The Big Sick: Q&A with Executive Producer Jeremy Kipp Walker
On Saturday July 15, the County Theater welcomed producer Jeremy Kipp Walker for a Q&A session following a sold out screening of his new film, The Big Sick. The film is based on the true love story of actor/comedian (and star of the film) Kumail Nanjiani and writer/producer Emily Gordon (portrayed by Zoe Kazan in the film). The film premiered at Sundance in January and was a hit.
During his preshow remarks Mr. Walker talked about how, even before the film had a distributor, Renew Theaters’ co-director Chris Collier reached out to offer congratulations on the film’s performance at Sundance and that as soon as the film came to Doylestown they could put together an event at the County Theater. Walker commented that there was “such a special connection back to Pennsylvania at that time” and that the County “is an incredible theater and really needs to be celebrated.” Walker also promoted the post-screening Q&A with a promise that “if any of you have ever watched the end credits and wondered what a best boy grip did, I’m your guy. So now that will be demystified” with the disclaimer “I actually don’t know what a best boy grip does, but I’m going to Google it during the screening.”
The audience was eager with questions following the screening. Our first commentor asked what it was like working on a film that was a true story and so close to the people who wrote the script. Mr. Walker responded that,
Each project comes together a little differently…Kumail and his wife Emily have been writing [The Big Sick] for a number of years. They knew Judd Apatow, who is pretty well known…and they developed the project for years…I became involved last winter (2015?) when they were starting to put together the production plan. I said to the guys…’Listen, I’ve wanted to work with you on this movie, but if I don’t I’ll be the first one buying a ticket’. I just loved everything about it. It had such great heart and comedy. What I love about comedies like this is that they still stay true to character. You’re laughing all the way through it, but it’s never quite jokes for jokes sake.
The next question asked whether the production team ever considered using the real Emily in her part. Mr. Walker said,
Kumail is an actor by trade…and for Emily it was just not something that she wanted to do. She was a huge part of the project as co-writer and executive producer. It’s her story, and she was constantly at the monitor and adding ideas…She was extremely involved in every step of the creative process. But I think it was also good for her to have some objectivity as well. Kumail had to play both parts, he was the writer reenacting his own life and it was great for them to kind of counter balance it and have her behind the scenes. Plus Zoe [Kazan] is such an incredible actress and, I think, just did an amazing job there.
Another question focused on the dynamic between everyone on set. Mr. Walker had no juicy stories to share of squabbling or disagreements:
It was such a special group of people and it was a little movie. The whole production budget was around five million dollars, which is pretty low by indie [standards], and everyone came to it just because they wanted to be there. And I think just that energy came through the screen and just kind of dictated the whole environment on set, so it was very pleasant.
In the film, Kumail’s family takes issue with his relationship with someone from a different culture and the audience wondered how long it took for him and his parents to reconcile. Mr. Walker said that,
Some things are skewed a little bit for dramatic purposes, as they always are in true stories…I think, over time, family comes first and love comes first. It did take them some time, but as you see in the photos [shown during the credits], by the end everyone was together…but my sense of it was about two years or so.
The audience also enquired about the casting process for the film. Mr. Walker explained,
Kumail and Emily are pretty tapped in and they’ve got a lot of friends, so the comedians, Bo Burnham and Kurt [Braunohler] and everybody there…were friends that were happy to help and be a part of the movie. People really want to work with Judd Apatow so that was a great casting magnet for it… [For the roles of Emily’s parents] Ray Romano was not the obvious choice, but I thought he nailed it. He’s amazing and comes to it with such great humor. I’ve attended a number of Q&As where he talked about the trepidation of working with Holly Hunter and what that means, working against such a talent, and she raises the bar in every scene that she’s in…You don’t have a choice but to react to everything she’s throwing at you as an actor. We were just so lucky to have that. I think between Kumail and Judd and Michael Showalter, the director, and just a really good script, people came to it.
In response to a question regarding the biggest challenge the production faced, Mr. Walker commented,
A lot of movies at this price point are a bit grittier. Usually when you think of a Sundance indie movie [you think of] shaky cam and very dire situations. We knew we were trying to make something that could ideally…play to wider audiences. I’m so happy we are celebrating the film here tonight, but it’s at 2500 screens this weekend, which has never happened for any movie I’ve been on. So the challenge…was how do we engineer everything [so] that it will feel like a quote unquote ‘real movie’ to general audiences?…You have to be really smart and judicious about what you show and what you don’t show…when you’ve got a great cast, than that’s the most important thing, so you’re happy to just live with them in these rooms. Trying to make it feel like it punched above its weight in terms of how much money we had, that was the biggest challenge.
Walker also discussed the adlibbing that inherently comes with a cast full of comedians:
I think that’s a byproduct of just [being] surrounded by really funny people, people on screen, comedians behind the scenes…When they weren’t in scenes they would often show up at set and everyone’s kind of pitching jokes, which is great, but not when you’re on the clock. So there were times when we really let it run and…times when we kind of had to reign it in. I’m really glad we did let it run when we did cause there were some real jokes that came out of that.
Another question from the audience asked if, at any time during production, they got a “special feeling like this was going to be a really good thing”. Walker replied,
It’s a tough question…Nobody sets out to make a bad movie, right? But there’s thousands and thousands of decisions that get made along the way and all of these different hurtles. There’s hurtles in the writing, there’s hurtles in the preproduction and production, and then again in the editing, and then also when it comes out. I was joking with a filmmaker friend of mine on a different movie and we’re like ‘When’s the good part? This is stressful’…And I can say honestly, tonight is the good part. Being with you guys and celebrating, it’s truly special. You start to feel that you’ve got something, but you never know. Everybody went into the Sundance screening terrified, just not knowing. We liked it, but nobody wants to say their child is ugly, right?…It’s not until you start to share it with other people that you really get a sense.
