The Big Sick
Friday 15th September 2017
Based on the real-life courtship between Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick tells the story of Pakistan-born aspiring comedian Kumail (Nanjiani), who connects with grad student Emily (Kazan) after one of his standup sets. However, what they thought would be just a one-night stand blossoms into the real thing, which complicates the life that is expected of Kumail by his traditional Muslim parents.
When Emily is beset with a mystery illness, it forces Kumail to navigate the medical crisis with her parents, Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) whom he's never met, while dealing with the emotional tugof-war between his family and his heart. The Big Sick is directed by Michael Showalter (Hello My Name Is Doris), written by Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani, and produced by Judd Apatow (Trainwreck, This Is 40) and Barry Mendel (Trainwreck, The Royal Tenenbaums).
The Big Sick began with a big opportunity for actor and writer Kumail Nanjiani, the kind that only strikes once.
In 2012, Judd Apatow was at the annual South by Southwest Festival for the premiere of Girls, the new series featuring the relatively unknown writer/director/star Lena Dunham when he was asked to guest on You Made It Weird, a conversational podcast featuring stand-up comedians hosted by Pete Holmes. Apatow had never heard the show but he had just worked with one of the other guests: Nanjiani, who had a small role in The Five Year Engagement, a soon-to-be-released romantic comedy Apatow produced. It sounded like a good time.
The 90-minute show flew by and as it did, Apatow and Nanjiani bonded over their various shared interests. Apatow has long made a practice of developing projects with and for comedians, so Nanjiani didn't take it lightly when Apatow subsequently contacted his manager to propose a meeting.
"I was thrilled of course," Nanjiani recalls. "And then I was terrified. Judd and I had gotten along so great at South by Southwest, I thought I could only mess it up from here."
Out of the five ideas Nanjiani brought to Apatow for that meeting, one story idea he had suggested otherwise - and surprisingly, it was one that came straight from real life: the unlikely story of what unfolded from the day his real-life wife Emily Gordon heckled him during his stand-up set in Chicago to the wild ride that eventually led to their marriage.
Nanjiani was back a month later to meet with Apatow and producer Barry Mendel -- Apatow's collaborator on Funny People, Bridesmaids, This Is 40 and Trainwreck, as well as a two-time Oscar®-nominated producer (The Sixth Sense, Best Picture, 1999; Munich, Best Picture, 2005) of influential films ranging from Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore to Steven Spielberg's Munich and M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense -- to tell his story.
It was 2006 and Pakistan-born Nanjiani was living in Chicago, building his career as a stand-up, while Gordon had earned her masters in couples and family counseling and was just starting her career as a therapist. Though neither one was looking to be in a relationship, from the moment they met, they enjoyed being together too much to break it off. Yet things were complicated - largely because Nanjiani hailed from a conservative Muslim family and his parents expected him to enter into a traditional Pakistani arranged marriage.
Nanjiani and Gordon dated for a few months, both of them ignoring that dilemma, while Kumail kept promising his parents that he would marry someone they chose. Emily was still a secret to them when she suddenly became gravely ill in the spring of 2007. Doctors placed her in an induced coma as a life-saving measure while they scrambled to figure out what was wrong.
The experience crystallised everything for Nanjiani. "I hadn't been thinking about marriage before Emily got sick," he says. "But looking at Emily when she was put into the coma, I thought to myself, 'If she comes out of this, I'm going to marry her.' It was more of the type of thing you feel but don't completely register in all the madness that is going on at the hospital. But there it was."
He rode out the crisis alongside Gordon's parents, who came in from North Carolina. After 12 days, doctors successfully diagnosed Gordon and brought her out of the coma. Three months later, Nanjiani and Gordon were married.
To illustrate his story during his meeting with Apatow and Mendel, Nanjiani brought along various mementos, including his hospital visitor IDs, that he had saved throughout Gordon's illness.
Apatow had never heard anything quite like Nanjiani's story. "I thought it was incredible -- I've never heard of falling in love with someone while they're in a coma," Apatow describes. "It was not only true and it was also so heartfelt -- and it was set in the world of stand-up comics, which has always fascinated me."
Mendel, too, was awestruck by the tale. "Our jaws were just on the floor," he recalls. "We came out of the meeting and, even though Kumail wasn't a big star yet, Judd and I both looked at each other and said 'this is an incredible story, we've got to do it.' Kumail's story was gut-wrenching and funny and challenging and beautiful, which is everything we all want movies to be that they seldom are. I said I thought we'd be crazy not to throw ourselves into it and Judd felt the same."
With Apatow and Mendel urging him to write, Nanjiani knew he was facing the challenge of his life. "I was excited but I was also petrified," he confesses. "I hadn't really grappled with the emotional experience of her illness yet. But it had been five years and the timing felt right. I think there's a window when you still remember all the feelings and still feel them, but you have enough distance that you can break them down and get some perspective on them. You don't want to wait so long that the feelings go away."
Meanwhile, as he's done since his stand-up years, Nanjiani asked Gordon to read his work-in-progress. Gordon, a published author and contributor to The Huffington Post, The New York Times, GQ, Lenny and Rookie, gave notes and contributed her own recollection of events. "I was getting such great notes," he remembers, "a little bit into the process I said 'we should write this together.'"
Gordon was surprised but delighted. "I honestly had not been thinking about it. But once he said it, I was like, 'yeah, that would be pretty cool. I think it would be an amazing experience.' And it was."
Recalls Mendel: "We'd gotten a full draft or two from Kumail, and he was great at capturing his own pathos and these really funny situations that occur where you wouldn't think they would, but there was still a dimensionality we all recognised wasn't fully coming through yet. Then Kumail turned in a draft where that self-same dimensionality was suddenly sprouting up all over. We noticed on the cover page that Emily was now writing with him - and the difference was immediate."
The couple spent three years developing the script in close collaboration with Apatow and Mendel, writing dozens of versions and figuring out how to shape the material. As Gordon explains, "There were so many ways to go, because there were different angles to the story: a struggling comedian; a guy with a Muslim family living in America; a guy with a sick girlfriend. So there was a lot to circle around."
