HEAT VISION

Why 'Searching' Team Turned It Down Multiple Times

The filmmaker behind John Cho's innovative tech-focused film initially feared the producers wanted to make the project "purely because another movie with screens had been a hit."
'Searching'   |   Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
The filmmaker behind John Cho's innovative tech-focused film initially feared the producers wanted to make the project "purely because another movie with screens had been a hit."

Searching opens with the nostalgic familiarity of a PC booting up Windows XP to the sound of that hard-to-forget chime.

The near-eight-minute opening sequence immediately draws the viewer into the setup of Aneesh Chaganty's innovative new thriller, one which takes place entirely on the screens that dominate our lives.  

Starring John Cho, the film tells the story of a man whose daughter goes missing and in his increasingly frantic attempts to find clues of her whereabouts from her myriad and previously hidden online profiles, he discovers he doesn't really know her at all. The Sony Pictures and Bazelevs Co. movie co-stars Debra Messing as a police officer leading the search and newcomer Michelle La as the missing daughter. 

The movie was written by first-time helmer Chaganty and Sev Ohanian, and the pervasive influence of tech is perhaps no surprise given the director's background as a former employee in Google's commercials department. But Searching, which earned rave reviews at Sundance, almost didn't get made as Chaganty worried that the initial idea was too close to 2014's Unfriended, another movie from Bazelevs. 

Searching hits theaters in limited release Aug. 24 and wide release Aug. 31. The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Chaganty and Cho to talk about the innovative aspects of the film, the challenges of acting and directing with such tight restrictions, and the positive and negative aspects of our digital lives explored in the movie. 

To begin, and I'm sure you're getting this question a lot, with the concept of the film taking place all on tech screens, were you worried that it might seem gimmicky? 

Aneesh Chaganty: We said no to this project so many times. I specifically remember just getting offered the money to make the movie. But it had to take place on a computer screen or had to be taking place on screens.

It felt like we were being offered this opportunity not because of any artistic intention, but purely because another movie, Unfriended, a movie with screens had been a hit. The big breakthrough for us was the opening sequence. It was cracking that opening scene, which was the eight-minute standalone sequence that is very much reminiscent of Pixar's Up. For us, that eight minutes was proof to us, when we were coming up with it, that there was a way to tell this story that was emotional, that was engaging, that was cinematic, that made you fall in love with the characters, that made you forget that you were watching a movie on screens in the first place. 

John, when you read the script, were you concerned about how this would work in practice? 

John Cho: Probably the thing that was most attractive was the screenplay felt like an exciting thriller about a man trying to find his daughter. On that first read, I wasn't thinking about the methodology. Then I just started thinking about how we would do this, what would it look like. That was when I got cold feet. I watched Unfriended, and was like, "What is this going to be like? What's the finished product going to be like? Will it be engaging? I don't know if I'm connected to this. How do you act in this?"

So the first read was, "This is good." Then, at some point, I kept saying, "Let's just stop making it on the computer!" 

Chaganty: John would call me up and say, "Have you thought about just, at this point, even at the end of the film just going back to regular cameras?" I was like, "Yeah, we thought about it. But we've got to stick to it, we've got to stick to it. That's how we pull this off."

So what were the challenges for the actors? 

Cho: When we were making the film, part of my weakness was relying on a prior language. I'm used to a toolbox that I use as an actor. It's got the screwdriver, it's got the wrench down here, it's got some nails. Now we're making this movie and Aneesh is like, "You can't use any of those tools, man."

Chaganty: That's one of my favorite aspects of making this film in [what a unique] challenge it was for the actors specifically, but also for every single person who worked on this movie. Everybody had to relearn their craft in a weird way to make the movie.

Cho: It's difficult to communicate with someone without taking cues from their face. As an actor, I don't want to get too hoity-toity about it, but it's like, so much of acting is getting something from a face, reading that person. So it becomes difficult without a real face. It was difficult, and it was strange, but also at some point it became fun puzzle-solving. It was a different kind of filmmaking, so we became much more playful with depth, for instance, and what that means when you have a fixed location. So there was a different kind of blocking, a different kind of choreography to it that became fun to solve, but the essential thing of not having a face there was a problem, it was just something that I struggled with.

It was relief that it worked, that the movie worked and the performance generally worked. I think right after I saw the first screening, I was like, I want a do-over. It's almost like we did the opening night of a play and it went well, and it's like, how can I give it another shot, second performance, you know? There was an excitement of, OK, I think I can do this, because it was an entirely new methodology, really. It was my first movie in a lot of ways.

Did you set out to make an innovative or groundbreaking movie? Was the technical challenge as important as the story? 

Chaganty: No, we didn't. I mean, we said no to just the technical challenge. If it was just a technical challenge, I don't think we'd be here today. I think ultimately what was attractive was the marrying of a story. The story is ultimately the most important thing here, and I think what's so cool about this movie is that this is a movie that doesn't actually have to be told on the screen.

There's a version of this story that's a totally normal live-action movie. The technical side of it is going to be the background. The story will always be first. Maybe you'll occasionally think, "Holy shit. This is all taking place on screens." But ultimately, it's the story first. 

Cho: One of my discoveries was that it doesn't feel alien at all, all the tech onscreen. I consider myself technologically limited, but at the end of making the film, I'm so much more familiar than I thought I was with all this social media vocabulary and the vocabulary of the screen. It was a realization that I've lived much more of my life on the phone, on the computer, than I thought I had. So using the Windows XP music and all of that, that's imbued with a meaning that I didn't feel that I would have. All deep-set stuff, all those sound cues. 

A real practical question, and I'm sure people who see the film will wonder, too, how did you get permission from all of these tech giants to use their logos, their sound chimes, their products onscreen? As well as adding the realism, it's quite impressive to have so many rival companies appear so prominently in the same film, how did you manage that? 

Chaganty: OK. We'll take that in parts. So first, the intention from day one, I think the internet and technology in movies is shown so poorly. Always. You cut to a phone, and the text is massive, for example, and immediately there's a disconnect. From day one we were like, the way this movie works is by grounding it in the world that we all know. 

So basically our guiding principle in the making of the film was, as long as we are showing every product the way that it is actually used, in the real world, and not lying about it, not saying that we're doing anything wrong with it, we'll be OK. Essentially what we had was a legal team that took care of the movie Unfriended, and worked with Family Guy, and they sort of talked us through it, making sure that everything was good to go as far as the companies were concerned.

For us, this movie is not an advertisement for anyone. This is the way we all live our lives. There's only one website we make up for the film, and we do so as its quite negative. But ultimately, [we] had the full, legal greenlight for that.

But there is a part of the movie that shows how incredibly lax the security is on some of those tech products, wasn't that a problem? 

Chaganty: It's accurate, though.

The film is full of topical takes on internet culture, both positive and negative, particularly the reaction online to the man's daughter going missing with people either faking concern for attention or trolling John's character. Why did you include all this overtly negative stuff? Was it realism or to make a point? 

Chaganty: It's one of the things that I think we really wanted with the movie was to be holistic about the way we approached technology. Not portraying it exclusively negatively, not portraying it exclusively positively, but just exploring it as a whole.

I think, for the most part, we had almost shown it in a very positive light. People were connecting online. Love was being shown and all that stuff. For us, the trolling and the fake concern was the one part that we felt needed to be told because this actually happens. I think we look at the way tragedy happens, and I think people, especially on social media, try to adopt tragedy as their own, and kind of say those same things. Again, the movie is not trying to say, "Fuck you, technology or social media." But I think that was an aspect of the truth that we felt like we would be avoiding if we didn't do that. That was one thing that we wanted to show.

We didn't want to make a statement about technology apart from the fact that every statement about technology is negative. Every episode of Black Mirror that you watch is like, technology sucks. We're addicted to our phones. We're addicted to social media. We're addicted to this, we're doing that. Yeah, that's all true, but we have to zoom around a little bit, you know? Technology allows people to connect with loved ones they've never seen before. They allow someone to find their lost mother in India via Google Maps. There's this crazy amount of love and awesome positivity in the world that technology is capable of showing.

So Aneesh, given that you worked at Google, some aspects of the film reminded me a lot of the "Dear Sophie" commercial, was that an inspiration or did you work on that directly? 

Chaganty: Yeah, oh, my God.

Were you involved in that? 

Chaganty: No, I wish. The opening of the movie is "Dear Sophie." My old bosses at Google did that. I used to work in a department of Google called the Creative Lab, my two main bosses basically made those commercials and they were the ones who really taught me how to emote on a screen. It's funny, last month I secretly took Searching and showed it to Google Creative Lab as a thank-you, and being like, "Look what I took from you guys! Look at what I stole! Look what you guys can never do again!" They had a laugh. 

After such an innovative high-concept thriller, what's next for both of you? 

Cho: What do I have? The Grudge. I have a movie called The Oath coming out, too, and a TV thing I can't talk about.

Chaganty: So with Sev Ohanian and Natalie Qasabian, my co-writer and producer on Searching, the three of us just sold a movie to Lionsgate called Run. It's our next thriller, and it is a lot like Searching in the sense that it's about a parent and child, except, unlike Searching it is not a positive relationship. It's a very negative and dark one. We'll be shooting that in the fall.

Cho: You promised me a role as the crossing guard.

Chaganty: I promised John a role as a crossing guard. There's literally one male role. It's a straight feature. I will never do a movie that takes place exclusively on screens again. In fact, there's one scene in Run where a character opens a computer to look up a clue about something, and the internet is disconnected, and that's it. That whole thing takes place in this house, but there's no internet, so that's our Searching homage.

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