Michael Showalter: How Anxiety, Fear and Pain Translate to Romantic Comedy in The Big Sick

Just talking to director briefly you’ll notice immediately that he wears his heart on his sleeve. It was a quality necessary for the new comedy The Big Sick (winning viewers over since it began its theatrical roll-out). After all, the film is laugh-out-loud funny, despite the narrative being built around a couple facing a near-fatal illness. The movie is the feel-good movie of the year that works as both a romantic comedy and adult family comedy. Written by star and wife Emily V. Gordon (who also produced), Showalter lovingly constructs a sweet, charmer with the help of producers Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel, and outstanding cast including Zoe Kazan (as Emily), Holly Hunter, , Adeel Akhtar, Anupam Kher, and comics Kurt Braunohler, Aidy Bryant, and Bo Burnham. We discussed making a comedy out of life and death issues, honestly depicting a Pakastaini-American family on screen, and our shared loved of rom-coms.

The Interrobang: I have to say how refreshing I found it to see a really smart, sweet romantic comedy back on screens. I think the genre got a bad rap because they’re so hard to pull-off. It’s such a high-wire act, but you definitely pulled it off.

Michael Showalter: Thank you and I agree with you about romantic comedies. A lot of my favorite movies would be called romantic comedies, I love them. Ever since my adolescence, I’ve gravitated towards the genre. Nora Ephron, , Cameron Crowe, Richard Curtis are some of my favorite filmmakers and they’re masters of doing romantic comedies well.

The Interrobang: And you have the added challenge here of making a comedy about something that isn’t particularly funny really funny, but also touching. I could have easily seen the movie directed as more of a medical drama, but it definitely succeeds. When you started working on the film, what kind of decisions did you need to make in order to nail the proper tone and atmosphere?

Michael Showalter: It was in the script and it’s in the performances to show where the humor’s coming from. And we had to experiment and test things out before hand to find that line. There is nothing funny about what’s happening in this situation. The comedy all comes from a place of extreme anxiety, fear, and pain. The characters are funny people, but their comedy comes from a place of being deeply troubled by what’s going on around them.

Michael Showalter (L) with Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon

The Interrobang: And in the scenes with Ray, Holly, and Kumail show three different ways people cope with the same information.

There’s no margin for error with this kind of thing. The characters have to say out loud where they’re coming from.

Michael Showalter: Exactly. Ray needs distraction, he’s desperate for distraction. And he needs to say that in the movie to Holly Hunter’s character. He needs to qualify his behavior, to verbally say “I need the distraction, I can’t just sit here worrying about her.” There’s too big a risk that people will think badly of him, ask how a guy whose daughter is in the hospital could want to go to a comedy club. Until he explains and then it makes perfect sense. I’m a believer that you need to explain it. Others might argue for subtly and less is more, but I felt very strongly that there’s no margin for error with this kind of thing. The characters have to say out loud where they’re coming from.

The Interrobang: Were you apprehensive about taking on someone else’s screenplay after writing your own projects?

Michael Showalter: No, I know Kumail really well, we have a good relationship, and I think we’re very like-minded comically. We took very similar paths to get where we are. We watched too much TV and dreamed of being there someday. And when he showed me the script as a friend, asking me to give comments I fell in love with it. But I’ve also never been someone precious about dialogue, even my own. So the dialogue in this movie was very fluid, we were all pitching lines and jokes. The actor were encouraged to come in and adjust their dialogue. And I found it fun on this film to feel like I was coming on board to be in service of someone else’s vision, and was encouraged to bring whatever I could to the project to elevate it even further.

The Interrobang: Kumail and Emily have been very open with the public that they wanted to tell their story, but they also wanted to depict a Muslim family that feels more relatable to their own. Did the three of you have discussion about how you would depict his family?

Early on, we wanted to make sure we weren’t picking sides that we weren’t looking at them as people with old-fashioned views who need to change. We had to try to understand everyone’s point of view in the film

Michael Showalter: We did. Early on, we wanted to make sure we weren’t picking sides that we weren’t looking at them as people with old-fashioned views who need to change. We had to try to understand everyone’s point of view in the film. So we really tried to get at the heart of what his family’s fighting for. On the surface it could seem like they just need to let go of old traditions that don’t make sense anymore. But if you go beneath the surface, what they’re fighting for is something really, really compelling. They’re fighting for their culture and their history. And now that Kumail is assimilated, they are afraid that he’ll lose that piece. Because once someone loses that part of themselves, it’s lost forever. It won’t get passed down. I could completely understand those feelings. But Kumail also makes a good point that yes, he grew up there, but he lives here now. He can pretend, so what’s he supposed to do. So we tried to show as many perspectives as possible, including his brother’s marriage which appears to be very, very positive. We’re not saying arranged marriages are great, just that we don’t have the answers. We wanted to give every character in the movie a chance to really be heard.

The Interrobang: Did you feel like you understood why his family would feel so strongly about him having an arranged marriage?

Michael Showalter: Kumail and I talked a lot about it and I was free to ask questions. But there was one thing he said that made it click for me and it’s in the movie. He said, “in Pakistan, we have a word for arranged marriage. The word is marriage.” There’s nothing unusual about it, the other kind of marriage, marrying for love, is considered strange or unusual. And I completely understood that. And the truth is, it’s not like western culture can claim to have mastered relationships, so who are we to judge? So I really tried to come at it from a place of “I don’t know.” Even at the end of the movie, yes we have a little happily ever after and show you pictures of Kumail and Emily together. And they’re very much in love. But who knows. Love is just about trying and making your best effort. That’s the message of the best romantic comedies, just trying to make it work.

The Big Sick is in theaters, now, and is being called the best comedy movie of the summer.

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Lesley Coffin is the Features/Interviews Editor for the movie site Filmoria. She has also written the books Lew Ayres: Hollywood Conscientious Objector (2012) and Hitchcock's Stars (2014), and currently writing a third book. Look for her brand new podcast, "Lake Shore Drive to Hollywood" part of the Second Wind Collective podcast network. Follow on twitter @filmbiographer for thoughts on movies and cat pictures.