The rom-com is long past its ‘90s heyday, but The Big Sick, opening Friday, may be the bolt of lightning the genre needs to come back to life. The film is based on the real-life courtship of its co-writers, Emily V. Gordon and comedian Kumail Nanjiani, who plays himself in the film. After reluctantly entering into a committed relationship, Emily (played by Zoe Kazan in the film) breaks things off when she discovers that Kumail hasn’t told his Muslim parents about her because they expect him to have an arranged marriage. However, Kumail is forced to rethink what he wants when Emily falls gravely ill and he meets her parents, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, at the hospital.
We sat down with producer Barry Mendel, Nanjiani, Gordon, Kazan, Hunter, Romano and Anupam Kher to talk about what it was like to translate the story to film and how they managed to find humor in such a serious subject.
Barry, how did you become involved in bringing such a personal story to life?
Mendel: Well, I’m here representing the other part of the producing group — which is Judd Apatow. Judd had met Kumail at SXSW. Then Kumail came in and told Judd and I the story and we were moved by it. At the time, Kumail wasn’t the star of a big, hit, successful show [HBO’s Silicon Valley]. The show was just getting going if I remember.
Nanjiani: Yeah, this was a year before the show.
Mendel: But you had the gig?
Nanjiani: I think it might have been after the pilot.
Mendel: So, our attitude was,”This movie might end up costing $800,000 to make. It might be a very small movie.” But we just loved the idea of trying to tell the story and trying to do a good job on film. There’ve been lots of stories that people take from their life and try to put onscreen and most of the time, it doesn’t go well. So, for us, it was a great challenge. I think everybody’s been in situations where you’re in a medical crisis or you’re in a really serious situation and it is surprising that some of the great moments of humor in your whole life have come out of those situations.
Kumail, as a comedian, just in the way he told the story, you could tell that he was going to not be shying away from what was serious about it, but also able to find the humanity and the moments where humor is a release valve for the intensity of what you’re feeling. And that really is consistent with a lot of the work that Judd’s done–that I’ve done–separately and together. So it just seemed like it was rife with possibilities.
Kumail and Emily, it’s one thing to have a producer with a lot of experience figure out how to pitch your movie, but from your vantage point, this is something you lived through. At what point were you able to extract yourselves from that enough to be able to say, “Hey, some other people might find this interesting too?”
Gordon: I think pretty early on. Judd and Barry were both very good at not wanting us to be precious with our own story. It needs to, at some point, go from being our story to a story that everyone is collaborating on and everyone has input in and that everybody can hopefully watch and enjoy. [Director Michael] Showalter was also really, really good with encouraging us to always have the emotional truth of things, but to make sure that we were upping the stakes or changing things so that it would make the movie more interesting or more dramatic or more funny.
Were you concerned at all about taking the comedy approach to something that had been such a dramatic experience in your life?
Nanjiani: Yeah, that was always going to be the challenge. We were talking about it from the beginning. Going through it didn’t feel very funny–or funny ever–and it was mostly me and Emily’s parents just sitting there with, like, hurricanes in our heads but our faces are just [does blank expression].
Gordon: Not a good movie.
Nanjiani: It could be a good movie, but it wouldn’t be a funny movie. So, we knew the challenge was going to be to try and make it funny, but what Judd and Barry said from the beginning was, “Don’t worry about the funny just yet. Just write it and the jokes will come at the end.”
So Holly, what was your starting point? Did you need to research Emily’s real-life mother before you could really get to the essence of the character?
Hunter: Well, it was interesting. It’s a testament to the overarching confidence–that manifests its way through the whole movie–that started with Judd and Barry and Kumail and Emily. They walked through fire, in some ways, to put this down on paper and it couldn’t have been an easy thing to accomplish. So, you guys do all that work with Barry and Judd and then we come along and we’ve got all these ideas—Zoe and Ray and I.
Anupam, I’m sure, had ideas as well. And then there was this kind of open-armed process of accepting all of those ideas and seeing, would they fly? Trying them, not exactly on our feet, but we had a really intense rehearsal period where we really were going through the script and talking about other ideas that might make the scenes even richer, more complicated. And that’s not always received as openly as it was with this project. There was just a whole other act where it was like, “Come on, you guys, what you got?”
Mendel: We always envy Mike Leigh, who goes off into the countryside and has his actors in a barn for a month and they just talk about the script. You do a lot of that in the theater too when you’re working on a play and working it into shape to put it onstage. So that’s our fantasy in all the movies that we do as a way for the actors to get a greater ownership of the part than, “I’m here to execute a part that was written.” Also just to make a movie feel lived-in, which I think is a very hard thing to do. A lot of movies, you watch them and it’s pretty easy to feel like they’re fake. And I think one of the things that we strive to do—and because the acting was so good, that we were able to achieve—is to make it feel lived-in and real and a little more like real life.
