I’ll admit, I did this interview so long ago, I almost forgot I’d done it. But when reviews began to pop up for the exciting screen-centric, missing-person thriller Searching, I remembered that I enjoyed the movie so much that I helped program it as part of this year’s Chicago Critics Film Festival.
The film involves single-parent widower David Kim (John Cho), whose 16-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La) goes missing. David must rip apart the contents of Margot’s computer and digital footprint to look for clues in finding her location, with the help of a detective (Debra Messing) who gives him ideas about where to look next. The entire film technically takes place on the screens of our everyday lives—computers, tablets, phone—and the resulting film is not only a technological gimmick but a moving look at how disconnected some parents are from their kids’ real lives.
Searching comes courtesy of first-time feature director Aneesh Chaganty, who co-wrote the screenplay with producer Sev Ohanian, with noted Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Night Watch) serving as producer as well. Chaganty first made a name for himself with his 2014 short Seeds, which was shot using Google Glass and was produced by Ohanian. The popularity of that film led to Chaganty working at the company’s Creative Lab in New York for a couple of years, and eventually the pair got the idea of making a feature film together.
We sat down with Chaganty and Ohanian back in May during the CCFF, and had what I consider a fairly spoiler-free conversation about their impressive debut. The two have already written and begun work on their follow-up feature, Run, which is said to be about a home-schooled teenager who suspects her mother is keeping a dark secret from her. Searching in now in theaters. Please enjoy…
The way that the narrative of your careers seems to have been written is that you gain a certain amount of fame with this Google short, and then you got a job with Google, and that led to this idea for a technology-based feature. Was it that simple?
Aneesh Chaganty: Looking back on it, from the point we made the Google Glass commercial, unfortunately, it was that simple [laughs]. Were there attempts at other movies prior to that? Yes. I had made short films my whole life, and looking back at my favorite ones, they were always a little unconventional. Literally, the first short film I ever made was called Nug; it’s a terrible film. It rewinds from end to beginning as it traces a gun—which is N-u-g backwards. It’s pretty bad; everything is stolen. But I’ve always been attracted to telling familiar stories unconventionally. The way we pitched this is as a classic story told in a very unconventional way. There’s a lot of things historically that I have done that way in my life.
From the point we made the Google Glass commercial, got a job out of that, making Google commercials—writing, directing, developing them—and from there, that opportunity more or less directly leveraged itself into directing Search…ing. [laughs]
I know the film was called Search at Sundance.
AC: It’s Search in our hearts and it’s Searching on the posters [laughs].
Sev Ohanian: Being the other half of any partnership, I feel like I’ve made a ton of movies that led me to Searching. We both went to film school at USC [University of Southern California], and the first movie I worked on after that was Fruitvale Station, I was a co-producer on that. It was this incredible process and experience, and I spent the years after that very systematically looking for opportunities at being a junior producer on about 12 indie films. I was very systematic about doing faith-based movies and Chinese movies and art-house movies, all of which prepared me for the chance to produce a movie as the “lead” producer, which was Searching. In a way, I had the exact opposite experience as Aneesh, and it’s made us a pretty good team in that way.
AC: I like that.
There is quickly becoming this sub-genre of of movies, mostly horror, where all we see on the screen is the window of a computer. Unfriend did it most successfully, Open Windows. What did you want to do differently with that concept?
AC: Originally, what we wanted to bring was nothing. We didn’t want to make this movie at first because it’s so uniquely conceptually driven that it had been done before, and we couldn’t iterate on that. There is a growing sub-genre of these films. I can speak for both of us when I say we will never make another movie like this again. You can try to do something like this, and if you do it again, it becomes a gimmick. For a lot of reasons around that, we constantly said no to this project. Long story short, when we were both first offered this project, our reaction was no in the room. We were being offered the opportunity to write and direct it together, produce it, and the money to make it, and we both said no.
That must have been fun for you.
SO: You nailed it. Can you just picture that for a second? I’ve spent my short career working my butt off to get myself in a room like this with financiers with a partner who’s a first-time director who had already made a name for himself in commercials, but that doesn’t mean much in the world of indie features. I went in there thinking we were pitching Searching as a short film, as an eight-minute short, and we go in that room with the best pitch ever, and they say “We don’t want to make it as a short,” and we were bummed. And they were like “We’ll make it as a feature. You guys write it, direct it, produce it.” And in my mind, I was like “Yes!” but out loud Aneesh said “No.”
AC: [laughs] Even in my mind I was thinking “What am I saying?” But it was for all the reasons I said before. It had been done before. Why would we do that if it had been done before? We couldn’t make something emotional or thrilling. We’d seen those other films before—and the same production company was involved with those films that we were meeting with—and we weren’t particularly impressed with the films that had come before. So we left, and for a lot of the right reasons we said “No.”
SO: This was such a tremendous opportunity as a first-time filmmaker—as any filmmaker—to have someone say, “We’re going to finance your movie,” and we felt we should at least pay our respects to the idea by at least talking our way into it. We hit a wall as we considered it for about a month and a half, and then one day we just didn’t hit a wall. He texted me saying “I have a crazy idea for an opening scene,” and I said “I have an idea for an opening scene,” and we ended up pitching each other the exact same opening scene, which to this day is the same scene—the little Pixar/Google commercial standalone sequence that opens the film. In that moment when we know how that sequence would end, not only did we know what would generally follow after it, but it felt emotional all of the sudden, and it was something that hadn’t been done on these devices. We’d seen everything that had been made to look like it took place on a screen, and nothing made us feel.
AC: Our idea was that after those first five minutes, the audience would start to forget that what they were watching was happening on a couple of screens. If we can achieve that, we knew we had enough of an idea that we could write and make a good movie.
And hitting those emotional notes is what makes it work. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say that by the end of the film, you realize this hasn’t been a movie about a guy looking for his daughter; it’s about a guy who realizes he doesn’t know his daughter.
AC: I will never get tired of hearing about people realizing that about our movie. Even when we pitched it the first time, we said, “As soon as David starts searching for his daughter on her computer, he realizes that he didn’t just lose her a few days ago; he lost her years ago.” You just nailed it. If we can write a story that has that amount of underlying narrative and themes, it will transcend its gimmick and become a real film.
Let’s talk about casting John Cho. What made you think of him? Was he always in the casting mix? He’s been on a roll lately with films and television.
SO: If you look at the script, it was always “David Kim.”
Why was that important to you two?
SO: The Korean-American aspect of it…the two of us come from minority backgrounds, and personally speaking, growing up, the movies and TV shows that I never saw myself in were not about race or culture or set in India or about Hinduism or being Indian-American. They were the normal movies, the high school rom-coms or the thrillers and mysteries. Both of us really wanted to, and continue to want to, tell those stories that really don’t have anything to do with the color of your skin or your race or ethnicity—they just happen to feature that. That was a huge aspect of why we wanted to cast somebody who looked like us in a weird way. Specifically, growing up in Silicon Valley—both my parents were in the tech industry—we wanted to cast a family at the heart of this that looked like the people my parents would work with and have over for dinner. We were a small enough movie and we had loud enough voices where we could win those fights.
AC: It’s not to say with all those ideas in mind that we didn’t face opposition. People did challenge us, and people did ask us “Why does it have to be a Korean-American family? Where is this movie a Korean story? Why do you guys want to cast John Cho?” And our response would always be the simple “Why not?” You said it perfectly: there are a lot of stories that should be told about race and representation; this isn’t one of them. And let’s not ignore the fact that John Cho is a movie star. The guy is handsome and talented, a living and walking movie star.
The format you’ve chosen is limiting in terms of where you can place your camera. But I’ve often heard, going back to people working under the Hays Code, that having limits can often spark creativity. Tell me about some of the creative workarounds that you came up with to expand your storytelling abilities.
SO: It’s funny you mention the Code, because I’m a huge fan of the Dogme ’95 movies.
I was obsessed with seeing as many of those as possible.
SO: The Celebration is in my top three movies of all time. I remember being in film school and wondering “Why would they do this? Why would they limit themselves intentionally?” And I realized that probably in the making of Searching, it really does breed creativity in a certain way. Writing this film early on, I remember we had major conversations about whether we could even do it, and Aneesh was the one who showed me FaceTime on his laptop.
AC: A big thing was, how do we show people’s faces? How do we show them all the time? What app will normally allow you to see someone’s face? And one day we were playing with our computers and we took a call on FaceTime, just testing it out. We closed FaceTime, and instead of closing the whole app, it closes and brings up another video and keeps it on. And we were like “Hallelujah!”
SO: FaceTime, when it’s not in a phone call, is just showing you whatever your webcam is showing you. So thank you, Apple. That entirely allowed us to have this movie happen outside of phone calls.
AC: And because of that exact challenge, another solution that we had was the idea that even though you can’t show someone’s face, the way we can do that on screens is often times have a character type out something and then backspace their thought and say something else. All of the sudden, it allows you as writers to say “Despite the fact that we can’t show your their face, we can show you exactly what they’re thinking and even make the audience feel smarter.” They aren’t saying that, but we got a slice of their thinking.
I can’t imagine how you mapped this out. It’s so visual that you have to not only keep track of every window that’s open, but where the people are looking. How did you map this visually?
SO: Starting with the script, we actually spent several days figuring out what format our script should look like, and we ultimately came to a couple rules that we set for ourselves, like whenever someone typed a text, that would then get erased, we would just strike through that text in the script. So you know when reading the script that that text would be typed out then erased. We created for ourselves all of these various rules, and ultimately to answer your question seriously, our solution of how to make this movie in a way that we knew would serve all of our purposes, was to just go ahead and make the movie.
AC: We wrote the script not even in a Final Draft file. It was a Word document. You couldn’t write INTERIOR: FACEBOOK-PHOTOS-FACEBOOK-GOOGLE-CHROME-NIGHT. So what we ended up writing was a Word document, and it made up its own rules. It was only 40 pages long, but it had every line of dialog, every text, it would cross off things, it would talk about the cursor a lot. We basically had chapters and that’s how we’d write text messages to each other, with cross offs. It would literally get so that you could understand what was happening because a [traditional] screenplay wouldn’t do it justice. We eventually had to transcribe this to a screenplay, though, because you can’t produce a movie that takes place in a Word document.
That was the first challenge, and from there, the bigger challenge became, how do we convey this idea from a visual standpoint to the crew and the cast? Ultimately, that’s the most important thing? And our answer to that was, why not start making the movie? The first people we hired on this movie weren’t anyone who came on set; it was the editors.
We hired two editors and we brought them in seven weeks before the shoot and we sat them in front of an empty Premiere timeline and said “Go.” And they just started screen-capping the internet, putting together the movie in an animatic form. By the end of the seven weeks, we had an hour-and-40-minute cut of our film, starring me playing every single role, so we would understand how the cameras would work with each other. There’s a camera that’s moving, there’s footage inside the screen, and we need to understand how those play with each other. Most of all on set, John Cho needed to know exactly where his cursor was at all times, what button he’s pressing, who he’s talking to, where the windows are. It was a long process.
SO: A lot of it was inspired by this movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I had read that they’d cast Angelina Jolie was by making the entire movie with their roommates starring in every role against a green screen, then they spent a year adding the visual effects, and they brought it to Angelina and said “You’re going to play that role in two days on a green screen stage.” And we thought, if we could make the entire movie…two days before we started shooting principal photography, we had the whole crew come over and we watched the entire movie, so they could see what they were about to make. Even though they had read the script, that was the lightbulb moment for them. “Oh, that’s what we’re making.” The craziest part about this movie and the reason we were making it is that there was no visual precedent for it the way we wanted to tell it. And the hardest part of convincing people and getting people excited was that there was no visual precedent for it.
I have to imagine there’s not a lot of fat to trim in the editing, not a lot of unused scenes.
SO: There wasn’t, but we realized in the beginning, when we made the animatic, what scenes we didn’t need, and we would rewrite it right there. We already knew the movie we were making by the time we shot the film.
Any thoughts about where you go from here, since you’re committed to not making another film like this one?
SO: Yes, definitely not doing one of these again. We know what our next project is, so right now we’re trying to see what’s a good home for it. But the next one is not on a computer screen, not using much technology, it’s a thriller about a mom and a daughter. And like most of what we do, from Google Glass stuff to this movie has always been about a very gooey love that parents and children have for each other. This one is going to be a very, very, dark, dark, bloody thing.
AC: One spoiler I will give about our next project: there is one moment where one character uses the internet to look for an answer to something, and the internet is disconnected.
SO: And that’s our nod to Searching—sayonara, peace out, cutting the cord.
Thanks so much. Best of luck.
SO: Thank you so much.
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