Buying What He’s Selling: Michael Showalter on The Big Sick and His Transactional Approach to Storytelling

Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, the real-life couple whose love story forms the backbone of romantic comedy The Big Sick, remember searching for the right director for the script they had co-written.

“Michael Showalter just showed up with a file full of notes,” recalls Nanjiani, who plays a version of himself in the film. “He was like, ‘This is what the movie’s about; this is what I wanna do with it; this is how I wanna to shoot it.” He came so prepared.”

“We met with him and [producer] Judd Apatow,” says Gordon. “Mike was not the only director we’d met with. And then Judd was like, ‘OK, great job, you guys go and get to work in this other room.’ And we all went to the other room and were like, ‘Does that mean that… you’re directing the movie?’ Mike was like, ‘Do I have the job?'”

Nanjiani went back into the other room and asked Apatow outright: “Does he have the job? We don’t know what’s happening here.”

“Judd was like, ‘Yeah, get to work! What are you doing? Of course he has the job!'” Gordon laughs. “He clearly got it. Not that other directors didn’t, but he just was the right person for the job.”

Showalter, the Wet Hot American Summer star-turned-indie writer-director, first came into directing with his 2005 film The Baxter. He really made waves in the feature world, though, a decade later with Hello, My Name is Doris, a poignant Sally Field vehicle about a misguided 60-something who falls for a younger coworker. That movie premiered at Sundance Film Festival, and got his future collaborators thinking.

“Once we saw Doris,” says Gordon, “we were like, ‘Oh yeah, he can totally do this.’ I was like, ‘He’s really good at comedy, but I wanna make sure he can nail the tougher stuff.’ And when I saw that movie, I was like, ‘Holy shit.’”

We spoke with Showalter about The Big Sick, which represents a significant step up for him as a storyteller with its sweet hilarity, emotional wallop and winning ensemble (including Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter and Ray Romano). And read our interview with Gordon and Nanjiani here.

Andy Young, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What initially attracted you to Kumail and Emily’s story as a film?

Michael Showalter (MS): Well I’ve known them for a long time, so I already knew a lot of the world they were talking about and could see it all in my head, but then also I just believed in what the movie was about and all the themes and ideas it was dealing with—faith, family, career, relationship, identity… all these big ideas that are inherent to the story they wanted to tell. I think the best romantic comedies are the ones that are about more than a just romantic comedy.

MM: What did you contribute when you were hired onto the film while they were still writing?

MS: The script was always really good, the DNA of it was always there. When I came on board I focused on putting it into a framework where some of their ideas were executed in a way that was more cinematic. I really wanted to focus on setting things up, exploring them, paying them off—just kind of the basic three-act screenplay structure I’m a big fan of. And with Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel, they subverted some of that, since they have a more novelistic approach, where they’re more interested in getting at the truth of something. We all brought a lot to the table to dig as deep into the material as possible and make it entertaining for an audience.

The biggest challenge is in the second act of the movie: Our romantic lead isn’t there because she’s in a coma, and you have to find a way to maintain humor. You can try to be funny, but the audience might not go there with you. There are a lot of subtle choices you make along the way to help get there.

Producer Judd Apatow and director Michael Showalter on the set of The Big Sick. Photograph by Nicole Rivelli

MM: In both The Big Sick and your last film Hello, My Name is Doris, I loved how well you balanced the emotional tone throughout the film. Is that difficult to keep track of, especially when you’re shooting out of sequence?

MS: The movie’s in my head. When you live with the material for a really long time, you’re living with the characters and really putting thought into them. The story takes a very clear shape, so as I’m watching a scene as a director I already have an idea of how I want it to feel—the order we shoot in doesn’t matter because the big picture is clear.

MM: What have you learned as a performer that’s transferred into your directing style?

MS: Giving notes is always difficult, because I respect the actor’s process and the choices they’re making and how difficult that is. Every actor is different: Some actors don’t mind line readings, other really bristle at that and want you to let them do what they’re there to do. I respect both sides of it. What I’m trying to do is capture my vision of the film while also leaving room for spontaneity and make something that’s both heightened and feels like real life. I’ve worn many hats over the years, and I’m very in awe of everyone working on set up and down the crew list. It’s such a collaborative medium.

MM: Talk about collaborating with your editor Robert Nassau. You clearly have a vision of the film in your mind on set, but how much do you let that change in post?

MS: He’s very autonomous. The footage tells a story, and it’s not like I’m looking over his shoulder all day long—he takes the footage and builds the film and then more often than not I’m happy with his interpretation and just make tweaks. This may change, but at this point I don’t have a clear strategy for how a scene needs to be edited as much as how it needs to feel. There are so many ways it can be cut, but If a scene looks and feels like the way I want it to and tells the story the way I want it to, at that point I’m interested in opening the film up to other people and getting outside opinions.

MM: Are you a big believer in test screenings?

MS: With the most recent two films I’ve directed, and other projects I’ve written, what I’m looking for is if it’s working or not. It’s not about getting micro notes. When I watch something with people I’m able to get a gut feeling for what’s working, what’s not, what’s too slow or confusing… you can feed off the energy in the room. And then with actual test screenings, where you’re getting scores and stuff, I think an aggregate of that stuff can really tell you a lot. One bad review doesn’t really say anything, but if most of the people that watch something like it or don’t like it, that should tell you something. If I’m in a test screening and the vast majority of people responded positively, I’m inclined to think the film’s moving in the right direction. And if the vast majority doesn’t like it, I’m not like, “They’re wrong, they just don’t get it!” My thinking is, there’s something I’m not doing correctly to bring the audience into this story in a way they can enjoy. My version of making movies is very transactional. If there’s no audience there to enjoy it, it doesn’t exist. With these mediums that are audience-based like film and television, if the audience doesn’t like it, then I failed. I’m doing this for the larger transaction of creating an experience between us and the audience.

(L-R) Actor Shenaz Treasury, Showalter and actor Adeel Akhtar on the set of The Big Sick. Photograph by Nicole Rivelli

MM: What advice would you give to moviemakers working toward making their first feature film?

MS: A good script is the most important thing. A lot of times, filmmakers are anxious to just get out there and shoot, and they’ll either look past intractable problems in the script that’ll result in a deeply flawed product, or rely on the actor’s ability to improvise so well that they’ll fill in those gray areas. A movie is a one-time thing; it’s not like a play or a song where you can keep perfecting it. You get one shot at a movie. If you have to wait three months to get it perfect, it’s worth it. MM

The Big Sick opens in theaters June 23, 2017, courtesy of Amazon Studios and Lionsgate. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Spring 2017 issue.

 

 

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