Bear with me a moment: Paper Heart (opening in limited-release August 7) is a movie about a girl who doesn’t believe in love falling in love while making a documentary about falling in love. Pleasantly confused yet? The girl is Charlyne Yi, an LA-based comedian (and Michael Cera’s girlfriend), and the playful mix of fact and fiction is half of the fun of her writing/producing debut. The other? Watching the puppets that her dad helped her make act out the real life love stories she collected while traveling cross-country, shooting the documentary portions of the film.
Flavorpill: One of my favorite parts about this film is the real people stories. Did you have to shoot multiple takes to get those right?
Charlyne Yi: We actually didn’t do anything more than once, because it would have felt like they were acting. Luckily, we just got everything we needed. I don’t know, it’s strange. We were talking about how much more natural they seemed on camera than me. I would stutter, or look uncomfortable, or look right at the camera.
FP: Was it weird for you interviewing people about such personal stuff?
CY: Oh it was very weird. Ever since I can remember I’ve been really bad — like right now, I’m really bad at talking. [laughs] I’ve always been really nervous, no matter what. Every job interview I’ve had, I sucked at. It’s really hard for me to get jobs. When we signed up to do this, it’s not until we got to the first person’s house that I started having a freak out. I told my director, Nick [Jasenovec], “I don’t know how to talk! How am I going to make them feel comfortable enough to open up to me?” Luckily, I think they all felt sorry for me. They became the person who was driving the whole conversation. It was really nice.
FP: I know at first you were planning to stay off camera. How did they convince you to act in this?
CY: I was fine with being on camera documenting other people, but Nick wanted me to really go on dates and meet people. And I was like, no way would I ever sign up to expose myself in that manner. Nor would I feel comfortable. It would not come off naturally. So when we agreed it would be more of a narrative, with a plot — scripted in a sense — I felt more comfortable with putting a version of myself out there. I liked the fact that I would essentially be acting for that part [of the film], and then I’d be myself when I interviewed people.
FP: Did that make watching it weird for you?
CY: It wasn’t only weird, it was really obnoxious. [laughs] I can’t stand my own voice. When I talk right now, I’m kind of getting a headache. [laughs] I saw the film over 150 times in order to edit it, and it made me very biased. It made me not like myself. I’m not insecure or anything, I just don’t prefer to watch myself.
FP: The parts of the film that weren’t planned — the scenes on a playground in Atlanta and a biker bar in Texas — are some of the best material. Why do you think that is?
CY: Both of those situations were probably the most threatening to be in. With the kids, we were playing tag with them, and I was glad because they were becoming comfortable. But then they were attacking me and pushing me. [laughs] It was like, they think I’m one of them! When they find out that I’m not, what’s going to happen? With the bikers, it was like, oh, they like me. But things started to turn. Other people in the bar were getting upset that we weren’t interviewing them, too. Both of those situations were really, really fun and exciting. We got good moments with the people, but it was very scary.
FP: Had you ever ridden a motorcycle before?
CY: Once, when I was little kid, but I don’t really remember it. When Jester asked me to ride with him in the movie, the producers were like, “No! No!” I was like, “Bye guys, I gotta go!” I was really, really excited. When I got on, Jester was like, “The speedometer is rattling. That’s probably not supposed to happen.” I was terrified. I had envisioned that when I hopped onto the motorcycle, the cameras would follow me. When that didn’t happen, I was like, “I’m never going to see them again. And there’s not going to be footage of me dying either.”
FP: Your director, Nick, is played by an actor, Jake Johnson. Was that weird for Nick?
CY: No. I think that he was more comfortable that way. It’s also not really a version of him, it just holds his name. Jake and Nick created the character of Nick. When we were coming up with the original idea of me playing a version of myself, I asked Nick, “Well, what about you?” And he was like, “I don’t really feel comfortable.” Originally the company wanted him to play himself. Part of the thing that we liked about someone else playing Nick — besides the fact that Nick is kind of a bad actor — was the fact that once we got to the credits it would say, “Nick Jasenovec played by Jake Johnson.” It be an unveiling that it wasn’t a true documentary — partly true, but not really. We liked the idea of that. Plus, we really love Jake. He’s a great actor. We knew that he could pull it off.
FP: Were you surprised to win the Sundance award for screenwriting?
CY: So surprised. We heard that we were winning an award, because I had left town and they flew me back in. But we didn’t know what award. When they we got to the ceremony, one of the first awards they announced was the Audience Award and we were looking at each other and smiling. And it wasn’t us. We were like, “What else? What could we win? The Dramatic Award? Oh my! Are you serious?” But then that was announced, and it wasn’t us. I was like, “They didn’t fly me out here for cinematography, right?” I mean, it would be great for our Director of Photography, but… We didn’t get that. Then it was the Screenwriting Award, and we were like, “Yeah, right. What script?” And we won.
We were so perplexed and surprised. We asked the judges, “How did this happen?” I think they were laughing at us, because we were holding our award and shaking. Like, “What’s going on?” I know Mike White told some paper that the jury gave us the award because they’re punk rock. We shot over 300 hours of footage. Part of the writing was a five-page outline, but also writing on the spot. Improv is a form of writing, and then post-production was like Choose Your Own Adventure. We had so many scenes that this could have been a completely different movie. The jury said it was a new form of writing a film.
FP: In the final scene you do a spot-on impression of Michael Cera. How does he feel about your Michael impression?
CY: [laughs] Thanks. I don’t know that he ever gives me the chance to do it; he just shuts me up. I think he knows that I’m really good at it. Whenever I try to do an impression of him, he does me, but he makes me sound like an idiot. Like, “Durrrr, I’m Charlyne.” I think it kind of hurts his feelings. He’s kind of a baby.