Q&A: Sick cou­ple click on, off screen

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - PIERS MARCHANT

It helps tremen­dously that Ku­mail Nan­jiani and Emily V. Gor­don, the real life mar­ried cou­ple who wrote The Big Sick loosely based on their courtship ex­pe­ri­ence, are so un­de­ni­ably adorable to­gether.

The pair are mak­ing the press rounds in sup­port of the film, which they co-wrote and in which Ku­mail (best known as the acer­bic Di­nesh on HBO’s Sil­i­con Val­ley) stars. Apart from open­ing up their pri­vate life to the gen­eral pub­lic (“Per­form your love for the peo­ple,” Nan­jiani says), they are aware of the in­creased scru­tiny they may be un­der — “We def­i­nitely can’t ar­gue in pub­lic any­more,” Gor­don laments.

The com­edy, which earned ma­jor buzz com­ing out of Sun­dance, stars Ku­mail as a young Pak­istani Amer­i­can want­ing to avoid an ar­ranged mar­riage, as his par­ents des­per­ately wish, but afraid to risk los­ing them if he tells them the truth. When he meets Emily (Zoe Kazan, in the film), they fall in love, but when he fi­nally ad­mits to her he is ex­pected to marry a fel­low Pak­istani, they break up. Soon after, after Emily sud­denly falls into a coma, Ku­mail is the one to stick by her in the hospi­tal, con­fronting her an­gry mother (Holly Hunter) and lack­adaisi­cal fa­ther (Ray Ro­mano) as they all sit vigil.

Hav­ing been mar­ried more than a decade, Nan­jiani and Gor­don share a sweet ca­ma­raderie, ev­i­dent in their criss­cross ban­ter and habit of talk­ing over each other. We met up in a posh ho­tel suite to talk about Gor­don’s real par­ents, Nan­jiani’s phi­los­o­phy on ro­man­tic come­dies, and how you go about dra­ma­tiz­ing your life into a three-act arc.

The film got such a bounce at Sun­dance, con­sid­er­ing this is all based on your per­sonal life, have there been any re­grets about putting it all out there?

Gor­don: It is an ad­just­ment. I try to be on their side as much as I can, of like, what a lovely thing that they kind of feel a con­nec­tion to us. I try not to feel weird about it. But I am, I think, maybe even a lit­tle more pri­vate than [Ku­mail], so I try to take any time I feel like things are in­va­sive and just be like, “What an amaz­ing thing that peo­ple are in­ter­ested enough in gen­eral to kind of want to con­nect to you on any level.” And every­body has such great sto­ries that they come up and tell us about their own lives, and that’s such a beau­ti­ful thing. What I don’t ever want to feel like is our re­la­tion­ship is this weird com­mod­ity. That’s very im­por­tant, I think, to both of us. We ar­gue just like any other cou­ple, so it’s def­i­nitely been an ad­just­ment.

Nan­jiani: Our movie is very ob­vi­ously about us, but it could also be a movie about fight­ing space aliens or some­thing. If it’s good, there’s a piece of you in it, and peo­ple get to ex­pe­ri­ence that, and it should make you feel vul­ner­a­ble. I think it’s a lit­tle un­avoid­able when you’re writ­ing some­thing ….

How close does the movie fol­low your ac­tual story? I’m as­sum­ing you took some cre­ative lib­er­ties.

Nan­jiani: Cer­tain things are taken out; cer­tain things are swapped around. We wrote it, ini­tially, ex­actly as it hap­pened. And then the process from then on was ex­ca­vat­ing and try­ing to find the movie from our story. We turned it from our story into a story. And so you find out, ac­tu­ally, this char­ac­ter doesn’t be­long, or these two char­ac­ters should be one char­ac­ter, or it’s ac­tu­ally more dra­matic if this doesn’t hap­pen, or if this hap­pens later, or if we make up that this thing hap­pened. We rewrote a bunch to get more at the emo­tional truth of it. Be­cause when you see a movie, you’re ex­pect­ing a cer­tain drama, even though if you were go­ing through that drama in real life, it would be very emo­tional, but see­ing it on screen, you don’t feel that. So to get peo­ple to feel the real drama, you have to dra­ma­tize the ac­tual events a lit­tle bit. This is my the­ory — I just came up with it. Hon­estly, we wanted peo­ple to feel like they re­ally went through the wringer by the end of this movie: They’ve laughed; they’ve cried; they’ve got­ten ex­cited; they’ve got­ten sad. Ev­ery­thing.