"We pushed them really hard and there were times we wondered whether they would keep at it," said Mendel, "but they did. They would do a draft and be all excited about it thinking 'OK, now we're really getting somewhere' only to receive an even bigger set of notes than they got from the last draft. And that went on for two full years. But it's not unusual. Often times, making one aspect of the script better only removes the obstacle to seeing where you really need to go."
The couple stayed in broadly autobiographical territory to center the narrative of The Big Sick on Kumail, a native of Pakistan trying to make it as a professional stand-up in Chicago. A world-class compartmentaliser, Kumail scrupulously maintains a line between his dual lives: one as a striving young comic who lives in a crummy apartment and brings home the occasional girl; and another as the adored younger son of observant Muslim parents. His parents try to adjust to his comedy career, in part because Kumail has given them no reason to believe that he won't eventually pursue a more serious one and enter into a traditional Pakistani marriage.
As Nanjiani sees it, Kumail hasn't yet grappled with the idea that the person he was raised to be in one culture isn't necessarily the person he's becoming in a different culture. Says Nanjiani, "The world of Kumail's parents is totally different from the world of Emily and his comedian friends. He is a totally different person in each of those different worlds -- and that's not a good way to live. That became the core of the movie: someone trying to figure out how to be himself."
Meeting Emily at one of his stand-up shows starts him on that journey. She is studying to be a therapist; she genuinely likes and cares about people -- and can read them, too. Nanjiani describes the two main characters as we first meet them, "The film's Emily is smart, strong, very funny and a straight shooter. The Kumail at the beginning of the movie is a child. He is terrified to make any decisions, to put himself out there. He's working really hard to not have to fix the problems in his life."
The progression of their relationship echoes that of their real-life counterparts, who started dating with the intentions of keeping things casual. Says Gordon, "For the movie, it made sense that they would start off on equal footing in that neither one of them are looking for anything serious, but it kind of happens anyway. I always love it in a movie when people have certain intentions and their emotions get the best of them."
Emily's initial attempts to not hang out with Kumail romantically have their counterpart in Kumail's "two-day rule" limiting how much time they can spend together. "The two-day rule was a real thing," she affirms. "But I kept noticing that Kumail's actions didn't match his words, but in a good direction. I thought, 'this is odd. He's saying things that should be scaring me away but the way he's treating me is not like that at all.'"
Nanjiani wanted to channel the spirit of his own family in portraying the playful, jokey atmosphere that prevails during Kumail's visits with his parents Azmat and Sharmeen, older brother Naveed and sister-in-law Fatima. "The dinner scene in the film is exactly how dinners with my family are. There are five different conversations going on, people are talking over each other and everyone's very loud," says Nanjiani. "It was important that each relationship be specific and unique, so that it wasn't just one family unit. My relationship with my dad is different from the one with my mom, from the one with my brother etc. We wanted to make sure that audience understood that from the very first dinner scene. That's one scene that stayed pretty much intact through all the rewrites."
It felt good to write what they knew, says Gordon. "Often in movies and TV, when you see Muslim families they're deadly serious. It's all about 'focus on your studies,' things like that. But just because they have expectations doesn't mean you don't have fun with your family. And that's the reality of Kumail's family. They annoy you and they're weird but they're also hilarious and dear."
But it took time for Nanjiani and Gordon to get their footing in portraying their lives for the screen. Staying true to events exactly as they occurred didn't always suit the larger purpose of making a movie, and the pair also received a lot of good advice along the way from Apatow and Mendel. "Judd helped us break out of our experience to construct a story that people would watch and identify with," Nanjiani explains. "The idea was to take something that happened and distill it down to its essence. As long as that event feels grounded, you can take it to new places."
Apatow stressed the same principle for the story's characterizations of Beth and Terry Gardner, who rush to Chicago from their home in North Carolina when their only child falls ill. Apart from geography and concern for their child, the Gardners have little in common with Gordon's real-life parents. "My parents have their quirks but they're basically a lovely, happily married couple who were very focused on their daughter," says Gordon. "So Judd said, 'here's what you start with. Who are the worst people for this character of Kumail to be stuck in a hospital with for days or weeks? What's the absolute worst version? And then you kind of calibrate it from there.' Which was a really fun idea. We started thinking: what if Kumail, who's not a very open communicator, is stuck with people who are an extreme version of Emily, always, always wanting to dig into things?"
Writing the second act of the film, when Emily is in a coma, was an illuminating experience for both Nanjiani and Gordon. Says Gordon, "My perspective for a large part of what happens in this movie is nothing, because I was asleep. I had some weird coma dreams, but I wasn't there for a lot of it. I had to learn about what that experience was like for him in a way that I hadn't before. It was really lovely, and kind of amazing, scary and weird. And he never fully understood my perspective, because he couldn't. And I couldn't experience what he went through, either."
Writing the second act of the film, when Emily is in a coma, was an illuminating experience for both Nanjiani and Gordon. Says Gordon, "My perspective for a large part of what happens in this movie is nothing, because I was asleep. I had some weird coma dreams, but I wasn't there for a lot of it. I had to learn about what that experience was like for him in a way that I hadn't before. It was really lovely, and kind of amazing, scary and weird. And he never fully understood my perspective, because he couldn't. And I couldn't experience what he went through, either."
From the outset Nanjiani had some specific ideas about what he wanted to say in The Big Sick. "At its most basic, I wanted this movie to be about people trying to connect and the things that get in the way of that -- generational differences, religion, cultural, whatever it is. And how messy it is just to be person and live in a society and have different beliefs."
Throughout the writing process, it was important to the filmmakers to show both sides of the complicated issues surrounding arranged marriages. Says Nanjiani, "So often in movies, the disapproving parents are portrayed as Old World types who don't understand the modern ways or don't believe in love. We didn't want to do that. We wanted the audience to see things from their perspective, which is a compelling one. That felt very three-dimensional. It felt like there are no right answers."
