Category Archives: Interviews

KUMAIL NANJIANI ON “THE BIG SICK”

Producer: 
Director: 
Writer: 
Stars: 
Studio: 

“I feel that ultimately the film is very sincere and optimistic, and is about the fact that ultimately we have much more in common than we don’t—all types of people,” Kumail Nanjiani said of “The Big Sick,” the film he wrote with his wife Emily V. Gordon, in a recent Dallas interview. The Pakistan-born stand-up comedian also stars in the semi-autobiographical, cross-cultural romance about how he and Emily got together—via a side trip to the hospital when Gordon had to be put in a medically-induced coma– with Zoe Kazan playing Emily.

Of course, to get its message across, the picture has to draw viewers into the theatre, and Nanjiani admitted that the title might not help. “I would say ‘The Big Sick’ is not a good title, but it’s not generic!” he exclaimed. It was the title they started with, but always intended to change: “We said, ‘We’ll find a better one—one that won’t turn people off.’ And here we are!”

“The Big Sick” takes place largely in Chicago but was shot in New York. “I really, really wanted to shoot there [in Chicago],” Nanjiani explained, “but it’s like a tax break thing, a tax incentive thing. I was assuming we’d shoot in Chicago, and then we didn’t. I know a part of the financing deal was that we had to shoot in New York.” He hopes, though, that it won’t be too noticeable: “I just did Chicago press, and nobody brought it up, so…”

Nanjiani had made his way to Chicago after studying at Grinnell College in Iowa, where he came from his native Karachi. He explained, “I didn’t realize how big America was. I’d seen movies and TV shows, and they don’t really show Iowa—they show New York and L.A., mostly. So I thought America was New York and L.A., and I landed in Des Moines and I was like, where are the buildings? And then I drove to a town of 9,000 people, Grinnell, and I was like, there are no buildings.

“Honestly I didn’t expect it to be how it was, but I really ended up loving it, because it was very friendly, and I think coming to a big city would have been overwhelming for me. Going to a place like that, where there aren’t that many people around, and everyone is nice, and you can actually talk to people and engage with people—and I was a novelty, because there weren’t that many people from Pakistan there—I fell in love with Iowa. It’s cool.”

Why had Nanjiani chosen Grinnell, in particular? “They had a good book, they had a good admissions packet, pamphlet, with colorful pictures. On the cover it had a quote from ‘Field of Dreams’—which was, ‘Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.’” And so Nanjiani concluded: “I’m going to heaven!”

There were other reasons for keeping the film’s budget down besides the New York tax incentives, Nanjiani admitted. “We kept the budget low, because we knew there was going to be a challenge casting me as the lead, since I’m not super-famous, and not the kind of person you normally see as the lead in a big Hollywood comedy. I wish it wasn’t so that every time a brown person made a movie, we talked about the last brown person that made a movie. Hopefully at some point there will be so many of them that we won’t have to make that comparison.”

But there were also advantages to holding the budget down: “We made it for so little money that you don’t need to make that much money to be successful. Then you can make the kind of movie you really want to make. You can keep it real.”

Writing the screenplay with Gordon, Nanjiani said, was a long process: “We’ve been working on this or about five years, so I tried to avoid anything that was on similar territory,” he explained. “We didn’t see any movies about sickness, we didn’t see any movies about cross-cultural stuff.” That included “While You Were Sleeping,” “which is an old romantic comedy with a coma. I ’d love it if we were the first romantic comedy with a coma, but we’re not. I think we’re third.”

Nanjiani noted that he’d never used the story of Emily’s illness in his stand-up routine: “In a movie, you don’t always have to be funny, so there can be a coma, and then you can take a little while to get back to funny. With stand-up, you kind of have to be funny the whole time.” He did try, though, to depict the world of stand-up accurately in the picture: “We wanted to portray that camaraderie, but also the competition of it. A lot of strange things are at play—there’s a desperation to it.”

The romantic complication in “The Big Sick” arises from Kumail’s reluctance to admit to his parents that he has been dating a non-Muslim, non-Pakistani woman, while his mother continues to present him with candidates for a proper arranged marriage—a revelation that will lead to his break-up with Emily before her illness intervenes. “Those were the scenes that actually changed the least in the rewriting—the scenes with my parents,” Nanjiani said. “They’re based on the rhythm that I have at dinners with my parents, so it’s kind of chaotic and there are a lot of conversations going on, and there’s a dynamic that I have with every member of my family. The challenge of those scenes is that we didn’t want it to be that I have one relationship with the family. We wanted to have my relationship with my mom different from my relationship with relationship with my dad and different from my relationship with my brother and my relationship with my sister-in-law. We wanted it to feel sort of chaotic, but fun and loving. We wanted to show that this is a loving family, so that the stakes are higher—he doesn’t want to lose them.

