Interview: Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani (THE BIG SICK)

THE BIG SICK (Amazon Studios) is a romantic-comedy based on the real-life courtship between the film’s co-screenwriters, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon.

The film follows Kumail (Nanjiani), a Pakistan-born aspiring comedian, who hooks up with Emily (Zoe Kazan), a grad student who heckled him during one of his standup sets. A one-night stand blossoms into a serious relationship, which is first complicated by Kumail’s traditional Muslim parents and then by a mystery illness that leaves Emily incapacitated in the hospital. THE BIG SICK is directed by Michael Showalter (HELLO MY NAME IS DORIS) and produced by Judd Apatow (TRAINWRECK, THIS IS 40) and Barry Mendel (THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS).

OnWriting spoke with Emily and Kumail about co-writing their awkward love story, the advice they were given by Judd Apatow and the rules of writing with someone with whom you share a bed.

What was the genesis of THE BIG SICK?

Kumail: I was at South by Southwest in 2012. We used to go every year and do a live podcast show. Our friend Pete Holmes has a podcast called You Made it Weird, and the guests were me, Chris Gethard and Todd Barry. Pete said, “Hey, I think Judd [Apatow]’s coming back.” Pete didn’t know Judd at that point, either. Todd Barry left early, but everybody else from that show has a project with Judd. Pete has CRASHING on HBO, Chris Gethard did a one-man show on HBO that Judd produced, and we did THE BIG SICK, which really began from Judd and me having a good time hanging out and him offering to hear any ideas.

Emily:   He introduced us to Lena Dunham and said somethings like, “I’m going to be doing a show with this woman.”

Kumail: They’d already shot the first season of GIRLS, but it hadn’t aired. I believe they were premiering it at South by Southwest. We met Judd and Lena before anybody had seen GIRLS and then our thing with Judd came out right after the whole run of GIRLS was done. That’s how long it took to make THE BIG SICK.

Did you already have the idea for THE BIG SICK or was it something that you brainstormed once you had the opportunity to work with Judd?

Kumail: Emily and I hadn’t thought about it as a project together. I knew I wanted to write it as a movie, and Emily, at that point, didn’t want to do it.

Emily:    I felt a little less sure.

Kumail: Emily was a little more hesitant about it. I went in to talk to Judd about it as a project that I would write. Then he had me come in and pitch it as a movie to him and Barry Mendel. They liked it and I started working on it. I had written vomit drafts that were like 150, 175 pages long. I was having Emily read them and her thoughts were more than notes. It was like another perspective. I was like, “I think we should write this together.”

Emily:   I took a few days to think about it.

Kumail:   She thought about it, and that’s when we started writing together.

Emily, how did you feel going from providing feedback to being a co-writer?

Emily:    I had been a freelance writer for many years at that point. I’d also written a tongue-in-cheek self-help book for young women. I’d done plenty of writing, but I’d not done a lot of screenwriting. It wasn’t until after we wrote THE BIG SICK that I started writing for THE CARMICHAEL SHOW on NBC. I liked writing, I just had never really considered taking my own story and putting it into a film. It was actually kind of freeing. When you’re writing personal essays, all you can really do is talk about yourself. Sometimes you don’t really want to talk about yourself, you want to talk about another version of you, you want to talk about other people and tell their stories. It was really a wonderful process to see how freeing it was to go from writing about myself to writing about a version of myself.

How were you able to take your own story and transform it into a fictional story? How many rewrites was it until you started edging more into a fictional story?

Emily:   I think it’s quite helpful when you’re writing a story that is a personal story to have outsiders involved – people like Judd, Barry Mendel, and our director Michael Showalter. If it was up to us, the movie would have stayed pretty similar to the facts of what happened and it would not have been as good of a movie.

Kumail:   Judd wanted us to write a first draft exactly as we remembered it. Once that was done, it was like, “Let’s try and take the kernel of this story and make the best movie we can.” After that initial draft, we did so many drafts.

Emily:   We did hundreds of drafts.

Kumail:    It took us three years to write THE BIG SICK, from talking to Judd about it to securing funding for it. Each rewrite made the script better.

When you’re married to your writing partner, were there rules you had to implement about when and where you’re allowed or not allowed to work?

Emily:    We’re definitely rules people. I was pretty adamant that I wanted boundaries set up.  I thought it could destroy us if we didn’t have any rules. We had to ask permission before talking about work and leave at work hours. When work hours were over, they were over. And no talking about work in bed – that was a pretty staunch rule to the point if we’d wake up in the morning and one of us had an idea, you’d have to get out of bed and then you could talk about your idea.

At the point we were shooting, it’s your entire life, so the rules go away. We tried really hard to not endlessly talk about the movie. Sometimes my work partner Kumail is a different person than my husband Kumail. At some point, I’d rather hang out with my husband and not this dude I have to write with all the time.

Writers frequently lose themselves in their stories in the process of writing. I can imagine that that becomes even more difficult to avoid when you’re writing about something that’s so personal, even if you are adding a fictional element to it. Did you do anything to stay grounded in the present when you’re so focused on this very formative event that happened to both of you?

Kumail: For me, it was therapeutic. I think sometimes it’s important to go back and look at events in your life that have been formative or traumatic. The process of going back and thinking about this stuff and really living in it, helped me make it a little more manageable and actually helped me ultimately live in the present more. I found the writing process to be tremendously therapeutic.

Emily: During the first three years when we were writing drafts, we both had jobs and other things going on. We couldn’t bury ourselves in this and that helped a lot for those first years. And after a while, you just get there.

What was a scene that your partner brought to the table that you weren’t expecting them to want to include in the film?

Emily:    I have a unique perspective in that for so much of this, I was personally not there. I was there in body, but no so much in spirit. The most interesting thing for me was really digging into the story. Throughout the actual event, and even afterwards, so much of what we talked about was my health and how I was doing. It took time before we started talking about what it was like for my family and for Kumail every single day to go to this hospital and hang out all day long. I helped write a bunch of those scenes, but a lot of that came from talking to Kumail and talking to my actual parents about what those days were like. All of that was surprising to me.

Kumail: There was this weird disconnect as she was miserable when she woke up, because she had no idea what happened. She almost died, she’s in pain and she’s panicking. Whereas for us, we’re so happy. Us being in completely different emotional places was not something I considered until we started talking about writing the movie. We put these disconnects into the movie, so when Emily wakes up, everybody’s thrilled and she’s miserable. We used most of that stuff.

How did you feel writing your parents and then seeing them portrayed on screen?

Emily:    We started writing them a little similar to my actual parents and then, with Judd’s help, we started giving them more of a point of view that would be more interesting for the movie than my actual parent’s perspective. We kept saying things like, who would be the worst person for this character Kumail to have to be stuck at a hospital with for days and days?

Once we got Holly Hunter and Ray Romano cast as my parents, we didn’t say, “Excuse me, Holly and Ray, can you pretend to be the two people in North Carolina that no one knows?” They really helped develop their own characters. We took their thoughts and incorporated them into the script.

Kumail: My parents were more similar to my real-life parents then hers were to her real-life parents. It was interesting because a lot of the dialogue that my parents said in the movie was stuff that my parents actually said to me. It was interesting writing from their perspective because I was able to understand their perspective on my life choices. I sort of understood them a little bit more in having to write them, and having to write from their point of view. That was something I hadn’t anticipated.

Did you always envision the conversation about being religious or non-religious as such an essential part to the character Kumail?

