Perhaps the biggest breakout hit of this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Michael Showalter‘s The Big Sick. The semi-true love story of star and writer Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, The Big Sick tells an unfamiliar courtship saga that involves, you guessed it, hospitalization and, you probably didn’t guess it, Pakistani 9/11 terrorist jokes. Uncommonly earnest and full of unique cultural perspectives, this slice-of-life dramedy fits perfectly into producer Judd Apatow‘s wheelhouse with the personal touches courtesy of Kumail and Emily’s true story keeps it from fresh and funny throughout.
I sat down with director Michael Showalter, star and co-writer Kumail Nanjiani and co-writer Emily Gordon to discuss the translating their romance to the big screen, Nazi jokes, finding a three act structure in the sloppiness of life, “white culture” and Muslims and the prospects of working together again.
Obviously you guys have gotten a really warm reception, I’m sure you’re pretty excited about where it’s at. Can we talk about how this is such a personal story, and it’s something that’s so emotionally revealing to make this film about your love story. Were there any reservations you had, putting this on the big screen for everyone to see?
Kumail Nanjiani: Emily had more reservations than I did, from the beginning she was like, “I don’t know if we should do this.”
Emily Gordon: I’m a big boundary fanatic. I very much don’t want to have it all out there, but we landed on a story that’s a good mix of both what actually happened and from taking creative license where we could. Ultimately I’m very comfortable with it.
Kumail Nanjiani: If people know you, now they’ll ask you like, “How are things with your parents?”, and I’m like, “How do you know this?”
Emily Gordon: As a writer I never expected to get to do any press or do hair and makeup or anything, so I’m excited, I’m riding that wave.
You’ve said this is a combination of fact and fiction; some things you’ve kind of created for this. How did you parse that out? What did you decide to beef up in the movie that was not part of your real life story?
Emily Gordon: I think Mike and Judd were both good about helping us with just because it happened in real life doesn’t mean it has to be that way. Often it doesn’t make the best story for it. Dig down into our own story, what was a good thing to use, what wasn’t. Judd was very good at saying, “Who’s the worst type of person to be stuck in a room with Kumail? Turn that person up five notches”.
Kumail Nanjiani: Judd’s really a Nazi about structure stuff.
Emily Gordon: Maybe just don’t say Nazi. Ever.
Kumail Nanjiani: Why, because they’re back?
Emily Gordon: None of this is on the record.
Kumail Nanjiani: Mike is very strict about structure stuff, so that was really helpful. What was interesting was at our first meeting you said, “I know that the middle of the story is you in the room looking at her pictures of her childhood. Everything goes around it. At this point, when I have the meltdown on stage, at that point all this stuff has to be done.” So we sort of moved events around…
Michael Showalter: The big thing that we argued about all the way to the end, was do you tell your parents before or after that? My thing all along was that there’s no…I’m assuming at this point that you guys probably agree, I just remember I tried to be okay with it. There’s got to be nothing left.
Kumail Nanjiani: It’s so interesting that all these things that we argued about so much while we were writing the script, when we first saw the movie, those were not the same discussions and arguments. We didn’t talk about any of that. There’s three or four scenes where we’ll fight with my parents, we fight with my parents, I remember in the writing, we were like, “I don’t know, if this works”, but when we saw the first edit we thought it was fine. Things that you would assume would be problems were not problems at all.
In searching for the authenticity of your guys’ relationship and your working on this film together, then turning that into something that has a narrative arc, whereas life itself is very sloppy and things don’t tend to work in a normal arc-y movie sense. Life is a fifty or hundred act structure. But I think you do a beautiful job of encapsulating the relationship and finding these other very important cultural moments, from both your perspectives. Can you talk about what you want the audience to take away from the cultural discussions in relationships like your that the film opens up?
Emily Gordon: The thing about white culture is…
Michael Showalter: We made a lot of effort to put in a lot of stuff about white culture. (laughs)
Kumail Nanjiani: Powerful…white powerful stuff… I will say first of all, the weird thing about the real life event was strangely this specific event is a three act structure. We meet, she’s in a coma, she’s not in a coma, you can see it really does work as a three act structure. This movie wasn’t like, we now have to give voice to these people that are demonized. We just had to show, if this movies successful, we have to show everybody being real people, and part of that is showing my family being real people and in showing a Muslim family that loves each other that’s not defined by their Muslimness. It’s one of the things they are, but they also eat a lot, they’re loud, they joke, they love each other, they annoy each other and all that stuff. So I think that culturally if people take something away from it, it’s that I think we all have much more in common than we don’t.
Michael Showalter: So it doesn’t really matter when you get down to it.
Emily Gordon: But it absolutely does matter the fact that we have to show, “Oh, isn’t it crazy that we’re showing a Muslim family just hanging out and eating?”, and it’s a revolutionary thing. That’s why it does matter. But that’s not what the movie’s saying, that’s what I’m saying about it right now.
