Kumail Nanjiani (‘The Big Sick’): ‘How do you take a year of your real life and turn it into a movie?’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Write what you know. That’s the mantra many successful writers for novels, films, and television have said for decades. Stand-up comedian and “Silicon Valley” actor Kumail Nanjiani took that advice and co-wrote the movie “The Big Sick” with his wife Emily V. Gordon this past year. He stars in the lead role opposite Zoe Kazan, who plays someone similar to his own wife. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano co-star in the comedy, which was a big hit this year on the big screen and now on-demand and DVD.

Watch our fun webchat hosted by Gold Derby’s senior editor Daniel Montgomery with Nanjiani above or read the complete interview transcript below. It was recorded weeks before the entire cast was nominated for the upcoming Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Gold Derby: Kumail Nanjiani, you star in “The Big Sick,” which you also co-wrote with your wife, Emily Gordon, and it’s inspired by your relationship and then her illness that took place. How different was this experience compared to other writing you’ve done, like standup?

Kumail Nanjiani: Well it’s very different because standup, you write it in little chunks, so you write a five-minute thing or a six-minute thing and then you go try it and if it doesn’t work you rewrite it and you do it again. But with a movie, you’re writing a huge chunk of something and then there’s no real testing it. There’s no real reworking it. Once it’s done it’s done, so it’s different in that structuring a movie is so much more complicated than structuring a standup, and in standup you just have to be funny. If you’re funny, you’re successful, if you’re not funny, you’re not successful. With our movie we wanted to be funny but it needed to hit so many other targets so it was just a lot more challenging but also ultimately a lot more satisfying.

GD: What was the biggest challenge when it came to turning this story into a screenplay?

KN: I mean, how do you take a year of your real life and turn it into a movie that’s gonna be movie-length? There were a couple challenges. One, it’s hard to get objectivity. It’s hard to know what’s part of the story and what’s not and a lot of that is just rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. That’s how the movie sort of comes into focus and that’s what we did. We wrote hundreds of drafts and each draft got us closer to the movie but it really wasn’t until three or four moths out of shooting that we were like, “I think we really get the tone of this movie.” So the rewrites in the last three or four months were very, very significant in helping us get to the movie we wanted to make. Then the other thing that’s challenging is you’re revisiting parts of your life that are very traumatic, very difficult, so you’re having to relive and really, really think about the worst moments of your life, really having to think about them and write them. So it’s challenging. You kind of have to excavate yourself.

GD: And then with those traumatic experiences, also to inject the humor that you get from this film, what was it like developing that sense of humor with these very serious and often traumatic circumstances?

KN: We knew from the beginning that we wanted the movie to be a comedy. I’m a comedy writer, Emily’s written for comedies, and so we knew that we wanted the movie to be a comedy and from the beginning we knew that that was one of the big challenges. How do you take something that wasn’t funny to live through and make it a funny movie with jokes? And we knew… everyone says things have to be grounded, things have to be grounded but we knew it truly had to be. We couldn’t have one joke that was too much or that broke the reality. You always have to have the sense that there’s a young woman in a life or death situation, and you can’t lose that reality of it. So every joke has to always go back to that really pretty significant reality. So we knew that all the jokes had to come from character or situation, and the situation is a woman’s in a coma.

And then, I knew that the basic construction of it, comedy is a person dealing with a situation that they’re not ready to deal with, that’s kind of what this movie is. We’re dealing with the coma of a loved one, that we’re not ready to deal with, so I knew at its most basic it had a comedic construction. We just had to be make sure the jokes serviced the reality rather than puncturing the reality, and it was a lot of trial and error. We would write jokes and we would see, “Okay, does this joke feel real? Does it feel like it comes from character in situation?” It was just that, and honestly I was a little surprised at how many more jokes we were able to do in the movie than I thought. Any time something serious happens you could do a joke and you realize that the humor and the drama really work together. If someone’s feeling emotional you can do a joke ‘cause they’re open and they’re surprised by it, and humor has to come from surprise, so it worked that way, and if someone’s laughing they’re not expecting to have an emotional reaction immediately afterward. They really go hand in hand really, really well as long as you don’t puncture the reality with any of the jokes.

GD: Another interesting aspect of the film was casting your wife in this film, who, ultimately the role went to Zoe Kazan. What was it like casting your wife with your wife who co-wrote the film with you?

KN: it actually wasn’t as weird as it could have been. We auditioned a lot of actresses and they were all really, really good but Zoe was just right. It has to be someone who has that quality where they’re so energetic, they have this life essence that when she’s in a coma, it has to really be devastating. Seeing her in the coma has to feel so counter to everything she is as person. It can’t be someone who’s a low-energy person. It has to be someone who’s really, really alive and full of life and Zoe had that. And then it wasn’t so weird because we really became really good friends and her and Emily became really good friends so I think the weirdest thing about it was how not weird it was. And we weren’t trying to recreate my relationship with my wife. We wrote a character of Emily and I was trying to have my character have a relationship with this character as played by Zoe that we’ve written. So it actually wasn’t as weird as I thought it was gonna be.

GD: And you’re playing a version of yourself in the film. Is that easier or in any way harder than playing a completely fictional character?

KN: I prepared for it the way I would prepare for any acting role in that you sort of look at the character, you figure out what his problems are, and that was easier to figure out because we’d written the movie. I had sort of arced out the whole thing with little steps, like, here’s a little step where he changes, here’s a little step where he changes, here’s a little step where he changes. So I sort of did the work that I would do doing any acting job but while acting sometimes it really felt like I was going back to what it felt like to live through that stuff. So it was good in that I was able to use the experiences I had to give a more natural performance but it’s tough in that again, you’re reliving some pretty traumatic experiences of your life. So I would say the prep of it was like any other job but then sometimes during the acting it just felt more personal.

GD: Was it a cathartic experience to shoot it, like did it give you any new insights into that experience that you didn’t even have maybe at the time it was happening?

KN: Oh yeah, definitely. It was certainly very cathartic. It was very therapeutic ‘cause we’d lived through this thing and it was a difficult thing to think about so we sort of had this, to me it was always this weird black box, so everything that had happened, that was the time Emily was in a coma. That was what that was and I wouldn’t really think about it too much other than that headline. But writing this movie you’re forced to open that box and go through and try and remember what it felt like specifically, to live through it day to day moment to moment, what each conversation felt like, what the fears were, what gave me solace, what gave me comfort, what the nights felt like, what the days felt like. Was I sleeping? What was I eating? So you really have to go through and really, really excavate all those memories, and ultimately I think that was very therapeutic because you kind of have to go through traumatic experiences and deal with all of them individually and I hadn’t really done that until we wrote this movie and the process of that started as we were writing the movie and it didn’t end until we were done editing the movie. I feel like that whole situation has a lot less power over me. Used to be I would think about it and I would get paralyzed and now I feel like it’s a lot more… I can just deal with it more. And it’s because I was forced to really, in some ways, relive it and reconsider it and rethink everything.

GD: Another important aspect of the film is that it explores the cultural differences between the two characters. It explores your Pakistani family and heritage and how that often comes into conflict with Emily over the course of the film. How much of that family dynamic and experience came directly from your own life and your own family?

KN: A lot of it did. Almost too much of it. There are lines that my parents in the movie say to me that my parents have said to me in real life, so all of that stuff. You heighten some things and you take some things away, but overall it all comes from a real place. When Emily and I were first dating my parents were trying to get me arrange-married to someone who was Pakistani. Not a specific person, but I would get these emails and phone calls from my mom so it’s all pretty real and then the threat of them never talking to me, that was real too. A lot of it comes from autobiographical experience.

GD: The film is directed by Michael Showalter who is also a comedian, who wrote “Wet Hot American Summer” among many other things. How did he come to direct the film and come to be the right person for this project?

KN: So one of my first jobs was I wrote for a show called “Michael and Michael Have Issues,” which was Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter had a show on Comedy Central, I think like 2008 or 2009. So I wrote on that show and I had a small part on that show, so that was my first actual job in show business. That show only lasted like seven episodes but we stayed in touch, and then he asked me to be in his movie, have a small part on his movie, “Hello, My Name Is Doris,” which is a Sally Field movie if you haven’t seen it. It’s fantastic. I did that movie and then we’d sort of done the script and we were looking for a director for it and Michael sent me a link to “Hello, My Name Is Doris” and Emily and I watched on our laptop in our hotel room. We were somewhere, I forget where. Both of us were like, “Hey, I think he’s kind of the perfect guy for it ‘cause that movie has such a great mix of goofy humor but then also very emotional. It’s really moving.” We kind of felt like he might be right for it. Then Judd [Apatow] watched his movie too and Judd fell in love with it as well, so we sent Mike the script and Mike called me and said that he had liked it and I was like, “Alright well let’s all meet.”