Kumail: For a long time we weren’t writing any religion stuff. Judd said, “Why is there no religion stuff?” I said, “I don’t know what to say about religion,” and he said, “Say that! Say that you don’t know. You don’t need to have your mind made up.” That was a big thing for us when Judd said, “You don’t have to resolve things. You don’t have to figure stuff out. You just have to show that people have questions. You have to show the struggle. That’s all that’s important.” That’s what we put in the movie.  The fact that my character was not sure about religion, because as a writer, I wasn’t sure about religion.

What particular scenes do you think translated best from life to page?

Kumail: A lot of the early scenes – me and Emily meeting and hanging out for the first time – I feel like that excitement of falling in love with someone and getting to know each other worked really well in the writing. I also think on screen we were able to capture the excitement of that period. It’s so hard with romantic comedies to show people falling in love. It is tricky. In a lot of romantic movies, audiences are told “These people are now in love. People buy it; they don’t necessarily feel it.”

Emily:    We have less screen time to show that these people fit together and were meant to be together, because then one of them disappears for so long. It was tough and I was happy it turned out as breezy feeling as it did.

Kumail: We wanted that feeling that there was something bigger happening with these two people. We wanted you to know they weren’t just having fun, they’re truly getting to know each other and truly connecting. I feel like, as Emily was saying, if that stuff doesn’t work, the whole movie doesn’t work. That was something we were very aware of in the writing and the shooting and the editing. You really wanted these two people to be together, you wanted to like them together.

Emily:    A part of that was our wonderful words and a part of that is the acting of Kumail and Zoe Kazan, who plays me in the movie. The chemistry was just fantastic. It was kind of a no-brainer.

Kumail: Mike Showalter was very, very aware of that, too. He really adjusted the performances so that you could see the negotiation that happens between two people who are entering into a relationship.

Mike is an accomplished romantic-comedy writer and director himself. What kind of feedback and notes did he give you?

Emily:    First off, he’s amazing with structure. He teaches at NYU and he really helped us be aware of the structure of our story.

Kumail: He also has an encyclopedic knowledge of rom-coms. He’s really funny and good with emotional stuff, which is a very rare combination.

Did you use a certain structure to write the film? And where did you two do most of your writing?

Kumail: We wrote separately and kind of all over the place. At the end, I was writing in bed. We don’t sit in the same room and write together. We would send each other our first drafts, rewrite each other’s stuff, send ’em back, rewrite each other’s stuff, and then send them to Mike or Judd or Barry. By the time they got it, it was already the third or fourth draft. We didn’t sit around a computer and go through the script together until towards the end.

What what are you guys excited to watch next? Do you ever argue over what to watch?

Emily:    Sometimes we’ll want to start something, we’ll talk about it, and then somehow it just doesn’t end up happening because we don’t have a lot of time to watch stuff. We’ll just wind up watching it on our own. I started watching THE HANDMAID’S TALE, which Kumail wanted to watch, but we never found the time to watch it together.

Kumail: I’ve also been away a lot.

Emily:    Yeah.

Kumail: And I’m going to be away a lot coming up.

Emily:    Sometimes it’s hard for us to find time to watch the things we want to see. We generally tend to agree on what to watch. If one of us is like, “I’m in a horror movie mood, or I’m in a documentary mood,” then I’ll be like, “Let’s go down that path.”

Kumail: I’m really excited about Guillermo del Toro’s THE SHAPE OF WATER. I’m also excited about BLADE RUNNER 2049.

Emily:    BLADE RUNNER 2049 is the thing I’m most excited about.

Can you give me a line of dialogue from the film that you feel really embodies the entire film?

Kumail: I love this scene with Holly Hunter where I say, “Do the doctors know what they’re doing?” And she says, “No they don’t, they’re just winging it like everybody else.” Everybody’s just trying to figure things out. They’re all doing their best, nobody’s figured anything out, everybody has to struggle. To me that encapsulates the movie, it’s messy people trying to figure messy stuff out.

Follow Kumail Nanjiani on Twitter at @kumailn. Follow Emily V. Gordon at @emilyvgordon. Follow THE BIG SICK at @TheBigSickMovie.


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