The explosive Breakup Scene that drives all romantic comedies, the one so expected that it’s no longer a spoiler, happens in The Big Sick. But the stakes are graver than in your average rom-com. In this case, the leading man Kumail (played by Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani) is a Pakistani-American comedian who’s stuck between his parents’ desire for an arranged marriage and his desire to find love on his own. Problems arise when Kumail hides the truth from his girlfriend Emily (Zoe Kazan)—a character fashioned after Nanjiani’s actual wife and writing partner Emily V. Gordon—and Emily is too dazed by his dishonesty to understand his cultural struggles. Their conflict gets complicated when she falls ill and has to be placed in a medically-induced coma, all of which is based on the true love story of Nanjiani and Gordon.
During the press run for the Judd Apatow-produced film, in theaters this Friday, Nanjiani has insisted that it’s not intended as a “political statement” —“It is interesting that the movie is being seen in a different context than it was intended,” he told Variety. “Obviously it would be great if our movie came out and people didn’t see it as a political statement because it really isn’t. It is just a love story and a comedy.” Yet, the content and timing of its release makes it more than a simple love story. The Big Sick is a facsimile of real life in many ways, a film that for better or worse allows itself to be messy and its characters partially unlikable. The humor comes off quick and sharp (sometimes abrasively playing off stereotypes), largely thanks to Nanjiani’s subtlety; his character’s family, as well, fuels the best scenes.
But a movie about the politics of desire is destined to be as muddled and confusing as in real life (as in, maybe you’ll be frustrated and internally screaming at certain scenes). After watching a screening in early June, I left satisfied that a rom-com exists that’s not just about white people in love (well, it half is) and also left with questions. I got to ask some of those to Gordon at a junket in New York, where we spoke one-on-one about her writing process with Nanjiani and The Big Sick’s big picture.
JEZEBEL: I want to dive right into the central conflict of the movie, which is the cultural difference between this Pakistani American man and a white woman... I know it’s weird to be talking about your life story. How do you go about putting those difficult conversations in writing in a way that comes across honest?
EMILY V. GORDON: It definitely was a challenge. What was good is that none of the conversations that were had in the movie between Kumail and I, or between my parents, none of them had an element of hatred in them. They were all coming from a place of confusion more so than anger. The most angry conversation in the movie is the breakup between Kumail and Emily. That was definitely difficult. We both wrote versions of it, and then we shared our versions with each other, which is not how we did the rest of the scenes. Kumail and I had arguments similar to that [in real life] but never broke up. When you’re reliving arguments, you want to paint yourself as the good guy, but in that fight, they’re both kind of right and they’re both wrong. We didn’t want any of them to be the one who’s more correct or the one who’s like, you’re supposed to be on their side. I’ve talked to people and they’re like, “Emily’s such a bitch.” Or they’re like, “Kumail is an asshole in that scene.” And that’s how you’re supposed to see it. That took us both writing versions and having outside people that could help us mediate—that’s not the right word, but we wanted to make sure we had both sides.
I’m glad you mentioned the jerkish aspects of the lead characters, because I wanted to ask if they’re supposed to be unlikable in some way. There’s that element of, Okay, why is Emily so upset right now?
Yeah, we wanted it to be messy. Again, the whole idea of there’s no bad guys and there’s no good guy. They’re both messy people who sometimes overreact and sometimes do low-blows in arguments. ’Cause that is how we all are. There are people I love dearly that are awful to argue with because people contain multitudes. We wanted to make sure that was part of it, too.
I thought the big argument scene was effective in showing the tension in a relationship where privilege or ignorance kind of blinds people from seeing the other side. She doesn’t understand his culture of arranged marriage and he pushes back against her blind spot. He feels like he’s dealing with bigger issues. I feel like it’s one of the moments in the movie where the ignorance is played for drama instead of humor.
