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‘The Big Sick’: How Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon Brought Their Real-Life Love Story to Screen

Variety logo Variety 6/21/2017 Jenelle Riley
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July 14 marks a special occasion for Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. Not only is it their 10-year wedding anniversary —  it’s the day the film about their courtship, “The Big Sick,” opens nationwide.

The movie, directed by Michael Showalter and starring Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan as Emily and Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as her parents, premiered to rave reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Written by Nanjiani and Gordon, the film also sparked a bidding war, with Amazon Studios acquiring the rights for $12 million. “The Big Sick” manages to be both broad in its comedy (Judd Apatow is one of the producers) and intensely personal, tackling topics not usually seen in summer comedies, like illness, religion and race relations. And, of course, it’s a passion project for the couple, whose real-life story lent itself to good cinematic material.

In many ways, their anniversary shouldn’t be happening. For starters, Nanjiani had promised his parents he would enter into an arranged marriage with a Pakistani woman. Then, three months before what would prove to be Nanjiani and Gordon’s wedding date, Gordon was placed in a medically induced coma after abruptly falling gravely ill.

Prior to the coma, Nanjiani and Gordon were casually dating, both thinking the relationship could ultimately go nowhere. Everything changed when she became sick and Nanjiani found himself thrust into the role of caretaker, along with her visiting parents, whom he had only briefly met once before. Time by her bedside changed the nature of the relationship between Gordon and Nanjiani, who proposed shortly after she recovered. Or, as Gordon jokes, “I went to sleep with a casual boyfriend and woke up with a guy ready to be married.”

When the pair wed a decade ago, it was an informal event.

“We walked into a courthouse in Chicago and got matching tattoos because we didn’t have money for wedding rings,” Nanjiani reveals. Today, they share a home in the Hollywood area with their cat, Bagel. Nanjiani is best known for his role as computer programmer Dinesh on HBO’s heralded series “Silicon Valley.” Gordon, who was a therapist when they met, has been published in The New York Times and The Atlantic and has written for “Another Period” and “The Carmichael Show.”

Jose Mandojana for Variety

The process of scripting “The Big Sick” began in 2012, after Nanjiani appeared on a live taping of the podcast “You Made It Weird” alongside Apatow.

He pitched Apatow several ideas for a script, and the producer homed in on the true story of the unusual relationship between the then struggling stand-up comic and his wife. “It was one of those stories you can’t believe happened,” Apatow recalls.

Though Gordon had executive produced Nanjiani’s show “The Meltdown With Jonah and Kumail” and they’d shared a podcast, the pair had never worked together as writers. “We would split up scenes and write our own version of the scene and then swap it and rewrite and rewrite,” Gordon says. Nanjiani adds that his wife’s work ethic helped spur him on. “I’d be playing video games and would get an email from her with completed scenes and go, ‘Oh man, she’s showing me up. I have to get on this.’”

They knew from the start that since the project wasn’t a documentary, certain elements would be invented or changed. “It’s not really exciting when you hang out at the hospital all day,” Nanjiani notes. “You show up in the morning, get coffee, then plan to meet the hematologist at 2 p.m., then the pulmonologist — it’s a lot of waiting and sitting around.” Echoes Gordon, “Nobody wants to see that movie.”

Another significant alteration: In the film, the pair break up before Emily goes into her coma. Notes Gordon, “It’s interesting to be at your casual girlfriend’s side when she gets sick. But it’s even more interesting to be at your recent ex-girlfriend’s side.”

They also took creative license with both sets of parents in the film. Gordon says her mother and father are quite different from the characters played by Hunter and Romano, though they’re thrilled with their doppelgangers. “My family’s favorite movie is ‘Raising Arizona,’ so they could not believe it,” Gordon says with a laugh. “They love the movie — they watched it five times in one day.” And while Nanjiani’s parents did expect him to enter into an arranged marriage, they were living in a different city when he gave them the (still difficult) news.

The pair took pains to present such cultural practices in a fair light. “For a lot of people, arranged marriage here is taken as a joke,” notes Nanjiani. “But it’s a very real thing. All my aunts, uncles, cousins, my parents are in arranged marriages. So we tried to show how it really does work for people.” Gordon adds that before she met Nanjiani, she had a friend in grad school who was entering into an arranged marriage. “I was glad I had a framework of someone who was super happy, not coerced into it,” she says. “And they’ve been together 12 years now.”

For three years, Gordon says, she and Nanjiani kept at the script. “We would work on drafts, take them to Judd every few months, and Judd would rip them to shreds. And then we would go back and rewrite. He is brutal in the best way.” Nanjiani adds that Apatow never pressured them to turn in drafts. “I think he develops a few things, and the ball is in your court to keep it going,” he says. “Though right before we started shooting, he did say, ‘You guys really stuck in there. Most people would have quit!’”

