SXSW 2017: “The Big Sick” Interview with Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon

Kumail and Emily

(Photo via SXSW)

Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon‘s The Big Sick is not only the best film from the SXSW Film Festival, but it’s the best film of 2017. The powerful but very, very funny semi-fictionalized look into their relationship and the tragic way that they ended up falling in love with one another. I’m still speechless by how much I enjoyed this film, which is always a sign that a movie is really something special. Kumail stars in the film but he co-wrote the screenplay with Emily Gordon, who he’s been married to for ten years now.

I was fortunate enough to participate in a roundtable discussion with Kumail and Emily for their film. Since it was a roundtable, I was only able to squeeze-in a handful of questions, but I felt that we had a good conversation. Before the interview started, I asked how their day was going, which they told me it was mostly promoting the film but they appeared to be in good spirits. The journalist next to me noticed Emily’s amazing iPhone case of Prince, and we all chatted briefly about iPhone cases from an artist they they’re fans of. Kumail had a really neat looking iPhone case. It was from a website called society6.com, where artists can submit pieces for iPhone cases and stuff like that.

What made you decide that you wanted to tell this story from your life in a movie? 

KUMAIL: I’ve been doing stand-up and telling stories from my life and it felt like this was this big huge crazy story from our lives that I just felt like it had to be told. I knew that if we did a good job at it a lot of people would connect with it. I knew that it was a story that it had not been told before, and I knew that it was a story that only we could tell. So it just had all this stuff where it was like if we could do a good job at this, we’ll really be telling a new story with familiar stuff in it but we’ll also be speaking to an audience that doesn’t really get spoken too very much.

EMILY: It’s also as specific as a story is, and you could not make this story up. We really thought it might resonate with a lot of different kinds of people so we wanted to kind of get it out there for that reason.

So when you guys were writing the film, and the story itself is so serious, did you guys think that it was going to end up being as funny and heartwarming as it ends up becoming? 

EMILY: I thought it definitely was. I was more concerned with making sure we kept coming back to the serious stuff because I knew everybody involved could do comedy, not that comedy is easy but the harder stuff emotionally for us and personally was digging into some of the grittier and uglier stuff that happens in the movie. I had no doubt that it would be funny, I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just funny.

KUMAIL: When we saw the first rough cut we were like okay this is a good movie, there’s a lot of work to do. I knew that the emotional stuff worked, I didn’t know if it would play like a comedy because it’s sort of opposites. So I was very relieved and slightly surprised that when we watched the movie with an audience, it does play like a comedy and people laugh like it’s a big comedy even though it’s about very serious stuff so that to me was very, very exciting.

EMILY: And there’s not one single scene of anyone trying to unplug Emily from the wall. I hate that stuff, when they’re trying to unplug a coma person, no thank you (Laughs). None of that!

How involved were you guys in the casting process, or was that more Judd [Apatow] and Barry [Mendel] that were involved? 

EMILY: We’re very involved. We ultimately agreed on everything, so it wasn’t ever like we all want one person but Judd said no this person.

KUMAIL: Yeah it wasn’t tough because Judd pitched the initial people. Judd was like ‘what about Holly Hunter?’ and we were like great! (Laughs).

EMILY: Let us know when your spaceship lands! (Laughs).

KUMAIL: Yeah, so Judd came up with some of those and Judd had sort of the massive stroke [of genius] of [casting] Ray Ramano too. I would not have thought-

EMILY: I wouldn’t have thought of him for this, but he’s such a tremendous actor, and he’s so, so funny.

KUMAIL: And so different from Holly’s character so they make a great couple together that makes sense in a lot of ways.

EMILY: But like David Allen Grier, who has a pretty small part, has a larger part that unfortunately no fault of his own, ended up getting cut out.

KUMAIL: He was so funny in so many scenes-

EMILY: I knew him, I wrote for him for “The Carmichael Show” and so I got him. He literally left The Carmichael Show and said, ‘you’re gonna put me in your movie right?’, and I said absolutely, and then we did! So stuff would kind of come from all kinds of different directions and then we would all kind of get together and talk it through and we really ended up with a really fantastic cast.

KUMAIL: And then my friends in the movie, who are played by Bo Burnham, Kurt Braunohler, Aidy Bryant, I was like I want these people from the very beginning we had those three parts and we were like my two stipulations are that they be actual comedians, and that they be friends of ours. 

EMILY: That worked out.

KUMAIL: It worked out.

This is the first movie you guys have written. What was that process like compared to writing for television? And for Kumail, what was it like to juggle being an actor and a writer? 

EMILY: I really liked writing a movie because it’s one story, as opposed to like ‘how does this fit into the season arc?’ and ‘we gotta make sure we incorporate this character they’re in 8 out of the 13 episodes and this is one they have to be in’. It’s just so much cleaner, even though I love writing for television, it’s so much cleaner when you can just tell one discrete story and you don’t have to worry about other seasons, whether or not we’re getting picked up and cliffhangers and act breaks, even though we had act breaks but not with commercials. I found that process to be kind of lovely.

KUMAIL: It’s super fun to be able to tell a full story and be done with it. With the writing, Emily and I wrote it up until we started shooting. As soon as we started shooting, even though I’m a producer on the movie, after the first two days of shooting I realized that it was too much, I had to sort of just focus on the acting. So Emily and I had a talk and I was like hey, I just want to do the acting if you can sort of do the producing and the writing. We were doing rewrites while we were shooting on set because some scenes just didn’t feel right, and Emily was sort of the one who handled all of that, and I just sort of didn’t, and she would just give us the new lines. It was for me, it was just too much to write and act.

EMILY: Well, the first couple of days Kumail was coming up to me and was like ‘is this going to work out okay?’, and clearly he was nervous about a billion things and I just want you to act, so we had a code word. (To Kumail) Do you remember what that code-word was?

KUMAIL: I think it was like avocado?

EMILY: Avocado! Or artichoke. (Laughs) If I said that to him, go be an actor, get out of here, go be in the trailer and be a diva like you’re supposed to-

KUMAIL: We didn’t have trailers.

EMILY: No trailers. Go be in your hospital room! He literally had a hospital room for a dressing room. You go and let us kind of take care of this because we want you to just focus on what’s important because it would’ve been easy for you to take all your actor mojo and pour it into our producing concerns, but that would’ve not been using your energy the best way.

KUMAIL: Yeah, it really helped to just trust her and alright, you just handle all of it and I’ll just handle the acting.

EMILY: Which was huge in itself and yeah, that was enough for you to handle.

Thank you to Fons PR for setting this up, and thank you to Kumail and Emily for sitting down with all of us on Friday. They’re really lovely people, and they made a really lovely movie that I can’t wait for all of you to see this summer. The Big Sick opens in theaters in June and then expands nationwide in July.

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