There are few couples out there whose courtship would involve one of them being in a medically-induced coma for a month. Even fewer would decide to write a screenplay about it. But that’s exactly what real-life couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon did for The Big Sick, which was shown as part of the SXSW Film Festival last week. We got the chance to talk to both Nanjiani and Gordon about what went into writing their script, how they created a stylized version of their own life story, and how Hannibal Buress set the tone for their audience Q&A.
What inspired you two to write a script about this very unique time in your lives together?
Emily V. Gordon: I think for us it was obviously a very personal story, so I think we kind of took some time with it and then eventually realized that this might be a good story to tell, and I think what we hoped is that it would kind of resonate with other people, too. Even though it’s a very specific story, it deals with a lot of things that I think a lot of couples deal with. And it’s also just so ridiculous that you can’t make it up. I think those are the best stories to tell are the ones that feel so ridiculous that you can’t make them up.
Kumail Nanjiani: For me, I felt like this story was like… You know when you have a ketchup bottle and it gets crusty on top and you’ve got to get the crust off before you can get anything else out? To me this story was that crust on top where, I was like “I can’t really tell any other big, major story until I get this one out.” So it always felt like, and I don’t mean that as a negative, [that] this was the big thing I felt like —
Gordon: It’s the biggest thing that’s ever happened in either of our lives, really.
Nanjiani: I felt for me personally as a stand-up and writer, I had to do this. I just had to do it.
How did the collaboration work out?
Gordon: Really well. We had worked together a couple times before. We had a podcast together and we did a TV show together for Comedy Central, so we’d already done a good job at hammering out a working relationship. A writing relationship is a different beast altogether. I think we both write a little bit differently and we approach things a little bit differently. So, we did a good job of collaborating, and it really helped us to see each other’s perspectives. When you’re writing a movie together, you see stuff that was super important to one of us, and I didn’t realize it was as important to him.
Nanjiani: And you know you said that we have different writing styles, but I would say that it’s not even that different. I think, writing this movie, we had very similar voices in writing. So when I read your first draft I wasn’t like, “Oh, this doesn’t sounds like my voice.”
Gordon: When I say writing styles, I literally just mean like, I sit down first thing in the morning and write really fast and get all the way though it. We literally just have different writing styles of how we actually write. I have to be at a desk, you like to be… we just have different ways.
Nanjiani: But it takes the pressure off because then I write something, I don’t … well, I mean when I write, I don’t have to be like “This doesn’t have to be good because I can send it to Emily and she’ll make it good.” Maybe the same thing happens for you. But that really helped get a lot of stuff out because it wasn’t like I had to write well, I just had to write, because there was someone else.
Gordon: And it’s not like we’re trying to impress each other either. But I had been making a living as a freelancer for a couple years, so I had a whole office situation in the house and I had all my ritual. I had written a book there, I was like “This is how I write.” Whereas Kumail’s laying in bed.
Nanjiani: But I used to have an office.
Gordon: You know what I’m saying, I just have more of a structured way of approaching things.