Paper Heart: How to Make a Really Low-Budget Indie

Directed by Nick Jasenovec, “Paper Heart” was co-written by Jasenovec and Charlyne Yi.  The offbeat romantic comedy, starring Charlyne Yi and Michael Cera (her real-life boyfriend, who plays himself), premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film fest and wll be released by Overture August 7, 2009. 

 

Long fascinated by the intangible idea of love – and fundamentally not believing in “love at first sight” or any of that “Julia Roberts/English Patient /sobbing-in-the-rain stuff,” Charlyne Yi had always dreamt of making a documentary about the subject.  She knew “true love” was something everybody was searching for, so it was great subject matter. She found the people who actually believed in love endlessly fascinating–even though she herself thought it was all so much hot air.

 

Feeling passionate about it, she approached her good friend, director Nick Jasenovec, to aid her in bringing the idea to life, and the friends’ discussions became the seeds of what is now Paper Heart. But as their talks and ideas became plans and reality, their progress morphed Charlyne’s original documentary idea into something different, exciting, and new.

 

One of the first things they did was decide that Charlyne herself should play a central part on camera. With her strong “I don’t believe” take on the subject, they felt audiences should experience the film through her eyes and follow her on her journey, questioning the notion of love.

 

“I wasn’t planning on being on camera,” says Charlyne. “I originally wanted to shoot a documentary because I felt the interview subjects were more interesting than me. Plus, I find myself annoying sometimes, and I’m always uncomfortable when the cameras are there. It’s like a magnifying glass. If you do something annoying, someone’s going to see you.” After much discussion, however, Charlyne set her reservations aside and agreed to take the plunge.

 

With Charlyne on camera and knowing her strengths as a performer, that’s when the project really took a turn for the interesting: Nick came up with the idea of creating a narrative side to the film, a fictional half to mash-up with the documentary, creating a hybrid whole.

 

Says Charlyne, “Nick’s approach was, ‘Well, why don’t we fabricate a story and make this into a film-slash-documentary where you’re actually acting so you feel more comfortable on camera?’ I thought that was a very interesting take.” That ultimately became the spark that propelled the production forward and created excitement for everyone involved.

 

To produce the project, Charlyne and Nick reached out to friends Sandra Murillo and Elise Salomon. Nick and Elise had met in film school and were close, and they all ran in the same circles. “I always thought Nick was one of the most talented dudes on the planet,” says Elise.  Elise and Sandra ran in the same work circles as Nick. He knew their work as producers, and they had long wanted to collaborate on a project.

 

“When Nick and Charlyne came up with the idea for the film, they took us out to dinner and said, ‘So, what do you think? Can you help us with this? Because we’re not producers,’” says Sandra. “It was one of the most original and beautiful ideas I had ever heard,” says Elise. Sandra adds, “I thought it was a great idea, something we hadn’t seen before. So we said, ‘We’re in!’” “We started talking about how we could tackle it from a production standpoint and it seemed impossible,” says Elise. “That’s when I knew we were supposed to do it. No one else had their vision or their courage, and I knew Sandra and I could find a way.”

 

An Arc and a Story

 

In blending the narrative storyline, Charlyne and Nick knew it would need an arc and structure, so they began writing a script that would support and complement the documentary sections. In choosing the story, they felt it would be great to have Charlyne’s “character” meet a boy and possibly fall in love, so they began working o
n a relationship angle for the film. Their ideas in place, the duo wrote a loose outline of the entire movie before production began. They then compiled a list of the types of people they were interested in interviewing for the doc portion, hoping to find stories that would tie into or support the narrative.

 

Because they were blurring the lines, the filmmakers felt they also might be able to have fun with people’s expectations of what the movie actually was. “We knew people might get muddled and think it was real,” says Charlyne. “But there are credits. There’s a ‘written by’ and ‘Nick is played by Jake.’” “We found it exciting,” says Nick. “If you thought what you were watching was potentially real, you’d be more engaged in the story. The actors are playing themselves, but it’s not them and it’s not the ‘real’ circumstances…although they’re similar circumstances.” Overall, they were excited about presenting a love story an audience could believe in, and hopefully creating something even more effective than most traditional takes on the subject.

 

The filmmakers agreed that the true, documentary aspects of the film would be very important in helping an audience connect to Charlyne and her quest. To create this realistic feel, they shot in the same style for both sides of the film to ensure a uniform look and feel and avoid jarring transitions between the two. Using the script as an outline, they improvised dialogue and sometimes whole scenes, consciously attempting to make things feel as realistic as possible. The idea was to create an entertaining story that wasn’t overly structured or too much in the vein of a traditional romantic comedy.

 

Producer Sandra says, “I think one of the reasons the film comes across as realistic across the board, with lines blurred between documentary and narrative, is because Charlyne and Nick were not trying to fulfill any formula or manufacture a typically Hollywood film. This is definitely a film with an independent spirit and a unique perspective on love, and that’s the film’s charm.”

 

In another effort to maintain the realistic feel of the film, they actually took a step away from realism: they hired actor Jake Johnson to portray Nick on screen. The filmmakers had toyed with the idea of Nick actually playing himself, but ultimately, “real” wouldn’t work. “I’m not a good enough actor,” says Nick.

 

Stage Version of Spielberg's E.T.

 

“Hiring Jake became necessary for making the film feel real. I couldn’t risk someone not believing in the story because I was bad on camera. And Jake is fantastic.” Nick and Jake had previously collaborated on a few short films, while Charlyne and Jake had performed together on stage. As they were looking for funding for Paper Heart, the trio worked for the first time together on a 30-minute stage version of Steven Spielberg’s ET: The Extra Terrestrial. Nick directed, Jake played Elliot and Charlyne played ET. The creative trio firmly established, the last piece of the puzzle was to find someone to play Charlyne’s unexpected object of affection. They approached actor Michael Cera to be in the scripted portions of the film, as he was a friend and they thought he’d be perfect for it.

 

“The first person we pitched was Michael – I did it and it went horribly,” laughs Charlyne. “I couldn’t convey the idea at all. Nick was like, ‘How’d it go?’ I said, ‘He said he doesn’t know if he wants to do it.’ We felt like Michael would bring the best to the character, but after we got Jake on board we did talk to some other people. Michael found out we were doing that and said, ‘Hey, I didn’t say “no.”’ We said, ‘Oh, but you weren’t sure…’ and he’s like, ‘Well, I don’t really understand the idea.’ I was like, ‘Sorry, Nick, you should’ve pitched him.’”

 

In searching for a production home, the filmmakers were thrilled when Anchor Bay Entertainment (sister company of Overture Films) decided to invest in their unique vision. “Pitching the movie was so difficult,” says Charlyne. “It’s such a different movie and so risky. But I think the reason they took a risk on this was because, I felt, during the pitch they were like, ‘Yeah. I want to find love, too!’ They had a personal connection to it. They understood what we were trying to do.”