Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon Talk About Adapting Their Own Story for ‘The Big Sick’

“We knew the story could be emotional, but we didn’t know how it could be funny.”
The Big Sick Kumail Nanjiani Emily V Gordon
By  · Published on June 23rd, 2017

It’s only days before the opening of The Big Sick, the Sundance darling that took the festival by storm last January, and the film’s co-writer and co-lead Kumail Nanjiani confesses he hasn’t slept well. “I think it’s sort of the nerves of the movie coming out.” Then turning over to his co-writer Emily V. Gordon, “The press day… It’s really good that we get to do it together,” he says. “It makes it not as difficult. I’m way more nervous about the movie coming out than she is. She’s very zen about it. She was zen about it before Sundance. I am a nervous wreck, and she’s totally fine.”

“I don’t think I’m totally fine, but I am zen,” Gordon responds.

I join the duo on the early side of a full day of interviews for them and observe their noticeably serene and harmonious partnership. They are infinitely delightful, thoughtful and OK; they sometimes unobtrusively finish each other’s sentences. And that makes sense, as Gordon and Nanjiani aren’t only creative collaborators, but also a real-life married couple whose love sprung under the most unimaginably intense circumstances. In fact, their wonderful contemporary rom-com The Big Sick is based on the extraordinarily eventful true story of their courtship. Directed by Michael Showalter and also starring Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano and Bollywood legend Anupam Kher, the film follows the couple’s relationship as it gets temporarily halted by cultural differences at first (Kumail’s Pakistani parents insist on an arranged marriage for their son), and then, a mysterious lung disease that puts Emily in a coma.

In The Big Sick, Nanjiani plays himself. Or at least, a version of himself (as certain parts of their relationship story are understandably fictionalized.) Zoe Kazan plays Emily. When asked about why she didn’t play her own self, Gordon simply says, “I’m not an actress. I’m a writer.” But then also adds, no one would have liked to see her and Nanjiani pretend to have sex on-screen anyway. The couple agrees that would have been awful and awkward.

Below is our conversation on how they created The Big Sick together. (Lightly edited for flow and clarity.)

Tomris Laffly: There are many layers to this story. There is your love story, Emily’s illness, and then generational and cultural divides. And on top of all that, there is Kumail’s career. And they all walk on such a fine, balanced line. How did you maintain that balance throughout?

Kumail Nanjiani: That’s exactly all the five storylines. You named all the five.

Emily V. Gordon: What we did was when director Michael Showalter came on, we had different colored index cards. So every storyline got its own color.

Kumail: We put up all the scenes on the board in order.

Emily: Yeah we’d be like, okay, we’ve gone this long with no blue, and blue was [for instance] Kumail’s career. We need to check in on that. We need to do this, and that was how [we were] making sure we weren’t ignoring things or spending too much time on one thing, and then forgetting about another one. We [didn’t] want to ever forget that there’s a girl who is quite ill and she’s there the whole time.

Kumail: While writing, it was very important to make sure that all the colors, all the storylines were equal. Then in the editing, we found out there were some storylines we didn’t need to go to as often. So part of the balance really was found in the edit. Realizing, for instance, the Kumail’s career storyline, there was a lot more to cut out because, [there is the] cultural divide, generational divide, a woman’s life hangs in the balance, so my comedy career is not as important.

Emily: No one cares about career [at that point.]

Kumail: And we found that out as we were watching it. We didn’t even show anybody all that stuff.

Emily: We were bored watching.

So it was like, let’s get back to the meat of it.

Kumail: That’s exactly right. Because what we had was, we had put in those comedy storylines to give people a break when things get too intense. We had all these scenes of my driving an Uber and funny stuff happening with passengers. All of that is gone.

This was such a crucial moment in your lives. What was it like, writing it together? Was it therapeutic in some way? Did you learn a lot about each other in that process?

Emily: Yeah. We started out with just a draft that was just kind of everything that happened. And that draft was not very funny and not a great movie to watch. It would’ve been awful. Then with Judd [Apatow] and Barry Mendel, our producer, we started working on finding a story in there. We worked together pretty well. We would trade off scenes. We would kind of divide up: I’m gonna take these four scenes, you’re gonna take those four. We would each write the scenes and then trade them. I would take Emily and Emily’s family, [he] would take Kumail and Kumail’s family. Then we would just keep trading back and forth. By the time Judd and Barry saw a draft, it was a draft that had been gone through both of our hands a couple of times.

