Michael Showalter on The Big Sick

The Big Sick, a quirky love story drawn from real life, is one of the year's funniest comedies. Director Michael Showalter tells us about balancing laughs and drama for his third feature as director

Feature by Josh Slater-Williams | 18 Jul 2017

“I think the writing and directing is more natural for me; it’s a more comfortable place.” The Skinny is talking to Michael Showalter, the American comedian, actor, producer, writer and director, ahead of the international premiere of his latest directorial effort, The Big Sick, at the Sundance London film festival. “And I suppose,” he continues, “it’s just been a natural journey. As you get more serious about it, you sort of figure out what part of the process you like the most, and I really like being behind the camera the most. The writing process, the whole production side of it is really where I’ve found the most enjoyment.”

Showalter first came to prominence in the mid-90s as a cast member on MTV sketch series The State, which he co-wrote and co-created alongside various other enduring figures of the American comedy scene – Michael Ian Black, Ken Marino, Thomas Lennon and Joe Lo Truglio among them. Considering that The State didn’t get much in the way of an airing outside the US, Showalter may be more recognisable to UK viewers for another cult comedy favourite from a few years later: Wet Hot American Summer, a 2001 send-up of 80s summer camp movies, featuring a stacked ensemble of talent that only gets more impressive with time – it features some of the earliest roles of Bradley Cooper and Elizabeth Banks.

A critical and commercial failure upon release, the increasing fandom for Wet Hot American Summer saw it recently revived as a Netflix series, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, which brought back all the main cast for a prequel narrative, despite everyone (including Showalter himself) looking visibly older – well, except for Paul Rudd, that man never ages. A follow-up series, Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later, is on the way for later this year, with Showalter once again co-writing with director David Wain (Role Models, Wanderlust). “They’re involved a little bit,” Showalter says of Netflix, “they read the scripts and they come to our table reads and they’ll give us input, but they’re pretty hands off, which is great."

Showalter and Wain also collaborated on Wain’s last feature as a director: the glorious romantic comedy spoof They Came Together. Showalter’s own career as a director, now three theatrical features deep, has tended to favour romantic comedies, albeit on a more dramatic register than the skewering he helped write for They Came Together. The new film, The Big Sick, is one of the best entries in the genre in quite some time. This, however, is not a movie he wrote, with screenwriting duty instead assigned to married couple Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, who bring to the screen a version of how their real-life relationship began.

Zoe Kazan plays the film version of Emily, but Nanjiani, a stand-up comedian and one of the stars of HBO’s Silicon Valley, is the lead of the movie. We ask Showalter if there’s any strange element to directing the writer of the movie, who is also playing a version of himself?

“Yeah,” he answers. “I mean I’ve done it myself – where I’ve had the added benefit of having played myself in things, too (directorial debut The Baxter). The interesting part would be where sometimes he’d say, ‘I’m feeling this way in the scene,’ and I’d say, ‘I think he’s feeling like this in the scene.’ And we would talk it out and have a conversation about it, but Kumail was very prepared, was working really hard on his performance on his own time; he’s very up to the challenge.”

On the topic of Nanjiani playing himself, Showalter assures us there was no case of shying away from an unflattering portrait: “I think we tried to take the true story of what really happened and who Kumail really is and shape it into something that would also work as entertainment. But I’m sure that there’s an extent to which you write a version of yourself that has certain qualities that maybe are the fulfilment of some aspiration of who you wanna be. But we tried to make sure his character was flawed and multi-dimensional and all those things.”

First act spoilers ahoy for the following elaboration on the film’s true story source (it’s in the trailer, anyway): born in Pakistan, Nanjiani moved to the US when he was 18, and in the early 2000s started dating Caucasian American Gordon. Cultural differences, particularly the matter of arranged marriage in Pakistani culture, caused a rift in their relationship and they broke up. Not long after, Gordon ended up having to be put into a medically induced coma, courtesy of an unclear illness. Regretting their relationship’s fallout, Nanjiani ended up bonding with Gordon’s parents (played onscreen by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) in the hospital. And for the rest of the story, you’ll have to see the movie.

It’s a heavy premise for a comedy, but The Big Sick is consistently hilarious alongside being moving. “The movie was always written to be this sort of in-between place,” Showalter tells us of editing the film just right. “It always needed to be funny, and so it was never a problem of it being not dramatic enough. It was always a question of how to make it funnier, because the drama is so inherent because of what’s happening in the story. Editing goes on for months and you try this out and you try that out – hey, let’s go back and look at the scene and add in three more jokes here. [Producer] Judd Apatow really brings a lot of expertise around finding every possible moment to put a joke in.”

Thematically, The Big Sick is a lot about difference and understanding each other, and also, in a way, about what America is – this melting pot of cultures. In light of the various disconcerting political developments over the last year, we ask Showalter if he feels anything about the film’s emotional core has changed in the wake of Trump’s America.

“When I was working on the movie in pre-production, Obama was still the President and even then it felt very important, because there was this feeling – this swell of negative, anti-immigrant sentiment existed. And the election was ramping up and there was all of this rhetoric, this negative rhetoric coming, and it felt like an important statement to make.” He pauses. “Little did we know.

“So everything that was important about it prior to now has just been amplified. It’s not new, it’s more just that instead of reinforcing a positive message, we’re actually making a positive message in a vacuum right now. So I’m really happy about that. I’m really proud that we’re doing that and that this movie is coming out when it is at a time where I think, hopefully, people need that. But I’m also sad that we’re where we are.”

As our time wraps up, we figure it best to leave things on a lighter note. A film pitch, then: can we please get They Came Together: Ten Years Later? Showalter’s response: “Sure, that’s a great idea.” You can say that again.

The Big Sick is released 28 Jul by StudioCanal