When L.A.-based stand-up comedian and actress Charlyne Yi (“Knocked Up”) explained her idea for a documentary about love to her director friend Nicholas Jasenovec, she left out one important detail. Charlyne – in all her 23 years living on this earth – had never been in love. She actually didn’t even believe in it.
“The whole idea that she didn’t believe in love was introduced to me and I thought that was important,” Jasenovec told me during a phone interview to promote “Paper Heart,” his directorial feature debut. The film follows Charlyne on her quest to find the true meaning of love. “I thought we should make that a part of the film and thought she should be on camera.”
Based on Jasenovec’s discovery about his friend, “Paper Heart” evolved from a straightforward documentary into a mixture of fact and fiction where faux storylines are crossed with real-life interviews. Even Jasenovec himself is portrayed in the film by an actor. The real Jasenovec, who spent his time behind the camera during production, says once the plot started materializing, he realized Charlyne would have to somehow take the plunge and fall in love.
“The odds of that happening on camera were pretty slim, so that’s when we made the decision to incorporate a fictional element, a loosely-scripted storyline to support everything else,” Jasenovec said. “We decided to put her on camera and have people experience this process through her eyes.”
During our interview, Jasenovec talked about his real relationship with Charlyne off the set, why he thought her point of view on love was so fascinating, and how much of the film’s success actually lands in the lap of his leading lady.
How long have you known Charlyne and how similar is your relationship with her compared to the one we see between her and the fictional you in “Paper Heart?”
I’ve known Charlyne for a few years now. I think we met through a mutual friend. We hit it off and starting talking and hanging out more and more. Then we started working together. The relationship is pretty similar to the one that Jake and her have on screen. I think most people have similar relationships with Charlyne. I think there’s sort of this older brother-little sister vibe especially with people like my age or Jake’s age. We get to hang out with her and get to know her. I think it comes across that way in the film, too. We all really care about her quite a bit and are always looking out for her. It’s pretty accurate.
What is your personal take on true love? Do you believe in it? Have you ever been in it? Did that idea change as you made this film?
Yeah, I definitely believed in it before we started working on this. I would like to think I’ve been in love before. I’d like to think I wasn’t wrong about it. I wouldn’t say that anything necessarily changed in terms of my views but it was definitely inspiring to meet these people and hear their stories. They’re people I wouldn’t normally get to meet if we didn’t make this movie. If nothing else, I think most of the crew and cast left the process wanting to find love if they hadn’t already.
There are plenty of people out there that don’t believe in love. What was it about Charlyne’s point of view that was so interesting to want to devote an entire movie to it?
I’ve known her for a while, but before I met her I had seen her perform [stand-up] a few times. She had a pretty unique comedic voice. I knew she was an interesting person and she would have an interesting take on things. So, as soon as she mentioned wanting to do this I was excited because I was a fan of what she does. Plus, when it comes to a movie like this, a romantic comedy, I don’t think you normally get to see someone like Charlyne in the lead role. That idea became exciting. We were sort of giving her a platform and an opportunity to do something you don’t normally see.
Was there precedence for this type of movie or did you feel you were making something that no one had really done before?
We definitely looked at a lot of stuff. One of the big inspirations was Werner Herzog just in terms of his documentaries. He’s quite playful with truth and fiction and you never really know what’s real and what isn’t. So that was pretty inspiring. The closest thing in terms of shooting style was “Borat,” which we were all really big fans of. We just really wanted to be a little more sincere. We didn’t want to mock our subjects at all. We watched a ton of documentaries and then some of our favorite romantic films and tried to figure out what made those work.
There’s a part in the film where Michael Cera is talking about quirky romantic comedies and he facetiously says that “another one is just what America needs.” Now, “Paper Heart” is coming out during a summer where we’ve seen films like “Away We Go,” “500 Days of Summer” and “Adam.” So, how true is that sentiment and why did you decide to include that line?
I think we tended to include things of that nature – thing that were fairly self-reflective. It is a funny time for the movie to come out. There have been quite a few similarly-toned films this summer. I think [the line] was really just Michael kind of riffing in that take. It just made everyone laugh. I think immediately right after the take everyone was like, “Oh, that should be in the trailer.” It made sense. [The movie] pokes fun at itself from time to time.
Charlyne has been in a few films before this, but I wouldn’t consider her a familiar face just yet. Did you ever think about casting someone other than Michael — someone with less notoriety – to make the love story even more ambiguous?
Michael was always the first choice just because we were all friends before the process. It was something so small and we didn’t have a lot of money and everyone had to make sacrifices. We were hoping to get a friend to play that part no matter what. We had a list of people in our heads that we could have asked if Michael shot us down, but thankfully he didn’t. We didn’t have to work with a stranger. I really don’t know what the movie would have been without him. Besides from being our friend, he has a very natural, subtle style of acting that fit perfectly with this project. We kind of had fun playing with his public perception and audience expectations of him.
I think a big part of the reason people might be confused about whether “Paper Heart” is fact or fiction is because of Charlyne’s performance. You really can’t tell from one scene to the next if she is acting or just being herself. How much of the success of this film ends up being solely on her shoulders?
I think almost entirely. I think the success in terms of how an audience member reacts to the film really hinges on whether or not they like Charlyne. Her comedy, at least in L.A., really divides audiences. I think just as many people don’t get it or don’t take to it as people who love it. I think whether or not you can get on board with Charlyne’s character completely determines whether or not you’re going to enjoy the movie.