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‘The Big Sick’: 6 Ways to Create a Summer Indie Hit and an Oscar Contender

So far so good for "The Big Sick," which is riding rave reviews and word of mouth to long-haul success and likely awards. But it wasn't easy.

"The Big Sick" cast and crew

Judd Apatow, Kumail Nanjiani, Emily Gordon, Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano, Barry Mendel, and Michael Showalter

Daniel Bergeron

Now that “The Big Sick” has opened better than any limited release so far this year, its success seems almost predestined: By the time it premiered at Sundance, Amazon Studios was already prepared to make a fat bid based on the script and elements. They just needed to see it, finally, in front of an audience. (Amazon won the bidding war against Netflix, Fox Searchlight, Lionsgate, and Focus Features, buying North American rights for $12 million.)

READ MORE: ‘The Big Sick’ and ‘The Beguiled’ Rescue Indie Box Office, Top All 2017 Specialty Openers

Of course, success is never simple. Here are six reasons why “The Big Sick” is currently the indie success of 2017 — and has Oscars written all over it.

1. True romance.

The first reason why this movie is so good: It’s authentic. You couldn’t make up this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction culture-clash story, written from life by “Silicon Valley” star Kumail Nanjiani with his wife and co-producer Emily Gordon (Zoe Kazan). “We wrote together the true story of the first year of our relationship,” he told exhibitors at CinemaCon.

“It was an intense form of couples’ therapy,” added Gordon, whose character falls in love with Nanjiani before she’s hospitalized with a mysterious illness. “This is the best movie you will see about a standup Pakistani and a girl in a coma,” said Nanjiani. “It’s a comedy, it’s fun, and romantic. It’s about families.”

“The Big Sick”

Needless to say, Gordon survived. “She’s a walking, talking spoiler alert,” concluded Nanjiani.

Director Michael Showalter leaned into the romantic side of this comedy, inspired by love stories from writer-directors like Steve Martin, Richard Curtis, Nora Ephron, and Woody Allen. “The search for love is a very strong want,” he told me in a phone interview. “It’s a good thing to have a character want, something a lot of people can identify with.”

2. Ace producer Judd Apatow.

The prolific film and television producer (“Girls,” “Trainwreck”) developed “The Big Sick” over four years with producer Barry Mendel. He pushed hard to refine and tighten the script, which initially overflowed with great scenes and ideas, but needed to find its shape as movie.

“A lot got changed and pushed to the side, and a lot stayed the same,” said director Michael Showalter, who cast Nanjiani in “Hello, My Name is Doris,” and joined the team two years in. “This wasn’t a Michael Showalter film per se. Judd was supportive of every person’s ability to be creative and give all of themselves to the project, knowing when it comes to it, that he would be the person to make the final difficult decisions. My director’s cut was my last chance to show every version of what I wanted it to be. Then it became everybody’s movie collectively. We all had a similar vision of what movie we were trying to make.”

Showalter shot the film over 26 days, with more improvisation than he was used to. “Judd’s style is to let the actors improvise a fair amount,” said Showalter. “There would be a lot more playing around with the scene with character and dialogue.”

Apatow, who is rigorous about how jokes land, had three previews in Pasadena, Sherman Oaks and West Hills. “You learn certain things about what’s funny and what’s not funny,” said Showalter, “what’s working comedically and what could work better. You learn how the audience is feeling.”

Next page: Why “The Big Sick” owes a lot to TV.

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