In the lead-up to this year’s Academy Awards on March 4, EW is taking a closer look at some of the screenplays honored in the original and adapted categories. Each weekday between now and Oscar night, a nominated writer will break down a single scene that was essential to the stories they were telling and explain how the pages came together.
When the writers of The Big Sick, Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, talk about the people in the movie, they’re careful to refer to them as “the character Kumail” and “the character Emily.” Because while the movie, which is earned them a Best Original Screenplay nom, is based on the early stages of their relationship and the medical scare Gordon experienced, it’s not a documentary. Their first date, however, did play out pretty similarly in real life.
In the movie, Kumail (playing himself) shows Emily (Zoe Kazan) cult British horror comedy The Abominable Dr. Phibes starring Vincent Price. While writing the script, Nanjiani took a first crack at writing the scene before sending it over to Gordon for a rewrite, as their process typically goes. “In my version, I wrote it and the character Emily is delighted by the movie,” he said. “Then when writer Emily did the rewrite, suddenly it was a very different thing.” That version was closer to the final one, where Emily gets a little bored and calls Kumail out for testing her.
“I was like, ‘Oh, I guess that date went differently than I remember it going,'” Nanjiani said. “But it’s a good example how each of our perspectives inform each scene of the movie and how sometimes when we weren’t on the same page, it ended up complicating the scenes in a good way.”
“That’s a scene where people come up to us specifically — guys and girls — and say this reminds of their dating lives,” Gordon added.
Below, the writers dive even deeper into the scene.
[asked about the fact that The Abominable Dr. Phibes actually came out in 1971]
NANJIANI: “Oh! I said 1969 because I figured that’s probably when they started writing and producing this.”
NANJIANI: “Have you seen that movie? You don’t just make that up.”
GORDON: “So that means Kumail in the movie is way too aware of how the biz works, which is also anachronistic.”
NANJIANI: “But I will admit that MGM is the company that owns distribution now. But — Wait. You know what? My character was wrong. I wasn’t wrong. Yeah!”
GORDON: “There you go.”
NANJIANI: “It’s not a goof. We did it on purpose. Here, I’m going to start my answer over. Yeah, we did that on purpose to show that Kumail is not as smart as he thinks he is. [To Gordon] Watch this bulls—. [To EW] Part of his character is that he’s a guy who thinks he knows everything, but he really doesn’t. He’s confident about things he shouldn’t be.”
GORDON: “Kind of like the way you are now.”
GORDON: “I would love to see more of that because I feel like I grew up watching rom-coms where I was like, ‘Oh, my role here is to like everything that the guy is doing.’ That’s how they’re written. The guy does weird, charming things, and the woman is like, ‘What a delight! This is fantastic! I can’t wait for something to come along and keep us apart until the end of the movie.'”
NANJIANI: “One of our tasks was that we never wanted Emily and Kumail to be on the same page right up until the end of the movie, so they’re still getting to know each other and falling in love in the first act, but they’re never really on the same page. You’ll see certain scenes where one person is making an effort and the other isn’t. One person is vulnerable, and one person is closed-off. This is another fun example of that because this is Kumail’s way of trying to reach out and show himself, and she doesn’t like the way that he’s doing that.”
GORDON: “She doesn’t hate it either.”
NANJIANI: “She’s sort of making fun of him, but I think it’s also her way of showing, ‘If you really want to show yourself, show yourself.'”
GORDON: “Yeah, ‘Talk to me.'”
NANJIANI: “‘Don’t do these games.'”
NANJIANI: “This is true. There are spoilers in the menu.”
NANJIANI: “Lot of times — to be honest — you cut out scene description for us when you give it to the AD [assistant director], to get page count down, so that they don’t freak out about how many pages you have to get a day. The drafts that we had would have more description, and then it would go to the production draft. I don’t know if I’m supposed to be saying this, but we would cut out a lot of the description that the director and actors knew. Otherwise, the AD would be like, ‘Wait. We’re supposed to get 10 pages today? That’s too much.’ Whereas now, it’s only eight pages.”
GORDON: “I do love that movie. It’s an amazing movie, and that is one that was not actually in my repertoire. As a nerd girl growing up, I would always have guys introducing me to stuff I already knew, and part of me would be insulted, like, ‘How could you think I wouldn’t know about that show?’ But Dr. Phibes was not a movie I had seen before. I love Vincent Price, but more for his association with Michael Jackson and Edward Scissorhands, so that was a nice intro, but I also liked it because it was a non-standard first-date movie. It is a low, ponderous item.”
NANJIANI: “Listen, you should take it as a compliment that that’s the movie I wanted to show you.”
GORDON: “Do you hear how men talk?”
NANJIANI: “Don’t interrupt me. I could have shown a more basic item.”
GORDON: “We did not finish the movie. That’s for sure. I feel like you’re doing press for The Abominable Dr. Phibes more than you are for The Big Sick.”
NANJIANI: “It’s a very good movie.”