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Two Friends, One Van, and a Paper Heart: An Interview with Charlyne Yi and Jake Johnson

Charlyne Yi and Jake Johnson are now traveling the country together for the second time. The first time they stuffed into a van with nine others to make their film Paper Heart. This time, they’re promoting the movie.

The trip is unquestionably more laid back this time around.

Talking with the pair reveals the production’s ongoing risks, with on-the-fly writing and tons of improvisation. Yet, Paper Heart is a sweet, smart mix of genres: Yi, playing herself, stars in a documentary about searching for love while unexpectedly starting a relationship with real-life pal Michael Cera (as himself). Johnson joins in as director Nick Jasenovec (Paper Heart‘s real director).

Confused? Well, that’s seat-of-your-pants filmmaking. And sometimes those pants don’t smell so good. We talked to the duo about the experience. In the film, Charlyne is followed constantly by a documentary film crew. Was the shooting that demanding, or did you follow more of a narrative film schedule?

Jake Johnson: I think it was more a narrative schedule. We basically started with four weeks on the road and drove from LA to New York. It was just really like a weird road trip… like a road trip with a band because there were 11 of us in the van.

The movie was essentially shot this way: (Director) Nick (Jasenovec) would see a location he liked and we’d pull over. He and the DP would then find something and frame it so it would look really nice and then he’d say ‘Alright guys… let’s do a scene here.’ And then we’d figure out what we’d come up with, and talk it out really fast. Because we didn’t have time, they’d turn on the cameras and start shooting.

Did you shoot in sequence?

Charlyne Yi: No, we shot the last stuff first, which was terrifying. One of the first scenes we shot was the Toronto scene, and that’s when we kind of realized we didn’t know what we were doing.

JJ: Mike (Cera) actually couldn’t make it out for the Toronto stuff so we shot that scene without him.

CY: Because we wanted the snow to kind of create an atmosphere.

JJ: He was down in Louisiana doing Year One, and there was a storm so he couldn’t make it. So we’re at the beginning of our film and we thought we were gonna lose our money.

CY: And we were like, ‘Why didn’t people trust us in the first place?’ (laughs)

JJ: The first day in Toronto was terrible. We didn’t know the tone or the bits.

You were really fudging it.

CY: Oh yeah.

JJ: And we were like this in the van all the time (imitates sitting close together).

CY: Yeah, next to the icebox, which smelled like an aquarium.

JJ: And one of our camera guys smelled terrible.

CY: Well we smelled bad. We had a fart war.

Ah, that’s good. What city was that?

CY: All cities.

Were you considering tone and approach much while making the film, or did it just evolve organically?

JJ: On the road, we would talk about different parts of the relationship (between Charlyne and Michael) because it was all improvised. If we liked a location, Charlyne and I would improvise scenes as if she hadn’t met Mike, if they had started dating, if they were really serious, if it was going bad… so we would do the same scenes sometimes 100 times. We had 300 hours of footage.

By the end (of the shoot) we would say, ‘What scene do you want to do? How about we do that scene?’ We would know all the peaks because we had been doing scenes so many times.

CY: When we wrote the outline we had a certain idea. As we were filming, it evolved into something else. It was scary because we didn’t even know how involved Jake was going to be. He was going to have a small part, but we realized it’d be good to have him so my character could express how I feel and get that information out.

This was all while we were shooting and it was so stressful. We were saying, ‘I hope we know what we’re doing, I hope this makes sense in the end.’ We did a rough assembly and when we watched it, it was so depressing. We were like, ‘This doesn’t make any sense. I don’t know if what we’re doing is good.’

The whole thing was such a learning experience. It was kind of terrifying because we didn’t know what we were doing. We just hoped we knew what we were doing.

During editing, how much of a creative source were you both to recall what worked and what didn’t?

CY: I was there throughout the whole editing process. We realized we had to be really unbiased because there were certain things we’d do that really captured me and Jake. Nick would say ‘Oh that’s really funny, let’s include that.’ But we realized if you’re a stranger, it’s actually not funny.

So it was more you recalling the fun you had.

CY: Yeah, yeah (laughs). But I asked if I could be there the entire time because I felt like I had some things to say and opinions…

JJ: And it’s her story.

CY: Sometimes they would edit me and I would say, ‘No, my character wouldn’t do that.’ We had all these different options. It could’ve been a buddy comedy, it could’ve been a love story… it could’ve been anything. I’m happy with the way it came out.

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