Emily Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani & Lydia Polgreen | 2018 MAKERS Conference
Kumail Nanjiani, Stand-Up Comedian, Actor, Writer, and Podcast Host, and Emily V. Gordon, Writer, Producer, and Podcast Host, talk to Lydia Polgreen, Editor in Chief, HuffPost, about diversity in Hollywood
ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani, and Lydia Polgreen.
EMILY V. GORDON: Hello.
LYDIA POLGREEN: Hey, everybody. My favorite thing about the two of you is that you have not only a meet cute story, but you have like a marry cute story, that's, like, interweaved with, you know, some really scary, hair-raising stuff. When did you guys decide that this needed to be a movie? And what was the process of writing the film like?
EMILY V. GORDON: I think it was-- the events of this movie happened about 10 years ago. And it was about five years ago that we kind of first started talking about it. I think because you want to have, like, a little bit of distance. We wanted to be able to talk about it without crying. Because then you'd ruin your laptop the whole time if you're typing and crying. So we needed that-- we needed a little bit of time. And it was you that kind of were more-- I was more hesitant, I would say, to write about this event.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: Yeah, Emily's more-- slightly more of a private person--
EMILY V. GORDON: Yeah.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: --than I am. Because I do stand up. And you sort of-- I'd gotten used to telling stories from my life. And so, yeah, it was five years as Emily said. But, you know, not to say that when we started writing it, it wasn't-- we weren't crying.
EMILY V. GORDON: That's true. There was a lot of crying.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: We ruined some keyboards. There was certain scenes we wrote that, you know, we cried when we wrote them. We cried when we rewrote them. We cried when we rehearsed them. And we cried when we shot them. And now we cry when we watch them.
LYDIA POLGREEN: I hope you guys buy your tissues at Costco.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: We--
EMILY V. GORDON: Just sleeve usage. It's a lot of--
KUMAIL NANJIANI: Yeah, I use toilet paper. Because I-- it keeps me grounded.
But you know, when you're writing about personal stuff, you're going to find that window where you can start to process it. And it's not paralyzing. But you don't want to-- but you can still access the feelings.
EMILY V. GORDON: I think-- and I had written-- there's a website called Lemon Drop that was, like-- it was like a lady's web site years, and years, and years ago that I used to write for. And they were like, do you want to write about being sick? And I was like, oh, sure. And it was two months after I'd gotten out of the hospital. And I wrote a really, really stupid essay called, I was in a coma, and I didn't change at all. Who reads that, you know?
And I-- it was really-- I, at the time that I wrote it, was like, this is exactly how I feel. And I have processed everything. And obviously I was completely wrong. And so I thought if I wasn't processed back then, but I thought I was, how do we know that we're ready to do this now? And I don't want some really dumb essay in movie form out there. It's scrubbed from the internet. You can't find it.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: It's the only thing that ever left the internet.
EMILY V. GORDON: But-- and so that's-- we really kind of talked through a lot-- are we ready to do this? And we eventually decided that we were. Yeah.
LYDIA POLGREEN: So speaking of processing, Emily, before you became a writer, a comedy producer, you had a career as a family and couples therapists.
EMILY V. GORDON: That's correct.
LYDIA POLGREEN: I'm super curious if that work informs your work now?
EMILY V. GORDON: So much. If you guys want to be writers, go get a master's degree in therapy. Work for, like, seven years or so as a therapist. And then leave it. It absolutely-- and it's not a skill that other writers don't have. But I do think I got a bit of a crash course in-- my entire job was in kind of understanding what people were saying to me, and then also what they were saying to me as a therapist. And then helping them to kind of understand what they were and weren't saying to me. And then help them create solutions.
And that's a big part of writing when you're digging into characters. It's like, what is this person saying? And then what is this person not saying that they are desperately trying to say? And it kind of helps. That skill really, really, really helps. I took a really long way around to get it. But it really helps.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: Yeah, because I think, you know, people aren't always comfortable-- especially dudes aren't always comfortable showing their emotions in the situation that causes those emotions. Sometimes it comes up later. A lot of times it comes out as anger. So what Emily had to do was look at this person, see what they're exhibiting, and then be able to find what reservoir of actual emotion it was pointing to. Because, you know, in a movie you can't have a character going around being like, I'm sad. You have to, through their actions and what they're--
EMILY V. GORDON: While they're eating cheeseburgers with four slices of cheese.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: Yeah.
LYDIA POLGREEN: Seems totally appropriate.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: Yeah. You have to show what they're struggling with or what they're dealing with. So it was-- that's why Emily's really good at writing characters. It's because she doesn't-- she knows how to not portray them directly. She can portray-- because I feel like so much of it is you're just trying to hide the emotions. But you still want to be able to have the audience--
EMILY V. GORDON: That's what you learn as a therapist. You can't really ever hide it. You can try to hide it. It's going to come out somehow. You might as well figure out a good way to let them out.
LYDIA POLGREEN: Do you ever feel like she's doing, like, Jedi mind tricks on you?
KUMAIL NANJIANI: Yes.
LYDIA POLGREEN: You're like, oh, I know what you're doing.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: Oh yes. And then-- and then, you know, now I know her Jedi mind tricks. Or maybe that's what I'm supposed to think.
But yeah, definitely. We really-- you know, I know-- she's actually taught me a lot about-- you know, like, she'll be like, OK, this is not about you not being able to find this fucking pen. What is it really? And then I have to think and be like, you know, I always thought, like, there should be, like, a Shazam for anxiety. Because--
EMILY V. GORDON: That would be amazing.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: Yeah. Because I'm like, I know I'm anxious. But I have no idea what I'm anxious about. The other day I woke up-- she said-- I sleep talk and sleepwalk. She said I woke up in the middle of the night, put on my glasses, yelled, I suck, took off my glasses and went back to sleep.
LYDIA POLGREEN: That is--
KUMAIL NANJIANI: It'd be great to know what that was about.
EMILY V. GORDON: Yeah, no idea.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: So she's been very, very helpful in making me-- making me understand. She will be like, you're not angry at me. You're angry at this other thing that's out of your control and whatever. And it was all this stuff that I really had not even-- you know, I heard the [? Harry's ?] guys before me talking about it. I think, for me, the big challenge of me being a grown up was learning to feel my feelings, or at least trying to be aware of them. Even body stuff. Like pain, I wouldn't feel pain.
Like, I would-- I went to the-- my dentist touched my jaw and was like, your jaw hurts. I was like, no it doesn't. He's like, but it really should. I'm like, it doesn't. Then I started meditating. And it's, like, mindfulness and, like, being aware. And then my jaw started hurting. It was hurting the whole time. I just didn't know.
EMILY V. GORDON: Welcome.
LYDIA POLGREEN: Yes. That doesn't sound like such a great deal, to be honest.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: I know.
LYDIA POLGREEN: Yeah.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: I've had days where I'm-- you know, I remember I would be super angry all day. And then I'd have water. And I'd be like, oh, right. I was just thirsty.
EMILY V. GORDON: Got to get in touch with those emotions, guys.
LYDIA POLGREEN: It sounds like you found your Shazam. So OK. So you make this movie. It's, you know-- I mean, it's an amazing story. It's a fabulous movie. Great critical reception. How has this changed your lives as a couple to see your story out there, people talking about it, thinking about it? There have been moments where, I feel like, you know, it's Kumail's movie. And Emily's central role in creating it sometimes gets kind of, dot, dot, dot.
EMILY V. GORDON: Yeah.
LYDIA POLGREEN: So I'm just curious about the dynamic between you two.
EMILY V. GORDON: It's interes-- well, one thing we learned is if someone's racist, I take that on. And if someone's sexist, he takes that on.
LYDIA POLGREEN: Right.
EMILY V. GORDON: Because so often, when you have to confront it yourself you're-- it's not only belittling. But it also makes you-- sometimes people, like, oh, dismiss you because you're crazy. But when you're coming to the aid of your partner, that's a different thing. So that's one trick we've learned.
And I do think-- it's interesting, because I think it's partially sexism, absolutely. And it is also partially that Kumail is more well-known than I am. And so, for me, it's been working hard to kind of not take it personally when it happens. But still not letting it go by.