Indeed, in the film, Kumail's brother Naveed confesses to Kumail that while he pursued relationships with other women when he was younger, Fatima, his wife via an arranged marriage, has become his best friend and loving partner. For him, the process of not getting to know her beforehand only added to his sense of gratitude and fulfillment that the old way worked.
Nanjiani had some trepidation when it came to addressing religion, another area where Kumail diverges from his parents. Apatow wouldn't let him off the hook, though. As he recalls, "Every time we'd hand in a script, Judd would say, 'What about religion?' I'd say, 'I don't know Judd, I don't want to tackle that stuff.' He told me, 'You don't have to tackle it. Just talk about how you feel about it. You don't have to have a point to make about religion. You can just say, it's complicated.'"
For Mendel, the screenplay digs beneath the surface to what really binds families together, even when religious and cultural taboos are broken.
"We wanted to delve as deeply as possible into the discomfort of beliefs not shared," comments Mendel. "That is the crux of this family story: which is stronger, love or beliefs? It's easy to say love should be stronger but in practice it's not so simple. Kumail's parents are correct when they call him out on being selfish and misunderstanding the American dream. Usually in these types of stories the parents' POV is 'tradition' but that never cuts deep, at least with me. I always ask 'yes, but why should we follow the tradition?' Kumail's parents have good answers, and that enriches the story."
Watching Nanjiani find his own strong, original voice was especially exciting. Sums up Mendel: "It was witnessing somebody in the process of becoming. He became so willing to delve into parts of himself he's not proud of and reveal them in a way that is brave, cool and funny. It became a story where you see someone grow in a very authentic way. It's very intense stuff and the fact that this team was able to make comedy from it is really a testament to Kumail and to the talent of everyone involved. The world feels so divided now and this movie is about people coming together."
In the spring of 2015, Apatow and Mendel began sending out The Big Sick screenplay to potential directors. Among those approached was writer/director/actor Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer, Stella, The State), who had recently completed the late-life coming-of-age comedy/drama My Name Is Doris. In a serendipitous twist, Showalter and his frequent collaborator Michael Ian Black had given Nanjiani his first major television job when they hired him as a staff writer and actor for their Comedy Central series "Michael and Michael Have Issues." He had also cast Nanjiani in a supporting role in My Name Is Doris.
Although Showalter had become friendly with Nanjiani and Gordon during the run of "Michael and Michael Have Issues," he didn't know the history of their relationship. An avowed fan of the romantic comedy, he was taken with both the style and the substance of the screenplay.
"I was riveted by it," Showalter recalls. "It was such a different way to tell a love story: a romantic comedy that explored all sorts of areas -- faith, national identity, culture - all in an incredible true story. Knowing Kumail and Emily, I felt connected to what I was reading. I could imagine what they were trying to say with the script."
Apatow had followed Showalter's work since the late 1990s and tapped Showalter to direct for his Netflix series "Love." "I've been a fan of Michael's as a creator and performer since The State and Wet Hot American Summer," he remarks. "Then I saw Hello My Name Is Doris and I thought it was incredible. That film was a very difficult balance of comedy and drama and there are so few people who can do that. Kumail and Emily already knew him. We all thought Mike was the perfect person."
Gordon agrees. "From the beginning, Michael had a true sense of the emotional heart of this movie and he championed that," she remarks. "It was very important to him that we hit the emotions of the movie, that they were being addressed and taken seriously."
Adds Mendel: "Michael came in with a lot of big ideas, taking big swings, throwing open the doors to analyzing each character in the script and where they're coming from, what they're doing and why. He stirred it all up ... Michael is also very good at getting the best out of everybody, while having a very laid back approach. He wants to hear everybody's ideas, and he's very good at picking the best of them. When I look at the best directors I've worked with, they all share that quality."
Showalter, Nanjiani and Gordon began a fresh pass on the screenplay. Showalter notes that the structure of The Big Sick is a major departure for a romantic comedy. "Usually in a romantic comedy the second act is where the characters fall in love, break up and then they come back together in the third act," he comments. "In The Big Sick that all happens in the first act. Then something monumental happens at the end of the first act and the love interest is not present for the entire second act -- which is challenging as storytelling because how do you keep the love story alive? That was really exciting for someone who loves romantic comedy as I do. To think 'can this work?' And to decide: 'Yes, this can work if we do it right.'"
The comedy necessarily takes on a darker tone during the second half of the movie, after Emily becomes sick, but the humor nonetheless remains. Says Showalter, "Even in the most serious moments of the movie, there's still an undercurrent of humor. Which is the whole way this movie approaches life: no matter how bad a situation gets, you've got to have humour."
Nanjiani was gratified that without tipping into sentimentality, Showalter embraced the sweetness at the core of the love story. "We wanted to make a romantic movie," Nanjiani says. "I personally always thought of it as a rom-com. I love rom-coms, and Mike is a huge rom-com fan too. My favourite movie of all time is Four Weddings & a Funeral. Emily & I watched it on our wedding day. We had all this specific vocabulary that only we spoke because of our encyclopedic knowledge of rom-coms: 'she's a duckface.' We would fully understand each other. Hopefully people agree that it's a romantic movie. I think it is!"
After another year and many drafts of script work with Showalter, the team was ready to seek funding for the film. Mendel met with Rena Ronson and her team in the Independent Film Division of United Talent Agency. "My idea was that we should send the script to all of our top choice buyers at exactly the same time, to the minute. On Friday, November 6, 2015 at 9am, we pushed send and incredibly, by noon, there was a written offer from FilmNation to fund the whole movie, no strings attached. I was amazed, I can't even read a script that fast."
Other buyers approached them over the next few days but they recognised that the combination of such immediate and sincere enthusiasm and FilmNation's track record with films including Top Five, Imitation Game, Nebraska and All Is Lost, they'd found their ideal partner and the deal was quickly closed.
Apatow, Mendel, Showalter, Nanjiani and Gordon starting discussing casting during the rewrites of the summer of 2015. It all came together better than they ever imagined. Says Mendel: "It is super fun to introduce a new star to the world, and Kumail Nanjiani is a new star - but also Zoe Kazan is a new romantic heroine, people have never seen Ray Romano like this, and Holly Hunter is giving a performance as good as she has ever given before. It's just a thrill to present these actors in this story to the world."
