Who better to revive the romantic comedy genre than a comedian and a former therapist? Kumail Nanjiani and former therapist turned writer Emily V. Gordon's The Big Sick is about a casual relationship that turns serious after one of them enters a medically induced coma. It's the latest film to both revive and rewrite the genre, made all the sweeter because the script's based on their real-life relationship.
I've loved Nanjiani's stand-up since first seeing him perform ten years ago, and I've read Gordon's writing since loving a piece of hers from the Toast a while back. When I found out they were married, it kind of blew my mind. You can read about their marriage and the circumstances that inspired The Big Sick in some of Emily's essays, as well as their interviews as a couple. And don't worry—it won't spoil the movie.
According to Nanjiani, alongside Emily in a phone interview from Los Angeles, while the first few drafts hewed close to reality, "At some point, we were like, 'Alright, now that we have our story out, let's try and turn it into a story that works divorced from us.' I'd say the emotional core is still pretty consistent with our experience, but we changed a lot of details to get at that core more."
One detail that is true, however, is the "two-day rule" that Nanjiani's character keeps when dating Emily (played by Zoe Kazan): After they hang out, he can't see her for another two days. "I wanted to forget about the two-day rule!" Gordon laughed. The movie also sheds more light on Nanjiani's perspective, which is particularly interesting since Gordon's character is in a coma for a third of the movie.
"I kind of knew Kumail was hanging out with my parents, and they were in the hospital every day," Gordon told me. "[When] we started writing this movie, I asked my parents, 'What was every day like? What were you doing? What time did you go to bed? What time did you guys get to the hospital?' I hadn't considered how weird and intense that must have been, which was something I was interested to learn more about: what these people I love most were doing in my absence while holding a vigil for me."
Another aspect of reflecting Nanjiani's perspective was his experience with arranged marriages. Americans might've caught Ravi Patel's documentary Meet the Patels, as well as the similarly themed episodes of Master of None and The Mindy Project—but the increased level of awareness doesn't mean that they actually get the concept.
"I think they have a distant understanding of it—it's almost like a joke to them," Nanjiani stated. "We wanted to show the real side, which is that it works for many people and it is a viable way of getting into a marriage. It's just not what my character in the movie wants."
And addressing the topic of arranged marriages allows The Big Sick to explore the overlapping families' respective dynamics in a way that's missing from most romantic comedies. "Romantic relationships in movies exist in this weird bubble, and they're not based in reality," Gordon said. "They're based in this dreamy little time that you're having, and right when things start getting realistic, the movie ends. In reality, you have to negotiate and have a relationship with the person's parents that you're in love with."
"For immigrants, the main thing that they think about when they come here is, 'Who am I gonna be in relationships with?' said Nanjiani. "It's a concern that second-generation immigrants have: How are you gonna define yourself? By where your parents are from, or by where you live now?"
It was also important for Nanjiani to depict his relationship with his parents. "We've seen the depiction of the stern parents from a different culture in movies before, and that's certainly an aspect that benefits that character," he explained. "But we also wanted to show that there's real love, and a real familial relationship."
Nanjiani and Gordon were united on that front, but writing the movie together was a different beast.
"It definitely had its challenges," Gordon noted. "But we'd write and rewrite each other's stuff and ask each other questions, and through that we figured out a lot of perspectives of the movie. There were many times that we'd figure out that the way that we were seeing events that had happened to us were quite different. Instead of picking a side, we picked both sides and make sure they were both incorporated."
One particular difference in perspective is the couples' relationships to romantic comedies. "Kumail is a lifelong rom-com fanatic—has watched all of them," according to Gordon. "Good ones and the bad ones!" he adds.
For her part, Gordon used to do a workshop when her and Nanjiani lived in New York about how rom-coms can ruin our love lives. "I always resented how the rom-coms that I grew up watching made me feel about my own dating life. But Kumail was completely enamored with them! That makes for an interesting combo when you're writing a rom-com, because you gotta honor the good parts, and you gotta deconstruct the parts that don't work as well."
One particular rom-com trope—in which a character makes a grand gesture towards the object of their affection—rears its head after Emily emerges from her coma, but it doesn't change much. "I love that idea, and I've had that happen in real life—a grand gesture that just doesn't work," said Gordon. "There's something more realistic and lovely about it."
When asked about specific details regarding their relationship, the pair play coy—but they do reference a scene where, when sleeping over Kumail's apartment, Emily tries to figure out how to go to the bathroom without him noticing. "That's a step of intimacy in a relationship that I hadn't seen—negotiating a very real bodily thing that we all have to do," said Gordon. "In reality, we're just people who get sick and have to go to the bathroom."
"What's weird is, since we've gotten together, Emily hasn't pooped once," Nanjiani chuckled. "That's true, I never have," Gordon claims, "so I thought I'd put it in the movie instead."