Kumail Nanjiani: And that was also something that Mike, when we were pretty close to being done with the script, right until shooting, Mike thought there was something missing, if you’re a Muslim person in America, that’s a certain kind of experience, people perceive you in a certain way, and Mike thought it seemed like we were more trying to avoid it. We added the heckling scene, the little thing when me and my brother are arguing, and I look over at the family and go, “Okay we’re not terrorists.”
Emily Gordon: Also parts of the breakup between Emily and Kumail, we made sure the cultural stuff was brought up in that too.
Kumail Nanjiani: The discrimination. I didn’t want to put it in there, but I’m so glad that it’s in there.
Emily Gordon: Me too.
There are all these awkward scenes where your mom, rather the movie version of your mom, is bringing in these other Pakistani women just for a “drop in”. I’m curious, take me back to your real life experiences with this, and what was the most horrifyingly awkward drop in that you ever had to withstand?
Kumail Nanjiani: My parents lived in a different state, for the movie we moved them together. We heightened it for the movie. In real life, it wasn’t happening all the time. My mom would send me pictures and I actually found recently emails from 2006, we were dating already, and I could see my response to my mom, I was such an asshole. I clearly was giving her enough, this women was gorgeous, I would say we would make beautiful babies.
Emily Gordon: He was literally stringing his mother along.
Kumail Nanjiani: I was really pleasantly surprised at how much it sort of evolved. I don’t mean evolved in a way of growing up, I just mean how much their opinions on this stuff has changed. To my mom, it was literally the most important thing, and it was so cool that she had jewelry that she was going to give to my Pakistani wife that then she gave to Emily. Most of my cousins are arranged marriages, and all of my aunts and uncles are arranged marriages.
Emily Gordon: She just had in her mind a version of her son, not to speak for her, but what her son’s life was going to be and it takes a little bit of time to adjust to it changing. You don’t realize how flexible your parents are. My parents are flexible because I’ve been beating the shit out of them emotionally since I was 12. But his parents, not so much, so that was definitely an adjustment.
So in terms of getting this off the ground…I know you’ve had more visibility because of Silicon Valley, did that enable you to be able to bring this out and shop it around? How did you link up with Judd?
Kumail Nanjiani: Judd actually was the one who wanted us to do this.
He already just knew you guys?
Kumail Nanjiani: He knew us, we just met him. I think Judd develops a lot of people. He was like, “Alright, do you guys have any fun stories from your life?” And then he was like, “Yup! That’s the one!”. He was on from the beginning, and we knew with Judd that the big barrier was going to be if we can convince him that we can write a good enough script then he’ll get it made.
Emily Gordon: We’d write a draft every few months, we would go in to meet with him, he would give us notes, rip it to shreds, and that happened for two years. A little over two years. Every few months. It wasn’t a full time job, it was just on our off time, work on it, take in a draft… and then eventually he was like, “Okay, this is good, I think we can move on to the next step.”
Kumail Nanjiani: Which was getting a director. I think it was May 2015, and we started shooting in May 2016.
Emily Gordon: You don’t know if anything is going to become anything, but you’re not doing it for money.
Kumail Nanjiani: This movie couldn’t be a big budget movie or it wouldn’t get made, so we knew that if we were taking money for it, it was just going to make it harder. It’s the lowest budget movie that Judd has done. We all worked on it until Thanksgiving that year, then we sent it back to a bunch of financiers, but if you have Judd’s name attached, and Mike’s movie had just come out and was doing really well. I remember we’d all be in a room writing and you’d be getting print outs…
I’m sure none of you expected ‘The Big Sick” to take off as much; it sold for 12 million, it was the second biggest seller at Sundance. That’s got to be a pleasant surprise.
Emily Gordon: I was hoping it would go well at Sundance, but I wasn’t at all thinking, “I hope the numbers are good”. I just want people to see it and like it when it comes out.
So after going through all of this together, would you guys ever pair up together?
Emily Gordon: We’re talking about taking on other writing jobs.
Kumail Nanjiani: I’d love for all three of us to work together. I would be happy if I only worked with the people that I worked with on this movie for the rest of my life. I would love to just work with this group.
Emily Gordon: We’re writing an episode of an anthology series for NBC, that’s the next thing we’re doing together, both of us are doing stuff on our own but we’ll keep working together.
Michael Showalter: Big Sick 2.
Emily Gordon: Bigger and Sicker!
Kumail Nanjiani: It’ll be just about making Big Sick 1.
Any other projects going on?
Emily Gordon: No, that’s enough.
Kumail Nanjiani: When is the next season of Wet Hot American Summer coming out?
Michael Showalter: There is actually, in August, it’s already done filming.
Emily Gordon: As we were editing, he had to leave to go film scenes. He wears a lot of hats.
Michael Showalter: Yes, I was wearing a lot of hats.
Emily Gordon: And Search Party season 2. It’s so good. I would say that no matter who was in the room.