At the top of the filmmakers' list for the role of Emily Gardner was Zoe Kazan. They were thrilled that Kazan, an acclaimed playwright herself, was eager to audition.
"I was so taken with the script and the story," she comments. "The Big Sick was not like other things I'd read. I was very impressed by the deftness of tone Kumail and Emily achieved -- it's emotional, funny and scary all at the same time. I looked at videos of Kumail and Emily online and felt that I understood who they were. And when I auditioned, I loved the feeling in the room. There was a strong feeling of people wanting to go to work."
Gordon wasn't present for Kazan's audition, but watched a tape later. "From the moment the tape started, it was obvious that Zoe was the girl. There was not even a question," Gordon comments. "There's a real depth to Zoe, an intelligence and passion. But she also has a lightness and humor. She's not a self-serious human. I was very excited she decided to do it."
Kazan, Gordon and Nanjiani spent a couple of weeks together to bring the character further into focus. Explains Nanjiani, "We wanted Zoe to get to know the real Emily, and Emily and I wanted to get to know Zoe so we could write in her voice," explains Nanjiani. "Working together for a couple of weeks helped us see where her character would go and how she would react in different situations. A lot of scenes were rewritten based on improvs that Zoe and I did."
It was during those rehearsals that the filmmakers decided to make Gordon's brief first marriage a part of the film. Kazan and Nanjiani began improvising and a scene was written. Comments Kazan, "The first marriage was an important part of my character's back story because it made her both more willing to give her heart, having known the heights and depths of love before; and it also made her more wary of Kumail once he breaks her trust."
Kazan honed in on exactly the right mix of straight up emotion and comic edge. "I always saw Emily as a woman who takes herself seriously." Showalter remarks. "In order for us to take her seriously, she needed to take herself seriously. I didn't see her as being cute or dorky; she's serious about the things she cares about, which is not the cookie cutter romantic comedy lead woman. Zoe is very funny but she also exudes such intelligence and depth, that she really fits the character."
Once shooting began, that only became clearer. "To me," says Mendel, "the most memorable moment of this movie was watching Zoe Kazan break up with Kumail. It was riveting cinema, she took the acting level to a transcendent level."
Although Nanjiani playing himself, the challenges were myriad, and this would also mark his first lead role in a movie, though he is now known to millions of television viewers of the acclaimed HBO hit comedy "Silicon Valley."
Says Apatow, "When we started talking about this movie, Kumail was just known as a fantastic comedian. His career has evolved so much while we've been developing this project. It's exciting because I think people really want to see him as the lead in a movie."
Mendel calls Nanjiani "uncategorisable" and likens him to other one-of-a-kind comedians, including Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy and Amy Schumer, he has watched turn into movie stars in films he's produced. "They're each such different people but what I think they have in common is that they know themselves very well," he observes. "They're not trying to fit into other people's conceptions of who they ought to be. I think Kumail will have a very interesting career. He's so smart and curious about the world that as a moviegoer, I can't wait to see what he does next."
Next came the challenge of casting Emily's parents. It's the unlikely bond that forms between Kumail and Emily's parents that drives the middle section of the film and although there had been significant rewrites for the characters of Beth and Terry, it wasn't until Oscar® winner Holly Hunter and Emmy® winner Ray Romano signed on that their characters truly came into focus.
"Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano -- these were the people we dreamed would say 'yes,'" says Apatow. "Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are two of my all-time favorites. 'Everybody Loves Raymond' is a miracle of a show. It was so funny, so consistently. Holly Hunter has been in many of my favorite movies of all times. I think everything I've ever done has been a failed attempt to make something as good as Broadcast News ."
The chemistry was immediately apparent at the first table read with Nanjiani, Kazan, Hunter and Romano, which paved the way for further refinement of the script and the characters' interpersonal dynamics. "As actors: Kumail, Holly, Zoe and Ray all portray life as it really is - a complicated, emotional tangle of humor, sadness, anger and love," said Showalter. "While they are unique and distinct they also blend together wonderfully as an ensemble."
Adds Mendel, "We were very lucky to get the actors we did. We also invited Vella Lovell to read the part of the Kumail's Pakistani marriage prospect he might have ended up with , after which it was hard to imagine anyone else."
Hunter was intrigued by the way The Big Sick wove together its disparate elements. "I thought the shape and texture of the movie was really unusual and wonderful," she remarks. "It's once-removed from doing a documentary, which makes it much more interesting. Taking such a serious matter and making it playful -- that's surprising. You have the female lead of the movie and she's in a coma. It goes places that typical movies don't go."
She was also struck by the emotional evolution of the Kumail character. "I think that Kumail grapples with his own honesty in the course of this movie," Hunter reflects. "I'm attracted to stories about people who are playing catch-up with themselves. That's what this movie is about: a guy who makes an extremely unlikely, inconvenient connection with another person and his life has to catch up with that connection. But he's willing to play catch-up, he's willing to do the terrifying work to catch up with himself so that he can live an authentic life."
Mendel says Hunter was galvanizing in the role. "She is a force of nature," he observes, "not just because of the power of her presence, but because she goes after something so honest."
Romano and Apatow first met in 1992, when both were featured on MTV's Young Comedians Special. He would later seek him out for a cameo role in his third directorial feature Funny People . "Judd and I knew each other but we weren't buddies, we didn't come up in the same circuit," Romano says. "I knew he respected me and I respected him. So it was nice when he asked me to do a cameo in Funny People . Getting asked to play Terry was unexpected but wonderful."
Beth and Terry are opposites in temperament; he's methodical and easy-going, she's unfiltered and feisty. Yet their marriage has lasted 30 years, something Romano could relate to his own experience. "I've been married 28 years and my wife is very real and truthful, which is how Beth is," he comments. "I think Beth appreciates Terry because he's not trying to be anything he's not. In his geeky way, he's very real. They're totally different but sometimes that's why it works."
