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Curing the Rom-Com with Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon

on June 29, 2017, 12:00pm

Feature photo by Heather Kaplan

“He would get these far-off looks in his eyes and he would say, ‘Life doesn’t always turn out the way you plan.’” When Sandra Bullock offers that line in the iconic romantic comedy While You Were Sleeping, she sells it as if the craziest thing in the world has happened to her. And, considering the film’s premise rests on an untimely coma interrupting a potential love affair, you’re tempted to believe her. But in the end, the film falls in line with genre tropes, keeping a pretty tidy tally of its measurements. If only there were a romantic coma comedy with the guts to play out with the messy power of real-life relationships.

As wildly iconoclastic as mainstream hollywood gets, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s The Big Sick is an extraordinary thing: a rom-com debut hit that doesn’t just confirm the star status of a pair of loveable humans but redefines what romance and comedy can do on their own terms. Inspired by generations of romantic comedy, a genre which Nanjiani is clearly well-versed in, The Big Sick upends the tropes it clearly loves by dealing boldly in vulnerability, trauma, and uncertainty. It, too, tells a tale of a loved one being placed in a medically induced coma, just one of the stumbling blocks set up in the way of an imperfectly perfect relationship that finds itself while health, family, religion, culture, and careers collide.

In the film (and in the couple’s life), Emily falls ill and is put into a coma not long after their connection, forcing Kumail into an unexpected caregiver role and a quick connection with her parents. Add to that his own parents’ urging to settle down with a Pakistani wife, his struggles at the onset of a standup comedy career, and, you know, the whole coma thing, and The Big Sick clearly can’t be contained by any traditional rom-com storyline.

But considering the warmth that the couple radiates, that boundlessness should come as no surprise. Entering the room for our conversation, they were in a sweet embrace, as if taking a moment to recharge. Every couple of minutes, they would pause and glance at each other, admiringly, finishing each other’s sentences with a laugh. Kumail would slide comfortably into the creases of the couch, and Emily would look out for his untied shoelace.

There’s a comfort level that permeates their relationship, the same contagious sweetness that powered the film. That feeling was all over our recent conversation, which ranged from the unmatchable blueprint that traditional rom-coms set out for relationships, director Michael Showalter’s explaining that he knows what Emily would do in a situation, crying selfies, and more.

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Photo by Nicole Rivelli

You spent years making the movie, thousands of people have seen it, and you’ve now been on an endless press cycle. I know this might sound like a strange question, but you wrote about your personal lives, of course there are things embellished in order to appeal to a wider audience, but then to have strangers ask emotional questions…

Emily V. Gordon: And very personal questions!

That’s something  you didn’t think about when you were writing, right?

Gordon: [Laughs]

Nanjiani: Yeah, we hadn’t really thought about that.

Gordon: We’re thinking about that now!

Nanjiani: We were like, we’ll write this really personal thing and then our job will be done? Nope. It’s not quite done.

You must feel quite exposed in the process of opening up to strangers who, by proxy of the film, feel like they know you — which is obviously exactly what you wanted.

Gordon: You’re so right. You know, I try to focus on the positive parts of it. For all the times that people are asking super personal questions, what I’m also getting is strangers coming up to us and telling us these wonderful stories from their own lives. The idea that we can connect with people, have people being seen on screen who have been ill, people who have been in interracial relationships, people who kind of disappointed their parents … which is everybody. The more stories we hear, well, it’s a quid pro quo. We’re trading a version of our lives that’s not exactly our lives. We’re trading personal questions with having people tell me, “Oh I’ve never told anyone this but this actually happened to me when I was 12.”

Nanjiani: And even the people asking the personal questions, it’s a byproduct of them connecting to our story in some way, and wanting to know more.

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Photo by Nicole Rivelli

There is such a cultural currency in sharing now, which is why this film has resonated. Your writing really manages to be incisive from a comedic perspective, but also deeply personal. I mean, that line where she says, “I’m so overwhelmed by you,” I was like, “I HAVE SAID THAT BEFORE.”

Gordon: [Laughs]

As if you were listening to my life?

Gordon: We were, by the way.

About time. There’s such a beautiful and horrifying thing about sharing, where social media can build off of good stories and positive things. You’ve shared your relationship in some degree through TV with the Meltdown and Twitter, but did you have the sense when you were making this movie that it would resonate the way it has?

Both: No!

Nanjiani: We were hoping it would! We liked the movie and we felt like it was a good expression of what we wanted, but you can’t really control how people react to it. You can only control what you make. It’s been great though.

Gordon: I’ve written a lot of personal essays for women’s websites before and there is an interesting thing where you have to find your own line between “I’m sharing this because I think it will connect with other people” vs. “This is what people want, so take it all! Take everything!” Those get clicks and those are so popular.

Nanjiani: You’re so right, like you can commodify your internal life.

