August 9, 2009|It's early afternoon, and I'm at an empty nightclub lounge to discuss Paper Heart with the film's lead actress and co-writer Charlyne Yi and her co-star Jake Johnson. Immediately upon introducing myself, she tells me that "Ian" was the name of her kindergarten crush. Segues into hybrid-documentaries about the nature of love and romance don't get much easier than that, but this little tidbit establishes a casual-yet-uncomfortable tone for the rest of our conversation. Yi is only a year-and-a-half younger than I am, and the discussion is so natural, the setting so easygoing, that I suppose it became difficult to not regard each other as peers. Her nervous laughter is always present, punctuating even the most self-evident of observations (oftentimes prompting nervous laughter of my own), but she's not nearly as clumsy and coy as her comedy act would have you believe. Meanwhile, Johnson's appearance--complete with an unshaven face and a long, dark, horseshoe moustache--is so far removed from his role as a fictionalized version of the film's director, Nick Jasenovec, that it takes me a moment to mentally register with whom I'm actually speaking. He's an interesting fellow, very animated and willing to engage you no matter what you ask--but as our dialogue heats up, he throws me off again by effortlessly taking the reins on most of the "filmmaking" questions. Even I begin to mistake him for his cinematic counterpart, unconsciously turning to him when the questions are more technical in nature.
A sense of comfort gives rise to its own sense of awkwardness. I catch myself calling her "Charlyne" without being prompted because "Ms. Yi" already feels too formal, and there are moments where the lively interplay among the three of us makes moving on to the next planned question somehow inorganic. (I was at least able to clumsily vocalize my misgivings about Paper Heart and its flip-flop between narrative and documentary before a second screening would clarify my thoughts on the film.) As the topic turns to Yi's "relationship" with on-screen love interest Michael Cera, however, she immediately clams up without the round of jokes that have attended her previous interviews on the subject: slowly shaking her head, she looks almost mortified at the mere suggestion that she and Michael Cera are (or were) an item. This took place a good two weeks or so before the trades and blogs started reporting on the break-up of "America's Twee-hearts," and her directness on this matter seems--seems--to close the book on how premeditated this revelation was intended to be. When the time comes to part ways, Johnson gives me a buddy-boy pat on the shoulder as we shake hands, while Yi emphasizes my name with an ironic twinge. ("Bye, Ian!") The quirks are, undoubtedly, much more charming when they're not so calculated.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: So what brings [Ian] to mind, exactly? These past relationships, do you get a lot of those stings of--
CHARLYNE YI: Old memories... Haunting you...
--old memories of love and such?
CY: I don't think that was love, it was the first time I was like, "Oh my God, I like this boy! We should, like, get married!" (laughs)
But Ian certainly made an impression.
CY: Yeah, I think, uh--yeah, he was really funny. (Johnson laughs sharply.) It's weird. I was wondering, does that make you a pervert, if you have a crush, still, on someone that you met in kindergarten? 'Cause in your brain, like, you don't really think of them as a little kid. For some reason it's just kinda like this weird--I'm a pervert.
JJ: Do you have a crush on them as the kindergartener, or as a twenty-three year old now?
CY: As a twenty-three year old, now.
JJ: Then you're a pervert. That's point blank! If it was as a kid, then you don't, but if [it's] as an adult, then...
CY: Yeah, every time I see a little boy that looks like him I just--never mind. (laughs)
I heard that this started off as a straight documentary, and then you added the narrative--how did the themes change, if at all, as that transition happened?
CY: Um... I don't really understand the question.
JJ: You want me to jump in on that one?
CY: Yeah, jump in.
JJ: Okay. It started off that she just wanted to ask people, really, about love, and then the real director said he wanted to do a story so that there could be a change. So I guess the themes that they changed, rather than just actually hearing what people thought about love, [they wanted] to see if you could get a character who actually goes through the process of love.
How do you think that altered the overall feeling of [the film]--your perception of the concept?
CY: Um, I think the reason--I don't know if this is gonna answer it, actually, so this might not answer it... The straight documentary wasn't gonna have me on camera. It was just gonna be interviews--I would be off-camera. I just wanted to orchestrate that part. But once he included me being on camera, he wanted a throughline in a perspective, through my eyes in a more questionable way because I felt questionable about love. And so, having a different opinion guide the documentary as well as the story kind of changed it in that way, instead of just stories.
