At this point, most people are probably familiar—or at the very least, becoming familiar—with Kumail Nanjiani, the writer/star of The Big Sick, a movie seemingly destined to rule the summer, filling theaters around the country with a tailor-made whirlwind of laughs and tears. Everyone definitely knows Judd Apatow, the producer who directly worked with Nanjiani to put the film together, and also one of the most prolific and beloved comedy minds of the last 25 years.
You may not realize it at first glimpse (how can anyone glimpse behind the camera, anyway?) but another prolific and beloved comedy force was also involved with the film: that’s Michael Showalter, of Wet Hot American Summer and Stella fame; he directed the film, working hand in hand throughout the whole process with Nanjiani, Apatow, and producer Barry Mendel. Fresh off the success of his last directorial effort, 2015’s Hello, My Name is Doris—a little-seen but fascinating dramedy that gets the absolute best out of Sally Field—The Big Sick was a natural fit for Showalter, who often leans on genre-bending sensibilities.
As a huge fan of Wet Hot American Summer, there was a lot that I could’ve talked to the director/writer/actor/producer about: Is the whole cast having as much fun as it looks? Is Paul Rudd as cool in every way as he’s always seemed to be? How does one think up a talking can of vegetables?
But The Big Sick was such a great movie in so many ways that it deserved to be the crux of our conversation (though, it should be noted that Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later has a new trailer out now, and will be available on Netflix on August 4th; his other series, Brooklyn-based Search Party, is currently filming its second season).
I suppose there are technically a handful of minor SPOILERS in this conversation, but considering the fact that it’s based on a real-life story that happened only about a decade ago, it’s not really that type of thing. I chatted with Showalter last week about all things The Big Sick, including the film’s genesis, some fun performances from familiar faces, and how great an actor Kumail Nanjiani really is.
Brooklyn Magazine: The forces behind making this movie, between yourself, Kumail, and Judd all come from different schools of comedy. What was it like coming together with those differing perspectives to make this project?
Michael Showalter: I’ve worked with Kumail a bunch over the years, so he and I have a little bit of a shorthand. He was in Michael and Michael Have Issues, on Comedy Central, and was a writer on that show. I’ve done a bunch of touring with him, and then he was in Doris.
Judd, obviously, I was excited by the idea of working with him, and knew also that he had a slightly different way of doing things than what I’m used to, both in terms of his approach in the writing and also on the production side, with long takes, and improvisation, and all that stuff. People are often surprised that Wet Hot and Stella are actually pretty scripted.
I was excited to embrace the differences and roll with it, and so I think everybody kind of brought their full arsenal to the process, and we just blended it all together. It was great—it was really, really, a great collaboration. I did an interview with Judd Apatow recently, and a somewhat similar question was asked and his answer was a good one: we all sort of had the same vision of what we wanted the movie to look like at the end. Even though we don’t work exactly the same way, what was good was that we were all working towards the same goal—we all wanted this movie to be kind of like what it is. We all thought the same way. It was this very character driven, really funny movie that was not going to avoid the drama at all. We were really in agreement about that all along.
Your last movie, Hello, My Name is Doris did this, Judd’s obviously done it with stuff like Funny People or Knocked Up—balancing comedy with drama. What’s your approach there?
I think it’s just that comedy and drama live together. Some of the funniest scenes in the movie, the characters are in pain in a way. One of the early scenes in the movie, where Emily’s first in the hospital, and Kumail’s in the waiting room with Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, and he’s trying to reassure them that it’s not as bad as it seems. It’s a really funny scene, and they’r’e kind of horrified by him—he’s being very inappropriate and comedic, but it’s coming from a place of which he’s terrified.
So, if he were just genuinely making fun of it, like, if the character in that scene were actually just a guy making jokes about something that’s not funny? That’s where the tone fractures. But it’s coming from a place of this guy’s trying to make the most out of a really, really, bad situation, and we believe that his motivation is ultimately good, then those two tones get to live together in the same scene. Does that make sense?
