Incubating The Big Sick
THE BIG SICK began with a big opportunity for actor and writer Kumail Nanjiani,
the kind that only strikes once.
In 2012, Judd Apatow was at the annual South by Southwest Festival for the
premiere of "Girls," the new series featuring the relatively unknown
writer/director/star Lena Dunham when he was asked to guest on "You Made It
Weird," a conversational podcast featuring stand-up comedians hosted by Pete
Holmes. Apatow had never heard the show but he had just worked with one of the
other guests: Nanjiani, who had a small role in The Five Year Engagement, a
soon-to-be-released romantic comedy Apatow produced. It sounded like a good
The 90-minute show flew by and as it did, Apatow and Nanjiani bonded over their
various shared interests. Apatow has long made a practice of developing projects
with and for comedians, so Nanjiani didn't take it lightly when Apatow
subsequently contacted his manager to propose a meeting.
"I was thrilled of course," Nanjiani recalls. "And then I was terrified. Judd
and I had gotten along so great at South by Southwest, I thought I could only
mess it up from here."
Out of the five ideas Nanjiani brought to Apatow for that meeting, one story
idea he had suggested otherwise - and surprisingly, it was one that came
straight from real life: the unlikely story of what unfolded from the day his
real-life wife Emily Gordon heckled him during his stand-up set in Chicago to
the wild ride that eventually led to their marriage.
Nanjiani was back a month later to meet with Apatow and producer Barry Mendel --
Apatow's collaborator on Funny People, Bridesmaids, This Is 40 and Trainwreck,
as well as a two-time Oscar-nominated producer (The Sixth Sense, Best Picture,
1999; Munich, Best Picture, 2005) of influential films ranging from Wes
Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore to Steven Spielberg's Munich and M.
Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense -- to tell his story.
It was 2006 and Pakistan-born Nanjiani was living in Chicago, building his
career as a stand-up, while Gordon had earned her masters in couples and family
counseling and was just starting her career as a therapist. Though neither one
was looking to be in a relationship, from the moment they met, they enjoyed
being together too much to break it off. Yet things were complicated - largely
because Nanjiani hailed from a conservative Muslim family and his parents
expected him to enter into a traditional Pakistani arranged marriage.
Nanjiani and Gordon dated for a few months, both of them ignoring that dilemma,
while Kumail kept promising his parents that he would marry someone they chose.
Emily was still a secret to them when she suddenly became gravely ill in the
spring of 2007. Doctors placed her in an induced coma as a life-saving measure
while they scrambled to figure out what was wrong.
The experience crystallized everything for Nanjiani. "I hadn't been thinking
about marriage before Emily got sick," he says. "But looking at Emily when she
was put into the coma, I thought to myself, 'If she comes out of this, I'm going
to marry her.' It was more of the type of thing you feel but don't completely
register in all the madness that is going on at the hospital. But there it was."
He rode out the crisis alongside Gordon's parents, who came in from North
Carolina. After 12 days, doctors successfully diagnosed Gordon and brought her
out of the coma. Three months later, Nanjiani and Gordon were married.
To illustrate his story during his meeting with Apatow and Mendel, Nanjiani
brought along various mementos, including his hospital visitor IDs, that he had
saved throughout Gordon's illness.
Apatow had never heard anything quite like Nanjiani's story. "I thought it was
incredible -- I've never heard of falling in love with someone while they're in
a coma," Apatow describes. "It was not only true and it was also so heartfelt --
and it was set in the world of stand-up comics, which has always fascinated me."
Mendel, too, was awestruck by the tale. "Our jaws were just on the floor," he
recalls. "We came out of the meeting and, even though Kumail wasn't a big star
yet, Judd and I both looked at each other and said 'this is an incredible story,
we've got to do it.' Kumail's story was gut-wrenching and funny and challenging
and beautiful, which is everything we all want movies to be that they seldom
are. I said I thought we'd be crazy not to throw ourselves into it and Judd felt
With Apatow and Mendel urging him to write, Nanjiani knew he was facing the
challenge of his life. "I was excited but I was also petrified," he confesses.
"I hadn't really grappled with the emotional experience of her illness yet. But
it had been five years and the timing felt right. I think there's a window when
you still remember all the feelings and still feel them, but you have enough
distance that you can break them down and get some perspective on them. You
don't want to wait so long that the feelings go away."
