Sundance 2009: Michael Cera And Charlyne Yi On 'Paper Heart'
Like a lot of people, my first exposure to Charlyne Yi was in the Judd Apatow movie "Knocked Up," where she played the girlfriend of Martin Starr, one of Seth Rogen's bizarre roommates. She had such an unusual presence that even in a very small role like that, she made an impression. About three months ago, I was sent a link by a friend to one of her YouTube videos, and I went and checked out her channel, which is basically just her singing covers of barely-known songs she likes. Again... once you've seen one or two of the videos, you won't forget her.
And as soon as I was given my credentials for this year's Sundance and started getting publicity materials, there was Yi's face everywhere, front and center, a picture of her in a wedding dress. She was one of the iconic images of the fest even before we got here this year, and I knew next to nothing about the film that image came from, something I tried to maintain until I walked into the Yarrow's press screening. I'll have my full review up soon (or you could read Devin Faraci's very good one right this moment if you're really curious), but suffice it to say "Paper Heart" is a movie that you really, really want to hug. Yes, it's adorable, and it's a complete refutation of the idea that today's twentysomethings are already practiced cynics. No cynic could make a movie like this, and no cynic will be able to love it.
I'm not doing a lot of interviews here at Sundance this year... and frankly, I don't want to. I've always felt that a festival was about seeing movies, about the combinations and the collisions that can only occur when you're watching four or five films in a day, and the moment you start giving up time slots to interviews, your day can fall apart. Even so, when I was approached about talking to the creative team behind "Paper Heart," I moved my morning around, and at 10:30, I walked into the Stella Artois lounge that's on Main Street, ready to chat.
I was offered the creative players in different combinations. I could either talk to Michael Cera and Jake Johnson together, or Charlyne Yi and Nick Jasenovec together, or all four of them together. I decided to go for the whole group, and so it was that I found myself sitting opposite all four of them this morning.
In order to understand some of what we discussed, I have to describe one of the levels of the film itself. It's shot like a documentary, and at this point, "mockumentary" has gone beyond being a genre into being something else, a vocabulary of sorts. Audiences are being gradually trained to trust absolutely nothing they see, but at the same time, the documentary style gives them permission to feel that what they're watching is more "real" than traditional narrative. In this case, the film actually did start as a documentary, and Nick came onboard to help Charlyne, who didn't initially even intend to appear on camera. As they worked on it, though, Nick realized that Charlyne's own disbelief in love was so compelling, and so integral to why she was making the film, that they decided to make her an onscreen character in this film. And as soon as they decided that, they realized they needed somone onscreen for Charlyne to play off of. And that's how Jake Johnson got hired to play "Nicholas Jasenovec" in the film.
As we started our chat, I asked them if they were bothered at all by the "Sundance Echo," something you notice when you're here. The Sundance programmers seem to really enjoy playing two or more films that approach similiar themes or ideas, hoping they'll create something even more interesting through the collision of these divergent takes on the same idea. This week in Park City, it's hard to mention "500 Days Of Summer" without also discussing "Paper Heart," and vice versa. Both movies are about girls who don't believe in storybook love, and what happens when they meet a guy who does. The first major difference is that Zooey Deschanel is more of a device in her film than a character, since "500 Days" is very much told from the guy's point of view. In "Paper Heart," Charlyne plays a real character, complex and contradictory. I told them how I think the films are radically different despite the surface comparisons, and they all seemed relieved to hear it. I asked when they made the decision to approach this as a documentary, and I told them about the shocked reactions when the closing credits begin and the credit "with Jake Johnson as Nicholas Jasenovec" came up. All of them laughed, and Michael punctuated it with an emphatic "Good!"
Nicholas: I'm going to go off on a tangent for a second... on "500 Days Of Summer"... we were in post production and editing at our editor's place in downtown LA, and I read the logline about a girl who doesn't believe in love, and we were all like, "Oh, my god." I mean, I get it when it's, like, a giant meteor hitting the earth or something like that, but for two people to come up with this idea... and we were like, uh, we are... we are screwed. And then, like, two weeks later, they were shooting the movie right outside our window, so we were "We can't avoid them." And now we're both in Sundance together.
[Regarding the style of the film,] Charlyne wanted to make a real documentary about love. She came to me and told me, "I don't believe in love, but I'm still fascinated by it, and I want to make a movie about that and see if I can learn something."
And I told her, "You should probably be on camera." Originally, she wasn't going to be. "You've got this unique take on things, and the audience should probably know where you're coming from." And once we knew she was going to be on camera, we decided we needed some sort of arc for her. And knowing Charlyne, we couldn't guarantee that she would change or learn anything, so we decided to script a change, and then shoot it all the same, so we could sort of play with levels of reality. And I think it's worked... maybe...
I mentioned the way the casting of Jake as Nicholas really pays off in the film because the relationship between "Nick" and "Chuck" is just as sweet and moving in its way as the one between Charlyne and Michael.
Jake: A lot of this really wasn't planned out. I remember I got a call... "Do you want to come out and do this?" And we'd all worked with each other on things before, so it sounded great to me. So they start telling me how they're going to be on the road talking to experts for four weeks and how I'm going to need to come along, and I'm like, "Shouldn't I just fly in and do my scenes?" But they wanted me there for the whole thing, and at first, I was just sort of around. But the more we shot, the more we realized it was turning into a buddy picture. And that meant getting into more of the scenes, interacting with her more.
Drew: I love the protective quality of the relationship between you two in the film, the way you're not only pushing her towards a relationship because it's good for the movie, but also because you genuinely want her to be happy.
Jake: Yeah, my character was originally going to be the bad guy, the one who sort of screws up their relationship. But the more we worked, the more obvious it was... that wasn't this movie.
