Kumail Nanjiani is one of the six names in entertainment being celebrated at the inaugural IndieWire Honors on Nov. 2. He co-wrote “The Big Sick” with his wife Emily Gordon, basing the story on their own relationship. Nanjiani is also a standup comic and actor best known for his role on “Silicon Valley.”
One of the year’s most deeply personal films was accidentally a bit more personal than planned: It turns out that Kumail Nanjiani’s character’s name in “The Big Sick” wasn’t supposed to be Kumail Nanjiani.
“A huge misstep,” Nanjiani revealed to IndieWire. “Day 1 of shooting was a day where I had a name tag on, and I was like, ‘Oh, shit! Should have changed that last name!'”
Producer Judd Apatow had wanted the main characters of “The Big Sick” to be Kumail and Emily, matching with the real-life people who were telling a fictionalized version of their real-life romance on screen — Nanjiani and his now-wife Emily V. Gordon. But while the plan had always been to change the characters’ last names (indeed, the young woman played by Zoe Kazan is named Emily Gardner in the film), that first-day nametag resulted in Nanjiani remaining Nanjiani.
“It wasn’t really a decision, it was a lack of one,” he said. “Looking back, I would change my last name just to be more consistent with Emily. It just is like a weird thing… It just raises questions that don’t need to be raised, and it’s just a little inconsistent with itself.”
It’s a nitpicky detail, however, that doesn’t at all detract from the power of the blockbuster romantic comedy, and perhaps even better signifies how intimate the process was for Nanjiani in brining “The Big Sick” to the big screen. The feature emerged from a process made possible by being born entirely outside the studio system.
“Working on our movie was a very, very collaborative process,” Nanjiani said. “There were no voices from the outside that were antithetical to the kind of movie we wanted to make or that got in the way of our process due to unimportant reasons. There was nobody that was like, ‘well, we want to make it more commercial,’ or, ‘rom-coms don’t do well,’ or, ‘maybe we make this person more likable.’ That kind of stuff wasn’t part of it and that’s the kind of stuff you hear a lot of.”
The script for “The Big Sick,” as IndieWire has previously recounted, was honed over many years, with producers Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel helping Nanjiani and Gordon refine the events that helped define their early relationship: A serious illness that Gordon contracted soon after they started dating.
While Apatow told IndieWire that he didn’t think it was impossible to make a film like “The Big Sick” within the studio system, he also said that “we made a point of not setting the movie up at any studio. We developed it for years with no one getting paid, because we wanted it to be completely independent.”
The reason for that: “Because this was based on their life, we were extra sensitive about how we partnered up with people. We didn’t want to have to appeal to anything but our own instincts about what would make this work. We were slow to want to be connected to any entity.”
This meant that Nanjiani and Gordon were able to “make the movie we wanted to make, and we were surrounded by people who wanted to also make the same movie,” Nanjiani said. “To me, that’s why we’ve got to have a truly creative, independent experience. The only factor was, ‘Is this gonna be something good? Is this something we’ll be proud of?’ and not, ‘Is this gonna be something that’ll make money or that’ll be successful at the box office?’
“A lot of times for your studio stuff it seems like they’re trying to guess what the audience wants, whereas with creative independence you just sort of try and make what you want to make, because ultimately you can’t guess what the audience wants,” he added.
Nanjiani’s earliest screen credits included roles like “Indian Reporter” in a 2008 episode of “Saturday Night Live” and appearances on “The Colbert Report.” In general, his career has always leaned towards broad comedy. “The Big Sick” represented a notable shift in tone.
“When we first started writing, we were trying to figure out what the tone was gonna be, and pretty early on, we all were pretty much on the same page that this has to be a comedy and it has to be very, very grounded,” he said. “That’s a word that’s overused, and in some ways I really have come to hate it because everybody says ‘grounded’ and they don’t always mean it. For us, we wanted it to be a comedy, but we can’t ever lose track of the reality that there is a very young woman who’s in a very serious life and death situation.”
Added Nanjiani, “there are disagreements in that process, but pretty early on the four of us — me, Emily, Judd, and Barry — knew what we wanted to make. A movie like this can very easily be too serious, and we didn’t want that, and it can very easily be sort of wacky and goofy, and we didn’t want that. So we knew what needle we had to thread.”
Most importantly, while there were plenty of disagreements over the course of production, Nanjiani felt that they were “a very healthy part of the process.” But that was because “ultimately every single person involved with this movie wanted to make the exact same kind of movie. We all wanted to make the same thing.”
The resulting work, a story told from a unique point of view, features plenty of references to other films and television shows, both consciously and unconsciously. Take “The X-Files,” a franchise that both real and fictional Kumail loves. The series may have indirectly influenced key scenes of “The Big Sick,” especially the Season 2 episode “One Breath,” in which Mulder (David Duchovny) waits patiently by Scully’s (Gillian Anderson) side as she lies in a coma.
“Not consciously, no,” Nanjiani said regarding whether “The X-Files” had an influence, “but I’m sure it was part of it somewhere in there. I mean, I love those episodes and I’ve watched them a bunch, so I’m sure that some of that stuff has snuck in.”
Though it wasn’t just “The X-Files” that Nanjiani realized after the fact had made an impact on the film. “It wasn’t until I’d watched our movie a bunch of times that there were certain scenes where I was like, ‘Oh! I think that that actually was inspired by this scene from this other thing that I really, really love that I’ve seen 100 times’… There was some stuff that much, much later I realized, ‘Oh, this is clearly inspired by this scene from this other movie that we really love,’ very, very subconsciously. But I don’t think anybody else would put that together. We did, but much, much later.”
It’s not a shock to anyone who follows Nanjiani on Twitter that references to other media might slip into his work, given how he’s always actively engaged with pop culture on the platform — as well as politics and other major issues of the day.
Nanjiani said that he doesn’t have any particular strategy when it came to his approach to Twitter. “I never really thought about, ‘It’s gonna be this kind of voice,’ or ‘It’ll be curated in this way,’ or anything. It was just, like, it’ll just be stuff that I think about. Even now I haven’t really changed how I approach it. I tweet whatever’s on my mind,” he said.
That approach might lead fans to believe that they genuinely know him as a person, and Nanjiani said that “I think they do. That’s the weird thing. I think people do know me a little bit [through Twitter]… Emily and I used to have a podcast together, and people would be like, ‘I think I know their relationship,’ and they kind of would.”
But Nanjiani also wouldn’t mind if Twitter just went away. “I feel like Twitter’s gotten us into more trouble than it has gotten us out of, and it would be fine if Twitter, and Facebook, and all just went away.
“In the beginning, the promise of the Internet and message boards was access to people who you wouldn’t have access to — genuine disagreement, genuine conversation,” he said. “And now, what it has turned into, you just find people who agree with you exactly, and you spin each other out and become more and more firm in your beliefs. Instead of talking to people who allow you to expand your mind, you’re talking to people who are making you more narrow-minded.”
Nanjiani has just started production on Season 5 of the HBO comedy “Silicon Valley,” in which he plays software engineer Dinesh; he’s also working on other writing projects, both on his own and in collaboration with Gordon.
“I don’t think it’ll be something as nakedly autobiographical, that’s for sure,” Nanjiani said of what might come next. “The next thing that I’ve started working on is a very different tone from ‘Big Sick,’ and it’s a different genre… Obviously I think when you write, you write from personal experience. But this movie was a very, very specific case. The next thing I write will be personal, but it won’t be personal in the same extremely obvious way.”
IndieWire Honors is presented by Vizio and DTS with premier support from Harold Ramis Film School at The Second City.