Kumail is wondering where the beds go when there are press junkets and looking around to see where that king-sized bed vanishes away to as he sits down on the plush cream sofa. We are in a Beverly Hills Hotel and Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon are here to talk about The Big Sick, a film based on their real-life relationship.
We take a moment to compare road rage between LA and New York since he has just witnessed such a battle. Emily thinks LA drivers are kinder than the drivers in New York and Kumail agrees. “Road rage is part of the fabric of society,” he says, and Emily jokes, “All anger you have towards your parents you take out on other people on the street.”
I’m trying to recall the last romantic comedy I saw that was based on a real-life story and one that has stuck with me as The Big Sick has done. If you haven’t yet seen it, you owe it to yourself to seek it out. If you have seen it already, check it out again. It’s even funnier the second and third time around.
Kumail Nanjiani plays a Chicago stand-up comedian (coincidentally named Kumail) who finds his perfect match in Emily (Zoe Kazan). Being a Pakistani man, his parents are set on arranging a marriage for him, just as his relationship with Emily is getting serious. Conflicts arise and the pair break up, but then a sudden illness puts Emily in a medially induced coma and Kumail arrives to stand vigil by her bedside. With the parents now in the picture, inevitable culture clashes ensue.
The Big Sick excels at delivering a love story for our era. It’s absolutely delightful to witness the magic between Kumail and Emily, completing each other’s sentences in that romantic way that couples do, and often saying all the wrong things in the aggravating way couples do.
Read our chat below:
What’s it been like having people watch your story, and seeing their continued love for your film?
Emily: It’s been overwhelming. It’s been a really lovely experience. We just didn’t know what this entailed so it’s been really lovely and we’ve been trying to enjoy every moment and get as much out of it as we can and just experience it.
Kumail: It’s very easy to run around but we’re just trying to appreciate it. It took me a while to get into the mode of appreciating it and break out of the nerves of it.
Telling a fictional story is one thing; putting your own personal story out there is another. When did you realize you had this great story, and how did you find the right point for a finale to real life?
Kumail: We knew there was the natural three-act structure in that they meet, she’s in a coma and she wakes up. We knew that.
Emily: Where exactly we end the movie was something we debated endlessly because we had so many different versions of ending the movie.
Kumail: We had many different versions of it, but this kind of ending happened early on. Right?
Emily: What do you mean?
Kumail: I mean at some point we understood that we wanted it to end so it felt like there was a lot more to happen so that it ends on —
Emily: — A hopeful gesture. But not like an ending for the two of them. I would always be annoyed when rom-coms end when they’ve gotten together and that’s really when another story begins, and we wanted to have a sense of that with this movie.
Kumail: We thought about that with this movie and we thought about our favorite movie endings and mine are; Kramer V Kramer, Before Sunset, and Monsters Inc and they all end mid-scene and I think that’s when we decided to have that mid-scene ending.
We wanted people to be like, “Wait, what?” If a movie ends with a bow, the movie is over and you don’t think about it anymore. If you end it and it’s slightly incomplete then people think about what happened and fantasize about it.
That’s how I felt and I remember exactly how I felt when I walked out of Before Sunset which has this great mid-scene ending. We landed on that a few months before shooting.
The one thing I love and can relate to is the arranged marriage story, having had a friend who went through the same thing. But what I want to know is what was it like for your parents when you told them you were going to write about them?
Kumail: It was interesting because I called my parents and told them we had written a story about the events. I walked them through the whole thing and Emily walked hers through the whole thing, letting them know exactly what it was as it happened, what was different, and this is what it’s about. I explained the whole thing to them and they were very supportive from the beginning.
Emily: We had to clue them into why movies are movies and need a conflict. They thought somehow it was a documentary and somehow they were going to read through a recreation of what exactly happened. We told them we were going to change a lot of things and they started to think of the characters as being separate people from them.
What was their reaction when they saw the film?
