Interview: Michael Showalter talks The Big Sick and balancing comedy and drama
Luke Channell | On 06, Jun 2017
Renowned for his breakthrough role in 2001 cult classic Wet Hot American Summer and multiple collaborations with comedian David Wain, Michael Showalter first turned his hand to directing with his debut The Baxter in 2005. Showalter didn’t direct another film for a decade, instead focusing on TV work and teaching screenwriting, until his critical and commercial success Hello, My Name Is Doris, in 2015. Just two years later and he’s helming his third feature – a romantic comedy produced by Judd Apatow, featuring a fantastic cast (including Kamil Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), and based on the real-life cross-cultural courtship of comedian Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon.
Snapped up by Amazon in the second biggest deal of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, The Big Sick has already generated a considerable amount of buzz (read our review here). As it arrives on the big screen, we chat with Michael Showalter about casting Kumail and Emily’s on-screen parents, balancing the comedy and seriousness of the script and why Amazon was the right distributor for the film.
Could you start by explaining the title?
Kamil and Emily wrote the film and that was the title they had before I started working on it. I think to them it was like The Big C. They don’t talk about The Big Sick, that’s the big incident that occurred, it’s the big moment. What I thought of it was The Big Sick is love, is family, is New York City, it’s a lot of different things. I like that it can be seen as a lot of different things, that’s what I think is interesting – you can decide what you think The Big Sick is.
Did anyone try and make you change the title to something else?
Yeah, we thought about many different titles. No one ever said ‘You have to change the title’, but there was an awareness that people might not like it. A lot of different ideas came up, but I feel like it’s memorable if nothing else. It’s a memorable title, that’s a good thing.
Did Kamil and Zoe get involved in casting the actors who played their on-screen parents?
As we were working on the script we started developing the characters of her parents and we started thinking of Ray Romano.
Really? As early as that?
Yeah and Holly Hunter as well. Both characters aren’t so true to who Emily’s real parents are, they are more creations. We just started thinking about what actors would we love to see in these roles and we started thinking about Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. This New York guy and this feisty Southern Woman and they were the two who we thought of and they had this incredible chemistry together.
And what about Kumail’s parents?
The actor who plays his father is this actor named Anupam Kher who’s like one of the biggest stars in Bollywood and, in fact, The Big Sick is his 500th movie. He had Bollywood film crews filming it as a big celebration of Anupam Kher’s 500th movie. He has like 8 million followers on Twitter, he’s one of the biggest stars in Bollywood.
Kamil describes him as Robert De Niro level famous in India. It’s weird because no one in America really knows who he is. Some people do – we went to an Indian restaurant in New York and it was like the biggest deal ever when he walked in the door. Around certain people he’s very, very, very famous, but it’s interesting to work with someone and realise how successful and famous that person is in their country. He’s in that movie Silver Linings Playbook and from that we thought, wow, it would be great if we could get him to do this as well, because of the comedy and drama. Then the actress who plays his mother is a woman named Zenobia Shroff, who’s a New York theatre actress that we found through auditions. We looked at a lot of different actresses and she came in and auditioned for us and was fantastic.
“We were looking to partner with someone that wanted to do straight theatrical distribution”
How easy was it to balance the comedic and serious sides of the script?
Emily and Kumail wrote the script and then myself and Judd Apatow and Barry Mandle, who are the producers, all worked on it with them. So, it wasn’t a huge number of people. For me, the challenge was always going to be how to keep it funny after she goes into a coma. Because it’s not funny and I don’t want it to be funny. I didn’t want it to be a joke. I wanted to honour how terrifying that can be and how gut-wrenching that can be. But, at the same time, to find the humour in a way, so that you’re laughing and enjoying laughing – not just laughing every once in a while. That was very hard. That’s the challenge – to be funny, really funny, but not to the extent where you’re not taking seriously what’s happening. But also, not being so serious that the movie becomes melodramatic and so serious that it’s like a drama. That’s a very hard balance and that was always my challenge. My thinking was always ‘How are we going to do that? How are we going to thread that needle?’ – it’s not an easy thing to do, because every little decision that’s made early on sets the tone for what’s going to happen afterwards. There were a lot of decisions in the process of writing the script that hopefully allowed us to walk that line.
From a personal perspective, what’s your favourite comedy and what film has moved you to tears?
Interesting… obviously there’s so many. I grew up loving the sillier comedies like Airplane! or Monty Python.
Yes, absurdists. Early Steve Martin. Early Woody Allen. That silly absurd humour is very much my sensibility. I like a movie like The Trip that finds comedy and sadness side by side. The comedy is the awkwardness of humanity. The excruciating awkwardness of just being a person is something I find very funny.
Are you a fan of Judd Apatow’s?
Yes. And he absolutely deals with all of those things. Then a movie that makes me cry… I should be able to think of one right off the bat. I probably avoid the movies that make me cry.
Stand By Me?
No, if it’s trying to make me cry I usually don’t. If it’s gunning for that I usually won’t… I’ve got to think about that…
With Amazon acquiring the distribution rights to the film, how important do you think VOD services are to the future of indie filmmaking?
Well, Amazon is actually a normal theatrical distribution company and that’s one of the reasons why we chose to go with Amazon. Manchester by the Sea is their big film and they are basically saying that we are a normal distribution company like anybody else and we will keep the movie in the theatres for as long as people want to see it and we’ll open it as wide as we are able to. VOD and streaming is not really part of their strategy until the movie’s theatrical run is completely finished. So, on that level, we were looking to partner with someone that wanted to just do a straight theatrical distribution and Amazon was that company. Obviously, they have enormous bandwidth on the internet once the theatrical release is done – they have just unbelievable access. So, it’s a really good place to be on.
How important is Sundance as a channel for films like yours?
We’ll see. There’s a certain amount of prestige obviously and then a lot of press that comes along with being able to be at a festival like this. In America, there are a couple of rounds of press and there’s a lot of coverage of the festival, so it gets the word out there and people get excited about it. We’ll see how it goes.
Have you got any future projects on the horizon?
On the feature side, I’m working on a couple of things but nothing’s definitive. But I do a TV show called Search Party which is on TBS [and available exclusively on All 4 in the UK]. We are about to go into production on our second season.
Photos: Sarah Shatz, Nicole Rivelli