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Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani Talk ‘Little America’ at WGFestival

Oscar nominated screenwriters Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani kicked off the WGFestival 2019 on Saturday with an opening keynote conversation about their paths to writing and comedy.

Presented by the Writers Guild Foundation with Academy Education and Nicholl Fellowship Programs, the festival brought together top creatives and executives from the industry for panels, discussions and intimate workshops for writers. Events included mock writers’ rooms, a look inside the writers’ room with shows like “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Jane the Virgin”  and a special screening of Hulu’s “The Act” followed by a Q&A with actress Joey King and creator/showrunners Nick Antosca and Michelle Dean.

Gordon and Nanjiani, who are married in real life, parlayed their story into the film “The Big Sick,” which also landed them nominations from the WGA Awards and the best first screenplay prize from the Independent Spirit Awards. Variety’s Jenelle Riley moderated the 90-minute Q&A, which detailed their unique journeys.

Gordon was a therapist who began her career writing advice columns for websites and magazines. “Writing for me was a way to express things that I didn’t have any other way to get out of me,” she noted. “I always knew it was something I did for myself but I didn’t realize something you did for yourself could be for other people as well until about five years ago.” She wrote a lot as a child, including an opinion piece for the newspaper when she was in third grade about why fake Christmas trees are better than real ones. “I took a lot of blowback from that one,” she said with a laugh. “I remember the line: ‘If I wanted my house to smell like Christmas trees, I would clean it with Pine Sol.’”

Nanjiani also wrote comic strips in his youth, but realized he couldn’t draw. He then turned to standup comedy, even though he didn’t enjoy performing. “I felt more like a writer and standup was the most efficient way to get my writing out there. I could write something that morning and have it in front of a crowd that night,” he said. In the beginning I really hated performing but I loved writing so this was the deal I had to make with myself, if I want to get my writing in front of an audience, I have to get onstage no matter how painful it was.” (He can now be seen in the Jordan Peele reboot of “The Twilight Zone” playing a struggling standup.)

The pair also discussed their upcoming Apple series, “Little America,” set to debut this fall. “It’s an anthology series based on real stories of immigrants,” Nanjiani revealed. “Epic Magazine collected these interesting stories – like a 12-year-old kid whose parents owned a motel and his parents got deported. So he didn’t want to lose this hotel, so he secretly ran it. He was trying to find someone to help him at that point if you did well in the spelling bee, you got to meet Laura Bush. So he did well enough so that he could meet her and ask for help.”

“Every episode is being written by a different writer,” Gordon said, adding that they weren’t looking for “sob stories.” In fact, the one they wrote together has some comedic elements. “Ours is a gentleman who moved from Iran and bought this massive property in Yonkers and it has a giant rock in it.” Added Nanjiani, “It was very cheap because of this huge rock. He said, ‘I’ll figure it out.’ So the episode is this guy trying to get rid of this massive, massive rock.”

Another episode will be done completely silent (which they recommended trying as a writing exercise) and another, in a twist of irony, forced them to move production out of the States. “There’s an episode about a gay Syrian immigrant coming to America,” Nanjiani detailed. “So we cast a Syrian gentleman but because of the travel ban he can’t come shoot in America so we had to move production to Canada for one episode. To tell a story about a guy coming to America and living his dreams.”

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