Ray, you’ve done so much comedy, but this is not a traditional comedic role. So, how did you approach that?
Romano: Well, there’s plenty of comedy in it. But I got the script, read the role and I knew it was a real story, but I knew that the characters of Emily’s parents were kind of open to interpretation. So, I just went about kind of writing a little backstory for the guy and I sent it to the director and I sent it to Barry. And I think after I was cast in it, you guys [Gordon and Nanjiani] also rewrote a little bit for me.
Romano: So, I was able to just make up this guy. I knew this wasn’t about researching Emily’s father. And I found out he doesn’t look like me. I’ll tell you how I find out: Emily said that her mother watched the movie and said, “You know, Holly Hunter is prettier than me, but your father’s more handsomer than Ray Romano.”
Gordon: That only speaks to how handsome she thinks my father is after being married to him for 51 years. And also, I didn’t tell you that, Kumail told you. I would have never told you that.
Nanjiani: Well, I’m glad I’ve given you material for the rest of your life.
Romano: But that’s how I approached the character. I thought [about] how her father would really do it and then I would just do it as if he were ugly.
Zoe, you’ve been a first-time screenwriter and you’re working with some first-time screenwriters, but you also have to portray one of them onscreen. How did that inform the way that you prepared for this part?
Kazan: Well, I think because my parents are both screenwriters and I came up as an actor in the theater, I was drilled that the text is sacred and it’s your job as an actor to fulfill the text, not to alter it. So, on previous projects, I’ve actually felt kind of uncomfortable with some of the improv, like a feeling of, “Well, shouldn’t we try to make it work with what’s there?” Some of the rehearsal process that’s been alluded to earlier did have a creative aspect to it. Bringing not a writer’s mind to bear, but a creative mind that went slightly outside of the bounds of what I normally do as an actor. I think, normally, I put up a quite strong boundary.
The thing that drew me in from the start was the script, so it wasn’t like it needed anything. But I felt like that process actually helped me feel like I had extended a piece of myself into it as well, so that it didn’t feel like I was trespassing on someone else’s life all the time. And I think that allowed me to feel a little bit more comfortable making it my own on set and not worrying about having Emily at the monitors watching what I’m doing and thinking, “I wouldn’t do it like that.” In fact, what I came to feel like was that we were like–which I guess you’re always doing as an actor–that you become kind of like co-parents of the character onscreen.
Gordon: [Laughing] That’s right.
Kazan: Like co-guardians. And then I would come back and give Emily a hug–partially because I love Emily–but also because I felt like I had to touch base with my partner. We’re making this together.
Gordon: I thought she was stealing my energy, if I’m being honest.
Nanjiani: You were a little less yourself after every hug.
Kazan: Yeah, Paul [Dano, Kazan’s longtime boyfriend] has been so curious.
Gordon: So has Kumail.
So, Anupam, you have this tremendous career, but how did doing a small American indie like this differ from what you’ve been used to in the past?
Kher: I’m in the film not for my acting capabilities, but emotional reasons. I should tell you, it was a father [Kumail’s real-life father] who demanded from his son [to try to] get Anupam Kher to play him. He was testing his capabilities and I don’t think Kumail felt it was going to happen.
Nanjiani: No, thank you so much. You really have turned me around in my dad’s eyes.
Kher: Kumail’s ex-agent is a distant cousin of mine and she called me up one day when I was on a morning walk in India. And she said, “You know, there’s this film being made and my friend Kumail is making it. He wants you in the film because his father has asked for you.” So I said, OK, there’s an emotional reason. So I said, “Give me Kumail’s number.” She said, “No, no, let him approach you officially, give you the script.” I said, “No, give me the number.” So, I called up Kumail and he thought it was a prank.
Nanjiani: Yeah, I looked down at my phone and it says, “India” is calling. And I answered and I said, “Hello?” And he said, “Hello, it’s Anupam.” And I was like, “Why?!” It was amazing.
Kher: And for me, when I heard that a son could give this gift to his father, I thought I had no business to go about it professionally. So I said, “OK, without even reading the script, I’m doing your film.” He said, “Let me call you back.” He cut the phone and he called me back. He says, “Was I talking to you right now?” I said, “Yeah, look, if I go into the details of the script, I’ll be [over-]thinking. I’m doing this film.” And that’s how my 500th film is The Big Sick.
Romano: So, unwritten, you hadn’t read the script and you just agreed?