What's it like being directed by the man you're ostensibly playing?
JJ: Uh, it's--
JJ: Wonderful. (laughs) It would seem weirder, but Nick's a really good friend, and I wasn't doing an impression of him. So I was just trying to figure out what they were actually doing in their relationship, in terms of making it. And--he's a very easy director to work for. He gives you a lot of freedom, and he wants you to have fun with it. The only thing that was weird is that we would try to dress the same most days, and it wasn't my style, it wasn't stuff that I have--so it just felt really weird. So like, nice American Apparel pants on--really tight white shoes. So that was probably the hardest part, wearing fitting clothes.
So you're not a body snatcher in any sense.
JJ: (laughs) I think I'd [rather] wear my usual sweat outfits.
Going around the country like this, how does the perception of love differ around the country?
CY: I don't think it differs based off what city you're in. I think it just differs between people. The bikers, love is one thing to them--it's their family, and their family is the people they hang out with. And then there's people who believe in love at first sight, and it [depends on] the individual... You meet people like that in L.A. as well.
JJ: Yeah, there really wasn't. And I thought there could be too. There really wasn't a change throughout the country. People were so different in each city, but the way they actually talk about their relationships and love, everything did feel very universal.
[Did] you see that feeling with other kinds of love, like platonic love?
JJ: Yeah...there were a lot of interviews that didn't get in, where we would just ask people stuff, and when people kind of talked about their feelings of love--(laughs) I don't know why I'm laughing!
CY: (loud laughter) Sorry!
JJ: See, Charlyne, that moment just got absurd! (laughs) I apologize. But it felt like everybody did have a similar kind of voice about it all.
The Vegas scenes--do you think there's maybe something cynical about that?
JJ: The man-on-the-street stuff?
CY: I don't think there's... (pause) "Cynical"'s such a strong word. I don't think the whole [of] Las Vegas is cynical. I think, y'know, some people just like to party! (laughs) And it's not [the entirety] of Las Vegas. People who work there are very aware of the people that come in, and if they're really in love or not...I don't think it's any less cynical--'cause, like I'm sure people would be doing that if they had the opportunity to in California.
JJ: The wedding, actually, in Vegas of that older man and that woman, that was real. And it seemed like it was really--it was weird to actually be involved in their wedding, but they let us film it, we didn't tell them to do anything. And they [looked] like they were pretty much in love.
CY: Yeah, despite how they looked--y'know, it looked like a green card wedding... We did an interview with them, but I was off-camera, and that's why we didn't use it, it didn't match. But they seemed to love each other, they've known each other for a long time.
JJ: And he was really nervous before--
CY: Yeah, he was like, (sigh) "Oh God..."
JJ: "This is the best day of my life!" So it seems really sweet. Watching it feels a little different, but in the moment...
I don't wanna go really heavy--
CY: (chuckles) Get real.
...but the way you present this movie-within-a-movie, there's a feeling that art is inappropriate, or perhaps insufficient when talking about love.
JJ: Yeah, I think that's an interesting... I feel like the documentary stuff was almost used to put weight to it. Because these people were real, and they weren't told. Jasenovec would be a great guy to ask on that. But it almost felt like, throughout this story of love that--y'know, the Charlyne and Mike stuff, and the character-of-Nick stuff--was definitely just a beaded-out story. We just, and they wanted to actually put real stuff in that had nothing to do with that. I, personally--as just a viewer--I do think that the documentary stuff adds a lot of weight to it that we couldn't get just acting it out. 'Cause that was real--that wasn't us--people who were actually in love across the country. [S]o, for me, it does add a certain kind of importance, and a certain kind of weight to what they're doing. And around that you get kind of a movie.
[Your] having a relationship with Michael Cera... You're shaking your head.
CY: (laughs, regains her composure) Uh, yeah.
|"[T]he fact that he really wanted me to find love, in real life... I would never sign up to do something so personal."||
Yi with Michael Cera in Paper Heart
You want to get away from the cameras, but you're sort of presenting a feeling where you're on camera, and you're play-acting this relationship, and it's adding another meta-layer to this feeling, where you're in a relationship--
JJ: But they're not really in a relationship.
