‘The Big Sick’ Writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon on Making a Universal Romantic Comedy [Interview]
Posted on Tuesday, March 28th, 2017 by Jacob Hall
The Big Sick is one of the best movies you’ll see in 2017 and one of the most refreshing, romantic, and emotionally brutal romantic comedies…of all time? That sounds like hyperbole, but in the weeks since I named it my favorite movie of SXSW 2017, it feels more and more true. Director Michael Showalter and Amazon Studios, who acquired the film after its Sundance debut, have a gem on their hands.
But all movies start with a script and that’s where Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (who also stars in the movie) come in. Their screenplay, based on the wild true story of how the two of them actually met and fell in love, is a masterpiece: detailed, character-driven, painful, and oh-so-very funny. I was able to sit down with this duo at SXSW for an all-too-brief chat about making movies universal, casting actors to play their parents, and their favorite comedies that also make them cry.
Hi, I’m Jacob. Nice to meet you.
Gordon: Emily. Nice to meet you.
Nanjiani: Hi, I’m Kumail. Nice to meet you.
The movie is so good, guys.
Nanjiani: Thank you!
Gordon: Thank you!
Nanjiani: Who do you write for?
I write for SlashFilm.com.
Gordon: Oh! We love Slash!
Nanjiani: Obviously, we’re big movie nerds and I’ve been going to Ain’t It Cool from back in the day and Slash and Birth Movies Death. What’s TwitchFilm called now? Screen Anarchy?
Screen Anarchy, yeah.
Gordon: Because you can’t use Twitch anymore because Twitch is now…
Nanjiani: I go to those all the time.
Gordon: Pajiba. Pajibes.
Nanjiani: How do you pronounce that?
Gordon: Pah-jeye-bah, right?
I’ve always heard Pah-jeye-bah.
Gordon: That’s what I’m going to go with. We should get going. He doesn’t have a lot of time! Sorry.
Okay! So I’ll just dive right in. One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever heard came from when I interviewed James L. Brooks. He said that the key to writing a movie that feels universal is to be as specific as possible. Is this something you thought about while writing this?
Gordon: Wow, that’s a great piece of advice. And I think it’s true.
Nanjiani: Yeah. I think when you see something that’s really… We really wanted to put in the movie the sense that even if you knew nothing about it, while you were watching it, we wanted you feel like “I think this must have happened to someone.”
Gordon: You couldn’t make this story up.
Nanjiani: The little things, like him unlocking her phone with her thumb [while she’s in a medically induced coma] and all that kind of stuff. We really wanted to put in really specific stuff. That feeling of helplessness. What do you do? You go buy a giant stuffed giraffe. We wanted to fill it with stuff that only could have come from experience. We wanted it to feel like something someone had lived through.
Gordon: And it’s true that we wanted it to be something that would resonate with a lot of different types of people who had been through similar situations but weren’t exact. I’d love to meet someone who has been through this exact situation. I think that is an absolutely true piece of advice. The more specific you make it, the feelings that are bubbling underneath, that is what ends up pulling people in. Hopefully, that’s true for our movie, too.
Nanjiani: Yeah, James L. Brooks. You know, he’s one of [producer Judd Apatow’s] heroes, one of Judd’s idols. And us, too. We watched Broadcast News a lot while we were writing this movie and editing this movie. He was really good at balancing the comedy and the drama. That was a challenge while we were making our movie, to be able to do that, too.
I’ve interviewed writing duos before and they always have their process: work from their separate homes, share pages on Google docs, and so on. As a married couple, you really can’t do that.
Nanjiani: We pretended that we were in different spots.
Gordon: We have two different spots in the house. We have two different offices. We ignore each other for part of the day. That’s our workday. And if you need to talk to someone, you Gchat them.
Gordon: You don’t yell for them. That’s helpful. We also…it’s really helpful too, because we think that if you’re writing with someone it’s like “Ugh, on Saturday, I have to go over there for four hours and hang out.” Whereas we were like “It’s Saturday, let’s just take a few hours and work on the movie.”
