The Big Sick’s writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon on how true-life their true-life tale is
WHEN HUSBAND AND wife Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon sat down to write The Big Sick, the witty romcom that tells the real-life tale of how their budding relationship was rudely interrupted when Emily became seriously ill and fell into a coma, they knew they wanted to draw heavily upon the details of their lives; the coma, particularly. But they also had to write a movie that worked very much on its own terms, and wasn’t just a strict retelling. Which is why Emily’s surname in the movie has been changed to Gardner. (She is played by Zoe Kazan.) But what of the other details, big and small, in the movie? What’s real life? What’s not? We grilled the duo for all the sick details. MOMENT: The pair meet after Emily heckles Kumail at a gig with a well-placed whoop
Emily Gordon: That is one part of the movie that is 100 per cent accurate, yes. He was a comedian, it was a comedy show. I’m not a heckler, but
I was in the audience and I thought it would be funny if I answered the question, “Anyone from Pakistan?”
Kumail Nanjiani: Hecklers always think they’re helping. Always think they’re being funny. Gordon: I had not done it before (or since), but something compelled me to do a whooping noise. I actually approached him to apologise, I think, because I felt bad about it. I didn’t feel that bad, frankly. But don’t heckle.
Nanjiani: You definitely shouldn’t heckle because I don’t want you to get married to someone else.
MOMENT: Kumail shows Emily The Abominable Dr. Phibes as a taste test
Nanjiani: Yes. I can’t remember if it was The Descent or The Abominable Dr. Phibes, but those were the first two movies I showed her. Gordon: Now, because of the movie, my brain isn’t sure which is first. I’m actually quite interested — had you ever shown The Abominable Dr. Phibes to other women? How come I haven’t asked you that?
Nanjiani: No. I showed it to nobody else. Gordon: You’re a liar! You’re a liar!
MOMENT: Emily’s father Terry (Ray Romano) admits to having had an affair
Gordon: Did not happen. Did not happen. Not at all. Nope.
Nanjiani: That was Judd’s [Apatow, producer] suggestion.
Gordon: He said it would be interesting if in the movie other people are going through things, too. It was hard to write your parents having an affair and I had to approach it cautiously with my actual parents. They understood the reasoning for it.
MOMENT: Emily and Kumail had split up when Emily fell into the coma
Gordon: We were dating and we were good, but we were at a weird point. I think it was Mike Showalter [the film’s director] who said it was way more interesting and gives them much further to go if they’re broken up when Emily gets sick.
Nanjiani: That was something we went back and forth on quite a bit. It felt like an actual break-up was more dramatic.
MOMENT: Emily can’t go to the toilet in Kumail’s apartment
Gordon: It’s partially true in that Kumail’s house was just disgusting. The bathroom was awful, so in general I would try to avoid the bathroom as much as I could. More to the point, we were trying to think of milestones in relationships that are non-standard. I talked to a lot of girlfriends about how to navigate having normal bodily functions while staying at a guy’s house. That came from that.
Nanjiani: I’d remember that we’d be in a hotel and you’d go, “I’m going to take a walk in the lobby.” Why would you go for a walk in the lobby for 10 minutes?
Gordon: A girlfriend of mine dated a guy who lived next to a Target and she had to go to Target all the time to use their bathroom. I found that very funny.
MOMENT: Kumail didn’t smile in photographs because he read a magazine article where Hugh Grant said he didn’t smile in photographs Kumail: Yes, it’s very true. I didn’t smile in pictures for many years.
Gordon: You still don’t, really.
Kumail: Still not a big smiler. When we met Hugh Grant in London, did I tell him that? Gordon: You blanked out for a bit. I don’t think so.
Kumail: Richard Curtis and Emma Freud were the ones who set it up and surprised us. We played it very cool.
Gordon: Except when he walked in, I said: “OH MY GOD.” In that exact voice. THE BIG SICK IS OUT NOW ON ON DVD AND BLU-RAY
Pillow talk: Loved-up Kumail Nanjiani (as himself) with girlfriend Emily (Zoe Kazan); Kumail goes to work as a stand-up; Kumail endears himself to Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano).
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