John Cho plays a father looking for his missing 16-year-old daughter Margot in “Searching,” a must-see thriller from director Aneesh Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian. It's a tightly-plotted, unpredictable mystery that starts with a Pixar-grade emotional whammy, and becomes bigger and more tense as the film goes from one massive revelation to the next. Debra Messing co-stars as an investigator who is helping Cho's character David piece together different clues, including the ones in his daughter's laptop.
"Searching" features a story that could have worked in a live-action sense, but Chaganty and Ohanian go the extra thousand miles to depict the characters' anxious quest strictly through the use of different screens. FaceTime, text messages, video blogs, news reports and other daily tools of screen culture are all incorporated precisely to create a thriller for our times. (For this reason and more, it won the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at Sundance, an award that celebrates how film uses technology.)
The co-writing duo, with Chaganty making his directorial debut, are in turn rewarded with a spot in movie history: they've devised a mainstream thriller made entirely from screens that both isn’t locked to one desktop (as with the “Unfriended” movies) nor stuck in a flat cynicism about a loss of humanity with new technology. Their film, as refreshing as it is inventive, is honest about the new way in which we live, showing that modern life doesn't have to feel like a "Black Mirror" episode.
After speaking to them during a Q&A at this past May’s Chicago Critics Film Festival (video here), I sat down Chaganty and Ohanian to further discuss their movie. In this condensed interview below, we touch upon telling stories that have a universality, enlisting the help of their Facebook friends, how these two guys are self-proclaimed cheesy mofos and more.
I want to talk about the beginning of the film, which introduces viewers pretty quickly to a movie that's going to take place on more than one screen; it's going to include the files we keep sacred in our hard drives, and depict the way we grow alongside our technology. When you guys are scripting these memories or files, do you have a very exact idea of what you want?
ANEESH CHAGANTY: It’s concise, it’s in the script. There’s a little bit of improv to all of that stuff to feel real … if it feels perfect, it doesn’t feel real. It would be like, taking us through this cute moment, “Here’s what’s gotta happen in the sequence,” and then we’d just change something up. It’s the spirit of that moment that we’re trying to grasp.
SEV OHANIAN: And you know what’s crazy, is that we worked with three young Margots and then our actual Margot. At one point, we asked them if they could send us photos and videos of the actresses, and actually I know for sure one of them made it into the montage. The shot of [Margot] blowing out her birthday candle was actually from that actress’ birthday dinner, and when we saw that we were like "this has got to get in."
And you mentioned you have all of your family and friends in there.
AC: Yeah, the whole movie, we realized we needed to fill up everything on screen. So it’s like, we’ve tried to frame it like we were doing people a service, like "Oh, you can be in a movie." I was begging, underneath it all.
SO: And if you do the math, there’s probably a thousand photos you see on Facebook, all the news websites. I remember at one point we just started posting on our Facebook, Aneesh was like, “Hey guys, I’m making a movie. I wanna put my friends and family in it, if you want to be, if you consent to being in the movie, like my status.”
Were you guys intentionally trying to push against the cynical notions that often come with a modern technology movie?
AC: Yeah, 100%. That’s what the opening montage is. One of the things that it hopefully accomplishes is, we’re looking at things that talk about how negative technology is, and how addicted we are to this, or how obsessed we are with that, or how much it alienates us and all that stuff. And we’re like, yeah, that is true, but it’s just one aspect of the stuff. It’s like zoom out and get this macro picture of what technology does as a whole; as much as it can alienate, it can connect us. As much as it can make us hate, it can also make us love. We’re not making a point that technology is all good or technology is all bad. It’s a thing that exists that can do a lot. That was a huge aspect of the film, and one of the reasons that the film can be such a roller coaster, because it goes happy sad, scary, tension, it’s all these emotions in one movie, and it’s all technology that is allowing us to do that. That was the goal from the beginning.
You were talking earlier about stories that tell themselves unconventionally, or tell stories conventionally. As someone who made a movie like that, was it extremely rewarding to get to the end of the line?
SO: I don’t know if we got to the end of the line, yet. But dude, to be totally candid and cheesy, yes. Making any movie is hard, and I’ve been lucky enough to be a producer on a number of small indie films, every one of them is a miracle when they get to the finish line. With “Searching,” honestly man, I’m so proud of Aneesh and our cast and our crew, every one of those people took a massive leap of faith, and putting themselves in this project, working on the film with no guarantee that it will be released or be seen by audiences. To me, that’s the biggest pride. I’m just so grateful that people took this leap of faith.