Yeah, totally. Absolutely.
But you could easily have done it where he’s like, ha ha, she’s in a coma, like, I’m just going to make coma jokes. That’s a much more slapstick way, where we’re not taking any of it seriously.
Right. Right. I don’t know if you’ve heard this comparison yet, but I kind of felt the same way watching it, with some of those hospital scenes, as I did with Manchester by the Sea. It’s kind of how real life is.
It’s not all laughs, it’s not all drama, it’s always just a weird combination.
Yes. I’ve not heard that before, but that’s obviously a huge compliment. But yeah, that’s what our approach was, because that’s what life is like. Sometimes the most terrible situations are situations where you find yourself laughing, or you need to laugh, you know? And we very much tried to take that attitude.
The Big Sick touches on a lot of classic romantic comedy beats, but it hits them mostly in the beginning of the movie before evolving into something pretty different and original. Was the ability to play around with that structure something that attracted you to the film?
I would put it this way: it was more that it was a challenge that it would be something that we needed to figure out for the movie to work, and to understand that we were doing something very unusual, and that it could easily not work if we weren’t careful. We talked a lot about how there’s an archetypical story that we’re following: boy meets girl, boy loses girl. But then in most movies, boy then gets girl back, as opposed to girl goes into coma, and boy meets girl’s parents. So, girl stays in the movie usually. We talked about it a lot. How’s this going to work? Is there anything we need to do to remind the audience of her character, so we don’t lose her completely? What function do Ray [Romano] and Holly [Hunter] [Who play Nanjiani’s love interest’s parents] make, and so on. We talked about all of that stuff, and to me, that’s the fun of making the movie. It’s all of that discussion of what you’re doing, and what the scenes mean, and how they fit into the larger whole of the film that you’re making. That’s the fun process of doing something like this.
I thought Ray and Holly were both so great and likable. What was it like bringing those two in and working with them?
We’re totally huge, enormous, fans of both of theirs, so it was just exciting and exhilarating to have them as a part of the project, and we all felt that way. We all just felt that we were so incredibly lucky to have them, and that they would anchor the movie in a way that they do. They would give the movie a full other layer and component that it needed, and unique chemistry that they had.
You have Holly Hunter, who’s this iconic, Academy Award-winning actor, who’s done so much dramatic work, and also some great comedies, and then Ray Romano, who’s this famous sitcom actor, but who’s also got some really interesting character roles that he’s played. They have such a memorable, and different, and unusual chemistry between the two of them. It’s a perfect fit.
Something I thought was great with Hello, My Name is Doris, but also The Big Sick was that they both ended really, really well—what’s your process like when figuring out what that last scene is going to be?
A different thing is being said at the end of those movies, but I like the idea, in an ending, that you’re pointing in a direction, but you’re not saying this is exactly how it’s going to end. In both Doris and The Big Sick that said to the audience, everything that needs to be said has been said. There’s no more secrets between the characters. All the truths are out on the table now, which is going to allow for some catharsis, and it looks like things are pointed in the right direction for our characters, that they’re going to be OK, but we don’t need to tell you exactly what happens.
You’ve worked with Kumail a bunch of times—I think this his first leading role. I’ve loved him in all of his smaller roles, and I feel like he really proved himself, that he can take on that lead role and be funny, and be serious, and be really relatable for an audience. As this movie’s director, what you think his future might be after this?
Well, he’s a great actor. I love that he’s sort of the romantic lead. Early on in the movie he references Hugh Grant; I think he gives a very Hugh Grant-like performance. He’s funny, he’s charming, he’s relatable, he’s vulnerable. He’s flawed. That’s the full package, you know? And he was extremely serious about giving this performance, and he worked really hard on his character. Even though he’s playing himself, he approached it as any serious actor would a role—to try to understand his motivation, and to prepare for his scenes emotionally. Kumail’s a serious actor who also just happens to be really funny.
Photo illustrations by Morgan McMullen