phone mail2 facebook twitter play whatsapp
An interview with director Michael Showalter
Image Credit: StudioCanal

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.

Tell us what you think

You may also like

Win 2 Tickets to The Snow Kingdom

Backyard Cinema - Win 2 Tickets to The Snow Kingdom

Secret caves of ice, a festive frozen lake & brilliant classic films!

“Theatre has always been there to restore a sense of sanity”: an interview with Sam Mendes

“Theatre has always been there to restore a sense of sanity”: an interview with Sam Mendes

London Calling spoke to director Sam Mendes about the continuing success of his latest West End offering, The Ferryman, the state of the film industry…

My Great Orchestral Adventure at the Royal Albert Hall

My Great Orchestral Adventure at the Royal Albert Hall

Travel to a mysterious, musical island this October half term!

Win a Horror Film Goody Bag!

BFI - Win a Horror Film Goody Bag!

If you’re looking for a suitably scary way to spend your Halloween this year, then look no further. We are offering one lucky winner a fantastic...

This Week October 2-8

This Week October 2-8

October is upon us – the scariest month of the year. Do Friday the 13th, Halloween and darker days full of things that go bump in…

Win 4 Grandstand Tickets

The Lord Mayor’s Show - Win 4 Grandstand Tickets

We've got a family ticket to give away to watch a spectacular, historic show.

Film Review: Blade Runner 2049

Film Review: Blade Runner 2049

Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is a perfectly realised vision, an intricate entertainment that maintains a deft balance between spellbinding spectacle and rich narrative subtlety.

Win a Copy of the Big Sick on DVD

Studiocanal - Win a Copy of the Big Sick on DVD

We're giving away three copies of Rotten Tomatoes' best reviewed film of summer 2017!

Win Two Tickets to an Italian Art Exhibition

Estorick Collection - Win Two Tickets to an Italian Art Exhibition

We've got a pair of tickets to give away to the Estorick exhibition on the influential Italian art movement, Arte Povera.

Win tickets to Ivan Putrov’s Men in Motion

London Coliseum - Win tickets to Ivan Putrov’s Men in Motion

Watch 100 years of dance in 100 minutes in this thrilling homage to history's best male dancers.

Most popular

Win a 3 Course Lunch for 2!

Park Chinois, Mayfair - Win a 3 Course Lunch for 2!

Hand-crafted dim sum, fine wine & luxurious Mayfair surroundings.
Win 2 Tickets to The Snow Kingdom

Backyard Cinema - Win 2 Tickets to The Snow Kingdom

Secret caves of ice, a festive frozen lake & brilliant classic films!
Win a Horror Film Goody Bag!

BFI - Win a Horror Film Goody Bag!

If you’re looking for a suitably scary way to spend your Halloween this year, then look no further.
Win a Copy of the Big Sick on DVD

Studiocanal - Win a Copy of the Big Sick on DVD

We're giving away three copies of Rotten Tomatoes' best reviewed film of summer 2017!
Win Great Music Prizes

Rhythm Passport - Win Great Music Prizes

Rhythm Passport's fantastic music give away is back for October!
Win 2 tickets to the Street Fan Exhibiton

Fan Museum - Win 2 tickets to the Street Fan Exhibiton

The Fan Museum are giving away tickets to a special exhibition.
Win 4 Grandstand Tickets

The Lord Mayor’s Show - Win 4 Grandstand Tickets

We've got a family ticket to give away to watch a spectacular, historic show.
Win Two Tickets to Timberlina’s FFS!!

Camden People's Theatre - Win Two Tickets to Timberlina’s FFS!!

A brand new glittering alt-drag, rock n roll eco-show for a vexed generation.
Win Tickets to a Night of Poetry & Comedy

Bang Said The Gun - Win Tickets to a Night of Poetry & Comedy

Spoken word impresarios and poetry collective Bang Said The Gun come to Soho Theatre this winter!
Win tickets to Ivan Putrov’s Men in Motion

London Coliseum - Win tickets to Ivan Putrov’s Men in Motion

Watch 100 years of dance in 100 minutes in this thrilling celebration of the male dancer.

Your inbox deserves a little culture!!