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The Big Sick interview: Director Michael Showalter on perfecting the romcom

The comedian, writer, and director talks the triumphs and pitfalls of the genre, as The Big Sick hits UK cinemas after becoming a surprise hit at the US box office

Clarisse Loughrey
Thursday 20 July 2017 17:00 BST

"I've always felt that it's only a cliché if you don't why you're doing it," The Big Sick's director, Michael Showalter, muses. And with one simple sentence, a hundred rom-com screenwriters withered into nothing.

Showalter knows his romantic comedies, that's for sure. 2014's They Came Together saw him collaborate with long-time writing partner David Wain on a parody which picked the bones of the genre clean like a ravenous hyena. New York is constantly referred to as its own character, lovers come together over a shared passion for "fiction books". No cliché was left unturned.

So, perhaps, it's not without a hint of irony that Showalter's latest project sees him turn from wry spectator to enthusiastic participant, adapting the true-life love story of comedian Kumail Nanjiani and writer Emily V Gordon for the big screen. With Nanjiani playing himself, and Zoe Kazan as Emily, the film remains just as hilarious as any of Showalter's past work, yet it's also a film that wholeheartedly engages with the genre it's spawned out of: both deeply romantic, and emotionally devastating as it is.

At the centre of The Big Sick is a relationship fraught with obstacles, the same beating heart of every romantic comedy. Kumail and Emily are first burdened by the cultural differences brought about by the former's traditional Pakistani Muslim upbringing, then by a sudden mystery illness which strikes down the latter. However, Showalter doesn't see this as any kind of grand transition for him, even away from 2001's Wet Hot American Summer: the Eighties teen movie parody that he's arguably best known for, and which recently spawned its own Netflix follow-up.

"With Wet Hot American Summer or They Came Together, to me, it's less parody and more absurd," he explains. "It's absurdist, it's silly, but there's still drama. The characters do get sad. Underneath everything in The Big Sick, meanwhile, there is still an engine of comedy, of humour. Even when there's nothing funny happening, lurking somewhere deep beneath the surface is the idea that something funny could happen at any moment, because that's the kind of world they live in. It's all just different levels of the same approach, which is to make things as funny as they can be, and as serious and dramatic as they can be."

The Big Sick's emotions may be more sincere, but Showalter admits his experience with the sillier excesses of the genre has taught him much, especially when it comes to the idea of what a cliché actually is. In his eyes, rom-coms are filled with tropes that work beautifully when a writer knows why audiences have such an affectation for them, disastrously when applied simply out of some obligatory notion that this is how a rom-com should be.

The Big Sick - Trailer

Thankfully, The Big Sick brings its own major subversion of the genre when Emily's mystery illness leaves her hospitalised in a coma, dropping her out of the narrative suddenly. "It would be like if, you know, in When Harry Met Sally, Meg Ryan just went into a coma 30 minutes into the movie," he jokes. "The whole first part of the movie is spent meeting these two characters, having them fall in love, becoming invested in their relationship, but you don't see that what's really happening is that she's going to get sick. And then the movie kind of starts over, and becomes a new movie."

Which begs the question: why do we worry about subverting cliché when real experience is right in our own hands? Why do rom-coms always roll out the same uptight CEOs paired with free-spirits, dragging themselves through arbitrary obstacles on towards that white picket fence future? Why not just write of our own love stories?

Showalter agrees, but with a caveat. "There's a point at which you don't want to feel like like you're just watching a re-enactment of the truth either," he explains. "You want to feel like you're watching a movie, and that it's entertaining and that you don't get lost in it. So, a lot of it has to do with manipulating the story a little. It can't be so personal and so attached to your actual life that it just feels like a documentary or a journal entry."

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He saw his own role as director, then, as becoming a caretaker of sorts for Nanjiani and Gordon's story, with the pair having also penned the film's script. He adds: "I was the one to fight for the thing that made it more cinematic, have more story, have more dramatic weight. So if, in the real argument, they kind of broke up but not really I'd be, like, let's make them break up. And not just break up, let's make it be the biggest and most epic break up ever. Let's really see fireworks. I'm a big believer that you have to remove yourself from it a little bit to get distance from it, so that it can be separate from you."

In separation from the personal, Showalter argues, there's a universal quality to be found. And, in truth, The Big Sick does feel universal, even for those that may not have suffered major illnesses or cultural differences within a relationship. "That's what drew me to it when I read it," he states. "It doesn't feel like I can't also have a piece of it. This is your story, but it's kind of my story too. We could have gone in another direction of, this is about what happened to them and that's the movie, but I think it would have been a smaller film."

Though Showalter states that much of the film is still surprisingly close to the truth, one major departure lay in the characters of Emily's parents, Terry and Beth, played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter; they enter the film after Emily falls into a coma, and the film shifts dramatically to examine their hesitantly developing relationship with Kumail.

"For whatever reason, we decided with Emily’s parents that we wanted to start with just a fresh idea," Showalter says. "So, we started thinking of this New York guy and this southern woman, and we early on had Ray Romano and Holly Hunter in mind as those characters, so we heard their voices as we were writing it. Once they agreed to do the movie, they did a lot of work on their characters, too. Every time a new actor would be in the movie we would completely rewrite the script for them. Which is great, it's how I think a movie comes to life, every little piece just keeps adding in."

That's certainly true of the scenes set in the local comedy club, where Kumail frequently performs, and which feature the likes of Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham, and Kurt Braunohler, all essentially playing themselves in some form or another. The Big Sick, in all its universalities, manages also to be a surprisingly honest look at the comedy industry – or, more accurately, the internal emotional life of a comedian.

Backstage dynamics seem prickly, perhaps, to an outsider viewer. Even in Kumail's darkest moments, he's constantly being ribbed by his fellow comics, but Showalter assures that it's just their own peculiar form of communication. "I would equate it to, like, if you get five musicians in a room, they all start jamming," he explains. "They all take their guitars out and they all start playing music and you're, like, what the hell is going on? I think comedians, that's what they do when they talk, and there's a comfort level to it. They express their love for him by making fun of him."

It's when a comedian steps on stage that those artifices drop, it seems, with The Big Sick showing a particularly touching moment in which Kumail, faced with stage lights and blank faces and the pressures of his own situation pushing against the back of his head, turns the stage into a confessional booth. It's not an uncommon sight, with comedian Tig Notaro famously improvising an entire set based on the cancer diagnosis she'd received only days before.

"There's something about the performance and anonymity of the audience and the microphone in your hand where you actually get to say your truth," Showalter offers. "That's the moment of purest expression, not just for the comedian, but for that person. I definitely felt that I could sometimes be more honest and more truthful to a room full of people that I've never met before than to a friend or to a loved one."

It's that same honesty, purity, and universal expression that has made The Big Sick a surprise hit in the States, both in its much-hyped premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival and at the US box office.

"People really like the movie, and have been talking about the movie, and it’s just great," Showalter confesses. "The scope of it, the way it affected people. This is for people who've had family members be sick, this is for people who've had difficulty with their families and cultural issues, and relationship issues, who've fallen in love, who are trying to decide their careers, made the big decisions that we make as we come of age and make compromises and sacrifices. We were just trying to make a big movie that could address all those themes."

The Big Sick hits UK cinemas on 28 July.

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