Yeah, I had to do a lot of work with myself to realize just how stupid I was early in our relationship and how I was coming at it from this blind spot of, like, Just tell your parents how you feel. We used to have several scenes that were leading up to that argument. We boiled it down to that one fight. I was so dumb about it. I really was. Because I come from a family where you’re supposed to rebel and that’s part of growing up and [I’m thinking], they’ll understand, they love you. Not even getting the tip of the iceberg of how complicated it was. I think it was a little difficult to “write myself.” There are still parts of me when I watch it and I’m like, no, no, but I understood later! But that’s where I was—not enough to break up with him about it, but that’s a shade of where I was. And where we wanted the character of Emily to be is kind of not understanding. Even now, after ten years, I have the tip of the iceberg. My job is to listen and understand the iceberg and that takes work. We wanted to show, if you want that to be an end result, you have to back it up. But it’s not always fun to watch.
Did you have any difficult new conversations with Kumail as you were writing?
That’s when I was kind of acknowledging I was a major dummy. And by the way, he’s not faultless. Instead of assuming that I could’ve handled [the arranged marriage talk] in small chunks, to keep me from all of it, it would’ve been nice for it to be more of a conversation. That’s the stuff we ended up talking about a lot while writing this. Like, “What were you thinking?” He’s like, “I just wasn’t thinking. I didn’t know what was going to happen.” And combining that with my blind spot was this perfect powder keg that for us, in real life, wasn’t as explosive but in the movie it makes this conflict way bigger.
The movie is obviously based on real life to certain degrees, but there is a long catalog of movies and rom-coms with male leads and this kind of idealizing of white women. I’m wondering if that trope was in your mind while writing and how you tried to navigate that space. Because that’s what people are going to think about, like, okay here’s another—
Brown guy falls in love with a white woman. Yeah. And what we’ve tried to say to that is, if we’re telling our story, this just is our story and so it’s hard to navigate. I understand it’s a thing that happens. This is also part of what happened in our lives. Part of it was making all the characters believable, as messy and unique as possible so that it doesn’t feel like a trope. And also making some of the women that he meets on his arranged marriage appointments very not cartoonish, but human beings, like, Maybe he should end up with this girl. Khadija, who he takes home in a scene later in the movie, literally as I was behind the monitors, I was like, “We should maybe rewrite and have them end up together...” Because she’s amazing, she’s stunning and also they had really amazing chemistry together.
That’s interesting that you thought about a different ending.
It was kind of a weird sensation to be like, Oh wait these two are great together. And that is a version of the movie. But if it was based on our story, which it is, [the movie] is how our story ended up. But we hope by adding in these characters that hopefully are fully realized, we show that it’s not that that was the only option he had. It’s that’s how he fell in love.
The Khadija story is a version of the movie probably a lot of people would have liked to see also.
I did find it a little disappointing that he was rejecting the women who looked like him. But then, that’s part of his disconnect with his family’s arranged marriage culture. It’s a complicated issue, when children of immigrants have to patch tradition with their modern desire to have a choice in their love life.
It’s very complicated.
So I’m curious what conversations around that were had, as far making sure that the movie is sensitive about his parents’ culture.
Obviously, Kumail can speak about it more because this is the culture he was raised in, but what I’ve learned is that my job is to listen. And my job is to raise up as many voices as I can that are telling these stories. As we’ve been doing press, I think the story of Khadija, that’d be a really super cool movie to do—what her experience is like. They may exist, but I haven’t personally seen a movie where a woman goes through the arranged marriage experience and willingly is ready to go for it. I’d love to see that, too. You can only write so much of what you know and what we know is what happened with us. But that stuff is so complicated, him meeting with women and whether or not the rejection is based on who the person is in front of him or what they’re representing in his brain.
But also, if there’s some element of self-hate—maybe not self-hate, but rebellion against your own culture that you don’t really understand.
That’s why I’ve learned, especially after this, my job is to listen and absorb. The movie we made is the movie we made, and any people being pleased with it or having issues with it, I get on both sides.
The movie kind of shows how cultural identity goes hand in hand with what it means to be American and what your parents consider American. There’s a part where he tells his parents, “Why did you bring me here if you wanted me not to have an American life?” There’s obviously now such a big conversation around immigration. I know Kumail said he wanted to stay away from putting a “political statement” behind the movie. But I’m curious what you think of the politics within the movie. It’s arguable that if you put your culture on screen it’s a political statement because you’re saying it matters.