A common question in Q&As, including ours, is the origin of the title and whether other titles were considered. Mr. Walker said,
It’s funny, we all joke that the movie needs a better title but we just couldn’t think of one. It was The Big Sick for as long as I was ever involved and everyone talked about it and talked about it through the editing process…and now it just is that…I’m not sure where it came from. The script I got first had that on the title page, and I never thought to ask. But it did seem to me at the time like a title that was going to change later.
Since Mr. Walker only joined the project in 2015, the audience was curious about how long the whole process took, from shooting to Sundance. Walker walked the audience through the process:
I first started talking about it with everyone in November of 2015, but we didn’t really get going until March of 2016. And then we shot for 26 days, so just 5 weeks…primarily in New York. [For post-production] we took a while…most films cut in like 12–14 weeks and this price point, so 3–4 months. We took a little bit longer…We shot in the spring…We cut over the summer months, and by the time we got into September/October we had the shape of the film. But then there was a bunch of work to do in the post-production side. And music is tricky…it’s also very expensive, and there’s a battle in terms of figuring out what we could afford and not…It took almost until Sundance in January  to have the finished-finished version.
Walker spoke regarding the hoops jumped through to get the film financed and producer:
Apatow usually makes much bigger films…and we knew this wasn’t that…it’s a smaller film. And we also wanted to control it. It’s such a personal story for Kumail and Emily. It’s sometimes a double-edged sword when you’re working with a studio because now they’re cash-flowing everything and they’ve got a say, and everyone wanted to protect the core of what the film was. Through an agency, UTA, they brought [the film] out to independent financiers and we teamed up with a company in New York called FilmNation…they’re in the business of foreign sales and producing projects and for them it was a great business decision, you’ve got a Judd Apatow movie for 5 million dollars! What could go wrong?
An audience member asked how they were able to have bigger names like Holly Hunter and Ray Romano on a $5 million dollar budget. In these situations, Walker said,
The only way those projects ever work is if there’s a kind of system of parity. The idea is nobody’s getting paid. No one’s going to make a million dollars on a $5 million dollar film. So everyone takes very low fees, 100%, and that’s from the top down. So nobody got much money upfront. We did have a big sale at Sundance [for the distribution rights], so that was exciting.
The same audience member asked if that meant that everyone would then be paid, to which Mr. Walker replied “That’s the hope”. Walker’s comments on this were made the day after the film went into wide release, so he would not yet have known that the film would gross more than its budget on opening weekend alone.
As pointed out by an audience member, the film unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you look at it, has so many good laughs that the audience laughs over the next joke. Walker said,
Yeah I felt that. Hey, you’ll have to come back and hear all the lines again! [Audience laughter] …There’s a real almost science to testing a comedy. When Judd does his big films, they test it and test it and test it…they actually record the audience and say ‘Ok, this laugh lasted four seconds, so we need to move that line over here.’ And we didn’t have the money to do that…I regret it a little bit cause I felt it even a little bit tonight. I’m like ‘Oh, there’s another joke in there that people are missing’. There’s the joke and there’s the joke behind the joke.
Mr. Walker was asked to describe his role as executive producer on the film:
My role on this was primarily to figure out the production plan, to figure out how exactly we we’re gonna make it. I sort of equate it to drawing up blueprints for the building that you’re going to build…I always approach it from a filmmaking standpoint, but my job is to say, ‘Ok, how are we actually going to do this? This is the amount of money we have, this is the amount of time.’ So it’s a bit of engineering, and not that dissimilar to being a general contractor at a construction site, but with a lot more creative people. Managing that whole team, finding the locations, hiring the crew, figuring out exactly how we’re going to do this, in conjunction with the director and the producer.
Regarding whether there is anything about the process or the film that he would have done differently, Mr. Walker said,
I think, for my taste, I could lose 10 minutes from the movie, personally. Judd [Apatow] really likes a full meal. What I would say is you go to Thanksgiving dinner and there’s a point when you’re full, even though the food still looks great…[Also] while we were shooting, part of their approach, in addition to adlibbing, is they’ll shoot a lot. And so we had a couple of scenes that were pretty expensive for us that didn’t end up in the movie. Believe it or not, there was actually more. And had you had the foresight ahead of time, it would be great to use those resources elsewhere. That said, I’m very happy with the movie and the way it turned out.
For our final question, an audience member asked, “Now that [the film has] been released into the wild…what outcome for you would be the most gratifying in terms of audience response?” Mr. Walker replied,
The critic response has been really satisfying, so that’s the first step, and you feel like ‘Alright, people responded to it’. And that’s a great bit of validation [if] nobody sees your movie, because then you can say ‘Hey, the critics liked it’…This one actually has the possibility of doing both, where you can get that great New York Times review, but then people can actually see it. And then when I go to Thanksgiving and talk about a movie, then I can feel like I actually made a real movie as opposed to that movie that nobody’s heard of. [Audience laughter] But all of that, I think, ultimately is about sharing it with the community…I think everybody makes these things, the stories exist, so we can tell them and we can share them…whether that’s with critics or smaller audiences or bigger audiences, that’s the payoff.
Unfortunately, we were unable to get to the topic of the best boy grip. It shall remain a mystery.
Mr. Walker’s other film credits include Table 19, Half Nelson, The History of Future Folk, and Maria Full of Grace.
Renew Theaters and the County Theater would like to thank Jeremy Kipp Walker for joining us and for sharing his insights with our audience.