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.
Was it difficult to fictionalize these aspects of your real life?
Nanjiani: Well, you can change stuff as long as it feels real and emotionally true. So for us it was obviously very difficult writing it, but the change is we always had the real barometer of “Does this feel real? Does this feel like it felt when were going through it?” So, heightening stuff or taking stuff away, we had a pretty good gauge.
Gordon: But then some stuff you get to re-write history. Like in the movie, Kumail writes Emily’s name in Urdu and shows it to her and she’s like “This is bullshit.” In real life I ate it up like an idiot. So that was a lovely example of [how] I should have maybe been a little more on my game on. Because I was like, “Oh my god, this is so cool. Thank you.” I was more like Denise (Celeste Arias), the girl that he takes home later in the movie. And in the movie I get to be a little bit more badass.
Nanjiani: Later, she comes home with me. Not like some hunter. I didn’t drag her by her hair.
Gordon: So you get to rewrite history in a way that make you seem a little cooler or a little less cool, which is also helpful.
It’s like indulging in a story at a bar with your friends, but on a much larger scale.
Gordon: You get to be like, “And then, there were three guys and I took them all down!”
Nanjiani: Yeah, totally.
How was casting the actors to play members of your family? Our yourself, in Emily’s case, since Zoe Kazan plays you on screen.
Nanjiani: I think for me, it’s interesting because when you’re writing, you’re seeing the real people in our head and at some point, when you start writing for specific actors and you just start seeing different people in it. So we auditioned a bunch of people and once we got Zoe, then from that point on every time I read the script I would see Zoe. And then we rewrote the script to try and get Holly Hunter to do it. So from that point on we started seeing Holly, and then when we wanted Ray [Romano], I started seeing Ray. What was interesting was how similar it felt to actually living though it.
Gordon: I didn’t know that, actually.
Nanjiani: It really felt quite similar. When I have scenes with Zoe or her parents, it felt emotionally similar but it also like you’re telling a story, and you’re servicing the story, not the real-life events. So it’s interesting, it almost felt like 50/50 between fictional and real in a way that fed each other. The reality of living through it fed the fakeness in a good way, and the fakeness fed the reality. It made me feel safe to go certain places because it’s not real. But there were real places to go because it is real.
Gordon: That was a good answer.
Nanjiani: Oh, thank you.
Gordon: And it could have been incredibly weird to have someone play me in a movie, but because all of us were very up front like “We don’t want this to be weird.” But I also was like, “This is my job, I’m a professional, and I’m a writer and I want to make sure this is the best movie.” I had a moment when I watched audition tapes where I was kind of like ‘Oh, God, this is so weird.’ And then I [realized] I either need to get over it or I need to get out of here because I want this to be a good movie. And Zoe was such a perfect choice, both because she’s an amazing actress and also because she got it. But it could have been weird.
Nanjiani: Right after the auditions, we went out and got dinner the next day, just to be like “Hey, for doing this we should be friends.” Because that’s important. This is a big part of our movie and it’s a big big of our story. So, it’s not essential but it would be a fucking amazing bonus if this person was someone we would love and want to be friends with.
Gordon: I was wearing a shirt that Zoe also owned at the dinner, everything worked out great. It was situation that could have been real wonky, but I think we’re all professionals and grown-ups and she’s wonderful.
Nanjiani: And we talk all the time. Just yesterday, she asked me for X-Files episode recommendations and I was moved. I was like, “Zoe! You used to make fun of me for this!”
Did the actors contribute their own ideas to the story?
Gordon: Oh, absolutely. And we really wanted them to because I think it’s so important. They’re creating these characters and they need to have a part in that to feel like they’re invested. So everybody contributed. I think there where a lot of times that Zoe would be like, “I want Emily to feel a little more unhinged here. I want Emily to not be as methodical here.” And we would always take that into account. And Holly and Ray both where so good about being like, “I don’t know if this feels true to the Beth that I’m playing.” And so we were constantly taking their input and rewriting scenes. Ray wrote a backstory for his character that was really lovely.
Nanjiani: That’s not in the movie.
Gordon: Not really in the movie, but I think it was always in his head, which helped. A lot of the games he came up with were math games because he was a math teacher, he had come fully prepared. And I think Holly too, not only did she create this lovely mama bear, but she would also come up and be like, “So at this moment, was your mom feeling excited or was she feeling relived?” She would check in with us and then assimilate that into what she was already doing, which was really lovely. But they created these people out of bare bones.
Nanjiani: Especially Holly, because she’s a legend.
Gordon: She’s literally Holly Hunter!
Nanjiani: She’s literally the Holly Hunter of acting. So it was really interesting watching the Holly Hunter of acing approach this because you realize when she’s playing a part she really was to wear this person, [it] has to make sense. Having us casting really smart people really helped the script get better because we had a few months with Holly and Ray and Zoe to go through and have their input.
Gordon: I think that’s why all the scene feel very lived in and very grounded, partially because we’re such great writers, but also partially because those guys would call us on stuff and be like, “Hey, it doesn’t feel realistic for this character to do this.” And we’re like “Absolutely. Let’s talk through it and figure out a way that it feels grounded to you.” We’d tell them our reasoning and they’d either go “Yeah, that’s good.” Or, “No, lets keep working.” And we would all together form scenes that way.
Nanjiani: There were days when we’d rehearse a scene and be like, this doesn’t feel quite right. And go into a room and rewrite it.
Emily: My favorite day was [when] Holly and Zoe had a scene together, and they both wanted some changes. And so I was sitting on the floor in Emily’s bedroom with a laptop and the three of us were just talking through and I was taking notes, and then I took those notes and re-crafted the scene and I was like, “This is the best day of my life! I can’t believe this is a job I get to do.”
What does your family think? Assuming they’ve seen it, of course.
Nanjiani: Her parents saw it five times in one day.
Nanjiani: Five times in one day.
They must’ve liked it, then.
Gordon: Yeah, my parents got a link to watch and watched it at home, and they kept saying they wanted their characters to be nice. They’re very Southern. They wanted their characters to be nice and I kept explaining there has to be conflict. It’s not a good movie if you’re just sweet the whole time like you actually are. And so they finally were like, “We get it, we get it.” And then once they saw the movie they fully got it, that it was like, these are not people pretending to be them, these are completely different characters. I think they really love it, which was great. And it made them cry, which I think is also great.
Nanjiani: My brother has seen it and then yesterday my cousin saw it, who’s in a couple of the pictures in the beginning. But my parents have not seen it yet but two members of my family have seen it, and they both love it.
Did you know Hannibal Buress was going to hijack the audience Q&A and ask why Kumail’s character answered an unknown call after midnight?
Gordon: It was so funny.
Nanjiani: I had been texting with him, but I didn’t know that he was going to be first up.
Gordon: I was literally like “What is he going to nitpick in the movie? What thing is he going to pick and…”
Nanjiani: And he found it!
Gordon: He found it.
Nanjiani: He found it. There were a couple of options maybe, but that was the best one.