How 'The Big Sick,' 'Lady Bird' Brought Real-Life Experiences to the Big Screen

Left, courtesy of Lionsgate, right, courtesy of A24
'The Big Sick' and 'Lady Bird'

Greta Gerwig made 'Lady Bird' the opposite of her rule-follower time in Catholic High school while Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani stuck close to the script of their real-life courtship.

Several screenwriters took the classic advice "Write what you know" to heart, using inspiration from their own lives for a trio of semi-autobiographical tales in 2017 — namely, Lady Bird, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and The Big Sick.

Writer-director Greta Gerwig borrowed from her time as a theater nerd at a Catholic high school in Sacramento who had New York aspirations for A24's Lady Bird but, she says, that's where the similarities stop. "Lady Bird [played by Saoirse Ronan] is the opposite of how I was in Catholic school. I was a real rule-follower and a people-pleaser and a gold star-getter. Lady Bird is a flawed heroine that I invented." Along those lines, Gerwig's creative collaborator and partner, Noah Baumbach, has said his Meyerowitz Stories — the father-sons dramedy starring Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler — was inspired by the feelings surrounding real-life events rather than actual events. Gerwig agrees: "Even though I start with things that are close to me, they so quickly spin out and become their own characters."

In contrast, Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani stuck more or less to the script of their real-life courtship for The Big Sick. Gordon was a bit apprehensive because many of her friends didn't even know about her sickness and medically induced coma. "What won out is that I wanted to tell this story and I don't think anyone else could've done it, just because it hasn't happened to anyone else," she says.

The duo didn't write with each other, instead opting to write the story from their own perspectives. Then they'd trade pages back and forth until they decided on the scene. Paring down a year's worth of life into a two-hour running time proved to be difficult. "The challenge becomes, what is just your life and what is the story?" says Nanjiani, who also stars in the Amazon film. The duo relied on pro­ducers Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel, as well as director Michael Showalter, to help make the tough cuts. Trims included meaningful tidbits like Nanjiani's love of the hospital's french fries and Gordon's penchant for the Home Shopping Network. Says Gordon: "You can't be precious about your own story."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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