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[The following story contains mild spoilers for Missing.]
Missing directors Nick Johnson and Will Merrick are wunderkinds in the truest sense of the word.
The duo began their careers as co-editors on director Aneesh Chaganty and screenwriter Sev Ohanian’s Searching (2018) and Run (2020), before making the improbable leap to feature film directors on Missing, the spiritual follow-up to the aforementioned films. With screenlife films like Searching and Missing, post-production requires significantly more time than principal photography does, so as editors, Johnson and Merrick already knew the ins and outs of making such unique tech-based thrillers.
All three films have formed a shared cinematic universe of sorts as Missing subtly references the fictional true crimes of the prior films, and in Run’s case, the plot was moved forward courtesy of a news ticker that alluded to Sarah Paulson’s character escaping the Corrections Center that she wound up in at the end of Run.
“We found interesting places to hide [references] in the movie, and there are actually even more than two references to Run,” Johnson tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We always like to think of this movie as being pause-proof. If you pause this movie at home, you’ll be like, ‘Wait a minute, is that a reference to what I think it is?’”
Merrick adds: “The rabbit hole goes pretty deep. Home video viewers are going to have a fun time.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Johnson and Merrick also discuss the cameo from Scream (2022) and Yellowjackets star, Jasmin Savoy Brown, as well as how post-production began before pre-production.
So how did two editors go from editing two feature films to directing their first feature film? That’s quite a feat.
Nick Johnson: Did we hoodwink everyone with power to hire us?
Johnson & Merrick: (Laugh.)
Johnson: First of all, we’re really lucky and grateful to our producers, Sev, Aneesh and Natalie [Qasabian], and also to everyone at Sony for trusting two editors with no directing experience, much less studio feature film directing experience. But Will and I were so involved with Searching and creating and discovering its cinematic language and rules. We knew the format so intimately, and we also established a baseline of the visual language itself. So we were really confident in telling a story like this, and we also brought an element of wanting to transcend and not just recreate what we had done. So that made us uniquely suited for the job.
Searching director Aneesh Chaganty and Searching writer Sev Ohanian had their own improbable paths, so I guess it’s a requirement for this franchise to not take the traditional route.
Will Merrick: What traditional route?
Touché, Will Merrick. So Aneesh and Sev have story credit on Missing. Did they hand off a treatment and tell you guys to go nuts, basically?
Merrick: It was more than that as they were involved the whole way, but basically, they gave us a bullet-point treatment that essentially outlined the story you see. And then we ran off with it and added our own touches. We added a lot of beats, we figured out exactly what happens, and then we did rounds of revisions with them until we got what you see.
Is everything we see scripted in painstaking deal, from iMessage typing to what TikTok Storm Reid’s character is watching on the left-third of the frame?
Merrick: It is, but there might be times where it says something like, “And then June goes to Instagram and scrolls down to find a picture.” So it’s detailed but not too detailed. It looks a lot like a live-action script.
Would you ever use the actual device cameras to capture the performances?
Johnson: So a lot of the challenge of making this movie comes down to balancing realism with making something that feels cinematic at the same time. Nobody really wants to just see raw phone footage. People don’t look that attractive on it.
Merrick: You can’t color it.
Johnson: Yeah, you can’t color it. So we worked with our DP Steven Holleran to try to find cameras that gave us a lot of latitude and allowed us to make it look good, while still feeling accurate to whatever device was being used. So we shot with an array of different cameras: iPhones, the Sony a7S Mark III, the Alexa. It really just depended on what the device was that we were watching in the story.
Merrick: We liked the a7S because it’s so good in low light. You can stop down really narrow and get a deep depth of field that a phone or webcam would give you.
Johnson: We watched some screen movies that had shallow depth of field, and there’s something that feels really false to that. We’re all on Zoom all the time, and we know intuitively what looks real. So we knew we could not use shallow depth of field without it feeling really false.
Every phase of a movie is important, but would you say that post-production is more significant than usual since so much of the story is being told through apps and notifications?
Merrick: (Laughs.) Post-production is certainly where we spent most of our time. I mean, production was twenty-something days, high twenties, and then we spent more than two years in post, editing, graphic designing, animating. We sometimes joke that it’s either the most complicated live-action movie or the simplest animated movie, and we had a pretty small team that had to do a ton of work to make this possible.