Gordon was delighted as she watched Romano and Hunter bring defining traits to their characters. "Once we cast Ray and Holly, everything started clicking into place," she recalls. "Holly brings a different energy than my actual mother. Her Beth is all heart. You see all of her emotions; she doesn't see any need to hide or shelter them. Ray came up with all these really bad dad jokes and he kept doing them in the movie as runners and it killed me. It was such a perfect dad thing to do. There are few scenes where you see a crack in his stoic, I'm-gonna-tell-jokes-to-distract approach, where you see how this has shaken him to his core. He was astounding."
For Nanjiani, there was a sense of purpose in approaching veteran Indian actor Anupam Kher to play the role of Kumail's father, Azmat. Kher is a Bollywood legend whose career spans some four decades and 500 films, including acclaimed hits Silver Linings Playbook and Bend It Like Beckham .
"I've been a fan of Anupam my whole life," Nanjiani says. "I had asked my real-life dad who he wanted to play him. He said 'Anupam Kher.' I said 'Perfect. My first choice too.' From then on, I only ever saw Anupam in the role and we pretty much wrote it for him. But he found such specificity in the role and brought so many ideas about how our particular relationship worked."
Recalls Mendel: "We got in touch with Anupam's manager in Bombay, sent a script, and I think the reaction was 'maybe.' But then Anupam sent us a bunch of very good ideas that could enhance his character -- so it was really a kind of conversation that lead to Anupam doing the movie. And it was super flattering to us, because Anupam has done hundreds of films. So the only reason he would want to come all the way from Bombay to do this little movie is because he loved it."
Kher says that he was drawn first to working with Apatow. "I was very excited to be working with Judd because most of his films have a sense of soul in them, and he doesn't take himself too seriously. There's an ease about his films."
Nanjiani's personal desire to have him take the role also moved him. "The fact that Kumail called me straightaway about the role and said it was his father's wish that I do this, that connected with me on a very emotional level. I also like human stories and the fact that it was based on Kumail and Emily's life was very amusing. It was important for me, this film, because it was going to be my 500th film. I wanted it to be a great experience and it worked out very well," Kher elaborates.
With his vast amount of cinematic experience, Kher brought his own touches to the character. "Azmat has an undercurrent of comedy even though he's very real," he observes. "I did some of my own work on Azmat's backstory -- where he was born, was his first job, how did he raise his two sons, his desire to be important in somebody's life," he explains. "There's a very beautiful line when he talks about the American dream. Azmat rejects that the American dream is doing whatever you want and not thinking about other people. To him, it's the opposite. Being a good son, husband and father is the dream."
Also portraying members of Kumail's family are Adeel Akhtar as his older brother Naveed; Zenobia Shroff as his mother Sharmeen; and Shenaz Treasurywala as Naveen's wife, Fatima. "I'd seen Adeel on stage opposite Jim Broadbent in London," said Mendel, "and then one day, a tape arrived in our mailbox and he was putting himself up for the part. We all knew Four Lions and felt so lucky to have him. He's a very gifted and natural actor."
Part of creating an authentic portrait of the standup comedy world involved casting real comedians who would be able to build on one another's jokes. Casting Nanjiani's actual friends Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham and Kurt Braunohler as Kumail's buddies Mary, CJ and Chris allowed the actors to build on their pre-existing relationships. The trio brought depth as well as hilarity.
"Kumail, Chris, Mary and CJ are written as the four friends who hang out together," says Nanjiani. "It was so cool in the shooting to see how they all have different relationships with each other. There's a sweetness to their friendship that I didn't necessarily see when Emily and I wrote the script but it was there when we shot. Aidy, Bo and Kurt elevated that whole part of the movie."
The Big Sick began production on May 11, 2016 in New York City. The collaborative approach that marked the film's development continued as filming got underway.
Rehearsals often led to rewrites, which led to additional work for Nanjiani and Gordon. It was work they were happy to do, says Nanjiani. "That was a very gratifying and exciting part of the process, the seemingly neverending rewriting. I felt that every rewrite we did made the script better in some small way or some big way. You hear horror stories about executives getting involved and ruining scripts but we felt very protected. All the different voices understood the movie we wanted to make, got the tone, got the story, got what we wanted to say. So everybody's opinion was very valuable."
Hunter credits the filmmakers for the open and creative environment on set. "Mike Showalter, Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel trusted they had the right people playing these parts," she remarks. "That meant that our instincts were bona fide. That's great and that's rare. We would do different takes, try different things. It was like the movie was a big cauldron and everybody took turns stirring it."
Hunter considered every detail when rehearsing a scene; not only lines, but also props -the blankets Beth brings for her daughter's bed are from Hunter's own home - and blocking.
Nanjiani remembers watching Hunter map out each beat of a key hospital scene that lays bare some of the tensions between Beth and Terry as they confront the gravity of their daughter's situation. "Holly choreographed every movement," he says. "'All right, we'll go here for this, then we'll go around the corner for this, then I'll try to get the phone from my purse...' I realised she was adding obstacles so her character can get angry. She rehearsed it over and over, maybe 15 times. When we shot it she did 10 takes in a row, each one different, each one perfect."
As Hunter and Romano rehearsed their scenes together, the relationship between their characters developed the patina of shared history and mutual knowledge. This affected how Romano approached certain scenes, including the scene where Terry sleeps over at Kumail's apartment. During the table read, that scene played as pure comedy. Then on the day the scene was filmed, it was thrilling to see Ray find deeper emotional layers to the scene. "Ray Romano is such a wonderful naturalistic actor," said Showalter, "He is fully committed to the internal motives of a scene. The result can be something hysterically funny or dramatic and cathartic. No matter what it's always completely coming from a place of emotional honesty."
Hunter was just as impressed with Romano. "Ray's got a great analytical mind. He knows what feels authentic and he knows when something doesn't make intuitive sense," she comments. "I loved his sensibility and it brought a real integrity to the movie and our relationship. I didn't know that would happen. It was wonderful that he could bring that essential ingredient to the collaboration."
