Design & Living / Culture Talks

The Offbeat Rom-Com You Need to See

We meet Michael Showalter, director of The Big Sick – the trope-defying love story guaranteed to melt your heart

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The Big Sick (2017)
The Big Sick (2017)(Film still)

These days it’s rare to encounter a rom-com that serves as anything more than feel-good, hangover fodder: something you can switch on, and then switch off to, safe in the knowledge that everything will play out according to the ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back’ formula. Which is why The Big Sick, the new film from Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani (best known as Dinesh in HBO comedy series Silicon Valley), is such a welcome breath of fresh air. It is the real-life story of Nanjiani’s relationship with his now-wife Emily V. Gordon, with whom he co-wrote the script, and while both romance and comedy are rife, they are but two ingredients in a delectable melting pot of emotions and experiences.

The plotline, on paper, is fairly straightforward. Kumail (Nanjiani), a stand-up comedian, classic horror film lover and part-time Uber driver is playfully heckled during one of his sets by Emily (Zoe Kazan), a doe-eyed grad student with a goofy laugh and razor-sharp wit. A one-night stand ensues, and, despite claims of wanting to keep things casual on both parts, a relationship blossoms. Complications arise in the form of Kumail’s Pakistani family, whose desperation to see him paired off with “a nice muslim girl” forces him to keep his relationship with Emily a secret.

When Emily discovers this, she is devastated, but before the dust has had the chance to settle, she is struck by a mystery illness and placed into an induced coma by hospital doctors in a race against time to discover the cause. Subplots abound courtesy of hilarious backstage scenes between Kumail and his motley crew of stand-up cohorts; round-the-dinner-table sketches whereby he is introduced to a string of nubile young women by his hen-pecking parents, and the arrival of Emily’s folks (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) on the scene, which results in a mini love story all of its own as Kumail struggles to convince them he’s more than just a callous heartbreaker. Laughter, tears, ISIS jokes, and much more ensue.

Rather aptly, the film, which begins in Chicago, ends in New York – where Kumail relocates to pursue his stand-up career. It was at this stage in the comedian’s real life that he met former stand-up turned filmmaker Michael Showalter, the movie’s director. “We met at comedy clubs way back when,” explains Showalter, speaking to AnOther during Sundance London. “We became friends and have worked together a lot over the years. Then one day Kumail showed me the script for The Big Sick, more for feedback than anything else, and I was blown away. I didn’t know the story of his and Emily’s relationship at all – it was completely new to me – and I loved it; I related to so much of it. I begged him to let me direct the movie.” A meeting with the film’s producer Judd Apatow ensued, and before long, Showalter, whose former accolades include co-writing Wet Hot American Summer (2001) and directing Hello, My Name is Doris (2015), had been brought onboard. Here, on the day the heart-warming, trope-busting film arrives on UK screens, we catch up with the director to discover the trials and triumphs of making it, and – because The Big Sick features an epic comedic flop – the stand-up fail that prompted his own career change. 

On the pressures of fictionalising a true story…
“My focus was always to take this true story and make it into a film. I never felt the weight of needing to honour what really happened, I just wanted to make the movie really good. What attracted me to the script in the beginning was its universal quality – even though it really happened to Emily and Kumail, the movie feels bigger than that and, from a director’s standpoint, that’s what I liked about it.”

On his directing style...
“My favourite thing about directing is the feeling of escaping reality. I loved fantasising as a kid, and I still do – visualising a whole alternate world is very cathartic, and that’s my main aim. I try to create the feeling of being in a place that really exists, so if you see a door in a shot, for example, you feel like you could open it and there would be something there. I take directing seriously but not too seriously, so that the actors feel safe and relaxed and can give a great performance. And I also rely on everybody, from the director of photography to the costume designers, to do their best work, because I don’t micromanage. I’m not the big visionary authoritarian – it’s very collaborative.”

On his favourite scene from the film...
“It changes all the time, but I love the scene between Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, who play Emily’s parents, when they’re arguing in the hospital. It’s a very kinetic scene, and Holly’s multitasking brilliantly – arguing with Ray and at the same time trying to get the phone off Kumail. It’s a classic Holly Hunter moment.”

On what he hopes viewers will take away from the movie...
“There are so many great ideas running through it, and so much going on, that I hope people can find something, or multiple things, that resonate with them. There’s the family side of it – the cultural clashes, the parental expectations; there’s the love story and the breaking up; there’s the getting sick and the traumas involved with that; and then there’s the element of making choices and sacrifices for your career. It’s such a dynamic story.”

On his own worst comedic flop...
“As I performer I had so many epic fails. Perhaps the worst was when I was asked to perform at Pitchfork music festival in Chicago about ten years ago. I was sort of like ‘cool’ at the time, so they invited me along, but the reality was that I didn’t have any material – I just thought I’d think of something at at the last minute. And it was terrible; I was literally like, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have anything to say’. That’s when I realised that just because I had accomplished enough to be invited there, it didn’t mean that I should be there. Doing stand-up didn’t make me excited. An aggregate of experiences like that made me realise that I needed to focus on the things that I actually enjoy and so I began the process of working my way to what I’m doing now.”

On the movie that made him want to make movies…
“I really connect to films with a good plot – I need to be able to root for something to happen, to have expectations and get lost in them. One real gamechanger for me was Crossing Delancey. It has really influenced the way I approach movies and storytelling, some of which overlap with The Big Sick. The main character is forced to choose between her past and her future. Her grandmother’s trying to set her up with a man who sells pickles and lives on the Lower East Side, and she sees him as representing the small, traditional life she wants to escape. She’s a modern woman and has fallen for a poet who is very international, very cosmopolitan and cool. But the pickle guy is really authentic and romantic and the poet is actually really contrived, so you’re really gunning for her to look beyond the surface. It’s a great movie.”

The Big Sick is in cinemas nationwide from today.

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