Charlyne Yi and Jake Johnson are pranksters at heart, but it’s hard to tell on first glance at their new film, Paper Heart. It’s ostensibly a documentary about the nature of love; Yi admits upfront that she doesn’t believe in love, and sets out on a mission with director Nick Jasenovec to chat with a variety of people—longtime married couples, scientists, children—about their thoughts on the subject. Along the way, Yi meets Jasenovec’s friend Michael Cera, and romance ensues. Thus the film is part interview segments (sometimes aided by puppets) and part footage of Cera and Yi’s adorably strained courtship. But then the credits roll, “Nick Jasenovec played by Jake Johnson” appears onscreen, and the whole thing starts to seem fishy. The A.V. Club sat down with Johnson and Yi—whose credits include a stint in Knocked Up—to discuss the film’s deafening Sundance buzz, love stories, and the pair’s penchant for pulling the wool over viewers’ eyes.
The A.V. Club: So… what’s real?
Charlyne Yi: [Laughs.] Half of it; 50 percent is fake, and 50 percent isn’t.
Jake Johnson: All the documentary is real, from the psychic to the kids, everybody, to the judge. We didn’t tell anybody to do anything, we didn’t stage any of the bits. Everything with Mike, Charlyne, and I is fake.
AVC: What was the purpose behind creating the confusion?
CY: Well, originally it was going to start off as a documentary, and then we kind of came up with the idea of creating this fictional thing. But we were hoping, I guess, that if someone didn’t know going in what was real and what was not, maybe they would be more invested with the love story, and feel something more. But then at the end, it says “Nick Jasenovec played by Jake Johnson.” So it’s not like we were totally fooling them.
JJ: We didn’t want people leaving and then still being like, “What’s going on? What the hell?”
AVC: It’s not Memento.
JJ: Yeah, exactly. When it’s over, we wanted everyone to be like, “All right.”
CY: “Okay, you went for the ride, I hope you enjoyed it.”
JJ: Hopefully you liked it enough, and hopefully the documentary affected the—you actually cared more about Charlyne and Mike, because you thought maybe it’s real. I think that was the idea that they had.
AVC: How did you reach the decision to meld the documentary with scripted material?
CY: Well, I didn’t sit around eating hamburgers all day. Originally, I was curious about love, and I was a bit skeptical myself. And I met people with awesome stories, and I was like: “There’s so many movies about love that are fiction, what if we made a movie actually capturing true-love stories?” And I came to Nick Jasenovec with the idea, and he was like, “Oh, you should be on camera, because you’re skeptical, and it’d be funny to see it through your eyes.” I was like, “I don’t know about that.” “Oh, what if you fell in love?” “No, I wouldn’t feel comfortable about that!” One, I’m really uncomfortable to be on camera, and two, I don’t know about dating in front of a camera for the purpose of a documentary. I was like, “That’s creepy.” And so from there, we were like, “Oh, what if we made a movie about that, so that’s all fiction, and use the documentary portions to brace the film, and hopefully make it have a bit more weight to it?”
AVC: What is it you don’t like about fictional love stories?
CY: I like fiction. I love all sorts of love stories, I think. I even watched 17 Again. I was like, “That was awesome.” [Laughs.]
JJ: There’s a certain cheesiness that I think Jasenovec wanted to… It’s a simple love story between them, and he was like, “But I don’t want to just do, like, the three-act structure, a kind of cheesy romantic comedy.” And so I think the documentary stuff is supposed to break that up, so it’s a way to tell a very simple story. It’s a new telling of the easy story of, “They meet, they like each other, it doesn’t work, it maybe works.”
AVC: In scripting part of the film, did you lose any of the spontaneity you set out to capture?
CY: Yes and no, but I think yes in terms of, if we were making a straight documentary. But knowingly we were making a movie, and kind of seeing it as “This is a movie with ‘boy meets a girl,’ there is a structure to it, and there’s an outline to it.” And that’s not where the spontaneity was going to come from, except for the improv. And all the awesome stuff. I don’t think that answers the question, but… I don’t think it takes away from it, because we were very aware that we were making a film that wasn’t going to be spontaneous. Even though there was so much spontaneous stuff that happened. We shot over 300 hours of footage of just improv-ing scenes, and hopefully that would somehow contribute to the story.
JJ: And we didn’t have a script, we just had an outline, so all the scenes—we wouldn’t ever really know where it was going. We would have an outline of, “It needs to hit this point, but let’s just shoot it in 10 different cities.”
AVC: You’ve mentioned that you didn’t tell people you were shooting scenes in public—you just started shooting.
