how to pull it off. Sometimes after the first half hour, I got all the questions out, and they were more natural just talking to the camera and really opening up.

You were able to get Seth Rogen and Martin Starr to appear. Did you just tell them the concept and what you were doing with the film and they went along with it?

Charlyne Yi: Well, those were all real interviews too and they are our friends. We didn’t end up using any of their love stories because they weren’t as interesting. It didn’t feel right to the rest of the stories and as genuine compared to the rest of the stories, but we used them to set up Charlyne’s story.

Jake Johnson: Like with the Martin story, we shot for two hours while he was out on a date. There was a whole bowling thing, there was a lot of stuff and there was an original scene that was like six minutes long that I really liked, but when the movie keeps getting trimmed down, it just didn’t really fit.

Charlyne Yi: We did shoot bits—when I was with Demetri [comedian Demetri Martin], that was more of a bit. I told him to be mean to me and we have this thing on YouTube of all the takes being mean to me. There was a scene with Bill Hader that we cut out, that one was a bit too, but we were experimenting and not knowing what the tone of the film was then.

By going across the country, did you find that people in certain cities were more open about their love life than people in other cities?

Charlyne Yi: I don’t think the location dictated what kind of people they were because everyone had to sign up. They weren’t forced to do it and they wanted to tell their story. I think everyone was so proud of their love story they wanted to be chosen, they were very open to saying what they wanted.

Jake Johnson: There was something very universal about love, but in some cities we had a lot more fun than in other cities and some people were more open to us. But we find, once they were talking about their own love, it was a universal thing, and everything seem connected. Like the couple in New York felt like a couple in Little Rock: it felt the same, there was no difference when they were talking about love, but anything else they talked about would be absolutely different.

How was it scoring music for the film? Did you always have in mind that you wanted to write music for the film?

Charlyne Yi: With the music, Michael and I write music separately and we would send stuff to all of our friends and one of them was Nick, who was like, “Wow, this stuff is really good.” Michael and I had never done instrumental music and we were venturing into that and Nick came back and said, “Why don’t you guys score the film?” It also lent itself to the whole handmade feel of the film with the puppets and it would help with Charlyne’s perspective. It helped with the tone too. But also, we couldn’t afford popular music.

Jake Johnson: I think the music is actually a big part of the tone of the movie. For me, when I hear the soundtrack I actually get a feeling for the movie.

Charlyne Yi: It’s weird. We had never done anything like this before—how the music dictates some emotions for the puppet reenactment it felt more whimsical. Whenever there was a saw playing it was kind of like re-verbing, which it totally enhances it. Or if you try different songs with it, we found out that it didn’t really work.

I saw that you were on The Soup last week and you’re in Minneapolis tonight. What’s left of this tour before the film opens next Friday?

Jake Johnson: She’s closing the tour by going on Conan O’Brien.

Charlyne Yi: And Jimmy Fallon.

Jake Johnson: And then the movie opens.

Jim Brunzell III ( writes on film for the Daily Planet and hosts KFAI’s Movie Talk.

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