Written by Shira Gotshalk
Nick Jasenovec’s friend was skeptical (in general) about love (in particular). She thought that a documentary – people from many different backgrounds and their love stories – would help her find some truth, and she wanted his help. Luckily for Jasenovec, the friend was actor-performer-writer Charlyne Yi, and that was just the starting point. “It just naturally evolved from there. We came up with the notion that she should be on camera, and that the audience should see the film through her eyes, because she was the one with questions.”
And so Paper Heart began to take a new shape: half documentary, half scripted fiction. “She's a fun person to follow on a journey like this,” explains Jasenovec of Yi (Semi-Pro, Knocked Up). “Once we decided to make her the focus of the documentary, we knew that we needed an arc, a storyline of some sort, to support the whole film. The obvious thing was to create a love story for her. Not only is she trying to figure out what love is, she's actually experiencing it for the first time as well.” Adding a layer of intricacy for the first-time feature scripters, the fictional characters are named after real people: Charlyne, Nick, and Michael (Cera, Yi’s real-life partner in love). More on that later...
After one year of community college film school in Arizona – six months of screenwriting, shooting 16mm film and learning to edit on Avid – Jasenovec moved further west. But serendipity followed him. He met a guy in school named Bill Hader. “We hit it off really well, and we roomed together for many years and made some short films together,” he remembers. Hader was noticed by Saturday Night Live and got a part on the show. This opened the door for a lot of opportunities and new people. “One of the people he met was Judd Apatow, and he talked to Judd about a script that we were working on at the time,” said Jasenovec. “We let Judd read it and he liked it enough to hire us to write a different idea.” That was his first break.
Jasenovec recently talked with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about taking on the behemoth subject of love, making a name for yourself at Sundance, and going meta with your characters.
What was it like writing a script with a friend? How structured and disciplined was the process?
Photo: © 2009 Paper Heart Productions
Michael Cera and Charlyne Yi in Paper Heart.
First of all, we wrote an outline and a treatment. We never had a full script. We had some passionate, friendly arguments over certain ideas, but ultimately we were both pretty happy with where we ended up. It all came together fairly quickly. I think we worked on the story for about a month. We knew that we wanted to shoot off of an outline with a lot of improv and give it a natural feeling that felt very similar to the actual documentary film that we were going to be shooting to include in the film. We tried to avoid scripting things too closely and avoid the traditional movie-type conflicts and situations as much as possible. We wanted it to be like real life.
Would you accept the label of "mockumentary"?
I don't think so. I guess technically it's half of a mockumentary because it is a fake documentary for half of it, but I also associate mockumentary with Spinal Tap and Christopher Guest, which we're big fans of, but those generally are not necessarily trying to be real. Whereas with ours, we did have half real documentary footage, so we wanted the other half to loosely – the sort of loosely scripted half – to feel as realistic as that. So, we approached it more as straight documentary as opposed to a mockumentary. I think generally with mockumentaries, a lot of the characters are quite broad, where the goal is more comedy, whereas we were going for something a little more realistic.
Was it hard for you, as a writer, to write about love without sounding trite or predictable? I think about trying to write a true love letter, and I’m like – eh, it's all been said.
I think so. I guess we kind of cheated a little, because Charlyne the character is kind of reluctant to open up around the camera. So, she's not too open about the idea of love and her relationship with Michael in the film. A lot of it, you have to assume, is talked about off-camera. And hopefully her actions define her a little bit more than what she's offering up to the camera verbally. Then with the real people, too, I think that helps by expressing so many different opinions and stories. So, some of it is a little bit trite or cliché, but it's cliché for a reason: A lot of people feel that way.
It got very meta, with the characters playing fictionalized versions of themselves. Are there special challenges with this structure?
Not necessarily. I think you have to be comfortable with the fact that some people aren't going to know what's real and what isn't, and there's going to be some confusion. If a character with your name does something maybe-not-so-flattering in the film, then [the audience might] believe that that is real. I don't know, I think the three of us do enjoy sort of playing with reality and perceptions and expectations.
We're very up-front about the fact that it is a piece of fiction. It may look like a documentary, but it definitely is fiction and these are not the real people. We definitely had fun with it. It's sort of dictated by the approach. If you're going to make a documentary with a fictional storyline, we decided we didn't want there to be any break in the style or realism; therefore, we sort of had to take the documentary-style approach to fictional elements. I think we had fun with it.
You made a huge splash at Sundance with your debut feature. Do you have a tiny worry that you’ve already reached the top?
It's definitely always a dream to take a film to Sundance. And we were really honored to be a part of dramatic competition, which was pretty exciting. I don't know if the splash was big enough to be honest. It wasn't unanimous. I don't know what kind of expectations I've created. I would hope to definitely go back to Sundance with a feature film. It might create expectations, but it could also have created an audience, hopefully, which I didn't have before this. I don't know how hard it will be to live up to, but it's created an entrance in life, which is exciting.
What are you working on now?
Charlyne, Jake Johnson [from the film] and I are working on an idea for a television pilot for HBO. We don't know if it will even get shot or anything, but we've had a lot of fun working on it and hopefully we'll get to finish it and see that world come to life. Then the script that Bill and I gave Judd all those years ago, I am currently rewriting on my own, and that could be my next film.
How important is it to you to direct your own scripts?
Pretty important. I read a lot of scripts, and I like a lot of them, but it's hard for me to connect to something I haven't created. I got into writing because of a desire to direct and so, the goal has always been to write something to shoot in film. I'm sure someday I'll read something that I really love, and I'll want to do it, but it hasn't happened yet. As a writer, I feel a little strange about reading something and connecting to a piece of it and then feeling the need to change other parts. And I don't feel comfortable doing that, just because I wouldn't be thrilled with someone else taking my script and changing it completely.
So would you feel comfortable having someone else direct your script?
Maybe. I haven't really thought of that in terms of writing something for hire, or not for myself to direct. I'm sure it'll probably come up at some point. I would be open to it. As long as the writer stays involved, that's probably the best situation to be involved in because I think a lot of times someone can come in and really help a writer and improve what they already have. And if the writer can be involved with that, then I think everyone can be happy.