For his part, Romano allows that he was somewhat nervous about acting opposite Hunter, easily one of the most acclaimed and admired actresses on the planet. But she quickly put him at ease. "Holly's collaborative and inclusive. I never felt scared to pitch an idea, she always wanted to hear. She wants you to feel good. You feel good that she cares so much about the story. It's not just about her," he says.
Kazan felt a deep sense of responsibility towards the true story at the heart of The Big Sick. "Emily and Kumail were very brave in putting themselves on the page -- and also generous in that they were giving a lot of their humor and a lot of their personal stories to this movie. They're really making art out of their lives. In that spirit, I felt that the script was challenging me to bring as much of myself to the table as possible. Unlike some of the other parts I've played, this role wasn't about transformation. It required me to drop into my real self and use my real personality and use my emotions and have an easiness with myself in the part."
While The Big Sick is a romantic comedy, Kazan's character experiences intense emotional and physical upheavals over the course of the film. In the first act, we watch her fall in love, only to get her heart broken; in the third act, she has to grapple with the ramifications of her health crisis and its effect on her and the people around her. Her colleagues were struck by the seamlessness of her craft during these demanding scenes.
"There's an emotional credibility and gravity Zoe brings which is rare," says Mendel. "In the big scenes, she just plain brings it." Adds Showalter, "We truly feel we've gotten to know "Emily" in the short time we have with her in Act One."
The production faced a crisis of its own when a visa snafu delayed the arrival of Anupam Kher, the Bombaybased star who plays Kumail's father. Extra time had been set aside to rehearse and film the Nanjiani family scenes, but by the time the visa issue was resolved, there were just three days to film all of the family scenes. It's a testament to the actors and director Showalter that with no time to rehearse, Nanjiani, Kher, Akhtar, Shroff and Treasurywala were able to conjure the lived-in feel of a real family.
The filmmakers were just as committed to verisimilitude when it came to depicting the backstage life of Kumail and his fellow comedians, with its singular mixture of razzing, competition and supportiveness.
Notes comedian Kurt Braunohler: "We shot the backstage scenes at the actual venue where I hosted a weekly comedy show for two years with comedians who had done that show. You really can't get any closer to what it's really like to be backstage with a bunch of comedians. Everyone's doing bits, making fun of each other, admiring Bo's hair. It's just amazingly thick."
Bo Burnham praises Showalter's collaborative directing style, "Michael was always off camera throwing us lines and making all of us laugh," he recalls. "He was the funniest one there, which is great. He felt like one of the group - like we were improvising with him too."
Kumail's camaraderie with his comedian friends goes beyond riffing jokes. Kumail turns to them as he tries to handle Emily's sudden illness. "Most people in the comedy community are very supportive," notes Aidy Bryant, "but they also know that it just feels good to blow off steam or look on the lighter side of a tough thing. I feel like so often when people have sad experiences it feels so good to come back to your comedy friends and be like, 'this insane thing happened to me,' and it feels good to laugh about that stuff. So I think that element of the film is pretty true to life."
Sums up Mendel of the production: "This movie was the ultimate lesson in how it takes a village to raise a child. There were so many people whose contributions mattered, and it wasn't just one person's voice driving through the film. Without many people bringing their absolute best work to the table, the film wouldn't have been what it is. When you care about something on a deep level and you connect to it emotionally, that inspires the work to be even better."
Behind the camera, the commitment to the authenticity and emotional richness was just as strong as it in front of it. Director of photography Brian Burgoyne - who had collaborated with Showalter on Hello My Name Is Doris and impressed Showalter, Apatow and Mendel with his work on Other People - came aboard ready to bring a very natural visual ambience to the comedy. Notes Showalter, "Brian's cinematography is very intuitive and soulful. There's an intimacy and a warmth to it. He's sympathetic to the world he's photographing. He's inside it."
Composer Mike Andrews was a late addition to the post-production team. Andrews' collaboration with Apatow dates back to "Freaks and Geeks"and includes "Undeclared,"Funny People and Bridesmaids . He was immediately impressed by the execution of the story. "When I first got the movie,"he recalls, "it was mostly locked and I watched it all the way through without any music. I was really touched by the honesty of the performances and the subtlety of the comedy."
Andrew felt great clarity about where he wanted to take the music. "I always try to walk hand-in-hand with the movie, shading, supporting and celebrating what is great and original about it,"he says. "Michael Showalter very clearly mapped the movie out emotionally for me and we stuck to the idea that it is basically a romantic comedy until we reach the moment of sickness. As Kumail begins the second part of his journey, I saw him as being in a bit of a fog and suspended state until his reaches a more grounded clarity, so the music follows that intent. Simultaneously Kumail's relationship with the Emily's parents needed its own feeling and trajectory, allowing us to feel the growth of friendship and understanding while allowing the movie to breathe comedically."
Andrews describes the evolution of the film's score: "Originally there was talk of trying to integrate Eastern elements into the score. Because this movie deals with the conflicts of culture clashes and assimilation, bringing in elements of music from India and Pakistan seemed appropriate. But I tried it and mostly it felt forced. Strangely, once we stripped some of the pieces of these Indian elements, the score felt right. A couple of the tabla pieces did remain and I suppose they are the ghosts of the combination of the two styles."
Another key design touch - to include photos of the real Kumail and Emily -- was an idea of actress Leslie Mann who had seen an early cut of the film with her husband, Apatow. Kumail and Emily's story seems to fade to black on a hopeful note for their relationship but without clarifying if and how Kumail's relationship with his family and their opposition to his relationship resolved. "We wanted to show what happened in real life, that Kumail's family came to accept and embrace Emily as part of their family,"said Mendel, "and that is how the story ends."
After finishing the film, Apatow praised Nanjiani and Gordon's commitment to getting it right. "It was a very open process,"he states. "Kumail and Emily were very flexible and crazy hard-working. It takes some courage to go deep and think about all your feelings and how you relate to the story and to your significant other and to your parents. Without a lot of courage you can't really make a movie like this."