CY: Yeah, we didn’t have permits and stuff, so we would just act on the streets, and hopefully capture that. I don’t think anyone else was included on that, though, except you see, like, in the date scene when Michael and Charlyne—in the background, you’ll see people looking at the camera.
JJ: But what gets cut out is some drunk guy being like, “Dude, I want a photo, man!” And us being like, “We’re shooting a movie,” and he’s like, “He’s a movie star, man, who cares?” And you’re like, “Just please, shut up, man!” So I guess the beauty of having permits and having a bigger budget is that you avoid drunks. [Laughs.]
AVC: Were you all friends before filming?
AVC: So how did they approach you, Jake, about getting involved?
JJ: I had met Nick Jasenovec first, and we had done some videos with our friend Derek Waters, and Nick and I really liked working together. Then Michael asked me if I wanted to do—I hadn’t known Michael yet, until I did Clark And Michael with them. Then I met Charlyne, and Charlyne asked me to do a live show with her, and then we had all worked together. When they decided they wanted to cast somebody to play Nick, I got a call.
AVC: Why Nick? Why not also have someone play the Michael part, or Charlyne?
CY: I think Nick wanted me onscreen because he thinks I’m unique. [Laughs.]
JJ: And they were thinking of other people for Michael too.
CY: Yeah, I mean, we had a list of young actors we were trying to envision… how would the story
JJ: Michael’s weird enough to say yes in a good way.
CY: Yeah, I think he’s a big fan of Andy Kaufman and stuff, so I think he was very excited with the idea.
JJ: And Nick Jasenovec hates being in front of the camera, gets really nervous and really tight—even when you’re just doing a bit, like if it’s the three of us, he’s a really funny animated guy. And I’m like, “Dude, my phone has a camera.” And he’ll like—
CY: Shrink. Yeah. [Laughs.]
JJ: It’s literally just us with a phone camera, and he’s like, “Yeah, I don’t know, I don’t like it.”
AVC: Was that part of the original pitch, to have an actor play Nick?
JJ: Well, originally I heard that they went to Anchor Bay, who said, “We don’t want an actor to play the director.” So when I first came on, there was nothing official. So he said, “You’re coming on, and you’re just going to play me.”
CY: Well, at a certain point while we were pitching, we didn’t say that someone else was playing him, because it was so complicated. We were like, “I don’t know if they’re going to be down for that.” And then eventually, we were like, “Oh, by the way, this also might…”
JJ: “It is going to happen.”
JJ: I remember when I was brought on, I was like, “So Anchor Bay, they are excited about it?” And they’d be like, “Just come on!” And at first I didn’t realize that the film had a budget and everything, I thought it was going to be like… Truthfully, even though Michael Cera was in it, I thought, “What are we making? It’s like a documentary, not a documentary?”
CY: “YouTube video?”
JJ: I finally told Nick, “Hey man, I don’t have a lot of money, and I need to say in L.A., because I’m a working actor.” And he’s like, “Cool, baby, we’ll fly you in and out of the cities.”
CY: “Cool, baby.” [Laughs.]
JJ: And I’m like… We didn’t know how much I was going to be in it. At first they thought I was just going to be in a few scenes. But rather than be on the road with you guys for a week and a half, you’re my friends, but…
CY: Yeah, he was like, “Just fly me out when you guys need me.”
JJ: And then he goes, “You’re being paid.” I was like, “Yeah, $50 a day, bro, I know.” And he’s like, “No, there’s a budget.” I was like, “Wow, I’m a douchebag.” [Laughs.] So I apologized. “It’s a job and you’re my friends.” I was like, “Our talk of confusion I just had, take that out of your head!” [Laughs.] I honestly didn’t realize the scope of it until we were done shooting, and we had a test screening in L.A. There were all these people there, and I’m like, “What the hell is going on?”
[pagebreak] AVC: Was there any fear it would become “The Michael Cera Project”? It’s been called that a few places.
CY: I was a bit scared. I was like, “Oh no, it’s not his project!” And then—oh! We were trying to keep the film contained before Sundance, so no one knew about it—so it would just be like, no pressure, no bull’s-eye on us, you know? And then, somehow, it leaked. There was headlines like, “Michael Cera’s comedy,” and I thought, “It’s kind of a comedy, but not really.”
AVC: People just are obsessed with an Arrested Development movie.
JJ: That’s actually what it is. At Sundance, all the questions—Mike and I got paired up together—every question was like, “We liked Paper Heart. [Yelling.] When are you doing the movie Arrested Development?!” He’d be like, “Jesus, I just sat down!”
CY: Oh, and then when that got leaked, I guess some of the subjects were kind of worried, because we didn’t tell them it was going to be a hybrid movie and a documentary. I think they were worried that it was going to be a Borat thing, where they were going to be made fun of. And we were like, “No, we assure you, we’re going to try to make you look as best as we can—no, I was really interviewing you, I wasn’t acting like anyone else.”
