‘Big Sick’s’ Kumail Nanjiani, Emily Gordon on How Sundance Changed Their Careers (Guest Column)

Emily Gordon Kumail Nanjiani
Stephen Lovekin/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

It goes without saying that Sundance changed our lives, but we’ll say it anyway: Sundance changed our lives.

We’d been working on our movie, “The Big Sick,” for four and a half years when Sundance rolled around January of 2017 — writing for four years, shooting and editing for six months. We’d spent the majority of the few months before the festival cooped up in an editing bay, arguing about jokes, alt takes, and food orders. We were working in a vacuum. No one had ever seen our movie. We’d never made a movie before. We didn’t have distribution, so Sundance was the only real goal post our movie had, and we put our heads down and sprinted like mad to reach it, concentrating on color correction and sound mixes, not thinking about what it meant to have a movie at Sundance. Neither of us had ever been. If you looked up “anxiety” in the dictionary, you’d just see an image of us stress-eating anything in arms’ length. We landed in Salt Lake City, were driven to Provo, and did interviews all day for a movie no one had ever seen.

Our movie was premiering the next night at the Eccles Theater, and it would be seen by 1,500 people. Before the movie started, Emily turned to Kumail and said, “This is the last time this story will belong to us.” (Emily is great at pointing out exactly what’s happening at any given moment.)

The next two hours were… it’s very hard to find the right words to describe how it felt. Electric. There, that word works. We were watching people laughing at jokes we’d been working on for almost five years. People were applauding. People were sniffling from crying. (Or the cold. We’ll say it was from crying.) It was thrilling. We were overwhelmed.

On the way to the after-party, people approached Emily to show her their surgical scars and talk about their illnesses. Others told Kumail about the intercultural relationships they had been in — ones that worked, ones whose failures still ached. We haven’t yet stopped hearing those stories from strangers, and it’s been a full year. We gave up our story to the world, but in exchange we received thousands of other stories.

We were at the after-party when the first reviews started coming in. And they were positive! Judd Apatow took a photo of us reading the first review. You can see Emily fanning her eyes to dry her tears.

We hung out at the party in a daze. We talked to friends, to people we didn’t know, to people we’d been fans of our whole life. At 1:30 a.m., a huge group of very attractive people showed up. We were told that was the Sundance party crew. That was our cue to go home.

On the way out, our friend uttered a phrase we never thought we’d hear: “Wanna go to Mary J. Blige’s house party?” We declined. We never thought we’d hear that phrase, and we also never thought we’d decline that invitation. But we still had work to do — we had a screening the next morning at 9 a.m. Wonderfully, that screening also went really well, proving to us that the first screening wasn’t a fluke or mass hallucination; another group of people liked our movie!

Here’s us on stage getting a standing ovation at the second screening, again taken by Judd — he’s really good at documenting.

By the next afternoon, we were getting recognized everywhere we went. Nobody had seen the film and then, 24 hours later, 5,000 people in one tiny town had seen the film. It felt like our wedding. As we trekked through the slush to do interviews, people yelled compliments at us across the street. There was a brutal blizzard that we were told was the worst in 35 years. We felt like we were in a snow globe; a snow globe where people really liked our work!

There were reports of a few distributors who were interested in the movie. We had decided we did not want to be involved with those discussions. We trusted our producers, Judd and Barry Mendel, to make those decisions. The next day, Saturday, we were having a meal at a nice restaurant with Michael Showalter, Judd, Barry, and a bunch of our friends when Judd told us that our movie had sold to Amazon for one of the highest deals in the history of the festival. We didn’t know much about how Sundance worked, but we realized that we were having a unique experience. This was confirmed by Leslie Mann, who pulled us aside and said, “This doesn’t happen often. I know it’s a lot, but try and enjoy it.”

Among the days and days of publicity and press and interviews, we took a day off and went and watched three movies at the Eccles. That was probably our favorite day there. We sat in the theater where people had watched our movie for the first time and laughed and cried watching other people’s work. It’s a joy to be in a room with a group of people who are passionate about the same thing: not any particular movie, but the act of creation. That’s what makes Sundance so special.

Our movie is a movie about community, about connection, and the fact that we got to debut it in such a supportive community was a gift. We had heard about the passion at Sundance, but experiencing it was another thing entirely. Sundance cares about the voices of its creators, pushing them to speak louder, pushing them to find bigger audiences and reach more people, pushing the viewers into new experiences with empathy, love and, sometimes, hate. We were truly privileged to be a small part of it for two weeks and we hope we get to return some day.

We are nowhere near being Sundance vets, but here are five tips from us to you if you are heading into Sundance for the first time. These are things we wish we knew before we went.

1. Eat when you can. Food can be hard to come by, and the restaurants that are open often have long waits. Bring protein bars to tide yourself over.

2. Definitely have hand sanitizer on your person, and use it liberally. Bathe in it. Drink it. Shake someone’s hand, apologize, and immediately use the hand sanitizer. The Sundance flu is a real thing, and almost everyone succumbs to it. Give yourself a shot at being the statistical outlier. (This is especially true if you have a medical condition that you made a movie about that is premiering at Sundance.)

3. Go see other movies if you can — that’s why the festival is there! Most movies you see in theaters are ones you’ve read the reviews of, seen previews for. You’re going in already knowing most of the movie. At Sundance, you can walk into a movie knowing nothing but its name, and discover it as you sit there with a room full of people discovering it too. It’s exhilarating and surprising and irritating and the best way to really watch a movie.

4. Meet and talk to everyone you can. And we don’t mean for networking purposes. It’s just nice to be surrounded by so many film lovers! If you love someone’s work, tell them. Ask them about their favorite films at the festival. Ask them about their favorite films in general. Ask them about how they manage to keep from falling down in the snow. You’ll be surrounded by interesting, awesome people every single moment in Sundance. Use it.

5. Don’t put champagne in the freezer. You’ll forget about it, it’ll explode, and cleaning frozen champagne is nobody’s idea of a fun time.

Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon wrote the screenplay for “The Big Sick.”