Paper Heart Director Nicholas Jasenovec on Michael Cera, Charlyne Yi, and the Perils of the Sundance Spotlight
In the upcoming comedy Paper Heart, not only do stars Charlyne Yi and Michael Cera play themselves, but director Nicholas Jasenovec casts an actor to play his own stand-in, who directs Yi on a voyage of romantic self-discovery. It's a very meta juggling act, but one that's a perfect fit for Yi, the alternative comedienne who stole scenes in Judd Apatow's Knocked Up.
As the film plays at LAFF this week, I sat down with Jasenovec (pictured here, at bottom-left, with his cast) to get the lowdown on his chemistry with Yi, the behind-the-scenes incidents that changed the film, and the double-edged sword that came from the film's hyped reception this year at Sundance. And no, I didn't send an actor to play myself in the interview.
When did you first become aware of Charlyne?
I think I saw her perform at maybe Garage Comedy a couple times. She did this magic routine where she does these magic tricks with lights and cards and then she asks the audience for money for the next trick. So she gets a bunch of money and then she brings a volunteer on stage, and you're wondering what the trick's gonna be, and then she tells the volunteer, "I'll give you all this money if you punch me in the face."
And then the routine becomes, "Are they or are they not gonna punch her in the face?" And she's egging them on and everything. It was really bizarre, I'd never seen anything like it. Even in that comedy scene, where you see a lot of unique things, I'd never seen anyone like her. She's so specific, too: She's this tiny, little, young-looking girl doing comedy in this alternative world. And I think Bill [Hader] had told me, too, "You've gotta see Charlyne Yi." When he started performing, she was one of his favorites.
What's your relationship with her like?
It's fairly similar to the one in the film, I guess. There's a little bit of a protective older brother feel, even though she's super independent and quite capable of taking care of herself. Maybe it's her size or age or something -- you can't help but feel protective of her. She doesn't need it, I don't think, and I'm sure she would hate to hear that I feel that way about her. But it's very much of a brother-sister relationship. In fact, early on, people used to think we were dating, and we were always disgusted by that.
I think because we never saw each other that way at all. But we would be hanging out, and people would say, "Hey, you and Charlyne, eh?" It's funny, because in an early cut of the film we showed to friends, people felt like Nick was falling in love with Charlyne. We had to really scale that back, because we didn't want it to be distracting. We thought, "Hey, that's an interesting subtext if it's in there," but we definitely didn't want people to think that.
How did you get Jake Johnson, who plays you in the film, to replicate your behind-the-scenes chemistry with Charlyne?
They really were bonding the entire time during shooting. They really got to know each other on the road -- they had the last two seats on the van, so they were always back there playing ridiculous games and giggling. Looking back, I'm sure it would look like a really smart decision on my part [to pair them that way], but it was unintentional. I think it really informed their relationship on camera, just the fact that they were becoming great friends while making the movie. I've heard Charlyne say that they were such good friends on camera that it was strange when they came back to LA and didn't really hang out as much. [Laughs] It was almost like all for the sake of the movie.
This is a very "meta" movie...how much of what was going on behind the scenes influenced what you'd then put in front of the camera?
You can plan this type of film out only so much, but everything is constantly changing. You know, we never intended for the intrusion of the crew and the cameras to be a big part of the film, but it kind of naturally came out.
It feels so inevitable when you watch it.
You know, when we were making the movie, we had this behind-the-scenes camera, and it was awful! Every time it would come around, everyone would just shut up. We'd be telling dirty jokes and then we'd look up and see that camera on us, and it felt like you couldn't really be yourself in front of it. With what Michael and Charlyne do for a living, they know what it's like to have cameras around, so I think it just naturally came out as a conflict during shooting.
So there was a camera filming Nick, who was already filming someone playing Nick, who was filming Charlyne playing Charlyne?
Yeah. [Laughing] There's some interesting footage, for sure. It was a strange way to make a movie.
Who do you think the film's intended for?
I don't know. I never thought it was, but apparently it's intended for, like, fifteen-year-old girls. [Laughing]
Why is that?