Kumail: When we wrote that first draft, it would not have been a good movie; it would’ve been a four-hour epic. It wasn’t funny. It wasn’t necessarily interesting. There was no narrative drive. But from the beginning, there was a lot of emotion in it, because it was from our lives. Our job was just to pour it out. So what we had was, we had so much emotion in those drafts, that when we were rewriting, we knew what still had to survive. We did hundreds of drafts after that. But in each of those storylines, that emotion had to still be there. So, as we polished it, took stuff out, put stuff in… Even from that first draft, we knew these are the scenes that should make us feel a certain way. So, in doing the movie, that was what we wanted to preserve, from the very first draft.

Did it all stay true to the real story?

Emily: Not at all. We shifted things around. We changed characterizations of people.

Kumail: Characterizations of her parents are different.

Emily: And a lot of people really, but that’s what Judd was great about. And Barry too. [They would say], OK we have this character, what’s the worst kind of person for this character to be paired with? What’s the most awkward thing that could happen in this moment? [Judd was] really good about challenging us to make things more fictionalized when it serves the story. And turn up stakes or turn up volume or turn up something to kind of make it funnier, or more intense.

Kumail: We knew [early on] the challenge was, “how do you make this funny?” We knew the story could be emotional, but we didn’t know how it could be funny, because going through it, none of it was funny. But we knew at its most basic, people going through events that they’re not equipped for [is] sort of a funny thing. That’s kind of [where] a lot of the fictionalization came in, putting us in situations. Because going through it, it was just a lot of waiting, talking to doctors, waiting, waiting, waiting… It’s despair, sitting there and working really hard to not think of the worst-case scenario.

One of the things I was really glad to see in the story was, you gave a couple of key scenes to the Pakistani women Kumail was meeting with. They could have only served throwaway comic relief moments, but we instead got to see they are real people battling their own emotions and challenges.

Emily: What we wanted is for [the audience] to follow these girls. Each one of these girls is in her own movie, where she’s trying to find a mate, and going through this process. That’s how we thought of them, as these interesting human beings that were choosing to work within this system that Kumail is [choosing] not to, but lying about. That was really important to me. In my head, there’s a version of this where you just follow Khadija the entire time, and see her going on different dates and meeting guys. At the end, maybe she finds true love, who knows?

Kumail: You really want to feel like these people have been around before the movie started, and will be around after the movie is over. From the beginning, what we wanted to do is show everybody’s perspective. That’s what Judd and Barry were really good at. They were like; this movie can be messy. Nobody is right. Nobody is wrong. Just show everyone’s perspective, even with the small characters. We wanted to show Khadija’s perspective on it, and that Kumail’s actions have consequences. Even with my roommate Chris, we show at the end that he’s the guy that doesn’t leave. He’s the guy who doesn’t make it. So even with that character, who seems like a joke character the whole time, at the end, it’s a little sad.

Kumail is playing a version of himself. How did the idea of casting Zoe Kazan to play Emily come into play? Did you [Emily] ever consider playing yourself?

Emily: Oh no, I’m just not an actress. That is such a tough job. I acted in high school but you don’t want to see that. I knew from the start, if I wanted this to be a good movie, I was best served doing [the writing], and not [the acting]. We had auditions for this part, and a lot of really, really talented actresses came in, and [Zoe] just knocked it out of the park, and was the right fit for it. She took what was on the page and created this version of Emily. She said she’s looked me up before the audition.

Kumail: She’d watched videos of you [Emily] on YouTube.

Emily: She just kind of nailed it. But she definitely wasn’t doing an impression of me, because no one knows who I am anyway.

Well, that will change.

Kumail: [Laughs] Yes, well it’s been interesting because Emily and I do so much press together. Now people recognize Emily. Emily is like, I didn’t want this, I just wanted to be a writer.

Emily: I’m just a writer, I’m not equipped for all this, but it’s been really lovely. Sometimes people say, “You should’ve just played yourself.” That’s short shifting acto , because it is a tough job. You can’t just step in there and be like, I’ll do it, watch me go. No way, that would’ve been awful.