JJ: I would introduce myself to a lot of the subjects as Nick, so it wouldn’t be like, “Hi, I play Nick, and then let’s sit in your house and open up about the love of your life—and trust me, we’re not gonna screw you in public.” I wouldn’t believe us. So I’d say, “I’m Nick,” and then when they would ask questions, it’d be like, “Weird guy over there? The real Nick? Please just answer all the questions.” But I think the subjects will be happy, I don’t think we insult anybody. The psychic probably won’t be happy. But she really did do that.
CY: But she did it to herself. We didn’t make her look dumb or anything.
JJ: She was like, “I am 100 percent accurate.” And we were like, “Great.” Then she did that thing with Charlyne, which I thought was really rude. Even though it was fake, it’s rude.
CY: If you’re telling that to someone, making them feel insecure about themselves, and then getting money from them, that’s such a—what a scam. How can you feel like a good human being, you know?
JJ: And so I go to her as the character of Nick, and I go, “Do you mind if I ask a question?” She was like, “Not at all.” I go, “I’m currently seeing a woman named Melinda, and I’m wondering what you think of that.” And so she does the whole, Ouija board, and she goes, “It’s not gonna work.” And I go, “It’s not?” She’s like, “It’s fun, Nick, but it’s not gonna work.” And I go, “How come?” She goes, “It’s all sexual.” I’m like, “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.” She got this read on me that I can’t be in a real relationship, but the one I’m in is all sex. What a con artist.
CY: Yeah, there’s no Melinda, and you’re not Nick.
JJ: And I’d like to be in that relationship, but it’s just not true! [Laughs.] She knew my fantasy. She knew what I wanted to hear.
AVC: How did all the Sundance buzz affect the film’s reception?
CY: I’m not sure if it affected it. Do you think it affected it?
JJ: I do. I felt like Sundance was really hard, because it wasn’t meant to be this big secret thing. It wasn’t really a big budget, and our crew was 11 people. And then you realize having Michael Cera on board changes it from the way we saw it while we were shooting it. We saw it as much more of a little independent film that we just did. And then everybody else saw it as like, “Oh, bullshit.”
AVC: What do you mean “bullshit”?
CY: I think ’cause they’re like, “Oh, if they had Michael, they must be getting paid a lot.” We were at hotels with blood and dirty underwear, broken doors. It was rough. We roughed it up.
JJ: And also when we were doing it, while we were on the road, we were basically told “It’s going to go straight to DVD.” They said it was going to be in two theaters. Literally two. That was the guarantee. So we were like, “We’ll have a theater where all our friends go in New York, all our friends go in L.A. Then it goes to DVD and we did it no matter what. We’re all excited. What an opportunity.” And then at Sundance, it came out as… I read something where it was like, “Judd [Apatow]’s next project?” And I’m like, “Well, that’d be awesome, but this isn’t—if they’re going there expecting a really big funny Judd movie, man, they are going to be disappointed.” And we thought, “If people don’t hear about it, and they just see the movie, not everyone’s going to like it; but those people who then take to it, they’ll really like it.” And at Sundance, we got a lot of [Crosses arms.] “All right, well, bring it. Bring me the laughs.”
CY: There were some people—someone was like, “Well, how’d you get Seth [Rogen] in there?” It’s like, “Oh, he’s our friend.”
JJ: They did Knocked Up together and they like each other.
CY: He’s our friend, we didn’t really think of it as a celebrity trying to help us with this movie, it’s like… “Oh, no, he’s helping set up who I am in the movie.”
JJ: Martin Starr is a really good friend, but how do you put the title under somebody? Do you put “Actor,” or “Friend”? If you put “Friend,” is it weird?
CY: I’m not even sure what we did. Did we put “Actor/Friend”?
JJ: “Actor/Friend” was the final answer. [Laughs.] So at Sundance, the buzz went from, like, zero—my agents barely knew about it. Truly. And then all of a sudden, one day, I got a call, and they were like, “Dude. That movie you’re in with Michael Cera’s huge.” I’m like, “What do you mean, it’s huge? Nothing’s happened.” And now this time it feels like more people are just watching it for the first time. Everything feels so much different than Sundance. And I’m like, “Man, I like this.” I don’t know what the difference is.
CY: It was all scary, ’cause we were like, “Oh, so our movie’s going to go out to two theaters, maybe—what—for a week?” After Sundance, we were really hoping someone would want to distribute our film in a bigger capacity, and we didn’t hear anything. We were like, “My God… I guess two theaters is cool. Who knows what our future is?” And then luckily Overture [Films] was like, “You know what, let’s do some test screenings, let’s work on it,” and kind of revived the future of our film. That was cool. [Laughs.]