Gordon: I’ve worked on websites where all of the women felt a little naked all the time, and some people thrive on that feeling, I certainly don’t! So, you have to find that line for yourself. Part of it for us was figuring out that line, setting up those boundaries, and making sure you’re sharing not as a way of burning yourself out, but to hopefully foster more things.

Nanjiani: That’s interesting. I feel like with social media you have to curate your inner life for everyone to see.

Gordon: The new thing too is the crying selfies, that’s such a thing!

Nanjiani: Really? I haven’t seen that?

Gordon: [gestures to me] Have you seen crying selfies? People are doing it if they’re having a bad day, they’ll take pictures of themselves crying.

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Photo by Nicole Rivelli

Like the no-makeup selfie?

Nanjiani: Yeah!

Gordon: Similar but even deeper than that, and I was like, “Well, what a lovely thing. I don’t think I could do that.”

I sometimes watch myself cry in the mirror when I’m crying, but that’s about as much audience as I can stand.

Gordon: Oh, don’t ever do that. I get it though, sharing and hurting is both a vanity thing and also it feels quite vulnerable you know?

Of course, but then how did you experience that hinge of starting to consider the fictional Emily and Kumail vs. the real Emily and Kumail? This film is incredibly in tune with the tropes of rom-com as a genre, but it makes subtle, clever twists, mostly by allowing for things to be real and current. How much did you keep for yourselves?

Gordon: We worked hard at that! We tried to let the story dictate what ended up belonging to us again. Our first draft was pretty bare-bones with everything out there. Judd [Apatow] and Barry [Mendel], our producers, were really great about helping us fictionalize some parts and turn up drama on others. The stuff that fell out went back to us, which was kind of lovely. So instead of us being, “That’s ours, you can’t have it!” it ended up being more, “What serves the need of the story.” And also, we would put completely inconsequential details into the movie that were very reflective of us.

Like?

Gordon: There’s a shirt that Emily wears that has a brain on it: a red shirt with a brain. I had a shirt like that. Does anyone give a fuck? No. Is it a thing that is super vulnerable to put that detail out there? Not really. But to us it helps the movie. It’s also a way of putting ourselves into it in a way that is only really relevant to us.

There’s a refreshing lack of self-indulgence on display in The Big Sick. You are genuinely invested, a feeling that isn’t dissimilar to watching your friends fall in love. As rom-coms go, this one made you believe in love.

Gordon: That’s actually really nice to hear. Super lovely.

Nanjiani: We haven’t actually heard that before. Thank you. We’ve had people come up to us and say, “I saw it and I wanted to call my mom right afterwards,” or “tell my husband how much I love him.” There’s been a lot of that. That’s the best reaction you can get.

What is it like being in a creative partnership with someone who’s also your partner? What did you learn about each other during the writing process?

Nanjiani: [turns to Emily] Emily has an amazing work ethic, which I always knew about, but then when you’re working with her and you see that amazing work ethic, you’re like, “Oh my god I have to do this too!”

Gordon: [turns to Kumail] And if I can write something that would make him laugh, that just kills me. I love it every time. He’s got a good laugh. A lot of people we talked to were like, “I could never work with my partner!” We set boundaries for ourselves and made sure we’re not in each other’s faces 24 hours a day, but I think it worked quite well. It’s a very intimate experience but one that so many other people are involved in, so it never feels like, “It’s just us, baby!”

Nanjiani: There were always people guiding us. We always had mentors.

Gordon: Even for our show we ran together, we always had Jonah, who was the other host. It’s been interesting to work together in the presence of other people.

That all-rounder view is so crucial. This movie is so dedicated to showing other perspectives, and giving people the opportunity to speak and be heard, beyond main characters, parents, arranged marriage candidates, even fellow comics. Even if there was shmucky behaviour, that’s a modern twist on the genre, pushing people away from being stuck in a mold like the “quirky friend.”

Nanjiani: We tried really hard to make a movie where everybody’s point of view was understandable and relatable, no one was right or wrong.

Gordon: We fell in love with all of the characters individually. We took turns in … making love to them? Is that weird?

Nanjiani: [Turns to me] Yes. Making love to them. We made love to every single character. That’s us.

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Continuously appreciative that this wasn’t filmed. But events of a rom-com have to be grandiose – Four Weddings and a Funeral wasn’t called One Wedding and a Sick Day for a reason. But why are rom-coms so important?

Nanjiani: I love the rom-coms! But rom-coms are sometimes too neat. It was more interesting to take the rom-com trope and try to tell a story of a real relationship instead, of many real relationships, and try do that with real people and show actually how messy it is. Our mandate was to use the rom-com tropes and structure, but tell a really messy story. Emily had once written an article about how rom-coms have ruined–

Gordon: There was a very poorly attended workshop in Brooklyn about how rom-coms have ruined our dating lives, and how they set us up for all these expectations that are never met but we still keep chasing them. I certainly felt that way. I definitely shouldn’t have ever been using them as a blueprint, but I was. I wanted to have a rom-com that reflected what real life is, which is men and women participating equally, and it being messy and it not ending where the couple gets together.