Yeah, I think that was the main thing. We didn’t set out to make an inherently political movie at all. We just wanted to kind of tell this love story. As a white woman who was brought up in the South, I didn’t meet a Muslim until I was in college. And half my family is now Muslim. So up until then, my depiction of Muslims was on television and in pop culture, it wasn’t always a great depiction, almost never. I wanted to make sure Kumail’s family looked fun, because his actual family is fun and because Muslim families, they’re just like any other family. They’re fun, they’re annoying, they’re everything. That representation was very important to someone like me who growing up didn’t have Muslim people around me. What I had to go on was what’s on screen and I didn’t love what was on screen. I wanted [his family in the movie] to speak Urdu and have that not be something that’s nefarious. Because my family speaks Urdu when they’re hanging out. It was so important to see them. Unfortunately, the way pop culture is, just seeing them hanging out is inherently political when it shouldn’t be.
But that is. If that’s what it is. What we set out to do was showing a Muslim family just chilling, hanging out and having fun, and if that ends up being political, that’s fine, too. But it was more important to me to have a representation that I had not seen growing up that I now have in my personal life.
Do you think the timing of the release works for or against the movie?
I have no idea. [Laughs] I really don’t know. We had no thought in our head of what was gonna be happening. What I’m learning is I can’t control how people experience the movie or what they get out of it. I hope they get empathy out of it and I hope they have a good time at the movies. But I don’t know.
That empathy is important to telling love stories that aren’t traditional, the same ones we’ve seen in rom-coms. How do you feel this movie fits into the genre? Did you feel obligated to stick to the format?
We tried to pick parts of the format that we thought could help us. Because our director, Michael Showalter, has made two movies that deconstruct rom-coms, The Baxter and They Came Together. He loves rom-coms and he also loves picking them apart. Kumail loves rom-coms endlessly. I don’t.
I love them.
I love the big ones, but I definitely took all the wrong lessons to heart from them as a kid. I was a little more cynical towards them, so I have three or four that I love and then the rest I’m like, ugh. So we all knew the tropes enough that we knew we wanted to pick and choose from them and not actively avoid other ones. Like, we wanted him to make a big gesture when he comes to the party and has all these weird accessories that he’s brought and I really wanted that to not work. I wanted it to be a failure. Because the one time a guy held a boombox over his head for me, I was like turn that fucking music off, I want to break up with you, what are you doing here. They don’t always work.
There is a realistic element to it.
What rom-coms do you like?
I love bad ones, good ones. My favorite is Love & Basketball.
That is a very good one.
And Brown Sugar.
I haven’t seen Brown Sugar.
I actually did like They Came Together. But I have this thing where I feel like rom-coms are so cliché that they reflect how love is so cliché. It’s hard to get around that. There are only so many ways you can meet people. There are obviously different varieties of love, but showing it ends up being the same—
The same beats of a story.
So if you can find the cultural differences, like this movie, or the little things that make it different in the larger format, I think that’s what people have to do. I totally get people being bored by the same story. I’m just really interested in the economy of rom-coms.
There’s a reason all love songs are kind of the same. Because falling in love weirdly is kind of the same for everybody, but it also is like completely unique and how on Earth do you tell that story? I used to do a workshop about how rom-coms ruined my dating life, in Brooklyn, back when we lived here many years ago. I have an issue.
Do you feel like this is kind of an anti-rom-com?
Not “anti” as much as, we’re playing with the format as much as we can and making a movie. I think everybody’s like, oh their movie defies genres. It’s a rom-com, but it has a lot of twists and turns to it.
The other element is the hard decision of dealing with a sick partner, a comatose partner. Was there any theme or story direction that you tried to stay away from? Was there anything off-limits?
I didn’t want any cheap jokes. And we all were on the same page. That wasn’t just my horn, but all of us. We didn’t want the humor to come from set pieces or this silly, weird shit happening, but from these characters trying to navigate with each other. So if anybody ever makes a joke about “unplugging” Emily, I’m out, we’re done, I’m not doing it. I wanted the character to be funny, but I didn’t want anyone to be a joke other than Kumail’s roommate, who I’m fine with being a joke because he kind of is. Nothing was off-limits, but since we’ve gone through this experience, we both would check in on: Does this emotionally feel true to what we actually went through. Does it feel like this is something that could happen? That’s what we checked in on as much as we could.
