Being sick never looked so sweet.
Possibly two of the biggest surprises for the cinematic world came when “The Big Sick” delighted and enchanted audiences and then when it was subsequently snubbed this awards season. Luckily FilmStruck and Variety noted its obvious charm and merit it and included it in Variety’s Screening Series.
The film, based on a true story, follows the volatile romantic ups and downs of stand up comedian Kumail Nanjiani (playing himself) and Emily Gordon (Zoe Kazan). I’m not going to ruin the plot for you because everyone should go buy tickets for this ASAP (seriously stop reading and get on that MoviePass app now), but to kill time before that next screening read The Knockturnal’s coverage of the Q&A panel with writers and creators Nanjiani, Gordon, actress Holly Hunter, and director Michael Showalter below. If your curiosity is killing you, you can also check out the film review here.
Could you have ever imagine when you premiered this movie at Sundance almost a year ago, that a year later people would be talking about it so passionately and we’re talking about it tonight
KUMAIL NANJJIANI: No… I mean, we honestly had no idea what to expect. When we were making the movie, Emily was like, “You know people are gonna see it, at some point….” And I was like, “No one is gonna see this. This is for us”. This is a glorified wedding video, our 10-year anniversary gift to one another had. It was not for anybody else so I hadn’t really considered any of that. So its all been really surreal, and wonderful, and we were really proud of the movie all of us really loved it, but to have other people still finding it and watching it it’s very thrilling.
Especially because, from what I understand, you were a little concerned of how to sell the movie because there’s a coma
EMILY GORDON: It’s not an easy sell. The elevator pitch of this movie is, “Muslim guy falls in love with a white American girl in a coma”. I mean you’ve heard that story before right?
KN: That kind of sounds like a horror movie almost. We talked about it a lot because on paper it’s really different than what the movie actually is. On paper, it sounds like a lot more serious movie, but it’s actually a funny, light, family film. So we tried to come up with titles that would help, one of the ones we had was, “Guess whose coma to dinner?”
EG: I did not have anything to do with that one.
KN: We also had, “Guess whose Corma to dinner” which is a Pakistani curi.
EG: Different kind of movie. Do you remember any of the other one’s Mike? We had a huge list of terrible puns.
MICHAEL SHOWALTER: Mmm… I’m trying to remember any of the ones that we liked, that we were like, maybe thinking we might want to do.
KN: Well we talked about, “Lovesick”, actually.
Which is a movie…
KN: Oh I haven’t seen the movie but, I honestly think it would not have been a bad title for this.
EG: Yeah, well we kind of ended up sticking with the title just because we kind of had it for so long, I don’t even think this was the question…
KN: So we didn’t know how to sell it, and we talked about it a lot when we were cutting the preview, there was a big discussion of whether we should have the word “coma” in there or not, and then ultimately we decided we are not trying to fool people. We want to convey what the movie is and trust the audience enough, if we do a good enough job of conveying the movie, there will be people who will want to see it. So we decided ultimately to sort of promote it, as what it is, which is kind of everything at once, it’s not really anyone genre I don’t think, it’s a movie, you know? I feel like in the 80’s there were movies that, I feel like now there is a pressure to put every movie in a genre, like, what is this, is this a comedy? Is this a drama? Is this a dramedy? But if you look at movies, for instance like Broadcast News, you know? You could say it’s a comedy but it’s so much more, there is so much in that movie, so many different tones and stuff. Same with like Terms of Endearment, so many different tones. So we just sort of tried to convey the movie as best we could and trust that people would want to see it.
And Michael and Holly, how did the script find its way to you? Because Michael I actually understand we have you to blame for Kumail’s acting career. You were the first person that made him act.
MS: Well, yeah, I knew Kumail, I met Kumail when he comes to New York and starts doing stand-up in New York, and I’m one of the comedians that he meats when he moves to New York. I’m talking about it as if it’s in the movie, but in life, that ‘s how I met Kumail, “who is this new guy that just moved from Chicago?” Cause I used to be a performer as well and immediately thought the world of Kumail’s comedy and we became friends and Kumail came a wrote on a show that I did at Comedy Central a long time ago and it was sort of a show within a show, and we had a character in the show, who was named Kumail, that Kumail was writing that character, and they made him audition a lot.
KN: I auditioned four times to play the part of Kumail, written by me.
EG: Exactly like this movie.
KN: Yes, except this time I corrected it I was like, ‘I’m not gonna f*cking audition…’
EG: We are not seeing anyone else!
KN: Yeah! But they would have these… in the floor beneath the writing floor is where casting was, and I’d go down there sometimes and I’d see all these slightly more handsome brown men, holding pieces of paper that said “Kumail” on them, pretending to be me –
EG: Doesn’t feel so great does it Kumail?
