Infectious Charm: Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon Bring Their Real-Life Romance to the Screen in The Big Sick

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MM: Kumail, Michael Showalter was one of the first people you ever worked with as a writer, and you had a role in his previous film, Hello, My Name is Doris, but was he always your first choice as a director?

EG: We actually met with a couple directors, but once we saw Doris, we were like, “Oh yeah, he can totally do this.” I know Mike from [comedy group and TV show] The State, so 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.”

KN: Mike is a super emotional guy who really, really loves sensitive movies. Now he’s gone back to [TBS series] Search Party, and he’s doing Wet Hot American Summer again, which is so different. Mike got a copy of our script, and he called me at 1 a.m. to say he wanted to do the film.

MM: What is it like working with him on set? Ultimately, once you’re on set, it’s the director’s vision.

 KN: When we were doing the auditions, I was reading with actresses, and Mike was like, “Can I give you an order?” And he gave me this great note, and I was like, “Oh, this is going to be great.” I knew right then that I could trust him with the emotional stuff and the funny stuff.

MM: Do you remember what the note was?

KN: Yes. It was the the post-coital conversation that Emily and I have where I talk about Hugh Grant and stuff. I was doing it like I was really into this girl. Mike said, “You should start off feeling like this is just a girl that you’ve hooked up with, and over the course of that conversation you start to feel that this is something different. When she tells you the story of her being called ‘Beetlejuice’ in high school—that’s something that she reveals about herself—in that moment you decide, ‘I want to see her again.’”

EG: He’s great with rom-com language in general. “Both of you are supposed to be hurtling toward this relationship that you’re not trying to get into, so you can’t be too into each other but you can’t be dicks either.”

KN: We rehearsed a lot. We had a couple weeks of me and Zoe rehearsing every day, then we had a week of me and Holly rehearsing every day, then we had me, Holly and Ray rehearsing together, so we rehearsed the fuck out of these scenes. When we got there to shoot, we knew what wanted to do.

Before Emily falls ill in The Big Sick, her relationship with Kumail is strained by the impending arranged marriage his parents are planning for him. Photograph by Nicole Rivelli

MM: What advice would you give to first-time feature writers of movies that are personal to them?

EG: Don’t be precious, and take the advice that you’re given. Don’t think that what you’ve created is this solid thing that can’t be messed with. And don’t be afraid to put it out there, either. I think a lot of people talk about writing more than they write. Don’t talk about writing more than you’re writing.

KN: Some of the best stuff we wrote was stuff we wrote the week before we shot. Like that scene where I tell my parents that I can’t marry someone they find for me, and I have this speech, and my dad says that’s not what the American dream is—his little speech was written the day before. And that was because the actor, Anupani [Euler], was like, “I feel like I wanna say something there.” And Emily wrote his dialogue that elevates the movie.

EG: I wrote three versions of his speech—a long, medium and short one—and I showed them all to him, and he went, “I’m doing the longest version, obviously.”

KN: And that really changes the whole movie. MM

The Big Sick opens in theaters June 23, 2017, courtesy of Amazon Studios and Lionsgate. Top photograph by Jana Cruder.

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