AC: And it’s so funny, apart from the department heads, whose job for us was to convince them to take the leap of faith, there was Sebastian, who is our DP. He was telling me that one of the gaffers, or someone who worked on the movie for one or two days, was like “That’s the movie we worked on? That movie? That’s going to theaters?”
SO: Oh, really?
AC: We’re so proud of the team and that they took the leap of faith but it’s so gratifying to see these responses from random people who worked on the movie for a day or two days, who were just doing it for the gig, honestly.
When did you have the breakthrough to show screen culture with an emphasis on different screens, and to give information in an entertaining way that favors motion? It could have been a very dry concept.
SO: We knew what the story was going to be, more or less, and then we were trying to wrap our heads around what it was going to feel like, I remember it being … it felt telepathic. We both knew right off the bat it was going to be more cinematic than anything that had tried to do something like this before. And I can’t say enough, without Aneesh’s background in directing commercials for Google, this movie would not be what it was without you spending two years doing that.
AC: Yeah, sure. Both of us knew from the beginning that the concept had to evolve. We knew that we could never do one thing and then do it again. We were always challenging ourselves. If we had shown a piece of information before, how do we not show another piece of information the same way? And in that way, it would more resemble a live-action movie, and it would feel like you wouldn’t be bored because you were never seeing something twice. There’s only one major, the crazy part about this is that there’s only one conversation that happens on iMessage in this movie, and it’s early in the film. It’s him talking to his brother. That’s the only time people text and have a conversation in this movie. Thousands of opportunities were presented for them to have a conversation over text, and we were like, “How do we not do that, because we did it there.” To constantly evolve was our biggest challenge.
SO: It was a very like, calculated thing that as you watch the movie ... as soon and you start getting used to it, like “OK, I get it he’s looking for her,” and then the midpoint happens, and then now it becomes an even bigger conversation, and then it gets even bigger. We wanted to make sure that people never felt bored by the concept. And that’s why it lends itself to getting bigger.
AC: And the midpoint is the best, I think that was our anchoring point as far as. If I ever wrote a screenplay book, it would be called The Art of the Midpoint or something like that.
SO: Dope. I would love that.
AC: I really do think the midpoint is the most important beat in a story, because it’s where a movie has to shift, or do something different. And for us, we knew that our midpoint would [involve a car], and essentially the case going from just a dad looking for a kid to all of a sudden being a public interest story. That made the movie, the conceit is that essentially the first half of the movie is the computer screen part. The second half of the movie almost becomes a found-footage movie at the end of it, because screens start coming in. We can’t sustain 90 minutes of just being on a screen, so let’s just squeeze all of that into one half of a movie, and then switch it at the second half and it will feel fresh again.
SO: And taking that further, the sequence at the end of act two where David is in Peter’s apartment: now we’re going to try something totally different. All of that was so intentional. It was a breakthrough for us, once we knew that was the midpoint, everything else we knew would have some livelihood.
Were you thinking about what kind of screens there would be to use narratively, or building scenes from what screens you could use?
AC: For the second half, we were like this kind of way of telling this beat would belong to the second half as much as the first half. We kind of split things up in that way, and then like, “OK, the news footage will be on the right side of the movie.”
SO: But we were never like, “Oh, we should tell the story from this kind of camera.” That always came after the fact. One example we always talked about was, almost at the midpoint where David is about to shut down his computer and more or less accept that his daughter ran away, he sees this last little image of the lake. And that leads him on a path of going to the lake. Our intention before we wrote that sequence was, in a regular crime detective mystery movie, the detective has one last look at the crime scene. No sign of anything. As they’re about to leave, right as they’re about to turn off the light they see one smudge of a fingerprint and it blows the case wide open. That’s what we knew what we wanted to do, we just wanted to figure out how we would do that by telling it with screens.
AC: The whole movie falls into that exact pattern. We were always like, “What is the live-action version of this movie first? Not what’s the screen movie, what’s the live-action version, and how do we adapt that version into a screen?"