“This is not a movie with good guys and bad guys, nobody’s right or wrong,” Nanjiani emphasized. “Everybody’s kind of right and kind of wrong. We wanted to show everybody’s perspective. And we wanted to show the struggle that my family has trying to hold to hold on to their culture and identity in s place where it’s not really valued. It’s really hard and complicated for them. They came here and sacrificed their own lives for the lives of their kids, and then their kids choose a life that is different from the life that their parents wanted for them. It’s heartbreaking. We wanted to show that.

“You know, I did disappoint my parents. And it’s very easy to have that American sense of ‘Love conquers all,’ but it’s tricky, it’s hard.”

If Kumail’s movie parents were definitely modeled on Nanjiani’s, Gordon’s, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, were not. “Emily’s mother is not like Holly Hunter,” Nanjiani explained. “They’re very nice Southern people. We made that change because Kumail is a guy who’s, like, shifty and deflects emotions, and is not direct and lies. Who’s the worst person for him to be stuck with? It would be Holly Hunter, because she’s so direct and so engaged, no B.S. That’s where that came from. And if you get a chance to work with Holly Hunter, you better take it.”

Hunter’s character is initially hostile to Kumail, who had after all broken up with her daughter, but she comes to his defense in a crucial club scene where Kumail is heckled. “ She sees all the stuff that my character is going through,” Nanjiani explained. “And he’s not handling it right, certainly, but then he has to deal with a lot of stuff. I think what softens her to my character is ‘Oh, he’s not just a bad guy, he’s done bad things, but he’s got real struggles.’ The way everyone does, you know?

“And then we got Ray Romano [as Emily’s father], because it sort of mirrors Emily’s and my relationship. Those were some of the things that we changed for the movie. When you’re doing something personal, the changes actually help you and shield you. It just makes you feel safer. I think it helped Emily that her parents in real life are so different from her parents in the movie.

“You know, having a little bit of distance is good. It’s already so personal, and you put it up on the big screen and everybody sees it and gets to know about your life. It’s not something that I’d really thought about. I should have, but I was like, ‘Let’s make this movie,’ and then it’s ‘Everybody sees it.’”

Nanjiani emphasized the message he hopes “The Big Sick” will promote by noting, “We’re in a world right now where people who look different from you or disagree with you politically, or whatever, are seen as bad guys. You put them in a box. People aren’t talking to each other; they’re shouting at each other, from both sides. The point of our movie is we have much more in common than we don’t and if we just talk to each other, I think things will get better. Sometimes you don’t see other human beings as human beings, and I think empathy is the most important trait we have.”

COLIN TREVORROW ON “THE BOOK OF HENRY”

Producer: 
Director: 
Writer: 
Stars: 
Studio: 

Director Colin Trevorrow made “Jurassic World” and is currently preparing “Star Wars IX,” but between those two franchise behemoths he’s sandwiched a small film—with a budget of only $10 million, shot in a mere thirty-five days—from a script by Gregg Hurwitz that’s been around for two decades. “The Book of Henry” might be dismissed as nothing more than an odd exercise—a film that begins almost as a sunny Hallmark Hall of Fame depiction of small town family life but turns into something much darker, even tragic. As Trevorrow explained in a recent Dallas interview, however, it was precisely that challenge that attracted him to the script years ago. “It starts out being about one person, and ends up being about someone else. That was something that fascinated me as a storyteller,” he observed.

So Trevorrow, who had enjoyed critical acclaim with his first feature, the independent sci-fi dramedy “Safety Not Guaranteed” in 2012, committed himself to helming “Henry.” But then there arrived an irresistible offer from Steven Spielberg to direct “World.” Trevorrow accepted that challenge, but vowed to return to Hurwitz’s script after finishing the dinosaur epic. He proved as good as his word, and after wrapping the monster 2015 hit he returned to the far more modest project, working with Hurwitz to refine the screenplay.

“The script is twenty years old,” Trevorrow said. “It changed a lot during that time [as Hurwitz rewrote it over the decades], but there are some scenes that stayed exactly the same. The work that I did with Gregg in structuring it, thinking about how to make it work, was largely focused on turning it into something that could be as tonally consistent as possible in a movie that does what it does, something that would allow the audience to accept the shifts and not feel like they were being betrayed. I think that’s the biggest challenge of the movie.”