And it is amazing. Like, you know, people will-- yesterday at the Oscar luncheon, people were coming up to us, both nominees, and congratulating Kumail. And I just kept staring at them like this, until they were like, and you, too. And I was like, thank you. Thank you for congratulating me. And it's been interesting. I think what it's made us more as a couple is more having each other's backs on-- and seeing that. Because I think we're now both seeing it in a way that we hadn't fully seen it before.
But it's frustrating. It certainly is. It's frustrating for people to think that I wrote all the emotional stuff in our script. And he wrote all the funny stuff. Not necessarily the case. As you can see, he's very in touch with his emotions.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: Yeah, guys. I'm a little thirsty right now.
EMILY V. GORDON: In every sense. And at the end of the day, like, you just keep-- we both work hard to just show up and do the work. Because that's the most important thing. But I think if I had to go out every day and say, no, no, no. Me, me, me, too. Me, too. Not in that sense. But just in the-- damn it. You can't really use that phrase anymore.
LYDIA POLGREEN: It's really hard.
EMILY V. GORDON: Yeah.
LYDIA POLGREEN: I find it very challenging.
EMILY V. GORDON: But I'm also involved. I'm also involved. If I had to do that myself, I think it would be very demoralizing. So I'm very grateful that Kumail does that.
LYDIA POLGREEN: Well, you've been clapping back. I mean--
EMILY V. GORDON: Well, he claps back.
LYDIA POLGREEN: I see it.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: Well, I mean, I think-- you know, working with Emily over the last few years pretty closely on a bunch of different things, I've realized-- in a way that should have been obvious but wasn't to me-- just how the system really is set up to-- the voices of women are not considered on the same level.
EMILY V. GORDON: They're not considered voices.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: Yeah, it's really pretty remarkable. I saw it over, and over, and-- and Emily would point it out. She'd be like, did you see that? When I said that, they didn't say anything. But then you said the same thing later. And then they agreed to it. Over, and over, and over. And these weren't people who were--
EMILY V. GORDON: Sexist humans.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: That were bad people. I mean, clearly they were sexist, you know. But not in, like, really obvious ways. I think that stuff is really, really insidious. You know, I think there's a lot of obvious sexism that's very aggressive and easily pointed out. But then there's a lot of this other insidious, quiet--
EMILY V. GORDON: Just in the water, yeah.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: Yeah, it's just in the water. And I-- yeah.
EMILY V. GORDON: I had a female-- a woman that I worked with at "The Carmichael Show." Her name's Aeysha Carr. She's a genius writer. And she was so good at kind of having her presence in the room. Because usually there's not that many women in the room. In that room there happened to be quite a few. And I said, how do you-- when you're talked over constantly-- because that such a thing. When you're talked over constantly, how do you deal? Like, what do you do? And she was like-- she's like, the thing I've learned is that men want to stop at some point. But they feel like it's their job to fill the air. So she was like, when I hear them start to peter off just a little bit, I just jam myself in there. And like, OK, now is my time. And then they're like, oh, grateful. Thank you. I'll stop.
LYDIA POLGREEN: Yeah.
EMILY V. GORDON: And it's such a weird little trick. But it works so well.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: You exactly just did that with me.
I was like, I don't know how to end this. Thank you so much.
EMILY V. GORDON: It's a great trick.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: It is. You know--
LYDIA POLGREEN: So-- sorry, go ahead.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: I was just going to say, I noticed that, again, because we've been through this together during the-- not to get super political. But during the debates, watching Hillary and Trump was really interesting. Because he was so aggressive. And it was like, oh, if she responds in the same way, she's seen as being-- I don't want to use the word. But you know, people would say that she's being--
LYDIA POLGREEN: A nasty woman?
KUMAIL NANJIANI: Yeah. Or-- and then if she is above it, then she's cold, and removed, and unfeeling. So I-- really watching those debates, I was like, there's really nothing she could do here. And it's so unfair.
LYDIA POLGREEN: Well, you know, I think that we're all in this moment looking at the world and saying, so much is changing. Things are moving fast. But you know, I was watching the Super Bowl halftime show. And there was an ad on for a new show that Amazon-- which distributed your film-- is putting out starring Jim from "The Office." I always forget his name. And it's your typical, like, guy-centered big budget thing, right?
