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How Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon wrote The Big Sick without ruining their marriage

“It was learning how to respect each other as co-workers, which is a different thing than as spouses.”

21st Annual Hollywood Film Awards - Red Carpet
Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani attend the Hollywood Film Awards in early November 2017.
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for HFA
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The Big Sick, one of the best movies of 2017, is a little slice of romantic comedy perfection. The film centers on a man named Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) as he falls in love with Emily (Zoe Kazan), only for the relationship to splinter when he won’t be open about it to his Pakistani immigrant parents.

The couple breaks up — and then she falls into a coma, he’s called to the hospital, and he slowly works through his issues while better getting to know her parents (played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter).

The movie’s biggest “a ha!” moment for viewers not intimately steeped in the comedy scene might come at the end, when the “real” Kumail (also Kumail Nanjiani) and Emily’s wedding photos appear onscreen alongside the closing credits. The “real” Emily is named Emily V. Gordon, and she and Nanjiani wrote the script for The Big Sick together, loosely extrapolating its story from their own life.

And sure, that’s impressive and all, but how do two married people write a big hit movie together without wanting to kill each other? The key, Gordon explained in the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, was that she and Nanjiani had already developed a professional relationship in addition to their romantic relationship, from having worked together on their podcast, The Indoor Kids, and the Comedy Central standup show The Meltdown with Kumail and Jonah.

“We had worked together in a couple different capacities. Writing was the new part for this time, but we have a good working relationship together,” she said.

“Writing is the most fraught,” Nanjiani added. “You can write something and send it to someone, and if they don’t like it, that can feel very personal. So it was good that we’d established a relationship and boundaries and stuff.”

But also important to their working relationship was that they had figured out how to blend a personal relationship as spouses with a professional relationship as co-workers. The two explain:

GORDON: It was like learning how to respect each other as co-workers, which is a different thing than as spouses. We would go into meetings, and I would expect my spouse to have my back, every single thing that I say, but my co-worker gets to disagree with what I have to say. That was a different thing for us to navigate. We’d gotten all that under control by the time we were writing together. And then we’re both fans of each other’s writing style, and so it’s lovely to get to take on each other’s work.

NANJIANI: We have very similar points of reference, because we obviously in the last 10 years have seen kind of the same movies, so you could kind of be, like, ‘Oh, it’s like that scene in that movie!’ So that was good, that shorthand that comes from having watched the same stuff.

GORDON: We also had the same nerd shorthand. That’s why we got together. We had watched the same stuff growing up and had played the same video games growing up, so we already had a shorthand that then just kept growing.

How did the couple keep those personal and professional lives separate, even at home? They had some insights into that as well.

“We set up rules and stuff,” Gordon said. “We have specific workplaces in the home that are separate from where we live in our home. It’s not that our house is that big. We just carve out a corner. Don’t talk about work in bed. That’s a big one.”

“And get permission before you’re going to talk about work,” Nanjiani added. “It can be very easy for things to get too fluid and you’re just talking about work all day, especially if you’re making a movie. So I have to say, ‘Hey, Emily, can I talk about work?’ and she has to give me permission. ... Just that little gear shift was massive. It makes the biggest difference.”

For more with Nanjiani and Gordon — as well as Hunter and Romano — check out the latest episode of I Think You’re Interesting. And if you haven’t seen The Big Sick yet, it hits Amazon Prime streaming on Friday, November 24.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.

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