Gor­don: And I will say very specif­i­cally, my fa­ther never cheated on my mother, and they’re very adamant that I men­tion that.

In many ways, the film plays like a tra­di­tional type of rom-com – cute cou­ple meet, break up be­cause of some dis­hon­esty, and then, at the end, get back to­gether – but you also kind of sub­vert the genre in pointed ways. For one thing, they both screw up at dif­fer­ent times. How con­scious were you about the con­ven­tions you were break­ing?

Nan­jiani: I love ro­man­tic come­dies, but I find so many of them are about one char­ac­ter [mess­ing] up and then learn­ing to apol­o­gize. Real life re­la­tion­ships are much more in­ter­est­ing. It’s not like any­body’s the bad guy or the good guy. Every­body’s screw­ing up, and every­body’s be­ing the good guy, and there’s a lot of ne­go­ti­a­tion go­ing on. We wanted our movie to re­ally cap­ture that. I think in most rom-coms, the en­tire point is whether they’re go­ing to get to­gether or not. We wanted to do a movie where even if they don’t get to­gether, it’s not re­ally es­sen­tial, right? By the end, there’s so much go­ing on. There’s her sick­ness, there’s her —

Gor­don: — Whether or not they’re get­ting back to­gether is al­most like, “OK.” Yeah. It’s a nice ic­ing on top.

Nan­jiani: It’s my re­la­tion­ship with my par­ents; it’s her par­ents’ re­la­tion­ship with each other; it’s her re­la­tion­ship with her par­ents. There’s a lot of other stuff. Most rom­coms are just about two peo­ple get­ting to­gether or not. We wanted to make a movie where that was just one of the 10 things.

I ap­pre­ci­ated that you kept clos­ing scenes out be­fore what would nor­mally be the emo­tional cli­max of a given sit­u­a­tion. Ku­mail’s emo­tional hospi­tal bed mono­logue gets cut off after only a cou­ple of sen­tences, for ex­am­ple.

Nan­jiani: Hon­estly, I had this prob­lem when we were writ­ing the movie. I would write these com­plete scenes, and my act­ing teacher was like, “Sup­pose you have two dumplings and you want a third. That’s how ev­ery scene should end with, like you are want­ing an­other dumpling.”

Gor­don: You would al­ways rather leave [the au­di­ence] want­ing more than give them more than they wanted. I also think, in some of those scenes, there are no words that could be per­fect. Not that I don’t think we’re great writ­ers, but there are no words that would be the per­fect words. It’s bet­ter for you to just like, “God, I wish I could be in on that.” That scene in Lost in Trans­la­tion, where —

Nan­jiani: You don’t hear what … yeah.

Gor­don: He goes up and whis­pers. Per­fect. Every­one re­mem­bers that be­cause we don’t have any idea.

Nan­jiani: My fa­vorite end­ings of movies are those that feel like, “Wait, what? It’s done? Ah, that was good.”

It’s not a par­tic­u­larly po­lit­i­cal film, at least overtly, but a movie about a sec­u­lar dude from a strict Mus­lim fam­ily fall­ing in love with some­one out­side his par­ents’ faith seems pretty pre­scient given our cur­rent cli­mate.

Nan­jiani: I’m so happy, hon­estly, that all this stuff wasn’t go­ing on when we were mak­ing it.

Gor­don: It would’ve af­fected us too much. We would’ve tried too hard to make a state­ment had we known. We were just telling a story, and this is how the ac­tual peo­ple are, and hope­fully, if you find your­self be­ing able to re­late to a per­son who is on pa­per very un­like you, I think that’s a lovely mo­ment.

Nan­jiani: It’s not a po­lit­i­cal film, and it’s go­ing to be seen as a po­lit­i­cal film be­cause of the cli­mate in which it’s com­ing up. I’ll see peo­ple who are like, “Look at this pro­pa­ganda — ”

Gor­don: “They’re try­ing to shove their life­style down our throats.” We’re like, “Life­style? What are you talk­ing about?”

Nan­jiani: If the most rad­i­cal thing that you can imag­ine is show­ing a Mus­lim per­son as a hu­man be­ing, then you re­ally have is­sues.

Co­me­dian Ku­mail Nan­jiani plays a ver­sion of him­self and Holly Hunter plays his girl­friend’s mother in Michael Showal­ter’s The Big Sick, which was writ­ten by Nan­jiani and his wife, Emily V. Gor­don, and based on their courtship.

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