For all of the sweat and tears that went into bringing it to the screen, Mendel notes that what makes The Big Sick so potent is that it comes from an authentic experience. "The movie is filled with things from real life that no writer would ever think if it hadn't actually happened to him," he concludes, "and I think that's what makes the movie such a special experience."
Kumail Nanjiani (Writer / Executive Producer / Kumail) is a critically acclaimed actor, writer and comedian, perhaps best known for his co-starring role as 'Dinesh' on the award-winning HBO comedy series Silicon Valley, which won the TV Critics Choice Award for 'Best Comedy Series' last year and has two Emmy® and Golden Globe® wins, as well as several Emmy® and Golden Globes® nominations.
He also appears in the Warner Bros. comedy, Fist Fight and voices one of the ninja warriors in The Lego Ninjago Movie also from Warner Bros.
Nanjiani's many memorable comedic roles include The Five - Year Engagement, produced by Judd Apatow, Sex Tape and Hot Tub Time Machine 2, and more recently on the big screen in Hello, My Name Is Doris, Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates and Central Intelligence.
On television, Nanjiani is writer, executive producer and co-host of Comedy Central's The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail, along with Jonah Ray. He has had roles on IFC's Portlandia, TNT's Franklin & Bash, the reality show parody, Burning Love and Comedy Central's Michael & Michael Have Issues. where he also served as a staff writer. He recently appeared in a guest role on the return of The X-Files on FOX and has appeared on Community, Inside Amy Schumer and Drunk History, among others.
His 2013 comedy special Kumail Nanjiani: Beta Male was on several "Best of" lists for Vulture, Village Voice and The AV Club, and was chosen as one of the 5 best stand-up albums of the year by Entertainment Weekly.
Zoe Kazan (Emily) is an actor, playwright and screenwriter, born and raised in Santa Monica, CA. As an actress, her film and television credits include Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road, In The Valley Of Elah, Fracture, The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee, Me and Orson Welles, Happythankyoumoreplease, Meek's Cutoff, It's Complicated, In Your Eyes, The Pretty One, What If, Our Brand is Crisis, HBO's Bored To Death, My Blind Brother, and The Monster. In 2009, Zoe was awarded Best Actress in a Narrative Feature Film at the Tribeca Film Festival for her first starring role, as Ivy in The Exploding Girl. In 2015, she was nominated for an Emmy® for her work in a supporting role in the acclaimed HBO mini-series Olive Kitteridge. Zoe also starred in Fox Searchlight's Ruby Sparks, which she wrote and executive produced. Most recently, Zoe played the eponymous character in Lena Dunham's HBO pilot, Max and James' Franco's ex-wife in the upcoming HBO show, The Deuce.
Zoe made her New York stage debut in 2006 in the Off-Broadway revival of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Other off-Broadway credits include Jonathan Marc Sherman's Things We Want and Clive, both directed by Ethan Hawke at The New Group Theater; the Signature Theater Company's revival of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, in which she played Harper Pitt; Manhattan Theater Club's production of Sarah Treem's When We Were Young And Unafraid; and Playwrights Horizons' 100 Saints You Should Know, for which Zoe received a Drama Desk Award nomination and a Lucille Lortel Award nomination for Outstanding Featured Actress.
Zoe's Broadway credits include MTC's revival of William Inge's Come Back, Little Sheba; the world premiere of Martin McDonagh's A Behanding in Spokane; the Royal Court's revival of Chekhov's The Seagull, for which Zoe was nominated for a Drama Desk Award; and, most recently, the world premiere of Mike Bartlett's Love, Love, Love at the Roundabout Theatre. In 2008, Zoe was named the recipient of the Clarence Derwent Award for Most Promising Actress. She is the only actor to be awarded the Derwent Award for three roles in one year.
As a writer, Zoe has had plays produced at the Humana Festival at the Actor's Theater of Louisville (Absalom, in 2009), South Coast Repertory Theater (Trudy and Max in Love, in 2014), and off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theater Club (We Live Here, in 2011). She also wrote the screenplay for Ruby Sparks, for which she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay.
From 1996 to 2006, Ray Romano (Terry) starred in Everybody Loves Raymond, one of the most respected sitcoms in television history, and won an Emmy® for Outstanding Lead Actor in 2002. As one of the show's executive producers, he also received Emmys® in 2003 and 2005 for "Outstanding Comedy Series," and shared a 2003 Screen Actors Guild Award with the show's cast.
Ray began his career in 1984 as a stand-up comedian in New York, which led to appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and later, Jay Leno. After appearing on Late Night with David Letterman, Ray was offered a development deal with Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants, which led to the creation of Everybody Loves Raymond for CBS.
Ray made his film debut in 2003 as the voice of Manny the wooly mammoth in 20th Century Fox's animated hit, Ice Age, and reprised the role in four sequels, including Ice Age: Collision Course in 2016. He also appeared in Welcome To Mooseport with Gene Hackman and Rob the Mob with Andy Garcia, and was the subject of the 2006 documentary 95 Miles To Go.
In 1998, he wrote the New York Times best-seller, Everything And A Kite, and with his brothers penned the children's book Raymie, Dickie, and The Bean: Why I Love and Hate My Brothers. Ray's comedy album, Live at Carnegie Hall, was nominated for a Grammy in 2002.
In 2009, Ray teamed with Mike Royce to create and star in Men of a Certain Age, which co-starred Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher. The TNT comedy-drama ran for two seasons and won the Peabody Award in 2011. Ray also appeared in three seasons as photographer Hank Rizzoli of NBC's Parenthood.
In 2016, Ray starred with Bobby Cannavale and Olivia Wilde in the HBO drama series Vinyl, created by Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) and executive produced by Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger.
Holly Hunter (Beth) is an Academy Award®-winning prominent actress on both stage and screen and has portrayed a vast array of complex and powerful characters throughout her career.
Hunter has been nominated for four Academy Awards® for the films Broadcast News, The Firm, The Piano and Thirteen. In 1993, Hunter won the Academy Award® and the award for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival for her performance in The Piano. In 2008, Hunter received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2009, she was awarded the Women in Film Lucy Award.
