In an early scene in “The Big Sick,” Kumail Nanjiani’s character reveals an embarrassing high school portrait, complete with dramatic swooping bangs and an angst-ridden stare at the camera, both accredited to the character’s adoration of ’90s rom-com legend, Hugh Grant.
While The Big Sick shares a genre with the traditional romantic comedies that catapulted Grant to fame, the film exists on a completely different emotional and theatrical playing field. The film, based on its screenwriters’ own true love story, weaves a clash of cultures, medical mystery and search for identity with the classic boy-meets-girl formula to produce a story both grounded and comical.
On Feb. 3, the Carsey-Wolf Center welcomed Academy Award-nominated screenwriters, Emily V. Gordon and Nanjiani to the Pollock Theater as part of their Script to Screen series. After a screening of “The Big Sick,” the pair, who have been married since 2007, sat down with Pollock Theater director Matthew Ryan to discuss the film’s script. The film has experienced extraordinary financial and critical success, becoming the most successful independent film release of 2017 and amassing countless awards, including an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay.
Nanjiani, best known for his starring role in HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” also stars as the film’s lead character, a fictitious version of himself. The character is a stand-up comedian torn between the expectations of his traditional Pakistani family and his love for Emily, an American psychology graduate student played by Zoe Kazan. The plot thickens when Emily ends up in the hospital with a mysterious illness, which results in her being placed in a medically induced coma. Emily’s coma marks the arrival of her parents, played by the legendary Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, who challenge Kumail’s issues of identity and vulnerability.
The pair revealed that creating the film’s script from their own story was not always an easy process. They first created a “puke draft” which consisted of 164 pages of raw, unstructured story drawn from their personal experiences. Gordon explained that adapting this version of the script would be impossible as it contained too much detail and would not translate well onto screen.
“Real lives are boring,” she said “It’s the structure which makes a story interesting.”
Slowly, over the course of three years, the couple edited down the story, creating a solid narrative comprised of what felt relevant to them.
As they got further along in the writing process, the couple realized that some moments of their own story, which initially seemed important, did not entirely fit into the film. The duo did not mind changing or embellishing the truth, as they were not aiming to create a biopic, but the best story they could possibly tell. Gordon and Nanjiani did, however, try to sneak personal anecdotes into the film, like Kumail’s love of “The X-Files” and Emily’s favorite brain T-shirt, for example.
Nanjiani noted that it was important to create a flawed when attempting to mirror himself. He explained that oftentimes when individuals are involved with the production of their own stories, the stories morph into vanity projects, portraying themselves as perfect and idealistic.
“Why would I want to play someone who doesn’t grow by the end of the story?” he asked.
The writing process also proved to be somewhat introspective. Nanjiani found that writing scenes based on his own family dynamic allowed him to see his parents’ perspective more clearly.
On crafting characters in general, the pair elaborated that their main goal was for the audience to thoroughly understand all their characters. “
You’re supposed to understand the character’s viewpoint but not agree with them,” Gordon said. “Nobody’s right, nobody’s wrong. Everyone just has different opinions.”
This empathetic dogma brings layers of warmth and credibility to the film, as each character is given a sincere viewpoint rooted in genuine emotions.
Portraying a real relationship was also of high importance to the screenwriters. Gordon explained that while she is a fan of romantic comedies, the relationships depicted in them kind of just fall rigidly into place. People are “more resistant” to love in real relationships. She also found that the female characters of rom-coms often come as an afterthought to their male counterparts.
“The men decide everything, but they are in a relationship together,” Gordon said.
The couple’s commitment to an authentic script manifests itself in every scene of the hilarious comedy, which had the Pollock consumed in countless uproars of laughter throughout the screening. The Big Sick champions the romantic comedy genre, delivering humor, heart and reality while simultaneously staying true to its roots.
The Big Sick is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.