As Trevorrow observed, “If you come in the middle of this movie, you will have no idea what’s going on, because it changes as much as it does. It is structured like a thriller. When you first watch it, you don’t realize that—because it feels like a family movie in the beginning—but for anyone who watches it again, it’s very carefully laid out. My editor [Kevin Stitt] is an excellent editor of thrillers—he was brought up by Frank Urioste, who was a great editor on “Die Hard,” “Lethal Weapon” and those films—and we talked a lot about whether it would make the tonal shifts less jarring if the rhythm of it felt as if it was propelled toward a suspenseful thriller ending. We tried it many different ways, and ultimately that’s where we landed. The movie moves quickly, and the layers build on top of each other, and by the time you realize what’s going on, it’s changed again and changed again. I hope that’s something audiences will respond well to right now, because I feel we all know the structure of movies; we know it from seeing a thousand of them—you almost find yourself waiting for the turn that you know is inevitable. I don’t think you can do that with this movie.”

Trevorrow added, “You’re planting pieces of information in the audience’s mind that you need them to have as they process and progress. This movie does that in a very delicate way. We cut it for a long time. It took a long time to find our way through these very complex turns, and I knew even in the script stage and the production stage that in the end this movie was going to be made or broken by my editor and me in that time that we spent together.”

“The Book of Henry” centers on a suburban family, a single mother and her two young sons. The older of them, Henry (Jaeden Lierberher), is a genius-level kid who essentially runs the household for his somewhat scatterbrained mom Susan (Naomi Watts) while protecting his smaller brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay). But he’s also concerned about Christina (Maddie Ziegler), the girl who lives next door and seems to be in emotional turmoil, and constructs a complicated plan to help her. When he’s unable to follow through on it, he hopes his mother will do so, and she tries to fulfill his wishes, but only to a point.

“I like to think of it as a coming-of-age movie for a parent,” Trevorrow explained. “We get to see a lot of coming-of-age movies with teenagers, but we don’t want to think about how long it takes for us finally to come of age as a parent. Hopefully you do it soon enough to be able to give [your children] the guidance you want to give them, to teach them how to make the right decisions.”

Watts was drawn to Susan immediately upon reading the script, and Trevorrow was enthusiastic not only about her handling of the role but her interaction with her co-stars. “It was a family,” he said. “When you’re dealing with that kind [short] schedule, no one really has time to experiment; we didn’t even really get to rehearse. We had to go in and try to create something spontaneous and real, and move very quickly through a very complex movie. As a result she became the den mother of our shoot, there to support those kids if I was unable to because I was shooting another scene.”

The casting of Lieberher and Tremblay, on the other hand, was more a matter of serendipity. “I hadn’t seen anything of Jacob’s, because ‘Room’ hadn’t come out yet,” Trevorrow recalled. “I’d seen his audition…and hired him immediately. Jaeden I’d seen in ‘St. Vincent’—I didn’t see ‘Midnight Special’ until we’d shot this movie. I’m very much that way—I’ll see an actor and know immediately that either they’re perfect for what I would love that character to be or just that I want to work with them. Maddie Ziegler is another one. When I watched the videos of her dancing, there’s something about her capability to communicate emotion without speaking, which is what her part required. I knew there was no one else who could have done it. It’s a role played in a series of looks, a series of single shots of her face where she has to show a tremendous amount of pain and fear, so many emotions.”

Trevorrow admits to real uncertainty about taking on the project. “I was never anywhere near as terrified on ‘Jurassic World’ as I was on this movie,” he said. “I had moments of abject fear that I wasn’t going to be able to make it work after a pretty big success. The scope, I can do that. It’s finding an emotional truth in the characters that is hard to manufacture.

“The anxiety came before [the shoot], because ‘Jurassic’ had come out in June, and I started shooting this in the fall, and I had a moment where I was just terrified—what are you doing? Just take your chips and walk out of the casino. Then I steeled up and I did it, because I felt very deeply that this was a story I had to tell, and in the past six or seven months since we finished, I’ve had plenty of those moments again. Is it possible to know how something this different is going to be received? There’s just no guarantee at all.”

Trevorrow believes, though, that “Henry” will find its audience. “This is a movie that not everybody has to love, and yet the people who do, will love it very much,” he opined. “I think there are a lot of people who will be refreshed by something that tells a different kind of story, and does it differently. And I think those people will tell other people. I think it’s a movie for the moment. I’m not looking to project my politics on anything I do, I’m looking to find universal themes and ideas we can all share, values we can all share. And safety for our children is something we all share, the sense that evil exists is something we all share. I think there’s value in that, and I think the audience is going to respond to that.”

Trevorrow also takes comfort in the very modesty of the movie from an economic standpoint. “It doesn’t have to make ‘Jurassic World’ money at all,” he said with a smile. “It can make ‘Jurassic World’ first two showings money, and they’d be thrilled.”

Asked whether he’d like to continue alternate big=budget films with more intimate ones, Trevorrow simply responded, “I would like to continue challenging myself and being afraid of what I’m doing, and pushing myself to try to do something that could go horribly wrong. This is a movie that could have gone way off the rails, and there may be some people who feel that it does.” But he added. “I’m very confident that it’s a cohesive structure and that it sticks to landing.”