Just doing the test screening process, those were our "definite recommends." Which makes sense -- obviously, Michael's got a fanbase in that area, and Charlyne is sort of a unique leading lady. I think it's nice for girls to see someone like Charlyne in a movie that she wrote, produced and did the music for. She's not traditional by any means.
When you were making it, Paper Heart was pretty under the radar, but when it was announced at Sundance, so many publications started hyping your film as the one to watch.
Yeah, it was exciting at first, but then it was a little disappointing. When we made it, we weren't really sure how we were going to talk about the reality of the film, so we never announced it -- and really, it's such a small movie, it didn't really require a Variety announcement. But somehow, people just never found out about it! Then we got into Sundance -- we found out a few weeks before and you're not supposed to tell anybody, but I think everyone in town kind of knows. And a few days before the announcement, there's this Hollywood Reporter article about the "secret Michael Cera comedy that's set to play Sundance." Like, "This is the one to look out for!"
First of all, it created a misconception about what the film was. It's not a Michael Cera comedy -- he's in it, but he's probably like the third lead, screentime-wise. And it's not a straightforward comedy like the ones Michael is known for. So that was unfortunate. I think it was a double-edged sword: It created a lot of excitement, but I think it also created expectations that were never gonna be met because it is sort of a different, specific film. It's not necessarily for everybody.
You told me once before that when you had the inkling that you were going to win the screenwriting award at Sundance, you felt a lot of mixed emotions.
I'm not sure if the Sundance people would appreciate us talking about it, but they'd given us a heads-up that Charlyne and I should be there for the awards ceremony...
I think people know how this works at film festivals now, don't they? Hell, at Cannes this past year, so much of the Palme d'Or speculation centered on which directors were still spotted in town.
Yeah, fuck it, let's talk about it. [Laughs] Yeah, so Charlyne had already come back to LA -- her and Michael had left Sundance a little early. I was still there, and the night before the awards, I got a call from someone that said I should try to get Charlyne to come back for the awards show. So we had this idea that we had won something. It should have been obvious -- we should have put two and two together that if it had been pretty much any other award, only I would have needed to be there. But I think just because Charlyne is such a big part of the film, I just assumed they'd want her there for any award we might win.
So our assumption was that it must be the Audience Award. We knew it wasn't gonna be the Grand Jury prize -- like, we'd seen some of these other movies. We're not in that category, you know? And then the audience award was announced fairly early on, and Push got it. And we were...surprised? Like, "What are we gonna win?" I mean, there's photos of us just looking sick to our stomachs, because before we went to the awards show, we thought, "Well, we hope it's not the screenwriting award."
Above, Jasenovec and Yi brace themselves at the Sundance awards ceremony.
Why were you worried about winning the screenwriting award?
Because it was well-known that the film was mostly improvised off of an outline, and I think a lot of people feel like that's not real writing. It's crazy, the amount of real writing that goes into that. It sounds simple, and I probably didn't help things when we won the award and I said we only had five pages of written material. But really, you get to set, and an hour before you shoot, you sit down and you talk the scene out from start to finish and really flesh things out.
And the editing is writing, too.
Exactly. We had 300 hours of footage. Shooting the film was almost like a first draft, and then editing it was like one long, six-month rewriting session. So we were kind of surprised, and we were worried that the people who had written traditional scripts would be pretty upset. I did manage to hear part of a conversation from someone complaining about us -- I don't think they noticed me right next to them. But also, [jury member] Mike White kept saying, "This is the punk rock thing to do," and I've since heard from other people who were on the jury, like Boaz Yakin, that they felt like they did this "punk rock" thing. They were kind of rewarding us for telling an old story in a new way.
Did that praise get through to you?
I remember walking around the awards show afterwards, and I did feel like people were mad at me. But it felt kind of good, too. I think I was kind of concerned about people's reactions when I first won it, and then I went outside and heard that guy say, "They didn't even have a script," kind of furious or whatever, and I thought, "Yeah, we didn't! We won it in spite of the fact that we didn't have a script. That's pretty awesome, we should feel proud of this accomplishment." I did feel a little bit like a bad boy. [Laughs] ♦