Kher: No, I just said, “Yes,” because I thought, [Nanjiani] will remember for many years and cast me in every film.
Nanjiani: I’ll remember you for your terrible decision-making skills.
Kher: [Laughing] I met his father and it was wonderful. And I said [to Nanjiani], “so, how do you want me to prepare for the role?” He said, “Just grow a French cut beard.” And I said, “Why?” He said, “my father has one.” I think sometimes in life, you have to do things for emotional reasons not professional reasons and I think that was one of them.
Kumail, what was the most difficult thing about playing yourself and can you and Emily talk a little bit about the process of fictionalizing your lives?
Nanjiani: As Emily was saying, this is what Barry and Judd were really helpful at. Because once we got our story down as it happened, they were like, “now you have to separate yourself from the story and trust that the emotional core will stay, but make it [into] a good story.” That was most of the work we did. For me, I would say the most difficult stuff acting was most of the stuff with Emily’s illness towards the middle/end part of the movie. There was a scene where I have a breakdown on stage and that wasn’t scripted. It was always planned that I would just kind of try and be in that place I was and just talk. So that was super tough, because it was very long and you’re forced to think about and say stuff that your whole body is wired to not think about or say. I would say that was the toughest part.
Gordon: It was actually kind of nice to have so many people weigh in on it. Because then our actual story got to go back to being our story and is not a thing that you’re watching a version of onscreen. So, it kind of helped me to feel more OK. They [Mendel and Apatow] were just so good at drilling into us from the start, “You’re going to have to change some things. This can’t just be your story. You can’t be precious about it.” And the more people we brought on—
Nanjiani: Yeah, Mike would also say to us often, “Separate yourselves from this.” And I think Emily understood that before I did.
Gordon: But it really made the movie better, so I’m glad we did it.
In revisiting this part of your lives, what did you learn about yourselves and each other that surprised you?
Gordon: The actual Emily knew that our relationship couldn’t last and that I was a secret to his family. The actual Emily knew that.
Gordon: Me, me. That’s me. I would be like, “So what are you gonna do? What are you thinking?” And he would be like, “I don’t know.” And I would be like, “He’s definitely thinking like eight different [things]. He’s got all this stuff going on and he’s just not telling me. I want to get in there and really understand.” No, he actually just didn’t know. It actually was quite simpler. So, in writing the movie, I realized I was reading all this stuff into him that wasn’t actually there.
Nanjiani: I’m kind of a simple person.
Gordon: It’s just that I thought it was much more complicated. When you gave me the answer of, “I don’t know,” I thought some much more complicated stuff was going on, but in reality, you really were just pushing it away.
Nanjiani: Well, maybe there was some complicated stuff that you’ll never know.
Gordon: [Squeals] That would be amazing. I would love that. So, I think that was one thing that surprised me and that I kind of learned. I was like, “Oh, I thought he was doing all this scheming,” but he just really wasn’t sure what he was going to do and that was weirdly nice and comforting to learn years later.
Nanjiani: Yeah, I was just kind of clutching at straws the entire time. I was just swimming as hard as I could to stay afloat, but no real plan. When we were writing the movie, for the first act, they [Mendel and Apatow] were like, “So what we’re you thinking? What was going on? What was the plan?” And that’s when I realized, “Oh, there was no plan.” It was just: have breakfast, then lunch, then dinner and then go to sleep and do the same thing the next day.
Gordon: Meanwhile, I’m like, “Oh, we had this for breakfast, does that mean he really does love me, but he doesn’t know?” No, he was just having breakfast.
Nanjiani: You know, Emily was always very, very honest in the relationship in the beginning, so there weren’t any surprises there. What was surprising to me was talking to her friends while writing and finding out what she had been saying to her friends about me. Her friend was like, “well, it took you forever to say, ‘I love you’!” And I was like, “I didn’t know that that was expected of me at an earlier date than it was said!”
Gordon: It’s weird when you find out, oh, that’s been discussed among you guys.
Nanjiani: And she would also tell her friends all about me and they’d be like, “this guy sounds like a nightmare.” And I’d be like, “actually, the only thing about [the situation] that’s not a nightmare, is that he’s not a nightmare. Everything else is bad.”
Gordon: On paper, you were a real mess, but in person you were the best.
For those in the cast who aren’t south Asian, were you at all shocked that a grown man would have to be afraid to tell his parents that he didn’t want an arranged marriage?
Romano: Yeah, a little bit. I was wondering about the authenticity of that. Even though I know about [arranged marriage], I’m like, “But why can’t he just say he’s in love with another woman?” So the fact that he was afraid of actually losing his family was something that I had to realize is a truth, that I would say honestly, I thought, “Not today, really?” But now, seeing it, I can see it’s a real thing.
