Michael Showalter On Directing ‘The Big Sick’ And The Sliding Timeline Of ‘Wet Hot American Summer’

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Since the 11-person comedy troupe The State found cult stardom on MTV in the early ’90s, Michael Showalter has been a comedy fixture, and one who’s played a lot of different parts both in front of and behind the scenes. When The State, ran its course, Michael Showalter moved on to a series of other shows, films, and various comedy projects, sometimes working with frequent collaborators, and sometimes on his own. He co-created Wet Hot American Summer, became, with Michael Ian Black and David Wain, one-third of the beloved “Stella” comedy team, and eventually found his way behind the camera, making his feature directorial debut with The Baxter in 2005, a film in which he also played the lead. The Baxter was Showalter’s first foray into a genre he had long admired: the romantic comedy. He would later satirize and send up rom-coms with 2014’s They Came Together, but when he directed the acclaimed Hello, My Name is Doris, it once again became clear that he had deep respect for the genre.

Showalter’s most recent film is The Big Sick, is a semi-autobiographical romantic comedy starring Kumail Nanjiani and co-written by Nanjiani and Emily Gordon. The film is earning Showalter a whole new round of accolades, and I was pleased to get a chance to sit down with him to pick his brain about romantic comedies, what he’s learned as a director by making three of them, and what’s next for Stella, Wet Hot American Summer, and Showalter himself.

You’ve spoken before about how The Big Sick plays around with the structure of the romantic comedy, and how the second act is different than other romantic comedies. Do you want to speak a little bit about how you, Kumail, and co-writer Emily Gordon have played around with the structure of the typical romantic comedy?

Well, I mean, in a typical romantic comedy, the second act of the movie would normally be where the two characters fall in love, and that’s where you see them really get to know each other, and it’s where the audience gets to really invest in the relationship, and in a normal movie, you don’t want to see them breaking up until closer to the end of the movie, and then you’re going, “Oh no! I want them to get back together!”

So, [here] we had to sort of squeeze an entire movie’s worth of a relationship into the first act. And, the reason we needed to do that was so the audience felt… We need to really get to know Emily by the end of the first act of the movie, so that when she goes into the coma, we feel the loss of her. We feel like we know her, we feel like we miss her, we feel like we know what their relationship is and how strong their connection is, how unique it is. And so, again, in a typical movie of this nature, they would’ve only met a few times and gone on a date [by the end of the first act], and had one or two conversations or something, and so … Then you have to figure out, well now we have an entire act’s worth of the movie, where she’s not there anymore, this character that we’ve gotten to know so well. So how’s that gonna work? It’s just a lot of… blueprinting that goes into figuring out what the mechanics of that are.

Even though, to a certain extent, the story tells itself, there are a lot of moments along the way where you could go in the wrong direction, and I’m a big believer of the idea that the audience can be deeply affected by one false move. One false move can lose the audience for 15 minutes or something. One little thing that takes you out of the story, or points you in the wrong direction can have a really big effect on everything. There’s just a lot of calibration going on, for me anyway, to get it so that we remind you of here at the right moment, and maybe we let you forget about her for a little while… All these little things that go on behind the scenes so that audience is going along with the story in the way that we would like them to.

You’ve had three romantic comedies. What were the things that you’ve learned from The Baxter, to Hello, My Name is Doris, to The Big Sick, that have informed you as a director?

With each film, I’ve gotten more comfortable with the dramatic stuff. And that… The thin line between comedy and drama, and that line is becoming thinner for me. So, with each one of these projects, I guess I’ve maybe become a little bit more comfortable going into the dramatic scenes and seeing them as being exciting and as being woven into what’s gonna make the movie work as the comedic scenes. And so in The Baxter, there’s a couple little moments that hinted at some drama, that are some of my favorite scenes in the movie.

And then, with Hello, My Name is Doris, you know, with Sally Field really wanting to highlight those scenes, and her kind of bringing that out in me, going “Yeah, you know what, I can do this. I have it in me, and that’s who I am really.” And then with The Big Sick, we sort of really let that all hang out. And, that’s not to say that I want to do just dramas at all, I don’t, but I do think that’s what life is like. Life is both.

And it’s just a process of you becoming more comfortable with the less comedic side and the more dramatic side?

Yeah, and also as a director learning, literally learning about picking camera angles and just being a more confident director, what’s important to me, as a director, how to get what I need. In The Baxter, there was a lot of me just kind of letting other people make a lot of the decisions, that now I understand that I need to make those decisions and, I need to fight for certain things that I know from experience now, “No, I’m gonna have to fight for that, we need that.” There’s so many things that, especially with directing, experience is invaluable in terms of, “I’ve been here before, we have to get that shot.” “We will regret it if we don’t get it,” things like that. The evolution. It’s taken a lot… It’s been a long road for me, it’s been a long road.

One of my favorite things that you’ve done is your adventure journalism bits on your album, Sandwiches & Cats.

The songs?

The songs, but also the combination adventure journalism/erotica stuff.

That’s right, I was doing erotica, I was doing erotica at one point. [Laughs.]

What is it about the adventure journalism genre that it’s so rife with comedy, even though it’s completely earnest and serious?

You’re taking me back. I … God, I don’t even remember, I mean, that was such a specific little bit that I was doing. I don’t even remember, I mean, I know what you’re talking about, but … I was reading a lot of Jon Krakauer, and it just is sort of a specific genre that I just was really just enjoying as a reader.

Will you be doing Stella forever? Is that something that you’ll keep revisiting?

I’m sure, I’m sure. I mean, Mike, David, and I are always working on projects together. And so, we have talked about touring as Stella again, that kind of thing. I would imagine that there will always be the possibility of us doing something. It’s characters that we all love playing.

Is there anything you can tell me about the upcoming Wet Hot season?

Ten years later, they’re in their mid-twenties now, they’re back at camp, as they promised they would be. And antics ensue.

What’s it like to be playing a character in your mid-twenties when, ten years ago, you were playing a character in his teens?

Well, I was just sort of thinking that, if we keep doing it at this rate, we’ll actually be our own age. Like, next time we do Wet Hot, it’ll be like, their 25th reunion, and then we’re just our actual ages or something. But it’s fun. I mean it’s fun to kind of… It’s literally playing dress up, it’s just silly. It’s just totally silly.

What has being in the public eye for long time. I’m sure, back when The State was on TV you had people coming up to you doing Doug, and then, now people are probably quoting Coop lines to you. What’s that journey been like?

I’m not someone who’s often recognized, you know? So, in a way, and the fact that I’ve more recently not been on camera as much … You know, I’m not in Doris, I’m not in Big Sick, I wasn’t in They Came Together. I am in Wet Hot, but I’m not acting in a lot of things, you know? I’m more comfortable not being recognized, and so maybe I … The evolution has been to a place of being like, “I love entertainment, I love film and television.” I am most comfortable in the capacity of being a writer and a director and a producer, and being a little private and shy.