There is a rewatchability to your movie, with so many details that can be found in a second viewing. It reminds me of recent projects like “Get Out,” or Hiro Murai's music video “This is America,” these stories that become deeper when you start looking outside the main frame. It’s a great idea to make a movie that people want to watch over and over.
SO: I have to say man, I haven’t even told [Aneesh] this, but one of my out-of-body experiences over the last couple months was watching an interview with Jordan Peele, where he talked about his film “Get Out.” And he really talked about rewatching that film and what their intention was with one of the actresses. When I hear Jordan Peele talk about Allison Williams’ character, he was so proud of her performance and proud of himself and the whole team, it’s a totally different movie. And I was like, “OK, next time I watch 'Searching,'" because I often watch it with a crowd as if it were my first time and put myself in that virgin mode ... I watched it again as a second-time viewer now, [redacted’s] performance is on a whole different level, and I think to me that was an out-of-body experience. Something that we made, because I look up to Jordan, that would resonate with the film he made.
Given all of the detail that went into this movie, including the different chats and emails and various copy all around to create the realism of this technology, did you make it to be seen multiple times?
AC: It was never something that we said from the beginning that we wanted to make something that would be rewatched. I think it was something that we discovered that needed to happen to make this movie work. We just wanted to make a movie that works from A to B. It just so happens that it’s so rewatchable because there’s so much that’s happening that is simultaneous to the plot. All of the texts, all of the lines of copy and clues that we’re dropping. It was inevitable, but we took the opportunity that we could have thrown away and made gibberish out of it, and we’re like “let’s just try to do the most we can here, and how can we make the movie be even better,” and by making that our goal, what we accomplished was a re-watchability.
SO: And then there’s the other side of it, since we’ve seen it multiple times and with friends multiple times, we just had a screening in LA where my sister who has seen it three times was with her boyfriend, who had never seen it. And I know that she was watching him the entire time, when that twist is coming she’s like, "uh huh, you see that?" That to me is incredibly satisfying. Not intended until the edit, but …
AC: It’s cool.
How do you complement each other as writers?
SO: We have evolved. We’ve been working together four years, I’ve lost track of time. But it’s fun, man. It doesn’t feel like work. We’ve become so disciplined, it’s almost militarized the way we work.
AC: Without Sev, I would be writing Plato. It’s a weird, compass and explorer, kind of analogies you can give. We’ve made a process that’s originally very process-driven in a way that feels organic. It’s changed, but we also both have, like, I watch hockey a lot. And you have your positions and you stick to your positions but there’s a lot of places a player can move when they take the shot. And it feels like that, we both have our individual fortes but we can switch positions a lot. Depending on where the puck is. Sports, baaaby!
SO: We do create this safe space between the two of us where we just pitch these awful ideas. All the time where we have an issue with “Searching,” it would be like, “Alright, here’s the terrible version.” Here’s the version that comes out of my ass.
AC: “I’m not pitching this, but …”
SO: “I’m not pitching this, but … ” has ended up on the film, multiple times.
AC: But you understand what the beat is, and you work from the ground up. “I’m not pitching this” but she slaps her, and it’s like OK, you’re pitching a version where someone gets physically angry, you want an anger beat. And then we’ll be like, “What’s a better way to do anger there than a slap?” It’s just, I think that every successful writing relationship we’ve looked at has the same thing, and it’s something that is weird because every time you talk story with new people, that same aspect has to get re-navigated. Everyone has to pitch bad ideas to get to a good idea, but it takes an understanding of the relationship to understand how to talk through it, and we’ve obviously done that through the course of the years.
Or to have an openness.
SO: I think it makes the process faster. I’ll just pitch 15 ideas back-to-back-to-back of how to get out of a scene, and Aneesh will be like, “Yes, no, no, no, yes,” and that just gets us through the process to the next beat so much faster, rather than just sitting there thinking out loud and questioning and doubting. One of the ways that I characterize our writing, especially near the end of a project, is having to combat each other and really defend our ideas. If I feel strongly about something but Aneesh doesn’t feel strongly about it and we’re fighting about that—
AC: We’re fighting against each other as opposed to with each other.
SO: —it means that the best idea survived. And that’s what ends up on the screen.
When you’re battling each other?
AC: Yeah. There’s a lot we agree on. There’s more things that we agree on than not, especially when it comes to structure and stuff. But when there are disagreements, obviously it is inevitable, it does feel like we’re battling against each other.