Johnson: Post-production actually started before production, which is similar to how we worked on Searching. We started making pre-vis, an animatic, during the height of the pandemic while working remotely from home. So by the time we got to production, we had a fully assembled version of the movie, and having that roadmap to show the crew and cast was really instrumental so that they knew what they were doing. It’s such an unusual project, and so post-production started before production ever started, even before pre-production started, really.
Is it easy to fix story problems since you can just have June (Reid) do something on her computer without even showing her? And I realize that easy is not the right word, but it’s all relative.
Merrick: You’re right. It’s not easy to fix story problems, but it’s certainly more possible to do so. You don’t catch yourself in a dead end quite as often, and in a way, that’s why we worked on it for so long. You never reach a point where you’re like, “This is the best it can be.” You could kind of go forever.
Johnson: There’s something nice when you get to post-production in filmmaking where you’re like, “This is the footage we have.” You may get to do reshoots or something, but you’re always just working within the confines of the footage you have. So the liberating element of making a movie like this is that you actually have a lot of latitude and flexibility to change things, but that can also be grueling because you can always make things a little better. The movie’s just never done.
Merrick: It’s a blessing and a curse.
Did you ever run into clearance hurdles for certain apps or videos you needed?
Johnson: Ah, man, that would be a longer conversation that is above our pay grade. Luckily, we have a great legal team and producers that handle most of that stuff for us. Generally, the goal for us was just to always show things the way they actually are, but we also have a lot of bespoke apps and things that were based off of real things. We made these things ourselves so that we could make modifications and tailor them to the story.
I thought Unfiction was a cool device since it allowed you to connect Searching and Missing without having to shoehorn anything. Was there a big debate as far as how much to reference the last film?
Merrick: It was always something we wanted to do, especially since this movie covers true crime culture and the idea of a true crime frenzy even more than the first one does. So it just seemed like an obvious way to tie Searching in, and it did exist from the original treatment. It went through many forms, but it was always there in some way.
Johnson: But you’re right. There is an element of like, “To what extent is this a sequel, versus just a standalone installment in the franchise?” So that was an ongoing conversation. It was really important to us that this movie stands alone as its own movie. You don’t have to have seen Searching to enjoy this movie, but it was also really important to us to give Searching fans those winks throughout, without completely interfering with our own story.
Merrick: There was a version of the Unfiction opening that actually spoiled what happened in Searching, back when we were thinking of it more as a direct sequel. But I’m glad we ultimately didn’t do that.
You may not have made a direct sequel to Searching, but you did create a shared cinematic universe. I spotted a couple references to the second film you made with Aneesh and Sev, Run, and one of them explains what happens to Sarah Paulson’s character.
Johnson: We actually have this epic email chain that we started as early as pre-production while we were writing the script. Anyone who had an idea for a reference to any of the projects we’ve worked on could just throw it out there, and we slowly assembled that into a Google doc. So we found interesting places to hide them in the movie, and there are actually even more than two references to Run. So that’s part of the fun of a movie like this. We always like to think of this movie as being pause-proof. If you pause this movie at home, you’ll be like, “Wait a minute, is that a reference to what I think it is?” So that’s really important to us, and you’ll even catch those in the theater if your eye wanders.
Merrick: The rabbit hole goes pretty deep. Home video viewers are going to have a fun time.
I just spoke to M. Night Shyamalan, and he’s actually used as an Easter egg in Searching, as is his work. Anyway, he nearly made a very similar choice that you guys made for Run in this movie.
Merrick: In terms of a shared universe?
Yeah, Glass was going to establish that the faux grandparents in The Visit escaped from Glass’ mental institution.
Merrick: That’s amazing.
So when do you start production on the “Green Angel Vigilante” movie?
Merrick: How much would it take for somebody to talk us into doing that?
Johnson & Merrick: (Laugh.)
Is there a reality where you guys would build out that alien subplot involving green lightning and East Coast haze?
Merrick: Ask Sev Ohanian.
Johnson: Yeah, ask Sev and Sony.