Kazan: I will say, and this isn’t quite answering the question, although I think I learned things through our process that I wasn’t aware I didn’t know. [Pauses to consider that phrasing before continuing.] I have seen a tiny bit online, some south Asian women saying, “Where’s our representation in this movie?” based off the trailer. And I think that the movie has a better representation than the trailer does and I just want to [say], give the movie a chance because we weren’t incognizant…? Uncognizant? Of—
Mendel: I’d go “uncognizant.”
Romano: Don’t ask me about words.
Kazan: I know Kumail and Emily had talked about the casting of those parts [the south Asian women Kumail’s mother introduces him to] and the embarrassment of riches of actresses that came in and how hard it was to just pick the few that were put into the movie. You know, there aren’t enough roles for women of color in general in our industry. A lot of that falls to people like Barry and Judd who have to finance films that have more roles that provide a wider representation.
I think sometimes that conversation can become very industry-oriented. Like, we have to give those actresses or actors a chance. It’s really about the kind of storytelling that is being done. Like, what kinds of stories can you tell if you extend past your tiny circle of comfort? I think it’s better for humanity to have a wider representation in our culture. Because not only does it allow for those people to feel more represented onscreen, but it also allows people who feel very foreign from, let’s say, the experience of a Pakistani-American, to have a window into that world and maybe extend a tiny bit of empathy.
Anupam: What makes Kumail’s character endearing is that he takes care of his parents also. This is a lady who’s come into his life in the last two years and these are the people who have brought him up for the last 25 or 30 years, so he just discards them? I think that quality makes your character much richer and much more endearing, that he listens to his parents also. And also, I think the arranged marriage thing has a lot more to do with education and literacy and things like that.
Romano: Look, we don’t have arranged marriages in this country, but my wife’s family, if I was not Italian; they would not have welcomed me as much. And I dated a Jewish girl who, her parents told her, “Ray’s not Jewish….”
Nanjiani: I bet they regret it. They’re like, “Is that Romano kid still around?”
Gordon: But you’re right. There’s always parental expectations. There are different levels, but, yeah.
For instance, the relationship you had with the mother character on Everybody Loves Raymond does feel universal, regardless of culture.
Romano: As soon as the mother in the film said, “We heard of a train that crashed and we thought you were dead!” And then Kumail says, “Nobody died on the train.” [And she responds] “Did they check under the train?” And I said to someone, “We have written that line for Doris Roberts.” That’s what I love about the film; it shows that we’re all the same, really.
Is there anything from your real-life parenting experiences that you brought to the roles?
Kher: Compassion. I think the most misunderstood relationship in the world is the father and son relationship. Because both of them hold unnecessary evils and I feel a lot of compassion for anybody who plays my son. The easiest thing in the world is to criticize the son, because [he doesn’t see things] the way you want him to see things. My last scene was the first scene that we shot in the film and before that, I had waited 11 days to get my work permit. I was almost thrown out of the film. Barry was very kind. He said, “OK, we can only wait until tomorrow at 2 o’clock. If we do not get your work permit, we will have to get someone else.” And then at 12:30, I got the news. But I think when I did all the scenes with Kumail, the only thing I felt for him was love. And if a parent communicates that love to his child, I think that makes it easier. But we like conflict as parents.
Romano: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s easy for me to criticize my sons. I have a daughter and three boys and they deserve criticism. They’re good, just not as good as her. But in that sense, I have a daughter who’s 26 who’s kind of the age of the [Emily] character, so it was very easy for me to tap into that fear of having her in this situation. It was pretty organic. Luckily, I’ve never been in that, but it was easy to experience what it would be like.
How did you guys keep the film honest both in terms of the character portrayals and in the writing of the script?
Nanjiani: I think more in the writing process, we kept each other honest. There were a lot of times I would write a scene or she would write a scene and the other person would be like, “That’s not how I experienced it.” So, we were able to put both those perspectives in there.
Gordon: We would just be like, “Really? Really?” That would be a common refrain. But I think once we got on set, we were pretty much on the same page by then.
Nanjiani: Yeah, I mean, we’d written it for about three and a half years at that point.
Gordon: We were both producers on the movie as well. Kumail was sometimes struggling with being an actor and a writer and the producer, so we developed a code word because he would start worrying about production stuff.
Nanjiani: Like, are we going to get all the scenes? Do we have enough time?
Gordon: And, like, you just need to be an actor. Go do what actors do. Go hang out in your trailer. Don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of that.
Nanjiani: We didn’t have trailers.