SO: We’ll get into a five-part war over a comma, sometimes. We both have this insane attention to detail.
AC: For good and bad. We’re both perfectionists.
SO: Well, I’m a perfectionist. I think Aneesh is neurotic. [laughs] I guess it’s the same way of putting it. But I think it has resulted in some really well-crafted storytelling.
I did some deep Googling on you guys, and I have to know—what’s the status of your script, “Animal Heist”?
AC: It’s the first thing that we wrote. When I met Sev, before I was ever working with Sev, he was working on a movie called “Fruitvale Station” and came back from Sundance. Small movie, a few people like it. [laughs] He comes back and everybody wants to work with him, and I’m like, “I’m going to work with him.” So I take him to drinks and I was just like, I’m going to pitch him five ideas and whatever he likes the most I’m just going to work on it and just find a way. And one of those ideas was “Animal Heist,” and he was like, “That’s my favorite idea.” And I said, “That’s my favorite idea!” And we literally just started started working on it from there, it was a $90 million dollar movie, that realistically will never get made, and it’s so close to our hearts.
SO: OK, here’s the idea. It’s a heist movie, in which the world’s greatest thief is forced to break all of his own rules when he’s brought on to pull off the wildest heist ever: stealing a 400-pound gorilla from the LA zoo. Who would not want to make that movie? We wrote that movie by ourselves, it was the first time working together, we really learned how to write together and just work together, period. And it was great, and we won a couple competitions, and we actually had a meeting at a major studio, at one point that wouldn’t make the movie, because that studio also owns animal parks. And one day we will make that movie, Aneesh. In fact, you can write that. That’s gonna be the thing after “Searching.”
AC: Aneesh. Asterisk. Doubtful.
SO: [laughs] By the way, this is the saddest part ever: the reason it’s called “Animal Heist” is so that the sequel can be about other animals being stolen from other places. A franchise. Studios out there, we got you.
AC: We were thinking about that from the start. I think it taught us a lot about what to do, what to work on and what not to work on. We’ve basically are going to spend our entire careers building up to the budget of our first project.
What inspires you guys now, as storytellers?
AC: The stories we like to tell are bold, thrilling, they have a propulsion to them. But most of all, are anchored and at the center of them have a very gooey heart, that’s stuff we really gravitate toward. I don’t know, apart from that it’s hard to say one particular thing, but having a propulsive narrative is something that I have found quite odd that movies don’t have as much of them. One thing that we try to do with “Searching” is move, move, move, move. Having that engine helps so much, and I don’t think that movies these days, not movies these days, I don’t think a lot of movies take advantage of doing that, when it could have made the movie so much better by simply having a sort of a propulsive narrative. And most of all, as far as our particular angle on it, which is just heart, and making people cry and making people feel. That’s the movies that we were raised on. Just by putting heart into a genre that doesn’t associate with it, I think adds and elevates to a concept so much more than the concept on its own, or heart on its own.
SO: 100% what Aneesh is saying. When we’re just throwing ideas around, like what movie to write next, one of the things you’ll hear between us is me saying, “Oh bro, I just got chills, bro.” I probably should see a doctor about this. But when I get the chills, it’s like—
AC: On the poster: "I got chills." [laughs]
SO: —We’re touching upon something. I grew up as an Armenian-American immigrant, and my parents immigrated to this country well into their 30’s. Watching movies at home with my family, and I think Aneesh did this too, was a big deal for us, and I think the movies that tended to transcend someone’s full grasp on English but still would make my parents feel something, that is always what I’ve aspired to do. And I think another thing, that I’m sure I say all the time, it’s not about finding a low common denominator, but it’s about telling a story and making movies that will make people of all walks of life feel something.
AC: Having a universality to them. It’s the most buzziest of phrases, but it’s true. Which is why I think a lot of our stories tend to be about parents and kids. It’s the environment that we were raised in, but it’s something that’s so ... you don’t need to be in any one culture to understand, it’s the same. Everyone across the world has the same worries about their kids, and all the kids have the same relationships toward their parents. It’s just the world around them that’s a little different. That’s been one aspect of it that’s always been grounding our stories, and hopefully help make them more universal.
What are some titles that you watched with your families?
