When Paper Heart debuted earlier this year at the Sundance film festivals, a lot of viewers were confused about whether what they were watching was real.
“We wanted to look at it as a fiction film with documentary elements and not the other way around,” says star Charlene Yi, an L.A.-based comedian best known for her turn as Seth Rogen’s giggly stoner roommate in Knocked Up.
In Paper Heart, Yi plays a thinly-veiled version of herself: The premise is that “Charlene” wants to purge her anxieties about love by making a documentary about relationships. But as the cross-country shoot drags on, she finds her own slow-burning romance with fellow comic Michael Cera complicated by the presence of the camera crew.
The interview sequences, shot in various places across the U.S, are on the level, but the bulk of the film is carefully calibrated meta-fiction, starting with the fact that while Yi and Cera appear as themselves, the film’s director, Nick Jasenovec is being played by actor Jake Johnson.
“We’re very different guys,” says Johnson of his real-life director, who is also one of his closest friends. “I couldn’t imagine Nick as Nick the way he is in the movie, because he’s not like that at all.”
He also explains that there’s a considerable difference between Yi and her alter ego.
“The Charlene in Paper Heart is less animated than the real Charlene,” he says. “It was funny, because we had to keep cutting in the middle of takes so that Nick could tell her ‘you have to play it less big because it’s not playing real. What was real for her was actually too big, so she had to force herself to play it subtle so that this un-real version of herself would seem more real.”
It was actually Yi’s reservations about “being real” onscreen that led to Paper Heart’s hybridized structure.
“When we had the idea for the movie, Nick really wanted me to be on camera, so that it wasn’t just a collection of other peoples’ stories,” she says. “He wanted it to have an arc. But I wouldn’t agree to be filmed in that capacity, so we started adding stuff.”
At the same time, she says that she didn’t want to disappear too deeply into a different persona, because that would have compromised the interviews.
“I didn’t want to be false with all these very genuine people. We needed them to trust us, and we didn’t ever want them to feel like they were being taken advantage of.”