MS: Can I quickly finish the story? I don’t mean because you interrupted me, but because I’ve never told this part. So the other writer, we only had two writers on the show, it was Kumail and Jessi Kline who is the head writer of Amy Schumer. So there were only two writers, Kumail and Jessi, Jessi is also a phenomenal performer… This is a long time ago, so Jessi and Kumail where our two writers and they were brilliant, both of them brilliant writers, both very great, brilliant stand-up comedians, who really hadn’t done a lot of acting at that point. They both needed to audition multiple times to essentially play themselves in our show. Needless to say Kumail now, they’d give anything to work with Kumail, they made him jump through crazy hoops… But, they auditioned so many times and then finally Comedy Central calls us and says, “We are gonna let you cast Kumail and Jessi to play themselves in your show”. We were very excited about that we knew they’d be excited, it had been a nervous couple of weeks of them going through this. They worked in an office together, Kumail and Jessi shared an office that was literally like your desks were facing each other…
KN: Yeah, we were looking at each other every day all day, with our laptops.
MS: So Michael Black and I, this is the show that Michael Ian Black and I had together on Comedy Central, and he’s a great comedian, had this really funny idea: what if we email them both and said, ‘You got the part, but the other one didn’t. But they don’t know it, and don’t tell them’. So the entire day, they are both coming into our office saying like, ‘This is so weird, I feel so bad, I want to tell him’ and then Kumail would come in, ‘This is so weird, I feel so bad’, and then we told them.
KN: And then this is what happened; then you emailed us both saying, ‘We just told them, so please make them feel better’. So me and Jessi where in the kitchen and I’m like, “Hey Jessi how’s it going?” and Jessi is like, “Hey Kumail, how’s it going?” and then as we are trying to console each other, she’s like, ‘Wait wait what did you hear?’ And we immediately knew what these assh*les had done. And I thought it was hilarious… Jessi, was so mad….
MS: She like didn’t come back to work for two days…
KN: She was so genuinely upset, she was like, ‘Why can’t you guys have a moment of celebration why does everything have to be a joke!’
MS: She was not amused, not one bit… It totally backfired, it didn’t go well at all.
So Holly, how did the script find its way to you?
HOLLY HUNTER: They offered me the role and then I had a phone conversation with Barry Mendel one of the producers and Barry just said, ‘I know you’ve heard this a million times before but this is real. This is collaboration. This movie is going to be collaboration, maybe like you’ve never done it before.’ And it was true. He was telling me the truth, it was truly collaborative. We rehearsed a lot for this movie. A lot more than most movies. Many movies there is no rehearsal. You go in, and you meet people, and that’s it. But this, we spend a lot of time hanging out, in different rooms, talking about scenes, reading through scenes, reading through them again, talking more, I mean it was just very relaxed but at the same time, everybody was kind of bringing— I mean nobody was skating through the rehearsal period. It was extremely productive. And it was great.
Who had the brilliant idea to put you and Ray Romano together? Because that feels like a real marriage to me…
EG: That was Judd Apatow’s idea, which we thought was really really genius. He’d worked with Ray in Funny People, very briefly and he was like, after we cast Holly which we were so excited about, ‘Who would be the best kind of person to be paired with Holly?’ and we thought that physically, they look very interesting together, we thought the fact that they have different backgrounds, one is clearly Southern one is clearly not, kind of slightly mirrors the way that Emily and Kumail are together, and they just have great energy and challenge Kumail in very different ways; one is way to honest and emotional and one sees straight through him every step of the way, and that’s how Kumail needed to be challenged. And you kind of believe that both of them would make an Emily, which was great too. So that was Judd’s idea, and we were very excited for it.
KN: I mean that was always the challenge, with Holly, that was also a Judd idea. Holly was the second person we cast, we cast Zoey as Emily. And we were talking about who it should be, and Judd said it should be Holly Hunter, and we were both like, “Of course, yes!”
EG: But we were also like, ‘Ok buddy, have fun getting Holly Hunter, good luck!’
KN: But Judd had seen Holly conduct a class very recently at Carnegie Mellon, what were you doing Holly, you were teaching a master class?
HH: It was just a master class in acting, and I felt so under qualified to do but anyway-
KN: What are you talking about? You are literally the Holly Hunter of acting! Full disclosure, Emily said it, but nobody heard it, that was Emily.
I see how the collaboration works…
EG: I say it, then he says it slightly louder and yeah absolutely.
KN: There you go, welcome to the patriarchy.
You have these amazing comedians in front of the camera and behind the camera as well, how much improvisation was there? And Michael, do you do, you generally work with improv, don’t you?
