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An interview with director Michael Showalter

21 July 2017 | Nick Chen

The Big Sick is a multicultural love story with a big heart, even bigger laughs and a detailed scientific explanation for medically induced comas. What more could you want? From the get-go the Chicago-set crowd-pleaser, directed by Michael Showalter, fizzes with one-liners and an appreciation for genre conventions. But there’s a twist. Protagonists Kumail and Emily, played by Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan, split up due to the former’s Pakistani family objecting to a white American girlfriend. Emily is then hospitalised with a life-threatening illness.



The Big Sick is, astonishingly, based on a true story. In real life, writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon met and separated under similar circumstances. The couple eventually wrote a screenplay for Judd Apatow to produce, and that’s when Showalter came on board. “Kumail sent me the script to read, just as a friend,” the director recalls. “I read it and loved it. Then I met with Judd and interviewed for it.” The rest, as they say, is romcom history.
 
It helps that Showalter is an expert in the genre. His first film, The Baxter, which he wrote, directed and starred in, imagines what happens to the bland guy (“the Baxter”) who typically loses his girlfriend to a dashing Hugh Grant figure. Showalter later co-wrote They Came Together, a feature-length romcom parody starring Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler. Did these homages prepare him for a more traditional “boy meets girl” story like The Big Sick?
 
“It’s been a natural evolution,” Showalter believes. “Whilst They Came Together and The Baxter are comedies, they’re also deconstructions of movies and involve an understanding of the machinery”. With The Big Sick, the romance initially swirls so perfectly that you nervously anticipate the fall. “That’s all storytelling technique. You’re creating tension. The audience is wondering, ‘What’s the thing that’s going to ruin this?’”


Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan (Emily) courtesy of StudioCanal
 
A regular in HBO comedy-drama Silicon Valley, Kumail plays himself opposite Zoe Kazan as Emily. The chemistry, no doubt modelled on their real counterparts, is genuine. The same can be said for Emily’s parents, played by Hollywood star Holly Hunter and sitcom legend Ray Romano. “It’s one thing to have Kumail and Ray trust me,” Showalter says, “but it’s a whole other thing to have Holly Hunter trust me too.” He laughs. “Holly Hunter is like: ‘Hey man, I’ve worked with Jane Campion and the Coen brothers. What do you have to tell me about how to do a scene?’”
 
Showalter’s confidence came from directing and writing 2015’s Hello, My Name is Doris. The comedy-drama, in which Sally Field lusts after a co-worker half her age, is a far cry from his best-known film, Wet Hot American Summer, and it paved the way for something more tonally nuanced like The Big Sick.
 
“As a comedy director, it’s important that actors think you’re funny,” he explains. “Timing is important. Making a joke work is really hard, but not if you’ve been doing it for a long time because it becomes second nature. It’s all about trust. It’s the same with dramatic stuff. I can say to Holly: ‘I know what your process is, and I can help accomplish what you’re trying to do.’ I’m not a straight comedy director. I’m in the middle.”


Director Michael Showalter on the set of The Big Sick courtesy of StudioCanal
 
Imagine you could revisit key moments in your life and refine arguments with loved ones. It would be impossible to resist, and some scenes in The Big Sick do resemble wish-fulfilment and feel too slick. Was it ever a hindrance having the real Kumail and Emily on set every day?
 
“No, they treated it like it wasn’t their movie,” Showalter insists. “It was like Kumail was there as the actor, and Emily was there as the screenwriter.” What happens during creative disagreements? Even if Kumail transcribed the scene from personal memory does Showalter, as the director, still get final say? He pauses. “Honestly? Judd Apatow gets the final say!”

Though Showalter’s acting credits range from the lead in The Baxter to the Post-It defender in Sex & the City, he doesn’t grant himself a cameo in The Big Sick. “I’ve no desire to be in front of the camera,” he maintains. “I’m completely ambivalent about performing, and would prefer not to. It’s not very fun.” Did he get that out of his system earlier in his career? “It’s weird. When I was performing, I didn’t get what I was looking for. It never felt right.”
 
That said, Showalter appears in two of his current TV shows: Search Party and Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later. For both, he’s the co-creator and co-writer, with the latter hitting Netflix soon. (All he’s allowed to tell me: “It’s 10 years later.”) Television is a medium that excites him, and he praises Big Little Lies and Catastrophe as particular favourites.
 
His main influence, however, is Woody Allen. “Purely as a director, it’s Woody Allen more than anyone else. His world always feels very full and cluttered. I love his aesthetic, not just the movies themselves.”


Director Michael Showalter on the set of The Big Sick courtesy of StudioCanal
 
Showalter’s praise for Woody Allen’s full and cluttered world makes sense. The key to The Big Sick’s richness rests in its many layers. Aside from the tremendously moving love story, it details Kumail’s early career as a budding stand-up – including his friendship with a cocky comic called CJ. (Is this based on Silicon Valley co-star TJ Miller? “No comment,” Showalter chuckles.) At one point a stranger racially heckles Kumail, and in another his deeply religious parents disown him for dating a non-Muslim. And let’s not forget how rare it is for a major movie to feature an interracial romance with a happy ending.
 
Yet even with all these overlapping storylines, The Big Sick remains authentic and funny. Some moments, like Kumail unlocking Emily’s iPhone by using her comatose thumb, are so specific they must be true. Kudos to Showalter then for shrewdly balancing these emotional beats with an onslaught of sharp gags. A dying genre is resuscitated: The Big Sick is the best romcom in years.
 
The Big Sick is released by StudioCanal in UK cinemas on July 28.
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