“We aren’t exactly alike, but we really are so similar. She instantly felt like someone I knew and would be friends with.”

Zoe Kazan, on meeting Emily V. Gordon

To hear Apatow tell it, the script needed time to develop, much like his films “Bridesmaids” and “Trainwreck,” which also had long gestation periods. “If written badly, it would have been a rough movie to get through,” Apatow admits. “But they found the sense of humor and the warmth to bring it to life. And a lot of that came from bringing on Michael as director and casting Zoe, Ray and Holly.”

Showalter had known Nanjiani for 10 years from the New York comedy scene, and had even cast him in a small role in his feature “Hello, My Name Is Doris.” When he signed on to direct “The Big Sick,” he was also active in helping with the screenplay, which he notes was not traditionally structured. “There aren’t a lot of examples that I could look to where one of the main characters goes missing for the second act,” Showalter points out. “It would be like if in ‘When Harry Met Sally,’ Sally just disappears for an hour.”

Kazan seems to have been a natural choice for Gordon. The playwright-actress had been in films similar to the genre like “What If” and “Ruby Sparks,” the latter of which she also wrote. “I really wasn’t looking to do another romantic comedy, but when I read the script it was so smart and so good,” Kazan admits. “It’s not unlike falling in love; I had a chemical feeling where it just felt like the right fit. Very rarely do I walk out of an audition thinking, ‘Yeah, I fucking nailed that!’ But I was going to be sad if I didn’t get it.”

To hear everyone tell it, Kazan did indeed nail it. “She just blew everybody out of the water,” says Gordon, who concedes that casting was the only time things felt slightly surreal seeing her story play out. “It basically consisted of him flirting with women — literally so many hot actresses,” Gordon recalls. “It was the only time I had to get myself together and remember to be cool with this.”

As it turns out, Gordon and Kazan have much in common. Both are in their 30s, are writers and are in long-term relationships with artists (Kazan has been dating actor Paul Dano since 2007.) They instantly hit it off, with Kazan noting, “I felt a chemistry with her as much as I did with Kumail.” But Kazan didn’t feel the need to do an imitation of Gordon. “We aren’t exactly alike, but we really are so similar. She instantly felt like someone I knew and would be friends with,” Kazan says.

Once Kazan was cast, the hunt began for the parents, and Romano and Hunter had long been on the writers’ minds. When they said yes, there was extra pressure on Nanjiani as an actor; he had been attached to star even before “Silicon Valley” hit TV screens. Yet there was never any question he would play the role. “This is by far the biggest part I’ve ever had in a movie, and Emily and I had never written a movie, and from the start Judd was like, ‘Yeah, you’ll write the movie and you’ll be the guy,’” Nanjiani recalls. Admits Gordon, “You were a gamble.”

Gordon adds that Nanjiani did the most prep she had ever seen him do. He worked with an acting coach, Myra Turley, for the first time ever. “I was starting from scratch,” he says, adding that he practiced with monologues from movies where characters were in a coma, such as “The Fisher King” and “Awakenings.”

Apatow says he was never concerned. “This might be delusional, but when someone is fun to watch in broader comedy or stand-up, I always think they’ll be able to give a great performance in a movie they care deeply about,” he explains. “And he loves his wife so much, and they’re just the best couple, and I knew that that would shine through.”

Concurs Kazan, “Kumail worked really hard, and I think he’s going to surprise people. He prepared as if he was Daniel Day-Lewis prepping for ‘My Left Foot.’ I even said, ‘I don’t know that you need to prepare this much; you’ve lived it.’ It was really beautiful to watch him on set stretch his wings and feel his own power as an actor.”

Now it remains to be seen if a smaller romantic comedy can find an audience in the land of “Transformers” and superheroes. Nanjiani and Gordon had input on the trailer, which leans heavily on the comedy. “If you describe it as ‘Muslim guy falls in love with a white woman, then she falls into a coma,’ it sounds so serious,” Nanjiani says. Adds Gordon, “It sounds pretentious. As a movie lover, I would not want to watch a movie described to me the way that our movie is. So I wanted to make sure the trailer communicated it’s a comedy.”

Apatow, who has shepherded his share of hits, says that at the end of the day, it’s impossible to predict if the film, which Lionsgate will distribute for Amazon, will connect. “I don’t know if any of us understand why people leave their houses and go to the movie theater anymore,” he says. “We have one thing going for us: The movie is wonderful. It just completely works. Is that enough to get people to put down their remote control? We’ll find out.”

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