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Judd Apatow on Kumail Nanjiani: ‘I’ve Never Worked With Anyone Who’s Worked Harder’

IndieWire Honors: The producer of "The Big Sick" explains why they developed the script for years "with no one getting paid."

Kumail Nanjiani and Judd ApatowVariety Studio at Sundance Presented by TimTam, Day 1, Park City, Utah, USA - 20 Jan 2017

Kumail Nanjiani and Judd Apatow

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When it comes to real life tales of romance, Judd Apatow is an expert at finding and cultivating the ones that will resonate with audiences. And Apatow said he’d “never heard anyone tell a story” like the chain of events that led to Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon falling in love.

The writer/director/producer who shepherded projects like “Girls,” “Crashing,” and “Love” to the screen worked with Nanjiani and Gordon for years to develop the script that led to one of the year’s most well-received films. Both critically and commercially, audiences found great resonance in Nanjiani and Gordon’s story, which follows how their initial tentative romance was upended when a medical crisis led to Gordon being put in a medically induced coma. 

Below, he tells IndieWire what was instrumental to making sure the collaboration between him, Nanjiani, and Gordon worked, why they actively developed the script without any studios involved, and what makes Nanjiani and Gordon’s writing special. 

When Kumail told me the idea, it felt like it had the potential to be a very unique romantic comedy, because it’s about someone who really falls in love with someone while they’re unconscious. So there are all these issues surrounding this situation, and he works through most of all of them while his girlfriend is in a coma. There are very few people who have incredible life stories like this, and I’d never heard anyone tell a story like this.

I asked them to tell me the story in as much detail as possible, then they wrote a draft that came very close to the true story. At some point we said, “Okay, that’s the true story, now let’s make it a great movie. We can keep a lot of the elements close to what happened, but we also need to make this funny and heartwarming, and airy and sad, and all the emotions. So let’s figure out how to shape this.”

The key is having a team that has a similar sensibility, and then that has the same intentions for the project. If you pick the wrong people, then it’s just war the whole time and everything implodes. It’s like putting together a band. Everyone tries to put together a rock band with people who are all legends and it’s terrible, because their sensibilities don’t match. It doesn’t matter that they’re all talented. I think a lot of what works, in this case, is [producer] Barry Mendel and myself, and Kumail and Emily were really in sync about what we wanted to do.

When we were looking for a director, we were excited to hire Michael Showalter, because we love his work, we love his tone. His last film was exactly the right spirit for what we were looking for, and he’s a very close friend with Kumail and Emily. And we thought, this is a type of project that requires that type of intimacy, it would be more difficult if they were just meeting the director for the first time.

You don’t want to water people down, you don’t want to make movies by committee. So my job as a producer is to be tough on the script and ask a lot of hard questions, make suggestions where I can. But I’m always listening to what feels right for them, I never want to create a situation where they’re doing something that they don’t agree with. Because sometimes, just because people are polite, they will take a note they don’t agree with and ruin their scripts. I tried to be sensitive at all times to whether or not they were loving the direction we were all going in.

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. And when we all thought the script was in good shape, we connected with FilmNation, who was excited about the script, and allowed us to make the film purely without any adjustments being made to appease anybody.

Kumail NanjianiHFPA Grants Banquet, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA - 02 Aug 2017

Kumail Nanjiani

Matt Baron/REX/Shutterstock

It was just gonna be as good or as bad as we all made it. No one was forcing us to do anything. It was a $5 million movie, and we kept it small because we knew it was the type of concept that didn’t scream of being commercial. It was about a woman being in a coma, it’s about immigrants, it’s something you don’t see that often. We always knew it had the potential to be very commercial, and it did turn out to be commercial, but there was nothing about it in advance that would make you assume that. We tried to make sure that process was protected, so no mistakes would be made.

For us, the only creative obstacle was everyone’s ability to just figure it all out, and do the work.

[With regard to Nanjiani and Gordon], I’ve never worked with anyone who’s worked harder. They did a zillion drafts over many years, and were very excited to dig in and take a run at all of the next set of problems. They couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about trying to write a fantastic script. This is the first screenplay that both of them had written, and they put all of themselves into it. It was a very special experience. I like working with people when they really care deeply about what they’re writing about. And, certainly, nobody’s ever cared more than them.

Kumail and Emily are very naturalistic writers, they’re funny in life. So they can write realistically but with a great sense of humor. They don’t have to stretch for jokes, because they have a natural comedic sensibility. And that’s my favorite type of writing. I like when it doesn’t feel stylized, but it also happens to be very funny. If you’re truthful, and you’re trying to get to the core of people, the comedy should naturally come out of that.

— as told to Liz Shannon Miller

IndieWire Honors is presented by Vizio and DTS with premier support from Harold Ramis Film School at The Second City.

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