By Iain Blair
If life is stranger than fiction, then the acclaimed Oscar-nominated film The Big Sick is Exhibit A. Based on the unlikely real-life courtship between Pakistani comedian/writer Kumail Nanjiani and writer/producer Emily V. Gordon, it tells the story of Kumail (playing a version of himself), who connects with grad student Emily (Zoe Kazan) after one of his standup sets. However, what they thought would be just a one-night stand blossoms into the real thing, which complicates the life that is expected of Kumail by his traditional Muslim parents.
When Emily is beset with a mystery illness, and then placed in a medically induced coma, it forces Kumail to navigate the medical crisis with her parents, Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), whom he’s never met, while dealing with the emotional tug-of-war between his family and his heart.
The Big Sick is a crowd-pleasing rom-com, written by Gordon and Nanjiani, and produced by Judd Apatow (Trainwreck, This is 40) and Barry Mendel (Trainwreck, The Royal Tenenbaums). But it also deals with drama, racism and the clash of cultures. It was directed by Michael Showalter, who co-wrote and directed the SXSW Audience Award-winning film Hello, My Name is Doris, starring Sally Field. He’s a founding member of the comedy groups The State and Stella, his other film credits include The Baxter, Wet Hot American Summer and They Came Together. He has also co-created numerous television projects, including Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (Netflix) and Search Party (TBS).
We recently spoke with Showalter about making the film, which has been generating awards buzz (it won AFI’s Movie of the Year award), including an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Is it true you actually gave Nanjiani his first big TV job, and what did you think when you first read this?
Yes. I’ve known Kumail a long time. I met him in New York in the comedy scene when he first arrived. I love his comedy and sensibility, and I also love him personally. He’s a great guy and we’ve worked together a lot over the years.
We hired him as a staff writer and actor for a Comedy Central series, Michael and Michael Have Issues. I did, and then I cast him in a supporting role in My Name is Doris. Then he sent me this script without saying much about it. I didn’t know it was based on their lives and that all this had happened — I just loved it and everything about it.
It’s definitely not your usual rom-com.
I kind of knew what sort of film they wanted it to be — more than just the genre, but the feel of it. I knew the tone they were going for, and that I could do that. So I begged them to hire me, and then I met with Judd and Barry and we spent eight months rewriting it — Kumail, Emily, Judd, Barry and me, and then I got hired and off we went.
The structure is very different from a normal rom-com. How challenging was that, and what sort of film did you set out to make?
You’re right, as usually the second act is where the characters fall in love, then they break up and then they get back together in the third act, but in this all of that happens right in the first act. Then the love interest isn’t even there for the entire second act — which is pretty challenging — and the film gets a lot darker in the second half. So we had to figure out how to keep it moving forward, and I wanted to make a film that’s very funny, first and foremost — a comedy.
But it’s a comedy that walks the line between comedy and drama, even tragedy, and I wanted to give full weight to both elements and not let it get too sentimental. I love theater and some of my favorite plays — like Angels in America — start off as laugh-out-loud comedies and then get really serious, and I love the way they allow those opposites to co-exist.
How involved was Judd Apatow in developing the film?
Judd was very involved in all aspects — tightening up the screenplay, casting and then editing. He’s so experienced, and a great collaborator.
How was the shoot?
We shot on digital, in New York, it was just 25 days, so pretty tight, but it went great thanks to a great line producer and crew. The biggest issue was that it’s set in cold weather and we shot in a heat wave.
Do you like the post process?
I love it. It’s so creative and, of course, it’s where you actually make the movie.
Tell us about working with editor Robert Nassau, who cut My Name is Doris for you and Wanderlust for Judd Apatow. What were the main editing challenges?
As a TV showrunner and film director, my preferred way of working in post is to empower editors, and I rely on them the same way I do with a production designer or DP. I’m not big on micro managing, so I like to give the footage to my editor and then see what they do with it. And I go into production with a very clear game-plan. There’s not a lot of figuring it all out on the day. Then I’m very interested in the editor’s interpretation of the footage, and if it’s working, I give notes and we go along like that. I’m not the sort of director who’s in the room all the time, looking over the editor’s shoulder. I’m much more laissez-faire.
Where did you edit and post this?
Rob has his own editing suite at home in New York, so he did the assembly and director’s cut there while I was in LA. Then he came out to LA for the producer’s cut, and on any given day either me or Kumail, Judd and Barry — or all of us — would be there too, going over specific scenes and beats. But Judd had final cut, and once I’d done my cut, all the post became much more of a group endeavor.
How important are sound and music to you?
They’re both crucial elements and we did it all in LA, working with Judd’s sound team, which does most of his projects. We wanted the sound to be very intimate and very clean, so you feel like you’re with the characters all the time and you hear everything they’re saying in these small, intimate places, as opposed to having a rougher, grittier sound design. Then composer Mike Andrews, who’s scored a lot of projects for Judd, like Bridesmaids, came on board and did a score that really mirrored the emotions of the characters, without over-scoring it.
Who was the colorist and where did you do the DI?
We did the digital intermediate and dailies at Technicolor Postworks NY, and Alex Bickel was the colorist. I’m very involved in all that. The color is very important, and we wanted a very warm, authentic look, as opposed to going more muted and drained-out. We experimented a bit and Alex did a great job.
I’ve got a few things I’m working on but I can’t talk about them yet!
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.