SXSW: Kumail Nanjiani, Emily Gordon talk 'The Big Sick'
AUSTIN, Texas —
In “The Big Sick,” comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani and his wife and co-writer Emily Gordon dramatize their real-life love story, which is a little unusual.
After dating for several months, Emily wound up in a medically induced coma to fight an infection. In the film, Kumail must navigate this stressful situation while trying to cope with his family, who want him to follow Pakistani traditions with an arranged marriage, and the stress dealing with Emily’s parents.
Kumail and Emily sat down with us to talk about maintaining a comedic tone in a dramatic situation, the screen-writing process, and the importance of culture in film.
Was it surreal at all for your movie to open with an Elijah Wood joke with Elijah Wood there in the theater watching?
Kumail Nanjiani: I had forgotten and we knew Elijah was sitting right behind us. As that scene was happening I was like “ohhh no!”
Emily Gordon: We were both just covering our faces.
KN: Then I turned around and mouthed “I’m sorry” to him.
EG: He took it like a champ. We actually had more dialogue there where the response was “no, he lives in Austin most of the time” and we cut all that out. We should have put back in just for this.
KN: He was literally right behind us.
With a movie like this, obviously tone is one of the most important things about it. You’ve seen movies like 50/50 tackle cancer with a humorous tone. How did you strike the balance with tone and what were some of the things you were most concerned about?
EG: I think we were very concerned that if we had too much fun that people would think that we were making light of this girl who is sick the entire time. I think we always wanted to make sure to remind the audience that we’re not forgetting about her. Don’t forget about her either. What was cool is that we didn’t really realize that when you have any scenes in a hospital, even if you’re not directly seeing a girl that’s in a coma, you can't stop thinking about it. We would write scenes that were set in a hospital that were just about talking about medical stuff but we realized that as long as you’re seeing the hospital, you know whats going on. So we were able to write scenes that were in the hospital that we’re a little more fun and deviated a little bit because the work is already being done by the scenery and that’s stuff that we didn’t think about while we were writing.
KN: The tone thing is important because we always wanted to make sure that with the reality of Emily being sick, that the comedy didn’t feel unreal. But also that there was enough comedy. The scene right after she gets put in the coma and I use her thumb to unlock her phone, I think that makes people feel safe. They’ve seen something very intense happen, certainly the movie has taken a turn. That little joke signals to the audience that “hey, this is still the same movie. It’s still going to be funny. It’s obviously more intense now, but don’t worry, it’s still a comedy.” I think that little joke plays so well because it’s a relief for the audience.
EG: We would calibrate it as we were editing the movie we would move scenes slightly to make sure that we’re keeping the movie aloft in the zone we wanted it to be in. I think (director) Michael Showalter is so good with tone.
KN: Judd (Apatow, producer) obviously too, but we did so many edits of this movie and Judd would be like “alright, this scene needs a funny joke in here, so find some version where we can get one big laugh in this scene.” He would give us a lot of assignments like that. There’s a scene with my whole family towards the end of the movie, with me at the dinner table, and that’s where he was like “it’s going to be a moving scene, but it’s also gotta be funny.” We realized that we could actually put in a lot more jokes than we thought. We did an edit of the movie that was great and he was like “the movie needs 20 more great jokes, so put in 50 more jokes and we’ll figure out which 20 to keep.” So we did that. We put in 40 jokes, 20 of them worked in front of an audience, so we kept 20 of them and suddenly the movie had 20 more jokes in it.
In terms of joke writing versus producing a screenplay, what did you find as the differences between joke writing, which you’ve done before as a stand-up, and screenplay writing with story beats and everything?
KN: What was interesting is that you realize the higher the stakes, the funnier the joke is going to be. So actually, we realized that if we have jokes in there that are funny, that are in character, that are in the right situation, you can get really, really big laughs just because the stakes are so high. In stand-up, you’re starting each story and the stakes as you go, and you have to be super funny, but in a movie like this, as long as the reality level is good, the jokes will work much bigger than they would in a pure comedy. Just because it’s a release of tension. We did so many drafts of this movie and when we would shoot, we would have the older version of jokes too so we could try other versions and put them in front of an audience and see which ones worked better.
When you’re writing something that is as deeply personal and traumatic, for both of you, how do you handle the urge to overshare or the idea of pulling back because it is too personal?
EG: I think you try to put as much as you can out initially and then go back and see what feels like too much. When you’re reading it, what would you not want the world to see? I kept thinking “if I don't want even Michael Showalter to read this, then I definitely don’t want the world to see it.” So that’s a version of it. But then you find that there’s more that you’re comfortable with than you realize. I think it can be self-indulgent to do a real overshare. So this was always in service of the story, moreso than the shock value of what it’s like to be in a coma. I think that was really important for us and a litmus test for us too.
KN: We weren’t using the shock value of the coma. In fact, that was a big obstacle for us.
EG: I still have people make coma jokes to me and I’m like “you don’t get to make a coma joke to me.”
KN: We have that in the movie! And she goes “that’s too soon, Dad.”
EG: When Ray (Romano) suggested that, I said “it’s too soon, Ray. But do it in the scene! Please, let’s do that!”
Culturally speaking, you’ve seen some advancement in some aspects in movies, but very rarely have you seen Muslim culture taking center stage. Can you talk about the importance of putting the culture front and center?
KN: I don't think that this movie in and of itself is really important in any way except that I think it’s important to have different kinds of stories about every group in the world. You can obviously see that there’s a lot of Jewish humor around, but there isn’t that much Muslim humor around. I think this story is only important in the sense that it shows a Muslim family being like a human American family that loves each other and has fun and has its own problems. I think we’re starting to see more points of view. I think “Get Out” really articulated some racial…
KN: Yeah, I was trying to think of another word than stuff. It’s been a long day of talking. But like racial…I’m gonna find a better word than stuff.
EG: Do you want me to say stuff while you’re thinking of the word? I have never seen a family speaking Urdu on TV or in a movie that wasn’t to plan a terrorist attack. That bummed me out. I, as an outsider…half of my family is Muslim now, and I get to see them having fun and I get to see them in a way where I realize “oh, I’ve never seen this represented on television or in the media at all.” That really bummed me out. It was important to me that we see a Muslim family having fun. We always have this joke that I want to start a Tumblr called “Muslims Having Fun” because I see it all the time and other people don’t and I feel like I’m privy to this cool little world that other people don’t know of. I wanted to make sure family spoke Urdu in the movie and I wanted to make sure that they were a fun family. I think that was really important to both of us, but that’s been a thing that I’ve seen that I’ve realized most White people don’t ever see. Did you think of the word?
KN: I think “Get Out” really articulated some racial stuff about America. (laughs)
KN: I was just wrapped up in what you were saying. I didn’t think of it. I think hopefully what that movie shows is not just that people are making stuff with other points of view but that people also want to see them.
EG: People are making money!
KN: Yeah, that’s the most important thing. If new viewpoints are commercially viable then we’re going to see more of them. I think that’s why movies like “Get Out” or “Hidden Figures” are important, because they are financially successful.
EG: And “Moonlight” for God’s sake.
KN: “Moonlight,” yeah. They’re successful movies from different points of view.
EG: The idea that we could be grouped with any of those, which we just grouped ourselves in with them, but the idea that they could…
KN: I didn’t, you did. I’m hoping that there’s an audience for our movie as well.