But they're not really in a relationship. How does that affect you--
CY: How does that affect me?
--and your relationship with him?
CY: Oh, but we're not really in a relationship. Oh, wait, as friends?
Yeah, generally. I guess I use "relationship" a bit generically, I apologize.
(Johnson chuckles as Yi and I share a protracted laugh) CY: I don't know if it affects us. I mean, I don't think it affects our friendship, because all of us, we're friends. (laughs) I think, um--I like the idea behind it, I think that you can never actually capture love as it happens, 'cause you're never yourself--unless you're amazing and you can be yourself with the other person. I just find that hard to believe. You just see all of these reality shows and you think, like, how could they be so comfortable just letting loose and doing that? I dunno, I think... (laughing) I'm not sure how I feel about it.
JJ: But, I think--not being one of the creators of it--I think reality television, after watching it, had a big effect on it. Shows like "The Bachelor", shows like "Next", shows like, y'know, these MTV shows that show people falling in love, and being like, "At the end of this we're gonna get married." And there's almost this non-reality reality to it.
CY: Oh, and also--in most reality shows there's like, big drama. The only drama between Michael's character and Charlyne's character is the camera, and the only thing that conflicting their relationship, 'cause there's no, "She's cheating on me," or "She's in love with this person." It's a very simple story, and we did that purposely, 'cause we didn't want it to feel like heightened drama or anything... We wanted to make it--more of a story! (laughs, adopts an unidentifiable accent) About love! A simple story!
JJ: A simple relationship with real documentary stuff around it.
CY: Yeah, and I like the idea that the only conflict that's keeping them from each other is this film. And this film is so important to her, but then, she never says "I love you." But her actions define how she feels about him, and that's where she kind of takes the leap, y'know, when she chooses him over the film at the end. And also, the fact that, like--when she says, "Oh, but I'm not in love with him," that doesn't mean that's the end of the relationship. There's no deadline to love, why does love have to be instant? Why not see where it goes, take a chance and just--maybe, after the cameras left, maybe both of them continued to try it out. But maybe they ran into other conflicts, just within themselves and their relationship. And so--I dunno, I think the narrative and the cameras bring an interesting take on that.
That's why I ask--if you think the idea of a narrative hinders the process.
CY: Hinders the process of falling in love?
It's just that you seem interested in the idea that you can't encapsulate love like this, and just being bound by narrative itself, does that present any major challenges?
JJ: I think it was a good thing...Charlyne really just wanted to make a documentary about love. But she really didn't wanna be in it, she just wanted to hear people's stories. And the director, Nick, his final thought was: Well, what is that for an hour and a half? And he's like, "Even documentaries have an art." Well, I'm not gonna probably have an art, I wanna ask people their stories.
CY: Yeah, and then, the fact that he really wanted me to find love, in real life, before the script and stuff came in. I was like--I would never sign up to do something so personal. I wouldn't feel comfortable to have a relationship on camera. And so, like, all of that stuff kind of contributed to--what if I did sign up, what if my character did sign up, and didn't know what she was in for and then realized that it was almost too late to do anything about it.
JJ: And I think the key of the narrative of it, especially having Nick have me play him, is--it's not supposed to be real. They're playing themselves so that you can have that moment of, like, "Oh, that's Mike, and that's Charlyne, and they're in a relationship," amongst all these [documentary scenes]. But to prove the fact that we're not saying this really happened, a guy is being the director in all those scenes, right near them... Hopefully, while people watch it, they have that [feeling] of--it feels real, like at moments. But there are definitely story [arcs] that [denote] the end of the first act. We've got people [saying], "It doesn't feel real." Well it's not supposed to!
CY: I hope it doesn't make the story [weaker than] the documentary elements, 'cause I feel like you can watch a movie that's completely fiction and feel taken by that--hopefully our story is just as strong as that, only there's no documentary elements to even heighten that. So it's not like this lame story with documentary elements where you're like, "Why didn't you just go with the documentary?"
All right. One more thing, actually, if I can just ask: What's it like referring to your own character in the third person?
CY: It's weird! (laughs) It's really weird! Like, throughout the whole time when we were writing, and we were editing, I was like, "Oh, you should make Charlyne not say that." I sound like I have an ego.