Kumail: They loved it. I think it was a little complicated for them because they got to see how I saw them during that time and it brought up conversations that we hadn’t had since all that stuff had happened in the movie. They saw it many times and they’re very proud of it.
Emily: Mine did too. Your parents paid to see it more often than mine did.
Kumail: Yeah, your parents were talking themselves into free screenings. I’ll get text messages from my parents all the time. They’ll send me an article on the Hollywood Film Awards or something and I’ll reply, “I know, I was there and I know what happened.”
Emily: Both sets of parents will update us on our press a lot.
That’s so sweet.
Kumail: It is very sweet.
Emily: It’s the most parent thing to do to send you a photo of yourself. There’s no commentary, just “Did you see this?”
Kumail: Yes, definitely.
What’s it like when you’re writing this story and having other people come in to share their thoughts?
Emily: Very quickly Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel our producers beat it out of us saying we couldn’t be precious with the facts and we had to make a good story. They were saying, “That means you aren’t going to be the expert even though it happened to you.” They really slammed that into us in the best way so that we were quite comfortable with Holly weighing in on what my mom’s character would do. If you get good people you have to trust the work that they do.
I think about when I was a therapist: I’m an expert in these areas and you’re an expert in your life and together we’re going to figure this out. It’s the same in this, we were an expert in the facts and they were experts in a lot of things and together we put the movie together.
What was the toughest scene to write?
Emily: I was thinking about this earlier, I think our break up?
Kumail: That was challenging to write emotionally, but it was tough to figure out. What we shot was longer. We edited it a lot.
Emily: We actually never broke up. It was something for the movie. It was interesting writing a break up that had never happened. We started to dig into this stuff that when we are arguing, we took the stuff that we said to each other and cranked it up a thousand degrees and made it nastier and made it that no one was apologizing. So, more than the illness stuff, the parent’s stuff, I thought that was more difficult.
Kumail: It seemed like it was a conversation we never had that we were pretty close to having. It was interesting because everything else was in some way, based on an experience we had. This was an imagined experience that was close to happening for a while. That was tough to write.
It was tough to write on a scene on its own because you have to see both perspectives. Up until that point, their relationship has been good. Break up scenes are hard because you see two people make a decision and you want to make sure that decision doesn’t feel out of the blue. You had to understand that decision. We worked on that scene and the writing a lot. When we shot it, we looked at it there were seven pieces to this scene. The experiment was pulling things out and seeing how it would work. You see the pretty shortened version of the scene because we wanted to make sure the whole thing worked.
Emily: Do you remember there were two crew members who were chatting outside the bedroom while we were shooting? These two guys were talking about the game and we were trying to break up. It was such an intense scene to be filmed and these two guys were in the background.
Kumail: I feel with romantic comedies the breakup scenes feel arbitrary because —
Emily: — you need them to be separate.
Kumail: We wanted to make sure that this breakup wasn’t happening only because the movie required it to happen. That it’s the characters making the best decision they can in that moment.
It’s good to know that wasn’t a real moment, I have to say.
Emily: Not that one.
How do you cast yourself?
Emily: It’s definitely interesting. We weren’t looking for someone to do an impression of me because that’s not what we wanted. Zoe just hit it out of the park. She inherently got what we were going for without saying much and she came in with this take that was great. She and I weirdly became this version of two mommies and created this person who both was me and was not me at all.
It was a really lovely experience and it’s one of the most honest things to have happened to me ever. If you have to have that, let it be Zoe Kazan.
Did you think when you were writing it that the film would be timely to America as it is today?
Emily: To America
Kumail: The thing the movie touches on is about two cultures coming together and the challenges of being a Muslim person in America. It’s heightened now, but these were concerns even a couple of years ago. Islamophobia has always been a problem in America since I can remember. We did not expect it to come out in the atmosphere in which it’s coming out. It’s good to have made it, assuming there was a certain kind of world and then the world changed. It still feels relevant, but as Emily said, it doesn’t feel preachy.
Emily: It’s just our story.