Charlyne Yi has just finished a not-that-lengthy explanation of how her film, “Paper Heart,” came to be – when she goes wide-eyed and laughs.
“Wow – I was getting pretty bored with that while I was talking – like I was falling asleep while I was talking,” she says in astonishment. “Even while I was talking, I was wondering, ‘Why is this taking so long? What if Jimmy Fallon falls asleep when I tell this on his show?’ I’m so sorry to put you through that.”
Honestly, it wasn’t as bad as all that. And Yi, 23, drinking coffee in the lobby of New York’s Algonquin Hotel, is honestly surprised to be sitting here, along with actor Jake Johnson, talking about what she thought of as her little movie, “Paper Hearts,” which opens today (8.07.09) in New York and Los Angeles.
“We thought this would go straight to DVD,” Yi says. “So this is awesome. It’s like proof the movie exists.”
The difference between expectations and reality? The 2009 Sundance Film Festival, where “Paper Heart” won the Waldo Salt screenwriting award (despite not actually having a script) – and got picked up for release by Overture Films.
“Sundance changed the movie completely,” Yi says. “We wouldn’t be here now. We wouldn’t be touring with this movie now. It’s exciting that a wider audience would see it.”
Adds Johnson, “It was just this intimate project that we were all doing together, that we all had control of. After Sundance, it was something somebody else owned, that we were just part of.”
“Wow,” Yi says, struck by the realization. “It comes out tomorrow. I’m really nervous.”
Says Johnson, “I hope it finds an audience. That would be pretty cool – to have a movie we did – and a percentage of the population that saw it and enjoyed it.”
“I don’t know – it takes a lot to get me to actually go out to see a movie,” Yi says. “I wonder if anyone will show up.”
“Paper Heart” is part-documentary, part semi-scripted narrative – and all Yi. She plays herself, a young comedian/actress shooting a documentary around the United States, asking people about something she doesn’t believe exists – love: what it feels like, how you know it when it happens to you, whether it can last.
While those interviews are nonfiction, the subplot – about Yi’s personal questioning of love and subsequent up-and-down romance with actor Michael cera – were sketched out beforehand, in an outline from which the actors improvised. That includes Johnson, who plays Nick Jasonovec, the film’s director (there’s a real Nick Jasonovec – Johnson’s oldest friend – and he did direct the movie).
“Originally, it was going to be a true documentary about the fact that I was interested in love,” Yi says. “But Nick said that, if it was going to be a documentary, it should also be about me falling in love. Except we didn’t have time for that. So he came up with the idea of going the fictional route and making it a combination of a documentary and a narrative film.”
“The documentary sections were interesting because we were hearing about real peoples’ lives,” Johnson says. “It felt like science. It added extra weight to the film.”
Fact and fiction occasionally blended in unexpected ways. Yi recalls a scene she and Johnson were improvising on a street that suddenly took a turn for the real.
“We were talking on the street, doing a bit,” she says, “with Jake asking me have I learned anything. And we ran into this homeless couple, who started asking us questions about what we were doing and why a camera crew was following us. When we told them we were making a documentary about love, they said, ‘Well, you should interview us. Love has kept us alive on the street and kept us surviving.’ It was strange how it went from a fictional scene to a real moment in a second.”
Johnson concurs: “One of the things that’s sad is that it didn’t get into the film. You had both worlds in that scene.”
The team shot more than 300 hours, filming on the road for five weeks, spending up to two hours with each interview subject. Ultimately, they aimed for a 50/50 split between fiction and nonfiction.
“I was very bad at interviewing people when we started, but I really enjoyed it,” Yi says. “These strangers let us into their world. I enjoyed meeting so many types of people.”
“To see this film edited a year-and-a-half later, it’s weird to remember that these are real people,” Johnson adds, “and not just characters.”
There was an element of verity to Yi’s quest as to whether love really exists – and, she admits, she did get an answer to her question (sort of).
“The thing that worried me was that I was uncertain of love, how long it can last, why it sometimes disappears so quickly,” she says. “ And I realized something that now seems completely obvious: that everything is uncertain. When I accepted that, it made me calm down.”