Couple revealing their past makes for ’The Big Sick’
By RICK BENTLEY | Tribune News Service | Published: June 27, 2017
“The Big Sick” is the story of a Pakistani-American stand-up comedian, not unlike the film’s star Kumail Nanjiani, who falls for a spunky woman from North Carolina, just like Nanjiani’s real-life wife Emily V. Gordon. The romantic comedy follows a storyline of how the pair meet-cute, face a deadly health issue and discover there’s no real obstacle big enough to stop two people in love. That’s both what happens in the film and what occurred in the life of the writers. But despite all the parallels, Nanjiani feels better describing the new movie as “being inspired” by their real story.
“It’s not a beat by beat recreation but the core of it is what would happen if we told our story in 30 seconds. That would be what happens in the movie. We changed details, we took things out. The order of when things happened were different. But in general, the most basic synopsis is how it really happened,” Nanjiani says on a conference call interview with his wife.
Even with minor tweaks, the story does reveal some very intimate facts about how the pair met, struggled to deal with unaccepting families and faced a health crisis that almost ended their relationship before it got started. The way the couple wrote the story resulted in a script full of laughter and tears and that made Gordon a little more concerned than her husband about mining their lives for a movie script.
They were able to reach a point where both of them became equally comfortable with the prospect of making the movie. That came with lots and lots of conversations during the five years it took to get the film written and produced.
“I do think the benefit of doing it is that other people can watch this and will see themselves in it,” Gordon says. “Those benefits so far have been outweighing the weirdness of putting your own story on screen.”
Nanjiani has a very pragmatic view of what it means to put your own story up on the screen. There’s always the chance that the audience won’t connect with what is taking place and end up not liking the movie.
One way the pair tried to build in a shield against such a possibility was in the way they layered so many different elements into the story. There’s the very obvious main flow of a pair of bright, funny and charming people finding each other accented by discussions about religion, family, parenting, careers and having a dream.
Nanjiani and Gordon, who have been married nine years, spent years writing the script before they even had funding to make the movie. There were versions of the script where the career aspect was more pronounced and some where it was more about friendship. They both credit producer Judd Apatow with helping them find the right mix of all the plot points.
The key to making it work for them was when they decided that the lives of the characters should be messy because of all they deal with on a daily basis.
Part of the messiness came out of how there were plenty of times Nanjiani and Gordon remembered moments in their life in different ways or neither recalled certain incidents at all. They decided that when there were key moments they couldn’t agree on, they included both versions in the story.
Not only did Nanjiani get to co-write their story but he plays himself in the movie. That was no problem because the 39-year-old actor/comedian had a very personal understanding of the character and because he’s been acting in TV and in films for years. His credits include “Silicon Valley,” “Franklin and Bash” and “Adventure Time.” His work has also included also co-hosting the Comedy Central series “The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail” and the podcast “The X-Files Files.”
When it came to Gordon’s character, Zoe Kazan (“Ruby Sparks”) was cast.
“Acting is hard. It is a very hard job,” Gordon says of why she didn’t play herself. “It takes a set of skills I don’t have. We wanted the best version of our story and so clearly we were going to have to have someone play me.
“I love writing and that’s where my passion is but I am NOT an actor.”
Gordon’s non-acting credits include co-creating “The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail” and as a writer on “The Carmichael Show.” She’s authored books and magazine articles.
None of that changed Gordon’s mind about how there should be another woman in bed with her husband. Even when that bed is in a room full of people making a movie, it’s still her husband making out with someone else.
“Having someone play you in a movie could be super weird but it really, really wasn’t,” Gordon says. “Zoe was fantastic and we got along from the start. Having lots of communication and having her involved in the process made it less weird.”
Gordon pauses and then adds, “But it’s still someone making out with your husband with me watching. That’s weird but that’s what I signed up for when we decided to make this movie.”
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