Now, Amazon just canceled "One Mississippi," a great female-centered show. They did not pick up Bridget Everett's pilot, a great, you know-- I mean, great female comedian and performer. They cancelled "I Love Dick." So it sort of feels like progress. But you know, in this time when supposedly female-centered storytelling is at the center of the world, and we're all for it and against it, I see three immediate examples of female authorship really being shut down. And not to mention your friends, Rhea Butcher and Cameron Esposito,
KUMAIL NANJIANI: Yeah.
LYDIA POLGREEN: No one's picked up their show.
EMILY V. GORDON: Yeah.
LYDIA POLGREEN: I mean, how-- are things really changing?
EMILY V. GORDON: I do think that they are. And I think-- I-- it's interesting, because I think in the past, none of those shows would have even gotten a shot. And so then we wouldn't even have the existence of them to discuss them going away. So if that's progress, it's sad progress. But I mean, it is a matter of just keep getting chances. Because it is also true that constantly there are tons of other-- all-- so many shows get canceled. So many pilots never get picked up. This was-- those specific examples were pretty high-profile ones that-- it's an interesting move, for sure.
But I do think-- I think there are more shots being given, especially in TV. Because TV now has-- it doesn't have to apply to everyone. But everyone can still watch them and enjoy them. And I think we're getting more and more chances to tell stories that are not Jim from "The Office."
KUMAIL NANJIANI: Yeah, but I also think it's not enough. Because things have been so arid for so long, just a little bit looks like a lot. But it's not a lot. We've had, you know-- there aren't that many female-centric stories. There aren't that-- there aren't enough female-centric action movies, superhero movies. You know, everyone points at Wonder Woman. But how many--
EMILY V. GORDON: That's one.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: --superhero movies have come out in the last five years? Just today I was telling someone. I was like, you know, I saw "Black Panther." And it was-- I really loved it. And I realized, like, how all superhero movies were so similar to each other. And then this one was different. And I realized how-- just how similar they were because of how different this was. And someone was like, but superhero movies are all different. I mean, look at "Logan" and "Deadpool." And then I was like, what do they all have in common? Do you not see that they're all, like--
EMILY V. GORDON: White dudes.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: Yeah, and we've had friends pitch shows to networks where they're like, you know, we already--
EMILY V. GORDON: We already have a black show.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: We already have a black show.
EMILY V. GORDON: Yeah.
LYDIA POLGREEN: OK, we're almost out of time.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: It's true.
EMILY V. GORDON: Yeah
LYDIA POLGREEN: Quick, Makers Man Kumail, how are you going to raise your voice?
KUMAIL NANJIANI: I'm going to raise my voice by listening to women and amplifying. And also-- but also fighting for the right for men to shut up sometimes.
LYDIA POLGREEN: All right. Emily, how are you going to raise your voice?
EMILY V. GORDON: I'm going to let him shut up. And I'm going--
I'm going to-- you know, it's my job to do whatever I can to make sure other women are present in all aspects. Behind cameras, in front of cameras, in rooms, doing all-- doing all the jobs. That's my job.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: And I think, you know, it's very easy for men to not say anything when they see an injustice. And the problem is still there are men who have more power than women in a lot of positions--
LYDIA POLGREEN: Really?
KUMAIL NANJIANI: --in Hollywood. You know, and I think sometimes there is-- obviously there are situations where women don't feel that they can fight back against the system. Because they don't want to lose a job.
LYDIA POLGREEN: Right.
EMILY V. GORDON: Very, very quick story. I was doing a photo shoot with a bunch of other writers. And they were doing a group shot. I was the only woman. Hah. And the photographer said, Emily, don't be afraid to be sassy in the photo. And we were all, like, standing there, like, very officially. And he's like, put your hand on your hip. Get sassy. And I was-- I was mad. But I was also like, this is so stupid. And I was like, really? Sassy? And then Jordan Peele-- I don't mind calling him by name-- said, would you like me to be more hood in the photo?
And I thought that's what we need. That's what I'm looking for. I can handle this on my own. But it's so much easier if I have that.
LYDIA POLGREEN: All right, Kumail, Emily, thank you so much. These guys are awesome.
EMILY V. GORDON: Thank you guys.