There could have been a whole movie where the end of the movie is them having that first night that they spent together. That could’ve been the end of a movie. I’m really glad that we didn’t do that because I think relationships are more interesting than how you met. It’s too easy to romanticize how we meet, how we get together. What’s more interesting to me is after you get together … which is also more boring too.

You’ve played that out in how you went into a coma, the meet, the greet, and end of the relationship just so you could have the next phase of it being fleshed out through those amazing relationships with Holly Hunter and–

Both: Isn’t she amazing?

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Photo by Nicole Rivelli

Holly Hunter is a fucking dream. Phenomenal. In terms of showing a scope of human beings, which is what you both do in your respective industries, how did you deal with coming from different cultural backgrounds? And meeting at a point where it didn’t hinder your relationship?

Gordon: It’s interesting. I’m not ever going to recommend our path: “Just get really sick and it will be fine!” Everybody’s story is completely different, so I encourage the white people in a relationship to just listen to their partner and be open to the fact that it’s not about you. That was something that I, very naively, and I fully admit it, was like, “If he really loved me he would just tell them!” And it’s not about that. It has nothing to do with you, in a good way. It isn’t about how much he or she likes you, it’s about so much more than that. To understand that not every culture handles things the same way and to be open to that is something we try to tell people. Everyone is going through their own struggles and their own paths, so it’s hard to offer any one nugget of advice.

Nanjiani: What helped us is that we fell for each other so quickly. We connected so well and we had so much more in common. We were so compatible from the beginning, so all that other stuff felt, even though it affected us, it felt exterior to what was ultimately most important: we just like being with each other.

Gordon: Normally I would have overanalyzed this thing to death and broken up with him before anything would have happened. Like, “Get out of here, it’s too complicated!” I’d run from anything that was going to be super complicated, cut my losses, and get back to my life. I just really enjoyed hanging out with him, so I didn’t think about any of that stuff.

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In addition to the two of you writing, you had Judd Apatow shepherding the project and Michael Showalter helping you put it together. I know that Anupam Kher contributed ideas for his character, I’m sure Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as experienced actors gave their thoughts on their characters, not to mention your family all must have had their own input and thoughts. How did it feel to have so many talented voices involved. Did you ever want to just say, “Listen, this is our story, we know what happened?”

Nanjiani: Emily got there before I did, where she said, “This is not our lives anymore. This is a movie. This is a story and it’s collaborative.” I would also add Mike, Judd, and Barry to the mix, they were the main three. The five of us were like the hive mind for the last year before that. It was like, divorce yourself from the story, trust that all the personal stuff and the emotion that you’ve poured into it, trust that it’s going to stay but then use it to make things get through that emotional corridor. If we had just written what happened to us, people wouldn’t have had that experience that we had going through the movie, so actually their input and their notes helped us get to where it felt more real.

Gordon: Yeah, they really drilled it into us to not be precious about our stuff. It really helped make the movie so much better and it helped us feel better because I think up until then we’d been like, “No! But this part is important?” The difference between something being important to us and being important to the movie is a huge difference. Sometimes they overlap, but a lot of times they didn’t, and so it was actually great to get input. I do remember there was one phone call where we were all discussing Emily. Mike was like, “But Emily wouldn’t do that!” and very passionately.

Nanjiani: It’s easy to be like, “But I don’t want her to be like this!”

Gordon: I also feel like he was right, because the character of Emily that we created is slightly different. She’s quite similar to me but different in a lot of ways that make the movie better, make the movie cinematic. It was odd to be told…

In terms of advice, working together in the future and telling your life story, what knowledge would you happily impart?

Nanjiani: The biggest thing I’ve learned is to not judge my writing so harshly. To just write. Writer’s block I think happens when people are afraid of writing something bad. Don’t be afraid to write something bad.

Gordon: It’s going to be bad for sure.

Nanjiani: Just write something bad? That’s fine. Make it good later, just write. We wrote so many drafts of this that we stopped being precious and stopped trying to write good stuff. We just wrote. And sometimes you end up writing from a really emotional place and later that needs shaping, but sometimes you can really put yourself on the page when you’re not putting pressure on yourself, and you can come up with stuff that you would never be able to write if you were judging yourself.

Gordon: When working with a partner, we set a lot of boundaries. “We can’t just talk about work every time.” You have to ask permission before you talk about work at home. No talking about work in bed, that’s a big one.

Nanjiani: [Turns to Emily] You broke that!

Gordon: First thing in the morning, I rolled over and I was like, “You know I was thinking about this scene.” Terrible. Not a great way to start a day. But yeah, setting boundaries. I’m a huge boundary believer. I create a lot of rules so that my life can be happier, I hope. So that was a big thing for us, setting boundaries of when it was work and when it was just hanging, lovingly, with your spouse.

The Big Sick is now playing everywhere via Amazon Studios.

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