Nanjiani: And then we’ll just have fun and play video games. It allowed us to write a lot really quickly, especially the last few months leading up to us trying to get funding and getting the actors cast and to shooting. We were constantly writing. It really helped. We’d get notes from Judd and it would be “I’ll take this scene and you take this scene.” We go into different rooms, write it–
Nanjiani: Gchat with each other, like she said. I’d be like “Hey, what was it that we decided to do?” and she’d tell me and she’d ask me questions and I’d answer. We would send them back, rewrite each other’s stuff, send it back, rewrite it again…
Gordon: Before anyone ever sees it, there has always been two rewrites on every single scene. That was quite helpful.
Nanjiani: At the end, when it was fully done and we just had to sharpen stuff, we’d throw it up on our Apple TV and sit next to each other on the couch and go through it line-by-line. But most of it was done in separate rooms.
Kumail, you play a version of yourself in this movie. Emily, I was wondering if you were heavily involved in casting yourself and your parents.
Gordon: Oh, yeah. We were definitely heavily involved in the casting process. And it wasn’t like I got a final say in who [movie] Emily was, but it was just quite clear from the audition tapes that Zoe [Kazan] was the best person for the role. That was clear to everybody.
Nanjiani: We saw great actors.
Gordon: We saw amazing people.
Nanjiani: She was right.
Gordon: She just happened to be the exact right person for the role. I didn’t go to those auditions because I didn’t want the actresses to feel weird, but when I was watching the tapes, it was clearly this one. That was true with everybody. Especially with my parents. You don’t want [actors] who are similar to my actual parents. We wanted people who would bring the best stuff to the role. And if you get the chance to get Holly Hunter, you’re gonna get Holly Hunter.
Nanjiani: That’s how you make a great movie. You get Holly Hunter.
Gordon: Take Holly Hunter!
Nanjiani: It was Judd’s idea. We were like “Okay, good luck.” But we wrote her a letter, sent it to her. We had to convince her to read it and the convince her to do it. Once she said yes, she was fully on board. She dove right in.
And Ray Romano is really keeping up with her.
Nanjiani: He’s amazing.
Gordon: He’s such an amazing actor. He’ll talk about this candidly, but I think he was a little nervous about [acting with Holly Hunter]. But he knows his stuff, man. There are a couple scenes that were actually cut from the movie where he chokes up in such a dad-like way. There’s a crack in his funny exterior, where you see just how hard this was for him underneath. The scenes were cut for other reasons. It’s devastating for me to watch. I still cannot handle men crying.
Nanjiani: There’s a scene where Holly and Ray are having an argument and Holly kind of stalks around him, like a fucking animal hunting its prey–
Gordon: Like a lion.
Nanjiani: There was a woman behind me [at the screening] who went like “Ohhhh.” It’s such a strong move
Gordon: It’s terrifying. She’s so much smaller than him, but she takes up a lot of room.
Nanjiani: She’s amazing.
We have a series on /Film where we answer questions as a group and we really want to do one that ties into this movie. So here’s my question for you two: what’s your favorite comedy that also makes you cry?
Gordon: Oh my God. I cry at movies all the time.
Nanjiani: You know what movie makes me…go ahead, Emily.
Gordon: No, you go ahead.
Nanjiani: Four Weddings and a Funeral is one of my favorite movies and I laugh all the time and I cry during the one funeral. But I’ll say that Monsters, Inc. is a movie that really gets me super-emotional. Especially the ending.
Gordon: Right at this very moment, I’m going to go with Steely Mags. I’m going to say Steel Magnolias, a movie I thought about a lot while we were writing this because it deals with some really heavy stuff, but there’s also really southern funny stuff in there as well.
Nanjiani: Another one that makes me cry and laugh is The Iron Giant. That movie gets me super-emotional. The–
Gordon and Nanjiani: “I am not a gun!”
Nanjiani: That thing and “Superman.” It’s just…it’s great.
The Big Sick will be released on June 23, 2017. You need to see this movie.Cool Posts From Around the Web: