'Searching' Director Talks Inspirations, Insane Challenges, And Casting John Cho [Interview]

Searching, an innovative new thriller about a father's quest to find his missing teenage daughter, plays out entirely across computer screens and cell phones. That might sound like a gimmick, but aside from being an immersive way to tell this specific story, it has the effect of forcing us to reckon with the ways we use technology in our lives and how we communicate with others. For a story with such a tech-heavy presentation, it's also surprisingly emotional, and that has a lot to do with the well-crafted story and the performances from stars John Cho, Debra Messing, and Michelle La.

The primary creative force behind this project is co-writer/director Aneesh Chaganty, who, amazingly, is making his feature directorial debut with this movie. I caught up with Aneesh during the Sundance Film Festival to talk about his inspirations for this story, the surprising scope of the film, how he conveyed the passage of time, and much more. Be sure to read my full review of the movie here, and enjoy our full Aneesh Chaganty Searching interview below.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. There's a brief section in which we discuss one of the film's biggest spoilers, but I've placed that at the very end of the interview and marked it with a separate spoiler warning.

Congratulations on the movie. I loved it. Did you read a bunch of detective stories or watch a lot of mystery movies for inspiration? What were some of the touchstones for you?

Yes. Sev and I – Sev Ohanian, who co-wrote the film and also lead produced it – we watched a lot of thrillers and kidnap stories to understand which beats worked, which didn't work, what scenes worked and why. The most important ones for this film were Prisoners and Gone Girl. We really studied those films: the dynamics between the characters, why some scenes worked and some didn't, and really tried to bring a certain amount of that to it. Plus, the most obvious one for us was Making a Murderer. And Serial, the podcast. Because Searching kind of has to feel real. The whole canvas of the film are sites that you as an audience member either have been to before or have the potential to just go to at the click of a button. So it needed to feel familiar, and in a way, we kind of looked at true crime a lot too, to mimic the way people talk about it and the way media responds. And how society communicates about it.

For me, this movie is one of the best examples of the concept of limitations breeding creativity. Can you talk me through what you first envisioned this movie looking like, and then what it ended up as and how those limitations propelled you through?

Totally. I'll give you the whole story. I was working at Google before this project. I was helping to write and direct their commercials in New York City, and my writing partner Sev took a meeting with Bazelevs, which is the production company run by Timur Bekmambetov, who ended up financing this film. They had just made Unfriended, which was a big hit, and they were looking for – kind of like the movie V/H/S, an anthology movie of a bunch of short films. Sev took a meeting with them and said, 'If you're looking for short films, I know a guy who works at Google. You should totally meet with him.' And they met with me and Sev, and said, 'We want an idea for a short film.'

So a few months went by and we came up with the idea of the short film version of this movie. It would begin like the proof of concept video we made, which is not public, but it would begin on a blinking cursor and a password was being typed on a computer and it was wrong. And it was wrong. And it kept being wrong, wrong, wrong – and you don't know who the user is. As you start to uncover more, you realize the user is the father of a missing kid, and he's on his daughter's laptop.

We pitched the short to them in a couple of pages, and they were like, 'We really like it as a short, but we love it as a feature. Sev, would you be down to write it with Aneesh, Sev, you produce it, and [Aneesh] direct it?' And in the room Sev was like, 'Oh my gosh!' and I was like, 'No.' And immediately, I could feel heat coming off him. He was like, 'Dude, no one gets an opportunity like this to make a first movie. Why are you saying no?' The reason I told him, and I said it in the room to them, I said it felt like we would be taking an idea that really worked at seven minutes and just stretching it as opposed to organically expanding on it. It felt like a gimmick to me. And who wants to make their first movie on a computer screen? So I said no, and Sev said, 'We'll get back in touch,' and we went away. We didn't want to do the film if we didn't feel passionate about it, if we didn't feel like it was organic.

But then one day, a few weeks later, we both had the same idea for the opening scene at the exact same time. I was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where I was living at the time, and he was in L.A., in Glendale. We both called each other and said, 'I have an idea for an opening scene. OK, you go first.' And he pitched what I thought was my idea, and I pitched back the exact same idea. We were like, 'Holy crap. OK.' The opening is a very specific kind of sequence, and knowing that sequence, we kind of knew what the next scene would be. And after that next scene, we kind of knew what the scene after would be. All of a sudden it felt like we had this movie that wasn't just a gimmick, but felt emotional and thrilling and had some ups and downs, was mysterious, and almost felt like commentary on the way we live our lives as opposed to just, 'Look what we can do!'

The scope of this movie is nuts. It's so expansive. Was that always the plan?

Yeah, that was always the plan. That's not to say the movie didn't change over the course of two years. We edited the film for about a year and a half. Most movies go four months. In that process, naturally you're changing things. But the script was always designed very specifically to do a lot of those things. We actually ended up shooting with one of the earlier drafts, but Sev and I spent so much time on that stuff.

The thing that took a long time, the thing that was changing the whole time, was basically, if you think about this movie, the way we made it was we started editing an animated film, and then went off and shot a live action film, and then put all the stuff from the live action film into the animated film, and then kept editing the animated film over and over again until you have a final product.

That took about a year and a half, and because it's an animated film, almost every aspect of what you're looking at is constantly changeable. So every day, you're faced with a thousand creative choices of anything that could be changed or anything that could work better. So what we did was we held these feedback screenings every few weeks, we'd kind of have a new cut. We'd ask 200 questions to everyone in the audience. 'Did this beat work? At minute four, we're going to rewind to that point, did that give you the right feeling? Was this a little misleading?' And everything that was confusing or wasn't hitting the right point, we'd just go back and work on it again. We kept refining and kept refining until the beats became clearer, and every emotion that we wanted to hit was hitting as hard as we could get it to.

That's fascinating, because a lot of times you hear horror stories about test screenings. It sounds like it was really beneficial for you guys.

I understand why. Not to say that they weren't nerve-wracking experiences before you show a film and hear something doesn't work. It still is, no matter what, a nerve-wracking experience. But when you have the ability to change something that isn't working – just change it and work on it – it was both easier and harder with our concept. It was easier in the sense that we could change it and nobody would ever know that it wasn't intended. We could just change the website, or change the beat. The difficult part was executing it. To create these graphics, to create these looks, to create all the camera shakes and all of that stuff is just a shit-ton of work.

So who was responsible for the graphics?

The editors. They are just one level short of gods on this film. Their names are Will Merrick and Nick Johnson. I went to USC film school with them, and their jobs so exceeded the role of traditional editing. We gave them an additional credit called "directors of screen photography," and our director of photography, we put a thing before it that said "live action," just to make sure people knew. Directors of screen photography – once you watch the film, you'll totally understand that there is another camera that is being changed, and those decisions are made in the edit room as opposed to on set.

Those guys started editing the film seven weeks before we even shot a frame of the movie. This was Sev's idea: he had this idea to edit an entire animatic of the movie before we shot a frame, so we understood how the footage that we'd shoot versus the camera that we were finalizing on would play with each other. Before we shot the film, we screened an hour and forty minute cut of the entire film as an animatic starring me – playing Jon, playing Debra, playing the daughter, playing every friend talking to each other. So we could understand eye lines and how that all played with each other.

That's the animatic that we brought on set, that I would show to Jon, show to Debra, and be like, 'OK, when you're having this conversation, the button that you need to click on is right over there. This click is over there.' Everything needed to be really specific and planned out, to a degree that is unlike most movies. Because there's a very very small margin of precision that we had to hit, otherwise it would look wrong.

Search review

Tell me about how you settled on which milestones to use to establish how time was passing. There's an early version of YouTube in the beginning of the movie, for example, but also once the action kicks in, how did you guys handle time?

The beginning of the film is basically a montage that takes you through a decade or more through the life of this family, all told through their home computer. It starts off when baby Margot is setting up her first account with the help of her parents, and going until some tragic events happen at the end of it. Time plays such a huge role in this. We knew for all intents and purposes that the second this movie came out, it'd be a period piece. Because the second this movie comes out, technology has already improved. Facebook's already updated its [user interface]. It's already period. We were like, 'OK, let's embrace that. Let's make sure this movie's always set on very specific dates.'

So we knew the exact dates Margot was on that computer, we knew the exact date of everything going in that opening montage, and we would use The Way Back Machine, which is a website online where you can look up websites, cached versions of them, to see how the front pages looked. And we used pretty advanced Google searching of specific dates when these images were coming up. We'd type, and we'd find the right version. We were librarians, too. We'd be like, 'OK, that version of Skype, that version of Skype,' and we'd start putting it in the animatic and adjusting it over time. So we kind of used a lot of the internet's history that was available to us to create that stuff in the montage.

Later on in the film, we made sure the film takes place on May 9, May 10, May 11, May 12, and May 13 of 2017. There's no going around that. The movie's a period piece, and if you pause the film, every single piece of news item, every single everything is related to those dates and things that happened on those dates. That's one of the things I'm most proud of. If you pause this movie, you'll see nine other storylines that are happening simultaneously with the main plot that you had no idea.

You've been in post on this for a long time. How did you not lose your mind being in an edit bay for, what, a year and a half?

I did. I one hundred percent did. We had a joke on this film. Most films go through three stages: pre-production, production, and post-production. Our film, we joked, was pre-post, post, and post-post. So we were always in some form of post-production on this film. We did lose our minds. There was five of us in that one tiny edit room literally smaller than the room that we're doing this interview in. There were five of us: me, the two editors, Will and Nick, Natalie Qasabian, our producer, and Sev Ohanian, our producer and co-writer. Every day, we were there from 7am until 1am, just working on tiny things. No computer on the consumer marketplace can handle a movie like this. It's so complicated. In fact, it's so complicated that the parting gift I gave to all the editors was a framed timeline of the Premiere timeline. It looks like a city sky scape. Most films are one or two layers of video and five layers of audio. We had thirty-seven layers of video almost on every scene. It totally looks like Manhattan or something, and the audio is just as complicated. It was such a complex process. Our computers would crash every eighteen minutes, and we'd have no idea what was saved, and we'd fucking be like, 'Oh my God, oh my God, please let me not lose progress.' We always lost progress, and we'd always have to take a step back. So the film took way long, but at the same time, while no computer was made to handle this, it's because no one has tried this the way we're trying it before. That was always a sense of pride, and something we used to rally ourselves up when, in the middle of February, we were still editing – eight months in, almost feeling like no end in sight. Into March, into April, into May. Once in a while, we would hit a clearing through the trees, and we'd look back and be like, 'Wow, I think what we're making could be really cool. But back to work.' Those moments made it worth it.

Can you talk about John Cho for a second? Casting him, what did that mean to you guys? How did you approach him, and what sort of trust did he have to put in you as a first-time filmmaker? What was your relationship like there?

Basically, I was asking for his complete blind trust to a first-time director who he had never worked with, and who no one had ever worked with, because I'd never made a feature film before. I'll explain why we cast John. I think John is one of the most empathetic and sympathetic characters, just by putting him on screen. He's one of the most likable people that I've ever seen on camera. You see him, and there's something about him where you just go, 'Yeah, I'm rooting for that guy.' And immediately, early on conceiving of the film, we were like, 'We need a person who has those qualities because we're not going to be able to see him all the time. In those moments that we do see him, we really need to have everything going and firing on full cylinders. This guy has to be likable in those brief moments we see his face.' Obviously we see a lot of him in this film, but early on, when you're conceptualizing it, that was a huge priority for us. John immediately fit the bill for that, his acting caliber, obviously. But also because it was very important to me – I grew up in Silicon Valley, my parents were both in the tech industry – to cast a person who looked like the people my parents would have over for dinner, and who looked like the people in Silicon Valley. That was always a priority for Sev and I, and John was always at the top of the list.

The trust he had, complete blind trust. He was naturally very hesitant about being a part of this project. In fact, he originally said no to it, just based on the previous Unfriended film, and he didn't think – it ended up being that he didn't see what we were trying to do. I had to end up showing him that and trying to convince him. It's a very, very hard movie to picture if you have no frame of reference. If you had no idea what this movie was, and you were like, 'It takes place on a screen, but it's cinematic.' I'd be like, 'OK, how the fuck is that going to happen?' So I had to talk to him and show him and take him through, and he had all these questions for me, trying to trip me up. And I was like, 'This is how we're going to do this, this is how we're going to do this.' By the end of it, he was into it. He was like, 'Fuck it. If we have the opportunity to...' – I'm just reading his mind, I guess, so don't quote me, but the way I see it is, the way he was talking about it is, 'If we have an opportunity to somehow contribute to the language of movies, which is a crazy thought, let's take it.' I have to commend him, I have to commend Debra for that. They were so brave to be able to take this project on and put their names behind it.

That's awesome.

[Final warning: Spoilers ahead.]

Talk to me about the buffering moment. That seems like something you can only use once, so how early on did you know you wanted to deploy it at that spot in the film?

Spoilers ahead! The end of the film, we have a sequence where one of the characters is caught, I guess, and it happens at a live streaming event. Right before the climax of this particular moment, the video cuts out, and says, 'Apologies. Technical difficulties.' That, we found in the edit. That was not in the script. The moment in the script ended with the character being taken out of the room and cut. End of scene. But it immediately felt convenient. It didn't feel real enough. And this was a moment where the following scene would hopefully add a lot of resolution, so why not hold people on a string a little bit more and use that moment leading up to the buffer as just this string-up of 'What's going to happen? What's going to happen? What's going to happen?' and then (snaps) release tension. Then you'll have laughs, almost, in a weird way. 'Ha ha, I can't believe they [did that].'

The physicality of Debra that moment – she's coiled, she could do anything, and you're really waiting to see what is going to happen.

That is exactly what we were going for!

You feel like she could pull a gun, she could do anything, and right at that moment, it cuts away. I loved that part.

She was fantastic in that scene.

I know you've been running around like crazy, and I don't want to take up any more of your time. Thanks very much for speaking with me, and congratulations.

This is my favorite film site. On the record!


Searching is in theaters now.