What I like about this premise is that Gen Z really are incredible online detectives. They’ve helped crack some notable cases because they grew up with social media and smartphones during the true crime boom. So I completely bought June and Veena’s (Megan Suri) skills. Was that one of the earliest inspirations for the movie?
Merrick: Mm-hmm. We liked the idea of younger main character because it would allow us to run with a more technologically literate and faster-paced version of the movie. June and Veena know how to do everything, so it allowed us to go a lot deeper into technology and how it tracks you through online history.
Johnson: There were a lot of high-profile true crime cases and disappearances that happened in the making of this, and we always wanted to be sensitive to those victims and those families. So we didn’t give those specific shoutouts, like the Gabby Petito case, for instance. We were watching that in real time while we were making this movie and seeing what was happening on TikTok at the time. So we incorporated that. Because the movie took so long, we were able to be agile and respond to things that were happening in the news in real time.
With so many twists and turns in this film, was there a lot of back and forth with marketing about how much or how little to reveal?
Merrick: Our marketing team was really great about not revealing too much. A lot of people out there think we revealed too much, but we’re very happy with where it landed. So there was a little bit of back and forth, but it was less, “Are we giving too much away,” and more, “How do we want people to walk into the theater? What do we want people’s expectations to be?” So I really like where we landed with that.
There’s an Unfiction cameo near the end of the film involving someone who plays a meaningful role in my career [Jasmin Savoy Brown], and her career really took off after she shot this. How did her cameo go down?
Merrick: Well, her career had already taken off …
Oh, for sure. I just mean that 2022 was especially huge for her. She had the number-one movie in Scream (2022) and the buzziest new show in Yellowjackets going at the same time.
Johnson & Merrick: (In unison.) Yeah!
Johnson: We had a list of people that we thought were the right fit, and we got lucky that she was down. So she showed up on set, and she was just the most enjoyable, wonderful person to work with. So we were really lucky.
Merrick: She also came into ADR for one line and was super nice about that, too.
Johnson: Yeah, she’s incredible.
Through all this, have you learned anything about how we can better protect ourselves from our technology?
Johnson: Part of the challenge of making this movie is taking these mundane things and making them really cinematic and interesting. So we did a lot of digging into Google account pages and how much it tracks us. So now, I turn off location services every once in a while on Google.
Merrick: I learned the wrong lesson. I turned mine on because I’ve had my Google location services off my whole life. When we were researching, I saw that Nick had a record of everywhere he’d been, and I got jealous.
Johnson & Merrick: (Laugh.)
Johnson: It’s nice to have a little diary of where you’ve been, even if Google is using it in some way.
The Colombia misspelling during June’s Google search was a nice touch, as was the school bus captcha. I often have similar debates with those kinds of captchas and whether a tiny sliver counts as in-fame or not.
Merrick: Thank you, I love that you caught “Columbia.”
Johnson: The movie only works if it’s grounded in something that everyone can relate to, so we really appreciate that.
Merrick: When we thought of the captcha joke, we really started to get excited about the movie. We were like, “This could be a great moment.” And when we watched it with an audience last night, it was the biggest laugh.
There’s also a tweet or an article that comments on the famous misquote from The Empire Strikes Back, and I’m convinced that Tommy Boy is responsible for it, at least with my generation. So that was another relatable moment.
Merrick: Wow, you really watched this closely.
Johnson: That’s awesome. Thank you.
Decades from now, when the two of you are reminiscing next to a crackling fireplace, what day on Missing will you bring up to each other?
Johnson: It’s going to take some distance, but yesterday, we got to see it for the first time in theaters with a real audience that paid money to see it. And that gave us goosebumps. It’s why we do what we do. We’ve grinded for three years during the height of the pandemic, and it really was a painstaking process. But to see an audience watch the movie in a theater and gasp and applaud was really, really special. It’s something that we’ll truly never forget.
Merrick: A few weeks ago, we stayed up for almost a week straight trying to finish all the graphics for this movie. And before I was about to hop on a flight to go home, Nick and I, while extremely sleep deprived, exchanged this look that basically said, “We did it.” So that was a nice moment.
Johnson: That was a legendary week.
Merrick: That was truly crazy.
Missing is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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