Meanwhile, as he's done since his stand-up years, Nanjiani asked Gordon to read
his work-in-progress. Gordon, a published author and contributor to The
Huffington Post, The New York Times, GQ, Lenny and Rookie, gave notes and
contributed her own recollection of events. "I was getting such great notes," he
remembers, "a little bit into the process I said 'we should write this
Gordon was surprised but delighted. "I honestly had not been thinking about it.
But once he said it, I was like, 'yeah, that would be pretty cool. I think it
would be an amazing experience.' And it was."
Recalls Mendel: ""We'd gotten a full draft or two from Kumail, and he was great
at capturing his own pathos and these really funny situations that occur where
you wouldn't think they would, but there was still a dimensionality we all
recognized wasn't fully coming through yet. Then Kumail turned in a draft where
that self-same dimensionality was suddenly sprouting up all over. We noticed on
the cover page that Emily was now writing with him - and the difference was
The couple spent three years developing the script in close collaboration with
Apatow and Mendel, writing dozens of versions and figuring out how to shape the
material. As Gordon explains, "There were so many ways to go, because there were
different angles to the story: a struggling comedian; a guy with a Muslim family
living in America; a guy with a sick girlfriend. So there was a lot to circle
"We pushed them really hard and there were times we wondered whether they would
keep at it," said Mendel, "but they did. They would do a draft and be all
excited about it thinking 'OK, now we're really getting somewhere' only to
receive an even bigger set of notes than they got from the last draft. And that
went on for two full years. But it's not unusual. Often times, making one aspect
of the script better only removes the obstacle to seeing where you really need
The couple stayed in broadly autobiographical territory to center the narrative
of THE BIG SICKon Kumail, a native of Pakistan trying to make it as a
professional stand-up in Chicago. A world-class compartmentalizer, Kumail
scrupulously maintains a line between his dual lives: one as a striving young
comic who lives in a crummy apartment and brings home the occasional girl; and
another as the adored younger son of observant Muslim parents. His parents try
to adjust to his comedy career, in part because Kumail has given them no reason
to believe that he won't eventually pursue a more serious one and enter into a
traditional Pakistani marriage.
As Nanjiani sees it, Kumail hasn't yet grappled with the idea that the person he
was raised to be in one culture isn't necessarily the person he's becoming in a
different culture. Says Nanjiani, "The world of Kumail's parents is totally
different from the world of Emily and his comedian friends. He is a totally
different person in each of those different worlds -- and that's not a good way
to live. That became the core of the movie: someone trying to figure out how to
Meeting Emily at one of his stand-up shows starts him on that journey. She is
studying to be a therapist; she genuinely likes and cares about people -- and
can read them, too. Nanjiani describes the two main characters as we first meet
them, "The film's Emily is smart, strong, very funny and a straight shooter. The
Kumail at the beginning of the movie is a child. He is terrified to make any
decisions, to put himself out there. He's working really hard to not have to fix
the problems in his life."
The progression of their relationship echoes that of their real-life
counterparts, who started dating with the intentions of keeping things casual.
Says Gordon, "For the movie, it made sense that they would start off on equal
footing in that neither one of them are looking for anything serious, but it
kind of happens anyway. I always love it in a movie when people have certain
intentions and their emotions get the best of them."
Emily's initial attempts to not hang out with Kumail romantically have their
counterpart in Kumail's "two-day rule" limiting how much time they can spend
together. "The two-day rule was a real thing," she affirms. "But I kept noticing
that Kumail's actions didn't match his words, but in a good direction. I
thought, 'this is odd. He's saying things that should be scaring me away but the
way he's treating me is not like that at all.'"
Nanjiani wanted to channel the spirit of his own family in portraying the
playful, jokey atmosphere that prevails during Kumail's visits with his parents
Azmat and Sharmeen, older brother Naveed and sister-in-law Fatima. "The dinner
scene in the film is exactly how dinners with my family are. There are five
different conversations going on, people are talking over each other and
everyone's very loud," says Nanjiani. "It was important that each relationship
be specific and unique, so that it wasn't just one family unit. My relationship
with my dad is different from the one with my mom, from the one with my brother
etc. We wanted to make sure that audience understood that from the very first
dinner scene. That's one scene that stayed pretty much intact through all the
It felt good to write what they knew, says Gordon. "Often in movies and TV, when
you see Muslim families they're deadly serious. It's all about 'focus on your
studies,' things like that. But just because they have expectations doesn't mean
you don't have fun with your family. And that's the reality of Kumail's family.
They annoy you and they're weird but they're also hilarious and dear."