Kazan: Go hang out in your hospital room.
Gordon: Yeah, sleep in a hospital bed while you have the chance. So, we [were telling him], you’re worrying about this because the whole thing is very anxiety producing, but all of us want you to focus on your job—which is to lead this movie. That was really the biggest thing that we had on set that was a conversation.
Nanjiani: That was, I think, Day 2 or Day 3. Because on the first day, we didn’t get to two scenes–on a low budget movie like this–and then on the second day, we didn’t get to two scenes. So, by the end of Day 2, we were four scenes behind. And I was like, [speaking rapidly] “We’re not going to finish this movie. This is going to be a short film. It’ll be like a YouTube video. We’ve got to put it on Vine when this is done.”
Gordon: And I was like, “Go to your trailer, which is a hospital room.”
Nanjiani: So that’s when we decided that Emily would, with Barry and Judd, handle the producing stuff.
Gordon: I was mainly producing you. I was mainly handling you. They were doing the producing.
Nanjiani: Am I that difficult?
Gordon: No, no, no, not at all difficult. We just wanted to make sure that you were—
Nanjiani: [Imitating the high pitch of Gordon’s voice] No! [Hysterically] Am I difficult?! No, right? Tell me I’m easy. Say it!
Gordon: You’re easy. We just wanted to make sure you were in a comfortable place to do your job.
Kher: By the way, that’s the sequel of the film.
Nanjiani: [In terms of the characters] Holly, we would talk a lot about stuff right?
Hunter: Yes. [Everyone laughs] I think what’s unexpected [about the film] is, in Act 2, the movie becomes this other love story between this couple played my Ray and me, and Kumail. So, it becomes like a love story between the three of them and how they learn to love each other. It’s kind of juvenile. So much of what’s funny in my life is juvenile or even infantile. And the movie also skates on that level too, which makes it so much fun that it’s happening in a hospital or it’s happening in a [comedy] club. Which is why you go, because you want to laugh.
I loved the adult nature of mine and Ray’s relationship and we wanted it to stay adult. And you guys [Nanjiani and Gordon] made it that way because you were like, “Well, we’ve got to have a conflict between these two people,” but you never really, truly jeopardized the relationship. Like, I never thought, “Oh wow, this couple is not gonna make it.” I went, “This couple is going to be fine.” I mean, that’s how I felt from the beginning and working with you, it was like, this is not a movie about a married couple in jeopardy. It didn’t toe that line and I was so grateful for that because it would have felt too pumped up. They have an incredible bond together and they’re going through their daughter [being] in jeopardy with, I think, a great amount of grace and intimacy. The conflict there is a beautiful one and one that I think a lot of married couples relate to. It’s not going to blow it all up.
Barry, you’ve worked with a lot of great people (Steven Spielberg, Wes Anderson, etc), but what makes your collaboration with Judd Apatow so successful?
Mendel: To me, a lot of movies that get made–and I think everybody’s alluded to this in a different way–there’s a lot of money and there’s a lot of people on the set. So, every day is filled with pressure. [There’s] a lot of rehearsing to within an inch of its life and then executing it and it’s kind of like doing classical music and trying to create a symphony. My experience working with Judd, which is what leads us to working with all of the people at this table, is that Judd wants to make jazz. He wants it to be different every time. He wants it to come alive in a way that you don’t know what’s going to happen. He’s trying to put lightning in a bottle. And I find that immensely challenging when it works, as it works so beautifully here.
Kazan: I feel like Barry approaches his work really like an artist.
Gordon: So true.
Kazan: I’ve never worked with a producer like Barry before. He’s so detail-oriented and I never feel like he clocks in or clocks out. Just from the tertiary aspect of being an actor, he blew my mind in terms of his deep film knowledge and love. Every element of this film has Barry’s touch on it and it’s incredibly rare and I think that’s why–not just with Judd–but with so many of the filmmakers he’s worked with, those films have come out so beautifully.
Nanjiani: Yeah, and I’ll say, as a writer of the film, Barry’s a very tough boss to have.
Gordon: Very tough.
Nanjiani: Because Barry’s like, “I’m living, eating showering the film. Why aren’t you?”
Gordon: It’ll be midnight and he’ll be like, “So we meet here tomorrow at 8 a.m.? You’re not doing anything else, right?” We’re like, “I guess I’ll cancel some things.” And radiates calm the entire time.
Romano: And at every screening, if it’s not loud enough, he’s the one who goes to tell them to turn it louder.
Nanjiani: Yeah, I learned that from Barry.
Gordon: Kumail has taken that on now.
Nanjiani: When Barry’s not there, I’m like, “What would Barry do? 20% louder.”