MS: Actually no, it’s not that I don’t like it but usually the things that I’ve done we don’t have the time or money to do it. It really just comes down to that, you don’t have the luxury of taking the time to do improve. It also tends to get out of hand, it can get kind of out of hand pretty quick, so I definitely like to make sure that the scripts are always ironclad…
HH: But that’s why you like rehearsal, improve in rehearsal
MS: Yes, yes, absolutely. And like, spontaneity, all of the actors in the movie, every actor brought in an enormous amount of their own experience and creativity to their roles in the lines that they said, in ideas, they had about who their characters were and what their stories were, and all of that. But a lot of that work was done before we shot. That all being said, there was still, in this movie, a lot of improv. I was prepared for Judd and Barry to say, “this is gonna be something we are gonna wanna do” and we did.
KN: Well we had like little windows were certain scenes we knew there was no time for improv, but other scenes we had like little windows, like with me and Ray when he is talking about “throw the chalk at Jimmy” all those games… You cant rhyme it… So that scene was very heavily improvised he had like 10 games that he was just throwing at me…
MS: Well he had a friend with him that was an Everybody Loves Raymond writer and they’d kind of just huddle up and be like, “I’m gonna do some stuff”
KN: But that said, it was specific windows that we knew. Ok here, the point of the scene is he wants to hang out, he doesn’t want to hang out, so here we can do a little bit of improv. But a lot of the other ones, none of the hospital stuff, my parents…
MS: Some of the stuff backstage, the scene where the friends are making fun of him for putting her in the coma, that was improvisation, but I have to be honest, that was a tough scene. We improvised for a long time to get a really short scene, and so in my experience its always good to have a great script and if you can find some stuff off the script great, but I never like to count on that.
KN: Yeah we knew going in that if we just shot the script we’d be happy with the result, and so the fact that we were able to improvise here and there… But as Holly said, in the rehearsal process we would look at the script, do the scene as scripted, try different things, improvise, we would record all of it, Emily and I would sort of pick the stuff that seemed to work, put it into the script, rehearse again, do the scene again so the re-writing process had a lot of improv.
And Emily, how did your parents feel when they learned they were going to be played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano?
EG: You know… I don’t think you can prepare anyone for that kind of information. They were really really excited. Raising Arizona is like my family vocabulary, so that kind of blew there mind…
KN: We had to prep her mom like, “you can’t say, ‘turn to the right’ to Holly Hunter”.
HH: She could have…
EG: But my mom said, ‘Holly Hunter is much prettier than me, but your father is more handsome than Ray Romano.’ Which I told Kumail, and Kumaiimmediatelyly told Ray Romano, who brought it up every moment he got the chance, including to my parents.
Finally, I just want to ask, who are some of the directors that influenced you guys?
HH: I remember when I was living in New York, it was the 80s, and I walked into a theater that is no longer there, I saw Wings of Desire that Wim Wenders directed and I’ll never forget how I felt leaving the theater, how I felt walking down the sidewalk, how the sidewalk looked, and how the street felt, and I just felt like a different person after I saw that movie. And I think Cassavetes, after I saw Gena Rowlands in Woman Under the Influence, it was like nobody should ever act again, after that unbelievable transcendental performance that she gave. And also at Lincoln Center every year they have The Decalogue, like 10 little movies that this polish director made for television, and its one of those monumental experiences every time.
EG: I think I would say I’m gonna go just as high brow and say, John Hughes, I remember coming out and thinking the world feels different. I remember coming out and thinking the world has seen me, I kind of felt seen as a child, as a young person watching John Hughes movies cause I felt like I had not felt like the inside of my spinning heart and mind on-screen as well as the teenagers in it. And also Spike Lee, I like anything that causes me to shift my perspective on how I see the world and really challenges my brain and Spike Lee does that for me.
MS: I love your answers so much, thinking about the moments when you saw a movie and in that moment you felt that something. I remember my first year of college I saw a double feature, well it wasn’t a double feature I just stayed in the theater, at the Angelica, and I went from one movie to the other, and the first movie was The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, and the second movie was Wild at Heart, and that was a really intense double feature. So I’ll go with that.
KN: I would say the James L Brooks movies I’ve already named, Terms of Endearment and all those movies… Billy Wilder, definitely… And I would say, I really really love Terry Gilliam’s work, Brazil, Twelve Monkeys, Time Bandits, all those movies, I feel like every single one of those movies changed me. Its hard to leave off Spielberg, because if you look at that guy’s movies… Huge huge fan of him, and Guillermo del Toro is one of my favorite working directors, I mean Devil’s Backbone, is probably one of my favorite movies of all time, when I first saw Devil’s Backbone, everything is different, each time I watch that movie, everything is different. One more I have to mention, because its such an obvious influence but Richard Linklater, the “Before” series, I had that feeling when I saw Before Sunset, that Holly was saying when I walked outside and all the colors where brighter and everything just felt more engaged and alive and that was definitely one of my favorite movie watching experiences.
The Big Sick is in theatres now![youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJmpSMRQhhs]