Aspen Film Academy Screenings: Director Michael Showalter on making ‘The Big Sick’
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘The Big Sick’ at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings
Where: Paepcke Auditorium
When: Friday, Dec. 22, 8 p.m.
How much: $20; $15 for Aspen Film members; free for members of the Academy and associated guilds
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
More info: Also playing at Academy Screenings on Friday are ‘The Florida Project’ at 2 p.m. and ‘Last Flag Flying’ at 5 p.m.
Few would have predicted that Michael Showalter — the hero of comedy nerds for his time on “The State” and for writing “Wet Hot American Summer” — would evolve into a master and innovator of big screen romantic comedy.
But with “The Big Sick,” which plays Friday night at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings, the director has revitalized the genre and helmed an awards season contender.
Written by husband-and-wife team Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, based on the incredible true story of their unusual courtship, the film was a critical darling out of the Sundance Film Festival last winter and a box office hit over the summer. It stars Nanjiani as a version of himself, an aspiring comedian struggling to tell his Pakistani parents that he doesn’t want a traditional arranged marriage, and Zoe Kazan as Emily, who is hospitalized with a mysterious illness during a rocky period early in her relationship with Kumail.
Directing a film that is so personal to your star and his wife might seem like a tough spot for a filmmaker, a recipe for creative conflicts. But Showalter said in a recent phone interview that there was no such friction making “The Big Sick.”
Showalter and Nanjiani are friends, and the actor had been in Showalter’s most recent film, “Hello, My Name is Doris.” Nanjiani and Gordon sent Showalter the script for feedback soon after they completed it. But he immediately knew he wanted to direct it himself.
“I thought it was spectacular, and asked Kumail, ‘Do you have a director yet and, if not, can I direct it?’” Showalter recalled. “‘Who do I have to convince?’”
When he outlined his vision for the film to producers Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel, they brought him on board. He spent about eight months refining the screenplay with Nanjiani and Gordon, crafting it into what would become the most acclaimed comedy of the year.
“For me, it was about making a movie that the whole world could feel a connection to,” Showalter said. “I told them that. I said their story is their story, but my focus is to make a story that excites for everyone — not just a re-enactment of something.”
The long and collaborative revision process got Showalter, Nanjiani and Gordon on the same page.
“Kumail and Emily and I were in sync and had worked through those potential obstacles,” he said.
Clever and winning, the film avoids the usual romantic comedy cliches and what could easily have been a treacly hospital waiting room melodrama. The film also benefits from an extraordinary ensemble cast, including Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents, who bond with Kumail while Emily is in a coma. Bollywood legend Anupam Kher plays Kumail’s father, Zenobia Shroff his mother. Kumail’s cohort of scrappy aspiring stand-up comedians include the likes of Aidy Bryant and Bo Burnham. The cast has been nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award, which bodes well for the movies Academy Awards chances.
Along with his time in sketch comedy and as co-creator of the darkly comic millennial send-up “Search Party,” Showalter has written and directed subversive spins on the rom-com genre like “The Baxter” and “They Came Together,” which prepared him to make “The Big Sick.” If he was able to skirt the pitfalls and cliches of the form in “The Big Sick,” he said, it’s due to his dutiful study of the genre.
“In the course of writing all those movies, I’ve watched a lot of movies and read a lot of scripts and tried to deconstruct them for myself, to understand why the choices are made the way they are in those movies,” he said. “So with anything, but certainly with ‘The Big Sick,’ I have a lot of reference points.”
Premiering at Sundance, as President Donald Trump was inaugurated, the film’s portrait of a Muslim-American family and of its feel-good cross-cultural romance were also a welcome and timely counterpoint to the bigotry the new president had stoked.
“The timing was really good, in terms of the temperature of where things were in our country and in the kinds of stories people want to hear – its relevant to where the country is right now,” Showalter said.
Academy Awards voters are notoriously tough on comedies and on movies released before the fall prestige season, making this awards season an uphill battle for “The Big Sick.” The odds-makers at Gold Derby have it as a long-shot for a best picture nomination, but the Oscar prognosticators are predicting it will land other nods, with Holly Hunter as a likely best supporting actress nominee and Nanjiani and Gordon as likely best screenplay nominees.
Showalter is making the most of the awards season shuffle, hopping between events in Los Angeles and New York and talking about his movie.
“I’m trying to enjoy it and not take it too seriously,” he said, “because the movie is already a success and that’s the main thing. So all of this is icing on the cake.”
Still, he hopes to see his film and his cast rewarded for their work. And having a team of comedians behind a movie makes the whole absurd awards season process more palatable. When “The Big Sick” was inexplicably snubbed for any Golden Globes nominations, Nanjiani playfully trolled the Hollywood Foreign Press Association on Twitter and won the Internet for a day.
“Once it’s in the mix, those competitive fires start to go off and you want to see your movie do well and be recognized,” Showalter said. “When it is recognized, it’s a great feeling. When it’s not, it leaves you with a sour taste in your mouth. But it’s all a luxury problem to have.”
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