SO: An obvious one is “Titanic,” our whole family loved that movie. And man, this is going to be a really random title, but one of my mom’s favorite movies that she made me watch so many times was “Men of Honor” starring Cuba Gooding Jr. It was crazy, she was about that movie. It was an inspirational true story, obviously, but it was the most random thing. She was like, “This is a movie, and there’s a lot to learn here.”
AC: For me, it was a lot more action fare, like blockbuster material. My mom, when I was a kid, she would pull us out of class early and take us to go see a movie. She loves movies. To this day, I have to go home for the Oscars, it’s a family tradition. All of us go home for the Oscars, and the only time we can’t go is if we’re actually there. So we love movies and she would always, the movies she brought us to were always these big blockbusters, and the tentpoles that would have come to India when she was growing up there, like the “Mission: Impossible IIIs,” the “Day After Tomorrows,” the “Da Vinci Codes,” the Bourne movies, the Batman trilogy. All of these movies that were big and that we’d kind of wait in line for these movies that I aspire to, while at the same time, what I think we want to both do is make those movies, just add a lot of heart underneath it and see what we can do just by doing that.
To go with that, do you have to push yourself to write about family, to put yourself in the perspective of parents?
SO: No, I think it came pretty naturally. We’re just big cornballs, we’re cheesy mofos, straight-up.
AC: And we come from such rich, not rich monetarily, but rich families that are warm and full of love.
SO: You know what’s crazy, man? When we went to Sundance, and we won the Audience Award, we got the Alfred P. Sloan Award, we had a great sale to Sony, and we had all these incredible parties and really VIP kind of treatment. Still, to me, the best night of the entire festival was one night where Aneesh’s family, my family and Natalie Qasabian, one of our producing partner’s family, we all came to Sundance, and we all had a big dinner together, and the biggest highlight with me was sharing that. We would not be at Sundance had it not been for our families.
AC: And it was the shared acknowledgment of it between us. It was like a shared value. It’s not like we try to write anything that’s family related, or we try to grasp those emotions. We just have a natural understanding of it; it just feels true to both of us. When it feels true to both of us, it’s like, “OK, that’s what’s going in the movie.”
And with your Google Glass short “Seeds," which has its own roots to the special experience of "Searching," was it always the idea that it’s going to be about a family?
AC: Yeah, it was just like, “That’s it.” In a weird way it took convincing, but it took no convincing at all, and I think part of Sev’s appeal to it when I first pitched it to him was, “We’re making that because it’s true. It’s just true.”
SO: Yeah, no matter how hard it was.
AC: And that’s a universal story as well. It’s a kid telling his mom that they’re having a family together. It’s things that we were raised with, and I think was pressed on us, the importance of family. It’s like, whether we want to or not, it’s a part of our lives. It has definitely, naturally expressed itself in our writing.
Going forward, you’ve both said no more screen movies. But will technology be at the forefront of characters?
SO: I’ve been pitching the idea, if Warner Bros. is listening, I’ve got an idea for a Batman spinoff, where the entire thing takes place on a Bat-computer. If you can make sure DC and Warner Bros. see this, Aneesh is down for this 100%.
AC: Yup, yup, yup.
SO: I’m totally kidding!
AC: Tentpole, baby! “Riddler.Exe.” That’s the title. [laughs]
SO: The movie that we’ve written and we’re hoping to make next, has one sequence in which a character uses the internet to find an answer to something, and the internet is disconnected.
AC: And that’s our nod to “Searching.” And ironically, it’s a search engine that she finds out is disconnected on. I hope people, that what they can take out of [“Searching”] overall, in a pure formal style, is that I think right now we’re in an era of how to show technology in the content. We’ve seen the texts on the side on “House of Cards” when people are texting, we’ve seen all that. I think, hopefully, what we can do is say that we do live our lives on this, and there is a way to cut into this stuff even in a normal live-action film that can feel like the style or tone of the film you’re making as a whole. It can be a rom-com, it can be a thriller, it can be a mystery, it can be a comedy. There’s a way to show this stuff and stay within the style and the conceit of your own film. Because this is the way that we live our lives. It doesn’t have to be the way that you tell the whole movie, but there is a way to tell this stuff, and there is a way to use storytelling in way that can service whatever movie the filmmaking is telling.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Below is a spoiler-heavy video interview with Chaganty and Ohanian about the making of "Searching," a special cut that stars Chaganty in every role, questions from the audience and more.