It’s no secret that we love The Big Sick here at BMD. Original and incisive, heartwarming and impossibly funny, The Big Sick also manages to be as timely as a film could possibly be, this beautiful answer to a year that’s been beset with disheartening politics and headlines that make you want to hide in bed until 2020. It’s without doubt my favorite movie of the year so far, and if you haven’t yet seen it, SEE IT. Do yourself this favor and fall in love with Emily and Kumail and their wonderful, complicated, hilarious families.
The Big Sick has a lot of impressive credentials attached to it: it’s directed by Michael Showalter, produced by Judd Apatow, and it’s starring and co-written by Kumail Nanjiani, who is rightfully being lauded as a breakout star thanks to his lovely and wry performance. He stars alongside Zoe Kazan as Emily, and she’s so great in the film, a meaningful presence even when the character’s illness takes her off-screen for a significant portion of the running time.
But what of the real Emily? The Big Sick is produced and co-written by Emily V. Gordon, about the early days of her real-life romance with husband Nanjiani. Gordon is a former therapist, a fave podcast mainstay, co-creator of The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail, and author of the ridiculously fun and empowering book Super You: Release Your Inner Superhero (read it!).
And she’s the inspiration behind Kazan’s Emily – which checks out, since Gordon’s been inspiring women for years with her writing, humor and the invariably wise guidance she offers on her Tumblr.
So she’s a lot of things – but there’s one thing she isn’t. When asked if she’d ever considered portraying The Big Sick’s Emily herself, she answered without hesitation.
Never. Never did it enter my mind. I wanted the movie to be good! I'm not an actress, and plus I think it would have been very strange and unsettling, both for us and for viewers, to watch an actual couple go through an actual life experience again on camera.
Can you imagine casting a version of yourself, or your parents? Although Gordon’s gone on the record that the remarkable Ray Romano and Holly Hunter aren’t strictly playing her parents, it’s still a tricky endeavor, finding the right performers to represent yourself and your family onscreen. So what did Gordon look for in casting Emily, Terry and Beth?
I wanted the actors we cast for myself and my family to do exactly what they did - take the words on the page and create characters out of them. We wanted the characters of Emily's parents, unlike my own, to be the most difficult people for Kumail to be paired with. Holly and Ray ran away with their characters in the best way. And I wanted whoever played Emily to both take herself seriously and be really fun and funny (I feel like often female characters have to pick one or the other), and Zoe nailed that.
It's a challenge that wasn’t without its rewards. In talking about the process of writing The Big Sick, Gordon discussed what she learned about her parents and husband, the insight she gained into their perspective of her life-threatening illness.
I had talked to both Kumail and my parents about this experience, of course, but I hadn't really thought through how difficult it must have been for them to have to sit in a hospital all day wondering if I was going to make it. I didn't know the ins and outs of their days. And weirdly, this movie gave me permission to ask questions about everything. So that was nice.
As trying as casting herself and her parents onscreen must be, it’s certainly no more complicated than the titanic task of creating a cinematic version of her real-life romance, a story glittery enough to pass as a Hollywood romantic comedy while staying true to the heart of what Gordon and Nanjiani experienced. I asked Gordon if she found herself tempted, in the first drafts of the screenplay, to idealize their story in service of typical rom-com tropes.
I think it's easy to put a sparkly sheen on your own relationship in hindsight, and that's often been my approach in past relationships. But we were pretty direct and realistic in this relationship, and we tried to be pretty direct and realistic in the movie, too. We specifically wanted to focus on the more non-standard markers of intimacy in a relationship, like going to the grocery store together, or needing to handle normal bodily functions when you're sleeping over. The movie was always intended to be as messy as any actual relationship actually is - moving in fits and starts, weird and lovely and awkward at times.
The one thing that is idealized is that in the movie, Kumail writes Emily's name in Urdu on a napkin when they first meet and she calls him on it being a ‘move,’ when in reality I completely fell for that move. Like, hook, line and sinker. That was one thing I wanted to rewrite in our history.
The Big Sick is significant, but it’s also just extremely fun entertainment, a piece of hilarious and current pop culture, a charming rom-com you can (and should!) watch with your mom. I asked Emily about her favorite romantic comedies, and if any of them influenced her writing of The Big Sick.
I have more experience with the big tentpole romantic comedies, rather than every single rom-com. I actually used to do a (poorly attended) workshop in NYC about how romantic comedies are ruining how we experience relationships, so I have had some issues with how I internalized the tropes of rom-coms a bit too much. That's my fault and their fault. I really love Say Anything, because it's a rom-com that's also about family. I love Better Off Dead because it's about one guy's struggle with depression and the problem with thinking your girlfriend is a dream girl (but it's also just ridiculously funny). I love Boomerang because I think it's the best ‘the player has to grow up when he gets played’ movie. While writing and rewriting our movie, we watched Broadcast News and Tootsie and Four Weddings and a Funeral quite a bit.
And one of my favorite scenes in The Big Sick is when Kumail makes Emily watch The Abominable Dr. Phibes and stares at her throughout it, gauging her reaction. It's just such a dude move that rings incredibly true to probably every woman who’s ever been on a date with a pop culture-obsessed guy. But it’s a test that goes both ways, so I wanted to know if Gordon had a pop culture test of her own for potential boyfriends when she was single.
The main two pop culture trinkets I like to introduce dudes to are The Adventures of Pete and Pete and Heathers. Those two things shaped me quite a bit, and they are things that a lot of dudes haven't seen. (OF COURSE THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS, DON'T AT ME BROS)
Don’t at Emily, bros! But do see her movie, read her book, follow her on Twitter and watch this fun video she filmed with the Alamo, in which she discusses what movie she’d like to remake, her favorite Hollywood line, her most embarrassing movie moment and more: