“Silicon Valley” star Kumail Nanjiani and writer Emily V. Gordon didn’t just collaborate on the screenplay for “The Big Sick,” the Judd Apatow-produced charmer that stole hearts at Sundance: The pair put their own real-life romance on-screen for all the world to see in the semi-autobiographical comedy, which Amazon acquired for $12 million and opens in limited release this weekend.
Directed by Michael Showalter (“Wet Hot American Summer,” “Hello, My Name Is Doris”), “The Big Sick” stars Nanjiani as a slightly fictionalized version of himself opposite Zoe Kazan as Emily, a Chicago grad student who meets cute with the struggling stand-up comedian one night when she heckles him onstage.
Nakedly honest dating ups and downs ensue as she navigates her own priorities and he fields pressure from the Pakistani parents determined to rope him into an arranged marriage, until an unexpected medical crisis forces Kumail to spend time with Emily’s parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter).
So what advice do Nanjiani and Gordon have for staying happy while putting their own real-life relationship on-screen, warts and all? After 11 eleven years together — or 10ten, depending on who you ask — the “Big Sick” couple shared their secrets via phone from New York.
1. Agree to disagree on the details when you’re mining your shared history for a compelling screen story.
“It’s a fictionalized version of what happened,” said Gordon, a writer, comedy producer, and onetime therapist. “So whenever we were talking through a scene and had disagreements about what happened, we decided that needed to be incorporated into the movie itself. That’s part of what a relationship is; you don’t experience things in the same way.”
“We literally had different emotional experiences of the same events in our lives. Sometimes he would remember more details and sometimes I would remember more because they were more salient to me. But it was always the emotional radius of events that we’d agree or disagree about.”
“And how we experienced them,” added Nanjiani. “Some things, I’d be like, ‘That was such a great memory!’ and she’d say, ‘No — I was miserable!’ There was a lot of that.”
2. Have Judd Apatow produce the (fictionalized) story of your lives.
“He was fantastic,” said Gordon of comedy superproducer Apatow, who worked with the pair from the script stage. “What he wanted us to do first was to literally write down everything that happened, make it messy — it didn’t matter how long it was. That’s a movie that no one should ever see. It would be very long and not a fun movie.”
When on-screen Emily succumbs to a mystery illness and is hospitalized (a true story), Kumail awkwardly bonds with her visiting parents shortly after breaking things off with her (which didn’t exactly happen).
“The challenge for us was conveying all of the turmoil that me and Emily’s parents were going through,” Nanjiani explained of the dramatic license they took. “If you want other people to feel the weight of it, you kind of have to make it external.”
“We’re sitting in a waiting room feeling like the world is going to end — but that’s not very cinematic. For people to actually feel that you have to heighten certain things, move them around, take some stuff out. Our goal was always to get at the emotional core of that experience, and the changes we made were to serve that goal.”
3. Cast for the movie versions of yourselves (and don’t make it weird).
Kazan landed the role of Emily after an audition process that Gordon opted not to attend “because I thought that might be weird for those actresses,” she said. “But when we watched the tapes, Zoe was just the right fit for the part. She created this version of Emily that was somewhat similar to me but also her own creation.”
“It was quite easy, quite frankly. She clearly did the best job. I just had to put on my grown-up lady pants and say, ‘This is my job, to watch all these ladies flirt with my husband and figure out which one does it the best!’”
4. Prepare your relatives for the creative liberties you’ve taken with their on-screen counterparts before they see the film.
Gordon and Nanjiani talked their parents through the scripting process so that they were prepared to see very different versions of themselves in the final film.
“We didn’t want them to be surprised by anything in it,” said Gordon. “They were pretty well informed.! All sets of parents had seen the movie at home and all of them came to the premiere in New York. They’re parents! They love it, and they’re proud, and they’re weirded out and confused by the whole thing.”
For Nanjiani, writing about his relationship with his parents and his resistance to the traditional life they wanted for him brought him a better understanding of their motivations.
“The pressures were very, very intense, and around that time I was feeling like [my parents] were really pushing me to make a decision,” he said. “Writing my parents’ perspective, writing dialogue for them, gave me a new understanding. Just writing what they would say to me made me understand why they would say it to me. It was a challenge for them to be from such a completely different world and to try to bring a piece of that world here with them. I really understood their struggle much more than I had before.”
5. Remember that relationships take work — especially when you’re making a movie together — about your own lives.
“We touch on this in the movie and it’s also true of our marriage: No relationship is ever done — like, ‘Well, that’s good, I don’t have to worry about that now,’” said Gordon. “It’s a living thing that you kind of have to prune and take care of and address and realize that it’s always going to be growing on its own, whether or not you’re feeding and nurturing it. It’s a living thing.”
Nanjiani concurred: “It changes as you change. You evolve, and the relationship has to evolve too. For me that’s been the big epiphany of being with Emily for the last 11 years. And for us making this movie has been very exciting, but it’s also been a challenge so we’ve had to evolve our relationship to accommodate for it.”
“I think it’s always good to get into your partner’s mindset,” Gordon said, “or put yourself in their shoes and empathize with how things are for them, and we had the thrill and joy of having to do that professionally. I do highly recommend this as a form of couple’s therapy.”