Also this year, Hunter will star in Strange Weather, a drama about a mother (Hunter) who, in an effort to deal with the grief over the death of her son, travels the back roads of the deep south to settle a score. Brent Lang of Variety deemed this "... one of her richest, most lived-in performances." The film, directed by Katherine Dieckmann, also stars Carrie Coon. Strange Weather premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2016 and it will be officially released in the US by IFC on Friday, July 28th.
This summer, Hunter begins production on the Alan Ball HBO series, Here, Now which will also star Tim Robbins. The series will tell the story of a multi-racial family made up of husband, wife, three adopted children from Somalia, Vietnam and Colombia and one biological child, who find their bonds tested.
Hunter will also appear alongside Tony Shalhoub in Breakable You. The film premiered at the 2017 Palm Springs International Film Festival but does not yet have an official release yet.
In 2016, Hunter was seen in the box-office hit Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, released by Warner Bros. Pictures on March 25, 2016. The film also starred Ben Affleck, Amy Adams, Diane Lane, Henry Cavill and Jesse Eisenberg, among others. Hunter played Senator Finch who is on the U.S. Senate committee leading the investigation into Superman and his seemingly non-accountability to any governing body.
In 2015, Hunter was seen co-starring in the film Manglehorn opposite Al Pacino and directed by David Gordon Green. Manglehorn premiered at the 2014 at the Venice Film Festival and was also featured at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. The film was released in June 2015 by IFC.
Also in 2015, Hunter was seen on-stage in the revival of David Rabe's Tony Award winning play Sticks and Bones opposite Richard Chamberlain, Nadia Gan, Morocco Omari, Bill Pullman, Ben Schnetzer and Raviv Ullman. Directed by Scott Elliot (Hurlyburly), the show opened to rave reviews at The New Group Theater in October and closed in mid-December.
In 2013, Hunter was seen in the Sundance Channel series Top of the Lake, co-starring Elisabeth Moss, written and directed by Academy Award® winner, Jane Campion and co-director, Garth Davis. Hunter played "GJ", a guru at a local women's camp who becomes involved in the investigation into the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl that is 5 months pregnant in a picturesque but remote mountain town. Hunter's performance garnered her a Screen Actor's Guild Nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries.
Additionally in 2013, Hunter co-starred in Paradise, written and directed by Diablo Cody opposite Julianne Hough, Russell Brand, Nick Offerman and Octavia Spencer. The comedy follows a young conservative woman suffering a crisis of faith after surviving a plane crash. Hunter also co-starred in the Lifetime/History series Bonnie & Clyde, which also starred William Hurt, Emile Hirsch, and Holliday Grainger.
Anupam Kher (Azmat) is one of India's most prominent actors. He has performed in over 100 plays and has been featured in over 500 films. Besides working in Hindi films, he has appeared in many acclaimed international films such as the Golden Globe® nominated Bend It Like Beckham, Ang Lee's Venice Film Fesitval's Golden Lion-winning film Lust, and David O. Russell's Oscar®-winning Silver Linings Playbook.
Earlier this year, Kher co-starred in The Headhunter's Calling, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, opposite Gerard Butler, Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina. Currently, Kher can be seen in Netflix's international series, Sense8, created by the Wachowski's. Season two will premiere in May 2017. Just last month Kher wrapped Hotel Mumbai opposite Dev Patel, based on the real-life devastating 2008 Mumbai attacks. The film is being produced by Thunder Road, Arclight Films, and The Weinstein Co.
Over the years Kher has been critically acknowledged for his work. He's received one of India's most acclaimed awards, the Filmfare Award, five times for the category Best Performance in a Comic Role. He also won the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Vijay. Previously he was the chairman of the Central Board of Film Certification and National School of Drama in India. Currently he's the chairman at Actor Prepares in Mumbai. The Government of India honoured Kher with both the Padma Shri in 2004 and the Padma Bhushan in 2016, one of the highest honours given in India, for his contribution to cinema and the arts.
Beyond acting, Kher is a teacher, author, motivational speaker, and an activist. He is the Goodwill Ambassador of the Pratham Educational Foundation, which works towards a general social change for all by focusing on the education of children; is a champion of gender equality; founded an acting school, and was ranked #12 on Richtopia's 2017 list of top 200 authors in the world.
Adeel Akhtar (Naveed) has worked predominantly in television and film, his credits include the acclaimed indie film Four Lions playing the memorable hapless character 'Fessal', he also featured as Smee in Pan directed by Joe Wright. Other films include The Dictator with Sacha Baron-Cohen, War Book directed by Tom Harper and British indie comedy Convenience.
Adeel was nominated by BAFTA and The Royal Television Society Best Support Actor for Utopia in which he played 'Wilson Wilson'. Other TV work includes: Apple Tree Yard (BBC1), Unforgotten 2 (ITV), The Circuit (CH4), Murdered By My Father (BBC3) and a featured role in the Emmy® Award-winning drama The Night Manager.
Zenobia Shroff (Sharmeen) is getting ready to present her solo show 'How To Succeed As An Ethnically Ambiguous Actor' this June and July at the Paradise Factory Theatre. Shroff has been an Actress, Writer And Teaching Artist in NYC for the past 25 years. She has been in numerous theatrical productions, performing at such venues as the famed La Mama E.T.C., The Midtown International Theatre Festival and The New York Comedy Club. She has been in plays by Mario Fratti, writer of Nine , Milan Kundera and Bina Sharif.
A few years ago she made the switch to film, starting with the Mira Nair presented Little Zizou which premiered at the 2008 Indo American Arts Council Film Festival. Zenobia received a Best Actress Nomination for that role at the festival, as well as rave reviews. She was next seen in an independent When Harry Tries To Marry which had its world premiere in NYC. The film is now on Netflix, ITunes and Amazon. She followed that up with the Bollywood blockbuster Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu with Kareena Kapoor and Imran Khan. She has written a one-woman piece Exotic Observations which she performed in and around New York. She is an accomplished Bharat Natyam dancer and holds a master's degree in Psychology. She has taught Drama and Movement throughout the NYC-metro area to under privledged and inner city kids.