For stand-up comedian Charlyne Yi, her film “Paper Heart,” a hybrid documentary-romantic comedy in which she travels cross-country from California to New York interviewing people about love, punctuated by scenes recording her supposed romance with co-star Michael Cera, started out as something rather different.
“Early on I wanted to make a documentary about love,” Yi explained in a Dallas interview. “I think I was about nineteen—a long, long time ago, when I dropped out of college and began performing for comedy shows. And all I did was work all the time, like at Wal-Mart, and then go straight to performing. And I’d turn on the TV and see Elimidate and lots of different reality shows where people my age would make out with four people in one date. And I thought, oh my God, is that what I’m supposed to do? I’m like an old man, just want to play board games and take naps, and eat. That’s all that I want to do. How am I going to find someone to go out with me? And so I had a sort of ridiculous, naïve panic attack about maybe not finding someone, and that kind of inspired the idea of creating a documentary about love.
“And people would strangely open up to me about love constantly. And I thought, these stories are great. Even if you think they’re mundane and simple, I think they’re amazing how they found each other. So my hope was just to get a collection of true love stories and hopefully inspire people. If there were any weirdoes like me, it would give them hope.”
Jake M. Johnson, an actor who plays the director of Yi’s documentary (another blurring of the line between fact and fiction), picked up the story. “Charlyne at first just wanted to do a documentary,” he said. “But when she took it to Nick [Nicholas Jasenovec, the real director], he wanted to do the narrative. And Charlyne didn’t want to do the narrative.”
“Yeah,” Yi interjected. “I didn’t want to be on-screen at all. I just wanted to co-direct it.”
Jackson continued, “But Nick said, ‘We’ll get somebody to play me, we’ll get Michael Cera.’ I think Charlyne’s main passion was just wanting to do a documentary, and Nick wanted there to be an arc, so that’s kind of the mixing of the two, that kind of collaboration of a narrative and a documentary. They just combined the two movies.”
For Yi, the project was not an easy one. “Everything was really hard. From the documentary stuff, like having to learn how to talk to people. From acting, I’d never done any huge acting, just trying to make it realistic—I’d mostly done stage stuff, and we weren’t allowed to do broad comedy. And being on the road was so rough, trying to survive the road and each other. We were in an eleven-passenger van… It was pretty intense.
“Everything with Jake, myself and Michael was all improvised,” she continued. “The whole narrative was about a five-page outline.”
“We knew where scenes would go,” Jackson added. “For example, with the date scene, we’d know that Michael was going to walk out of the restaurant and we knew he was going to come back—we’d planned that bit. But then getting there, they just improved the scene a bunch of times to make it feel real, and did a bunch of endings on it.” Yi said, “We knew the beats of it and would talk about the beats and have ideas for dialogue if that would help. But the words were all fresh.” And Jackson noted, “I think that’s kind of the Judd Apatow influence, if there is any. Nick at times would yell lines out, like ‘Say this line, and get there any way you can.’ A line was important, but how you get there is any way you can get there.”
“Paper Heart” also differs from other documentaries in showing cute paper puppet recreations of episodes recalled by interviewees during their conversations. “Early on, when we were deciding how to shoot the documentary portion and the narrative, we were trying to figure out the style in which people would say their love stories, and in most documentaries it’s usually a talking head and a static shot of old photographs. And for me, since I have ADD, it’s really hard to concentrate on what they’re saying, especially if what they’re saying doesn’t visually apply to what you’re seeing on screen,” Yi explained. “And I thought we could either use puppets, or dramatize it like an FBI show—which was a horrible idea. I could only come up with puppets.”
A puppet recreation—a wild parody of an action picture—is also used to close the romcom part of the picture, and the stars explained it was a late addition. “Originally the ending was at the doorstep of Michael’s house, where Jake’s character goes ‘Cut,’” Yi recalled. “But because of the screening results when our picture got picked up by Overture [Pictures], about 85% of the audience hated the ending and thought it was sad. I actually thought it was a hopeful ending, but we had to find something that would be higher energy without compromising the open-endedness of the relationship. And so I kind of made up something really ridiculous.”
“We did it the same thing the way we did the whole movie,” Johnson observed. “The three of us went to Café 101 in L.A. and just tossed ideas, and we all said the best bet is probably doing a puppet ending with the craziest epic ending you can think of.
“That’s the fun of how ‘Paper Heart’ was made. You’d have a scene, we’d talk out an idea, and just do it.”