So it was me, Emily, Barry Mendel, Judd and Mike and we met and Mike came in and he was so prepared. He’d done so much work. He was like, “I think this is what this movie’s about. I think this is the tone of it.” Immediately, after the four of us, he was the fifth person to join our group who completely got the movie exactly. It was amazing. The movie that Emily and I wanted to make, Mike was like, in our heads. He knew exactly the type of thing we wanted to do. So that meeting was so good that we started working with him that day. We literally started working him that afternoon. We just felt like it’s so rare to have someone who’s really funny but can also do really emotional stuff and that’s what we wanted the movie to be. We wanted the movie to be really emotional but also really funny. He was perfect for it.

GD: The film got really positive reviews when it opened and then when it opened wide you tried to respond on Twitter to everyone who saw it that weekend. On social media that seems like a really risky proposition. How did that go?

KN: I had a very busy couple days. I don’t know why I decided to do that. I didn’t know what was gonna happen. Actually it ended up being really fun. I was just at my computer all day for two days except we’d have Q&As at night or something. I was literally just responding, responding, responding, responding. I responded to hundreds and hundreds of people. It was actually really moving to hear from people having a reaction to the movie right as they walked out. Ultimately it was a really, really positive lovely experience ‘cause I was connecting with these people. ‘Cause we worked on this movie for so long and nobody had seen it. Only we had seen so to have so many people see it and to have a conversation, a very quick conversation but a conversation with so many of them was really overwhelming. It was beautiful.

GD: How do you think that would have gone differently if you had had the 280 characters back then?

KN: (Laughs.) I don’t think it would have gone that differently. I don’t think I had time to craft long responses. But I really did respond to every person. I didn’t have any stock responses or anything. I think some were longer than others but I really tried to respond to each person honestly and the best I could. But I don’t think I would’ve hit 280 characters because… I think Twitter with 280 characters is a mistake anyway. I haven’t had a tweet that’s gone over 140 and I’m sticking to it.

GD: Me personally using Twitter I just don’t know what to do with that extra space. It just seems like, I used to want more and now it’s just like, “What do I do with this?”

KN: It’s too much! It feels like you’re not using it. We don’t need it.

GD: Another big portion of the film, of course, is Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Emily’s parents. What was it like casting them and working with them?

KN: So Holly Hunter was the one who was cast right after Zoe, and Judd brought her up. Judd was like, “I think it should be Holly Hunter,” and we were like, “Yes, of course. It should be Holly Hunter.” But she was our first choice. We were lucky, all the people you mentioned were our first choice. And with Holly, we sent her the script and we had a bunch of conversations with her about it before she agreed to do the movie. She had thought on the movie and we said, “We’re gonna make sure that all your thoughts are considered and that we’re gonna work with you on this. We’re gonna make sure that this is a character that you really, really feel close to.” And so Holly, I’ve been a fan of hers forever, so she was obviously the best person for it.

And then Ray Romano, again, Judd has this great idea where he was like, “I think Ray and Holly would make a great onscreen couple ‘cause they’re so different. They’re such different energies. But it kind of makes sense, the way that they would work together, the energies kind of make sense.” We were like, “I think that’s right.” A lot of people know Ray from “Everybody Loves Raymond,” but he does a lot of stuff, but even in “Everybody Loves Raymond” his performance is very real for a multicam sitcom in front of a live audience. His performance is very, very real and I feel like there’s a melancholy to him, there’s a sadness to him I always found very appealing that we felt would be a very interesting shade to the character of Terry, Emily’s dad. We were very lucky that they all wanted to do it, they were our first choice. Both of those sort of came from Judd.

GD: Well I wanna congratulate you on the film and the success its had and the success hopefully it will continue to have over the course of the season. Thank you so much for talking to me today.

KN. Well thank you for talking to me. I appreciate it.

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