Kumail: It also helped us get some distance from the story, because I am playing myself. It was such a personal, emotional thing going through this. Here’s an analogy. I just came up with a great analogy, Emily. Like for a doctor, if you’re a surgeon, if you’re operating on a person, you have to be removed to do your job right. You can’t be like, “this person has so many kids, and this is their favorite ice cream flavor, and they haven’t seen Transformers 5 yet, so I hope I don’t…” You have to be like, “I am doing my job; this is my job.” So with doing the movie, even though it’s an emotional undertaking, you still have to do the job. Having Zoe [gave us that] objectivity to do this job.

Emily: What I said to Zoe yesterday in an interview was, and no one wants to see [Kumail] and I pretend to have sex, that’s the weirdest thing. The two of us having a fake sex scene…that would’ve been awful.

Kumail: I bet some people would watch it.

Emily: I was just saying, what a weird idea that even is. You don’t want to see people who are [involved with each other in real life.]

Kumail: Well there’s always something weird when you find out, like when you see a movie where you’re like, “oh this is the movie where they started dating, like two actors, and you like watch it…”

Emily: Mr. and Mrs. Smith, yeah.

Kumail: Yeah, you see them kiss and you’re like, “is that when it happened?” What was the movie we just saw? Don’t Look Now. That movie, that old horror movie.

Emily: So really that sex scene is apparently an actual sex scene.

There are rumors about it, yes.

Kumail: But when you watch that, you’re like, “this is weird, I don’t like it.”

Emily: It was weird. And long too.

Kumail: It goes forever.

Emily: Nobody would’ve wanted that.

I obviously don’t intend to ask, “What happens after the movie?” but I did wonder how the meeting of the families went. It was a personal curiosity for me, as I also did a cross-cultural marriage. I’m from Turkey, and was brought up as Muslim. And my husband’s English.

Kumail: He’s British?

He is. But [our story] wasn’t as eventful for sure.

Kumail: So you weren’t in a coma? He wasn’t in a coma?

No one was in a coma, no.

Kumail: How do people do it without the coma? [Laughs]

Emily: We will probably not put it in a movie, but yes, our families did end up meeting pretty soon after this. They get along wonderfully. They talk to each other on the phone all the time. They’re going to hang out tonight. Everybody was a lot more understanding than we gave them credit for. My parents are definitely fictionalized in the movie. My mom was like, “well you always take us on adventures, and here’s another adventure we’re on.” They could not have been better.

Kumail: You also got at something very specific we wanted to do with the movie. In our favorite movies, the endings are a little incomplete so that you imagine what’s going to happen. Like, “What happened when their families met? What was the conversation at the bar like, when she shows up at the show [in the end]?” So all our favorite movies end with a new path.

Emily: And another movie could start right afterward.

Kumail: We very consciously didn’t want to tie up any of the storylines. So, with her parents, you still get the sense that they have a lot of work to do. Me and my parents, you get the sense that they’ve taken one step, but there’s many more steps. Me and Emily, you feel like it’s on the right path, but there’s more work to do. So that’s what we wanted to do with all of them, so when the movie ends, you want to try and fill in what happened. We literally talked about endings that are like that: Monsters Inc, Kramer vs. Kramer, Before Sunset… These movies don’t quite end completely.

I bet you didn’t necessarily think of The Big Sick as a political movie as you were writing it. But in today’s climate, it assumes that dimension organically as a story of cross-cultural understanding and acceptance, which is more important than it’s ever been. Do you now look at the film from that lens?

Emily: Maybe afterward, but definitely not as we were making it. You don’t want a movie that’s trying to teach you something. We just wanted to tell our love story. But if that’s what people get out of it, if they start developing empathy, we love that. I’m all for that. Empathy is what we all need more of, so if that happens from this movie, I’m into it.

Kumail: I mean, we sort of knew. We were nervous at Sundance, because we’d done all of our test screenings before the world changed. So I was very nervous going into Sundance, like we have not shown this movie in this political climate. What’s it gonna be like? How’s it gonna play? It was interesting. The heckling scene plays so differently [now]. It was always very funny. Now it [still] plays funny, but people also clap. People feel it stands for something more. For us, we’d had that scene because it was an experience I’d gone through. But also because we wanted something big and emotional, and cathartic so that Kumail and Emily’s parents have their walls come down.

Emily: We wanted to show to how much pain and fear the parents were feeling for their daughter, that they were taking it out on this kid, who was acting like a jackass.

Kumail: Yeah, you have that feeling where there’s a frustration you can’t do anything about, and then you explode on something completely unrelated. So that was the narrative purpose of the scene. But now it plays on another level. That, we couldn’t have anticipated.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.