But it took time for Nanjiani and Gordon to get their footing in portraying
their lives for the screen. Staying true to events exactly as they occurred
didn't always suit the larger purpose of making a movie, and the pair also
received a lot of good advice along the way from Apatow and Mendel. "Judd helped
us break out of our experience to construct a story that people would watch and
identify with," Nanjiani explains. "The idea was
to take something that happened and distill it down to its essence. As long as
that event feels grounded, you can take it to new places."
Apatow stressed the same principle for the story's characterizations of Beth and
Terry Gardner, who rush to Chicago from their home in North Carolina when their
only child falls ill. Apart from geography and concern for their child, the
Gardners have little in common with Gordon's real-life parents. "My parents have
their quirks but they're basically a lovely, happily married couple who were
very focused on their daughter," says Gordon. "So Judd said, 'here's what you
start with. Who are the worst people for this character of Kumail to be stuck in
a hospital with for days or weeks? What's the absolute worst version? And then
you kind of calibrate it from there.' Which was a really fun idea. We started
thinking: what if Kumail, who's not a very open communicator, is stuck with
people who are an extreme version of Emily, always, always wanting to dig into
Writing the second act of the film, when Emily is in a coma, was an illuminating
experience for both Nanjiani and Gordon. Says Gordon, "My perspective for a
large part of what happens in this movie is nothing, because I was asleep. I had
some weird coma dreams, but I wasn't there for a lot of it. I had to learn about
what that experience was like for him in a way that I hadn't before. It was
really lovely, and kind of amazing, scary and weird. And he never fully
understood my perspective, because he couldn't. And I couldn't experience what
he went through, either."
Emotionally, their experiences were at opposite ends of the spectrum, Nanjiani
notes. "When Emily was in the coma, that was the hardest time for her parents
and me. She doesn't remember it. When she was awake, for us that was the happy
time. For her it was awful because she was in such pain. Getting that
perspective was very helpful in seeing where the character of Emily would be.
Her parents and Kumail think the worst is over, but for her, she's miserable.
That disconnect in perspective is a major part of how the movie resolves
From the outset Nanjiani had some specific ideas about what he wanted to say in
THE BIG SICK. "At its most basic, I wanted this movie to be about people trying
to connect and the things that get in the way of that -- generational
differences, religion, cultural, whatever it is. And how messy it is just to be
person and live in a society and have different beliefs."
Throughout the writing process, it was important to the filmmakers to show both
sides of the complicated issues surrounding arranged marriages. Says Nanjiani,
"So often in movies, the disapproving parents are portrayed as Old World types
who don't understand the modern ways or don't believe in love. We didn't want to
do that. We wanted the audience to see things from their perspective, which is a
compelling one. That felt very three-dimensional. It felt like there are no
Indeed, in the film, Kumail's brother Naveed confesses to Kumail that while he
pursued relationships with other women when he was younger, Fatima, his wife via
an arranged marriage, has become his best friend and loving partner. For him,
the process of not getting to know her beforehand only added to his sense of
gratitude and fulfillment that the old way worked.
Nanjiani had some trepidation when it came to addressing religion, another area
where Kumail diverges from his parents. Apatow wouldn't let him off the hook,
though. As he recalls, "Every time we'd hand in a script, Judd would say, 'What
about religion?' I'd say, 'I don't know Judd, I don't want to tackle that
stuff.' He told me, 'You don't have to tackle it. Just talk about how you feel
about it. You don't have to have a point to make about religion. You can just
say, it's complicated.'"
For Mendel, the screenplay digs beneath the surface to what really binds
families together, even when religious and cultural taboos are broken.
"We wanted to delve as deeply as possible into the discomfort of beliefs not
shared," comments Mendel. "That is the crux of this family story: which is
stronger, love or beliefs? It's easy to say love should be stronger but in
practice it's not so simple. Kumail's parents are correct when they call him out
on being selfish and misunderstanding the American dream. Usually in these types
of stories the parents' POV is 'tradition' but that never cuts deep, at least
with me. I always ask 'yes, but why should we follow the tradition?' Kumail's
parents have good answers, and that enriches the story."
Watching Nanjiani find his own strong, original voice was especially exciting.
Sums up Mendel: "It was witnessing somebody in the process of becoming. He
became so willing to delve into parts of himself he's not proud of and reveal
them in a way that is brave, cool and funny. It became a story where you see
someone grow in a very authentic way. It's very intense stuff and the fact that
this team was able to make comedy from it is really a testament to Kumail and to
the talent of everyone involved. The world feels so divided now and this movie
is about people coming together."