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'The Big Sick': Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon's true, cross-cultural love story

Actor Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon attend the
Actor Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon attend the "The Big Sick" premiere during day 2 of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival at Eccles Center Theatre on January 20, 2017 in Park City, Utah.
Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival

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UPDATE: "The Big Sick" opened in theaters on June 23.

The biggest sale of the Sundance Film Festival so far this year was for the romantic comedy "The Big Sick." 

The film is directed by Michael Showalter. It tells how Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani ignored his parents wishes to be in an arranged marriage and instead fell in love with a non-Muslim woman — who happened to be in a medically induced coma. 

The film premiered on Friday, and within days Amazon had bought its distribution rights for $12 million. 

Fans of the TV series “Silicon Valley” will recognize comedian Nanjiani as the character Dinesh in that show. But he also works with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, a writer who for years has produced the popular comedy show in LA known as "The Meltdown."

Kumail Nanjiani, Frame host John Horn and Emily V. Gordon at Sundance 2017.
Kumail Nanjiani, Frame host John Horn and Emily V. Gordon at Sundance 2017.
Michelle Lanz/KPCC

They co-wrote "The Big Sick," and Nanjiani stars opposite Zoe Kazan, who plays Emily in the film. On Monday this week, we caught up with the husband and wife team at Sundance to talk about the film.

Interview Highlights:

On how they felt leading up to the first Sundance screening:

KN: I was terrified. Emily was a lot more confident than I was. Not that I wasn't confident in what we made, I'm just a worrier. 

EG: I didn't know what the possibilities could be for this. I wanted the movie to play well at Sundance and I wanted audiences to like it here. I wasn't thinking beyond that. If we get that, we'll be a success and I'll be so excited. It didn't even occur to me — bidding. None of that stuff had occurred to me. I would have been more nervous if it had.

KN: I just wanted people to like the movie. I wanted the reviews to be good, you know. They always say, it doesn't matter! You make it for yourself! But you kind of do and you don't. You make it for yourself but then you want other people to like it as well. 

On being sensitive to critiques about the film:

EG: It is true that people are very aware of a lot of things about us. It had not occurred to me that strangers would be coming up to me and asking me very specific questions about how we got together and my health and all this stuff. So that's been an interesting turn. 

KN: It's Monday morning and we showed the movie Friday night. It feels like it was three weeks ago.

On hearing affectionate reactions from the audience:

EG: The first screening, I was very emotional. It just was really lovely to see it with such a large audience. We've seen it with test audiences before but this was a very different experience and so moving and touching that it was kind of overwhelming. You know when you have the lump and you can't swallow it? That's where I was on Friday night.

KN: I was so nervous during the whole screening that at the end I was a little bit deer in the headlights. The next morning, we had another screening at 9AM and that one I enjoyed watching. Then afterwards I got very emotional at that screening. What was good was, the first one, people reacted the way we wanted them to react so that gave me confidence. It didn't feel like a fluke. So the next day when they started reacting similarly, I was like, this is not a fluke. And then I could just sort of enjoy peoples' reaction to it and at the end — it really hit me when I went on stage after the screening at 11AM and people stood up to clap.

On seeing their story onscreen and and Zoe Kazan playing Emily: 

EG: We've seen this movie so many billions of time because we've been involved in the editing process that it gets so far away from you that it's easy to judge. I never wanted anyone to do an impression of me when they were acting. So I wanted someone who would have a similar vibe to me but do their own thing with it. Zoe is an amazing actor so I trusted her choices. So it's lovely to watch. You hear little lines written in that are lines I would say. Other than that, I'm just enjoying her performance as a character named Emily... that is kind of me. 

KN: What was great about Zoe was, as we were casting this movie, we were like, we need someone who feels so alive and full of life that when she goes away for a significant chunk of the movie, you still feel her presence and you miss her. That was the challenge in casting and Zoe was perfect for that.

On selling the film to Amazon:

EG: So far this has felt like a family affair because this is such an intimate story. Everyone is treating it with this lovely intimacy which I love. Everyone wants to shepherd and take care of this little baby that we've all created together. And that's really important to me. We've had this discussion of how the movie will be marketed a lot. I think about it constantly because it is so many movies. It's a cross-cultural love story, it's a love letter to parents and how we are like them and not like them. It's a rom-com. It's a medical drama. 

KN: For me the main thing was, we weren't going to be in the sales meetings. We knew that, but the people who were like Judd Apatow, Barry Mendel and Michael Showalter, who's the director — they love the movie and they get it. We really are sort of a hive mind. We knew that our concerns about how this movie was going to be presented would be represented by those guys. We talked to them afterwards and they just said, Amazon seemed to be the most passionate about this movie and just understood what it was about the story that was important.

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