Nick: What I found interesting was that the first few times we showed the movie, the audience felt like they were watching Nick fall in love with Charlyne.
Charlyne: (laughing) And you can see why.
Nick: Even this interview is about you falling in love with Charlyne.
Drew: It's inevitable.
We discussed the way the line between reality in the film and real reality is very blurry.
Drew: Are you worried that with the way people are celebrity obsessed, a movie like this gives people permission to ask you more personal questions, or that people will think they know you because of it?
Michael: Well, it's all fictional.
Drew: Some people won't know that.
Michael: That's the fun of it. And those people aren't in our daily lives, so... I'm not worried about the effect so much. And I think it's worth the fun of people looking at the film that way, being confused and enjoying it and not knowing where the line is.
Nick: Even if people figure it all out at the end of the film, I think there's something about thinking that it's real while you're watching it... you get invested in it. You want them to work it out.
Michael: That's why I really liked all the interviews with the real people and listening to their stories. You get into these stories about all these couples, and you start caring about how people affect one another and matter to each other, and because you hear how these people's stories together developed, and you're watching our story together develop, you go with it. It's real.
Drew; And all of the interviews are authentic?
Nick: All real.
Nick: Even the interviews with our friends were all real. And they were originally longer, but it felt a little strange cutting from all these sweet old couples to, like, Seth Rogen. And we realized that the stuff with our friends was sort of best used to set up Charlyne's character. That was the last stuff we cut.
I asked Charlyne about the handmade puppets that are used to illustrate some of the story interviews, all this intricate and whimsical work that adds another level of magic to the movie. In the closing credits, she and her father are credited with all of that work, and I asked at what point they made the choice to flesh out the stories with this particular type of imagery.
Charlyne: We did that early on.
Nick: Even before I was involved.
Charlyne: Yeah, when it was still just a straight documentary. Cause whenever I watch a documentary and they just have stills and photos, it's like, "Oh, it's just so... still!" I thought it would be fun to bring more life to the stories, and my father and I did the work together. It was so much fun.
Nick: You have a pretty unique art style, and you've done some of this type of thing before for you live shows.
Charlyne: There was going to be some stop motion, but we didn't have time.
Jake: You did do some stop motion.
Nick: Yeah, of Charlyne and Michael. It's pretty great. That's where the title comes from.
Charlyne: Oh, yeah.
Nick: It involved a paper mache heart...
Charlyne: Yeah, it would have happened right after we broke up. You'd see the heart cut in half, and one half turns into him and one half turns into me.
Nick: That section of the film was one of the most difficult to get right.
We talked a bit about doing the interviews, and how much Charlyne enjoyed that part of the process, and I mentioned one interview in particular where it's her versus an entire playground full of smart precocious kids with their own views on love.
Charlyne: That's so weird, because it's real, but it's also fake because [Jake] ended up coming in and chiming in about my "boyfriend," which I did not expect at all.
Jake: Well, that's a case where... when we started, I would just sort of hang back, but sometimes, Nick wanted me to introduce myself as Nick to the subjects, like when we did the Elvis interviews in Vegas. But the problem with that is that I'm not a director, and there's a lot of camera stuff I don't know. There was this great shot of Elvis as it was going towards him...
Nick: A dolly shot.
Jake: Right. This great dolly shot, and Elvis kept going, "Okay, man, let's get this going." And I didn't know what to do. I'd be like, "Oh, definitely." We finally decided that Nick was the D.P. and he was just a little more talkative than normal. But we had to, because someone was asking me a question, and what do you say? "I'm the director, but let me go ask that guy over there."
Drew: The kids really embraced you, though.
Charlyne: They were great.
Nick: We had set up for some of the kids to be there, but others just showed up, and it ended up being this very spontaneous thing.
Charlyne: It's scary, because you want to find a way to get these kids to trust you, but I'm bigger than them...
Nick: Not really. Not by much.
Charlyne: But Nick just told me to jump in there and start playing with them, and they tackled me and wanted to beat me up, and they just sort of accepted me.
Nick: One of the kids actually took the mic and started to interview our crew about love at one point.
I had to derail the "Paper Heart" talk for a bit to ask Michael Cera about working on "Scott Pilgrim" in Toronto, where he's from.
Michael: I can't wait. It's very exciting. I haven't really shot there since I was 12.
Drew: I'm excited about that film, and more so every day as the cast list comes together. I know Edgar's already up there and getting ready. It's a challenge, though. I mean, as much as I feel like the Michael in "Paper Heart" is the closest thing I've seen onscreen so far to the real Michael, the one I've met and spoken with... Scott's very different than you are.
Michael: Yeah. Definitely.
Drew: Are you in fight training now?
Everyone on Michael's side of the table laughs uproariously at the question as Michael shakes his head.
Drew: I met the fight coordinator when he was still on "Kick-Ass," but it sounded like he had some plans for you. That's a serious dude.
Michael: Yeah. Brad. I made it very clear to him what I am not capable of, and what I don't think I'll ever be capable of.
We talked a little more about their hopes for distributors, and as the conversation wound down into just casual joking around and small talk, I was struck again by what a warm, genuine group of people they are.
"Paper Heart" was financed by Anchor Bay, so you'll definitely get a chance to eventually see it on DVD, but I hope a distributor grabs it for theatrical release as well. It's not as slick or as commercial and ready-to-sell as something like "500 Days Of Summer," but that's exactly why I responded to "Paper Heart" as much as I did. It feels handmade, authentic, and the questions Charlyne wrestles with are common questions. It's a special film, and I'm glad I took the time to sit down with them in the midst of the hectic pace of the festival.