“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.”