Meeting Sick People

The Big Sick: the multicultural rom-com we all needed

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Big Sick
Opens July 14

A case could be made The Big Sick is this generation’s When Harry Met Sally, only less WASP-y. Based on the early days of Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) and Emily V. Gordon’s real-life relationship, the film digs into how cultural background can affect a couple’s future. Nanjiani is of Pakistani descent and was expected to marry a girl from similar background. Growing up in America, Kumail is not sold on this.

The Big Sick also realistically tackles the impact of a health crisis on young lovers. Shortly after breaking up, Emily lands in the hospital with a severe infection. Kumail finds himself in relationship limbo and having to deal with his ex’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), who don’t think highly of him.

The Big Sick is funny as heck. Nanjiani (who plays himself) is good-natured yet poignant. Zoe Kazan as Emily advances her mission of obliterating the manic pixie dream girl archetype from American indies.

There’s something deliciously subversive about making an inclusive comedy in times when multiculturalism is under attack. I had the chance to talk with the insurgents responsible for The Big Sick, Kumail Nanjiani and the real Emily V. Gordon (who co-wrote the script).

The balance of comedy and drama in The Big Sick feels just right. How hard was it to calibrate it?

KUMAIL: We wrote the script for about three years and from the beginning we were aware it would be the trickiest thing. We knew it needed to be funny, but if the comedy ever broke the reality of the situation, the whole thing falls apart.

EMILY: We made sure we weren’t making light of the serious stuff, but always left room for “tension-breakers” for intense, high-stakes moments.

Were you concerned about opening up about a very intimate aspect of your lives?

K: Working as a comedian prepared me for opening up about personal stuff. I didn’t really think it through. I don’t regret it, but it’s strange to have so many people know so many details about your life.

E: It’s not my exact story and that gives me some distance. I’m still adjusting to it, but it helps that the movie is resonating with people.

What was the most painful scene to write?

K: When Emily gets really sick. The break-up scene was also hard, and the one with my parents when I tell them the truth about Emily. It was difficult to write, to act it and it’s still hard for me to watch.

E: For me, it was the ones about my parents when I was under (in a coma). I had to dig into the fact they thought I may not make it.

Both sets of parents are pivotal in the film. Did you run the script by them?

K: No, but I called them and talked them through the entire thing. They were very excited.

E: I’m very protective of my parents and I had a sense of what would upset them. They also realize it’s not about them, but these characters inspired by them.

Based on my own experience, my wife and I often remember things… differently. How did you solve these kinds of disagreements?

E: It happened a lot. Whenever we had different versions of the same event, we made sure to show both perspectives. It’s a fascinating phenomenon and sheds light on relationships and how we communicate.

Are there any dramatic licenses you’re willing to confess?

K: Once we had written a few drafts, we became quite mercenary about changing stuff. We ended up separating the story from ourselves and did what was best for the script.

E: Kumail and I didn’t break up. We were dating and very happy with each other when I fell sick. It was still awkward for me to call my casual boyfriend and have him come to my bedside, but worse than that would have been calling your recent ex-boyfriend. We wanted to give the characters more of a distance to go by the end of the movie.

What about Zoe Kazan told you that she could play Emily?

K: She can do comedy, she can do drama, but also has this quality that makes you miss her when she is not around for a good chunk of the movie, and still feel her presence.

What would you say is the biggest misconception about you?

K: Because I talk about politics, sometimes people think I’m a negative person. I’m really not. I’m very optimistic and pretty happy. There is this belief that comedians are broken people. I’ve never felt that way.

E: Kumail is not “on” all the time. Off stage, he is an introspective, intelligent man who would rather have a conversation than be the center of attention. That’s great for me, otherwise it would be exhausting.

Kumail, you’re very engaged on Twitter. Some of the responses you get are downright scary. Does this turn you off from putting yourself out there?

K: I don’t really think of the consequences of anything. You worry about it, but people online are more bark than bite… Wait, I don’t want to jinx it. ❧