After you see Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon’s The Big Sick when it opens on June 30 (with a wider release on July 14), you’ll leave the theatre wondering how much of the movie is made up and how much is directly taken from the real story of Nanjiani and Gordon meeting, falling for each other, and then Gordon falling again—this time into a medically induced coma.
“Sixty to 65 percent real,” says Najiani, with a surplus of confidence, despite the fact that the one person who can correct him—Gordon—is sitting right next to him for this interview.
“Fifty-five to 60 percent real,” she says, adjusting the figure slightly. “Judd (Apatow, the film’s producer) and our director Michael Showalter were really helpful to not let us be too precious with our own lives and to take this from being our story to a story. It became a story that all of us weighed in on and all of us had input into and it made the story so much better. Because watching a movie of what actually happened would have been terribly upsetting.”
Upsetting because, in the film and in reality, Gordon is hospitalized with a freak lung infection that requires her to be in a comatose state in order for doctors to treat her. In the movie, her illness comes out of nowhere—right after her character (played by Zoe Kazan) dramatically dumps the movie version of Nanjiani. The break-up has to do with Nanjiani’s reluctance to tell his parents that he’s dating a non-Pakistani, non-Muslim woman. They have other plans for their son: an arranged marriage to someone from his own cultural background.
While the differences are part of the obstacle that initially keeps them apart, Gordon and Nanjiani didn’t want to focus too much on those subjects. “We did not emphasize it,” says Gordon.
“We just wanted to show it,”Nanjiani explains. “Writing a personal story that’s about us, (religion) is something that is part of the story. Not having it in there felt disingenuous. But we didn’t feel like we had anything to say about religion. That’s why my character in the movie says ‘I don’t know how I feel about religion.’ There’s many different points of view of looking at the world and it can be complicated. That’s all we wanted to show.”
Part of that story centres on Nanjiani’s early career doing standup at open mic nights in Chicago and three of his standup pals have parts in The Big Sick. “The experience of being a standup comedian in Chicago doing open mics was that there are all different kinds of comedians,” says Nanjiani. “There’s like the one comedian that you all know is going to be the first guy who’s gonna break out—and that’s the Bo Burnham character. He’s also like the hyper-smart truth-teller kind of comedian. And then you have Kurt (Braunholer) who’s a very, very funny comedian and we had to tell him, ‘Hey, your character can’t be as good at comedy as you are.’ His character is the kind of comedian who maybe isn’t going to make it.”
“‘I just bought a laser printer, I printed out, like, six lasers,’” quips Gordon, quoting one of Braunholer’s so-bad-it’s-good movie jokes. “He had so much fun writing bad material for himself.”
Adds Nanjiani, “He loved that joke so much. It’s the perfect bad joke. Kurt was so good at that. And we’ve been fans of Aidy (Bryant, the movie’s third standup) from… everything. She’s so great and she’s so specific and nobody else is like her. It’s amazing—we have so many smart, really funny friends.”
While Nanjiani definitely feels like he’s put in his time as a comedian and earned the chance that he and Gordon have been given with The Big Sick, both of them credit the producing power of Judd Apatow in getting the movie made. “Because it had Judd attached, as long as he was happy with it it was going to get made,” says Gordon. “We worked on it for three years giving him drafts and every time we would go in, we’d be like ‘This is it! He’s gonna give us a big cheque’ and that never happened. Instead he would rip it to shreds and send us on our way. After three years he was like, ‘Okay, I think we can get a director now’. It completely was up to him.”
“We made it for a very low budget,” Nanjiani says. “We knew that a story like this, with a brown lead, we weren’t going to get a big budget so we wrote it knowing that it had to be a pretty small movie. For Judd, who’s made pretty big budget comedies, this was his first foray into indie filmmaking. So that really helped us get the movie made—these financiers who’d never worked with as big a producer as Judd.”
“Can you imagine this movie as a $20 million dollar movie?” jokes Gordon. “That would have been awful.”
Check out Gordon and Nanjiani’s very funny (and 60 percent true) movie in theatres on June 30 and watch the trailer below right.... NOW.