“A Pakistani stand-up comedian falls in love with a young woman who promptly falls into a coma.” This kind of elevator pitch would feel contrived, if it weren’t also based on a true story. But truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction.
As Emily V. Gordon drafted her screenplay for The Big Sick with husband Kumail Nanjiani (of HBO’s Silicon Valley), the problems she confronted were manifold. Primarily, it’s impossible to imagine a more personal cinematic endeavor than The Big Sick, which sees Nanjiani acting out the first months of his courtship with Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), witnessing her sudden, horrifying collapse into illness. It can’t have been easy to rehash these experiences in a screenplay, and beyond that, it’s never easy to write the story of one’s own life, toeing the line between facts and imagination in hopes of making the personal universal.
Fortunately, Gordon and Nanjiani had the benefit of a great mentor in Judd Apatow. “We could never have never gotten a movie made where it’s like a Muslim guy and a girl in a coma,” Gordon reflects. “I don’t know how else that movie could’ve ever been made if not though him.”
Speaking with Deadline, Gordon discusses turning her life into art, her future ambitions and the way in which her former life as a therapist has helped her as a writer.
With this film, you’re rehashing what must have been a very difficult time in your life. Did it take a while to coming around to making a film out of your experience?
The writing was definitely a process. Luckily, we wrote for such a long time that I had a while to get comfortable with the idea. A lot of my close friends didn’t know that I had been sick at all, so that was something I was trying to deal with in little increments along the way. I think eventually, I went from being frightened about it to hoping, in some way, that it could be something that could resonate with a lot of people. Thinking about it that way helped me with the naked feeling that you’re referring to, which is absolutely how I felt, many times along the way.
What was your approach to writing a story loosely based on your own experiences? Where did you stick to facts, and where did you give yourself up to imagination?
We had a lot of help from Judd Apatow, Barry Mendel, our producer, and Michael Showalter. They all were great about drilling into us over and over that this isn’t a documentary—you have to be able to use your life to create a story that people would want to watch. Judd is so experimental with his scripts, and at some point, you start realizing that what’s in service of the story is much better than keeping it completely accurate to the truth. That was always useful, for us to be able to gut-check—like, “Okay, we haven’t gone through this. Do we think this makes emotional sense for them to do this action?”
The heckler scene specifically, that didn’t happen. That was something we created from a lot of different suggestions, wanting to show a couple of different things in one scene—how stressed out the family is, but not wanting to show it; that Emily’s parents are starting to warm up to Kumail. We kept trying to gut check how it makes sense for these people to go to a comedy club when their daughter is in a coma and getting surgery the next day. We made sure we worked in scenes where they’re doing it because they’re feeling so overwhelmed, they just want to escape themselves. We felt okay taking license as long as it felt emotionally resonant.
In romantic comedies, the focus tends to be limited one gender’s perspective. What’s so interesting about this project is that it encapsulates both.
Yeah, it’s interesting. Kumail is a big fan of rom-coms, and I am a little bit less of a fan. I’d grown up watching movies where I would always do a joke with my friends like, “Okay let’s imagine that movie from the woman’s perspective.” The women are often just accessories to a guy’s gross misunderstanding of the world.
When we were working on this, we wanted to make sure that you understood where both people were coming from. They both have full lives and they weren’t waiting for the other person to complete them. They both are better people because they are with each other, but they weren’t completing each other. So, I think his love of rom-coms and my irritation with rom-coms made a really good combination for writing this.
Was there an intention to subvert tropes of the genre?
That was something we worked on a lot with Michael Showalter. He’s actually made movies deconstructing tropes—The Baxter and They Came Together deconstruct rom-coms in a sense. I do think that was a lot of his work: This is what people are expecting—what can we give them that is in the vein of what they’re expecting, but not what they’re expecting?
When Kumail comes to Emily’s Welcome Home party, and has this big bag of “Here’s how devoted I am to you, and here’s all the things I’ve done,” she’s supposed to fall into his arms, and we thought it was very important that she didn’t fall into his arms, that the audience realized she’s going through her own thing and she can’t even think about being in love. All of that was stuff we thought through, and we thought would be really fun, and also more satisfying for us.
You have a pretty unique background. Having worked as a therapist before entering the comedy scene, do you think that experience has helped you in your writing?