JJ: Our conversations have been so flip-floppy about it, because at first we were like, “Man, I really hope it gets out there.” Then after Sundance, we were like, “You know what? Two theaters is exactly what we wanted anyhow.” And Overture’s like, “No, we’re going to do a push.” And we’re like—
CY: “Yeah! Yeah!”
JJ: “Yeah! That’s exactly what we wanted!” They were like, “Well, we’re not guaranteeing anything.” We’re like, “‘Cause if it’s only two, that’s perfect.”
CY: At least people got to see it, right?
JJ: That’s how we always try to put the positive on it. We still don’t really know what’s going on.
CY: Yeah, we have no idea how people are going to react to this.
JJ: And no one’s really telling us much.
CY: Yeah, it’s coming out, but are people going to be aware of it? What’s going to happen? It’s so terrifying, but we’re lucky all these screenings are happening.
AVC: A lot of the film’s marketing centers around “Charlyne Yi and Michael Cera, her real-life boyfriend.” What’s the nature of—
CY: I don’t know why people write that. Anytime people do that, I’m like, “Why are you guys writing that?” One, it’s irrelevant; two, we’re not really dating. And why would that be relevant?” It’s so weird.
JJ: [Because of] Sundance, things got leaked with no preparation. I think you guys were still editing the film, and then all of a sudden it was in The Hollywood Reporter. We were like, “What?” There were no group meetings, there was no discussion of how this is getting out. It got out once, and then it got out everywhere. And it said, “Real-life couple talk about their real life.”
CY: I think because they hear a documentary, they’re like, “Oh, it must be all real.”
JJ: And they would write things as fact. I saw that I’m actually Nick Jasenovec’s brother. And then I would see another newspaper cover that story, where it’d be like, “Real-life couple and brother.” I’m like, “Hold on! You guys, this is all, you guys are getting so…” She did a joke that she was 33, so I saw articles where it’d be like, “She’s too old for sweet Michael.” She’s 23 years old. It was a joke.
CY: Yeah, Overture forwarded me an article saying “Charlyne the Cougar” or something.
JJ: It’s just absurd.
CY: “We’re not dating. I’m not that old.”
AVC: But were you dating when you were filming the movie?
CY: No. It’s weird. And I wasn’t 33 when we were starting the film either. Part of me goes, “That’s really funny.” But I was like, “Do I look 33? Really?”
JJ: Here’s another bit about how the confusion starts. We were doing an interview in, I think, Boston.
CY: Oh God.
JJ: And Charlyne was like, “This’ll be funny: When they go, ‘Are you dating Michael?’ she’s going to go, ‘No, but we met because I used to babysit him.’” And I thought, “Come on, that’s just not gonna play.”
CY: But the interviewer was like… [Gasps.]
JJ: The lady was taking fucking notes! She was like, “So, you babysat him? How much older are you?” Charlyne’s like, “Two years. Michael wasn’t allowed to be alone ’til he was 13. So my family moved to Canada…” and I’m watching her write, “Canada. 13.” I was finally like, “Don’t write this.”
CY: I was like, “Stay with me. Stay with me.”
JJ: I thought the next thing that was gonna happen was, “Real-life 33-year-old babysits Michael Cera, changes his diapers.” Then the whole next series of questions in Toronto are going to be like, “You’re a babysitter?”
AVC: They’re going to wonder why you didn’t talk about your babysitting experience in the film.
CY: Well, she was asking me, “Did you change his diapers?” I was like, “No, I was two and a half years older than him, he was only 12, he didn’t wear diapers then.”
AVC: What’s the nature of your stand-up. Charlyne? There’s a scene of your act in the film that’s pretty ridiculous.
CY: It’s like a weird variety show where sometimes I incorporate an audience member—like I’ll do The Dating Game with a guy who’s blindfolded and three bachelorettes. In the end, they go through a series of questions where I’m like, “And the winner is…” They go offstage, I unblindfold him and go, “It’s me! You win a date with me!” And so we’re sitting there, and a waiter comes in—and this all happens onstage—music comes on, and I’m like, “Wow, I really like this song,” hoping that he’ll play along. It kind of spurs an adventure where there’s swords and a mix of reality and fiction, and comedy, and just straight music. It’s very strange.
JJ: It is kind of like Paper Heart in that the whole thing is constantly switching between real… She does a bit, and it’s in the movie, where she has a fake wig that looks just like that. [Points to Charlyne’s head.] You’re never allowed to get totally comfortable with what’s real or fake.