Some of the waiting room scenes felt true to reality where you feel like you’re waiting with them. I don’t know if that was intentional.
Yeah, absolutely intentional. We had a lot more scenes set in the waiting room, and, again, I wasn’t there for this, but you spend so much of your time just literally sitting in a room waiting with all these people that you end up oddly becoming friends with. We had a lot of scenes with the small talk you have with strangers and how you connect with people and a lot of these scenes ended up getting cut. But part of it is you are literally just trying to fill your time waiting to hear good news or bad news. We very much included that on purpose.
Is this the type of movie that shows the importance of self-reflection as a way to personal growth? Everyone has blind spots and navigating through life, you have to be aware of them.
I think so. Also, because I was a therapist for so many years, it’s always part of me—acknowledging that we’re all bad at stuff. We all mess up. We all make mistakes and your job is to figure out what your blind spots are and where your mistakes are, fix it and keep moving and not constantly looking at the past and not constantly looking at the future, but trying to exist in the now and being the best you can now. It gets really simplified down into a movie. But absolutely, everybody in the movie—Nobody is right and nobody is wrong, but everybody is kind of a little screwed up and doing the best they can, you hope.
But I will say, there is criticism specifically around white liberal contribution to racism and some of the ignorance that comes out in the movie. And so, anytime I’m watching a movie where it’s a white audience watching another culture, I wonder what they get from it. Like, Get Out. Do they see themselves in this and them being part of the problem, or do they miss it.
Yeah, I saw Get Out by myself in an audience of all kinds of people and I watched the white people in the audience develop an empathy—The fact that at the end of the movie when the cop car pulls up and everyone’s reaction was not “Oh great!” But “Oh no!” was such a big moment. I was like, oh fuck, how fucking powerful that movie is that everyone just got it in that moment. Whether or not it extends beyond that, you can only hope it does. But damn, that was like the most powerful moment I’ve seen in a movie and in a theater in a very, very long time.
Did you cringe watching certain scenes in your movie? You mentioned the argument part. Were there any other parts? You have your parents’ story in there. It’s personal but it’s fiction so there are certain liberties you can take.
Right, my dad never cheated on my mom. Judd was like, “Maybe that’s something you can try to add into it,” and I initially was like, oh no I couldn’t do it, my parents love each other. I did a lot of work with my actual parents to explain to them how different their characters are from themselves. They got it, by the time they saw the movie. I cringe a little bit with that because I don’t want anyone to see the movie and [think] that’s something that happened. So in interviews, I often mention that they never cheated on each other, that I know of. But the fight scene, I definitely cringe at. The rest of it, at this point I’ve seen the movie a million times and I’m fully okay with everything now.
When you’re watching a version of yourself on screen, there must be a certain defensiveness. The thing about interracial relationships is you are having to defend your version of love, which, you know, comes with it. I’m okay with white people having to be on the defense because if that’s the biggest problem you have to deal with, I think that’s fine.
Yeah. Like, you’ll be alright. I think overall, we could all stand to be a little more like, Hey I don’t know everything and actually don’t know a lot of stuff and I’m going to get things wrong. People get so embarrassed—me included—when they’re wrong. It feels awful. It’s learning to lean into that feeling and be like, that’s gonna be how you’re gonna feel sometimes and you’re just gonna have to be okay with it and grow from it and not build up a wall around it and feel like you can’t ever feel that way again so you’ll never be wrong again. That doesn’t get you anywhere. So I try to do that as a person, and in the movie you try to make sure you’re doing as much a version of that as possible without all your shiny whistles and bells on your character. It’s not always easy.
What are some of the stories you want to see or put out there as far as writing more rom-coms?
I’m very interested in seeing more than what I’m writing. I’m very interested in seeing other people’s stories. I’m very interested in seeing stories that I haven’t even imagined and hadn’t even thought of, and I do think it’s part of my job to help raise up those stories, too. I’ve written mostly for TV and I’ve been able to write for some really lovely shows that’ve helped broaden my horizons and if I can contribute to that, that’s kind of the goal. I would love to see Khadija’s story and I want to see the world that I get to hang out in, which is such a lovely, diverse world. I want to see that world whether it’s me writing it or somebody else.