I hope so, and I think it’s an advantage. I don’t have a magical power that other writers don’t have. As a therapist, I was taught to empathize with every single person who came in the room, even if they’d done really heinous things, even if they had been arrested. That was my job, to understand where they were coming from and understand that they were doing the best they could at the time.
I also was taught to think of relationships between people as separate things. In couples therapy, you have two people, and then you have this third thing, which is the relationship between them. I always try to think about that with every single character in anything I’m writing. What is their relationship like? How is it different than these two people’s relationship? All that is stuff that’s always running in the background of my brain when I’m writing.
Stand-up is never an easy thing to capture in fiction in a way that feels authentic. How did you find your way through that?
I ran a stand-up show for like six years, so I’ve seen a wide variety of comedy. I feel like often with stand-up in movies, you’re supposed to think it’s the most genius stand-up you’ve ever seen in your life, when in truth, you’re going to see a couple good bits, some stuff that’s fine, and some stuff that’s terrible. It kind of runs the gamut, especially if we’re talking about a Chicago show that happens once a week.
You want to show that there’s a variety of performers. We didn’t want the audience to think, “Oh, am I supposed to think that’s hilarious?” Because no, you’re supposed to think it’s whatever you want it to be. [laughs] We directed the performers, all of which are amazing comedians, to write stuff. We told them, “Well, your character is like the angry truth-teller guy”’—that would be Bo Burnham’s character. Kurt Braunohler, we said, “You’re kind of the lovable dumb guy, who is not amazing at stand-up comedy, but you really have a passion for it.” They all wrote material for themselves based on the characters they had, which was really cool.
I imagine you were always at video village during the shoot. Can you describe your interaction with the actors, particularly Zoe Kazan?
From the beginning, none of us ever wanted Zoe to do an impression of me— because that’s weird, and because nobody knows who I am, so it’s like a waste of an impression. [laughs] She’s an actress, she’s really good at what she does, so I would never go up to her and be like, “You know what, I don’t think I would’ve done it this way. Can you do it again?” It would’ve been antithetical to everything we were working towards.
She would check in with me here and there. But once we were on set, we had a sense of who this Emily character was, and I just trusted her choices. For the most part, we had such talented people that we didn’t really need to direct them. I say that as a writer, and a person who knows the people, not as a director.
Where did the title The Big Sick come from? Is it an allusion to The Big Chill?
I do hear a lot of theories on this: Here’s the truth. I kind of came up with that name while we were writing it because I have a scar on my back from the lung surgery that I had, that we’ve called “Big Red” for the past ten years. When we were trying to come up with a title while we were writing, I was like, “Let’s just call it The Big Sick,” like Big Red, and it just kind of weirdly stuck. I don’t know that it’s the best name, but it’s the name we stuck with, and now it feels like us. It’s not a reference to The Big Chill—that’s not even one I’ve heard, so that’s a very good guess. The Big Sick definitely represents this big thing that changed everyone’s lives, so it works in that way. But originally, it came from a play on what I call my scar.
In the film, Kumail’s relatives naively tell him that he should just go be on Saturday Night Live, as if it’s the easiest thing in the world. And now, of course, he has been. It’s almost as if Kumail manifested his own destiny.
It was mind-blowing. Kumail only had maybe two weeks when he found out before he actually did it, which I think was great because it’s such a mantle, and such a legacy that you don’t want to think about it too much. I visited him on set once or twice throughout the week, and obviously I was there Saturday. It’s like watching your husband ride a unicorn—it’s a thing that means so much to so many of us life-long comedy fans. To watch that was really, really special, and I would not have traded that experience for the world.
I know it was very overwhelming for him—they really work you to death on that show. That’s sort of the magic of it. Everybody has to put in these super long days, but for me it was showing up, being nervous for him and then watching him just kill it.
What has Judd Apatow been like, as a kind of mentor on this project?
He’s truly been amazing. He finds people who are raw talent, and he’s amazing at shepherding them through, sanding off their edges just enough, but keeping them who they are. I don’t know how else this movie could’ve ever been made if not though him.
What are your future ambitions? Are you looking to write with Kumail again, or write outside of comedy?
We’re trying to figure out what thing we’re going to write together next. I think it might, at this time, not be something that’s so personal to us, but I really like writing together, so we’re trying to figure that out. I want to keep writing stuff that’s messy and funny and also serious at times. I think that’s my favorite pocket to be in, and it’s what I really like doing. I’m going to keep going in that vein.