At the Sundance Film Festival in January, first-time feature film director Aneesh Chaganty won two awards for his film Searching which stars John Cho and Debra Messing. Searching follows a father played by Cho trying to find his missing daughter, but what makes the film truly inventive is that it only uses screens (laptops, phones) to tell the story. CNET’s review of the film describes the movie as ‘being edge-of-the-seat tense and enormously funny.’
Searching opens in a limited release Aug. 24. Last week, Chaganty visited CNET along with his co-writer Sev Ohanian and the film’s star John Cho. We discussed the insane undertaking of making a movie that takes place entirely on screens.
‘This movie isn’t a indictment on technology,’ said Chaganty. ‘It’s just, in a weird way, showing that we live our lives on screens by the pure fact that we’re able to tell a story about a dad looking for his kid on screens.’
One of the less publicized aspects of Searching is how the story revolves around an Asian American family without the film being solely about that. In discussing the trajectory of how he’s been cast throughout his career Cho said of Searching, ‘This is an example of the end game which is to get to a place where the character is written on the page Asian, but it’s also not a point in the plot.’
Interestingly, I pitched John Cho on a new movie called Sulu: A Star Trek Story. His reaction: ‘If Solo, why not Sulu?’
Watch a video of the full interview below.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: I saw Searching last night and it was an amazing thriller. I didn’t know where it’s going. There are moments with Hitchcock-like tension within the conceit that the entire movie is told on screens. How would you describe Searching to people who haven’t seen it, yet?
Chaganty: Searching is a very classic thriller told in a very unconventional way. The classic part about it is that it’s about a dad played by this guy [John Cho] whose daughter goes missing and he tries to find her. The very unconventional part is that the majority of the film takes place on his daughter’s laptop screen that he breaks into to look for clues to find her. When I say the majority, the rest of it takes place on other computers, and laptops, and tech devices. It’s all told on screens we use everyday to communicate.
One neat moment at the beginning was just how emotional deleting a calendar event can be. It elicited a Pixar Up reaction from the crowd last night. Now John, how did you get involved with this film?
Cho: It was sent to me the traditional way through my agents and my first impression was that I really love the story. The genre I wanted to do. I was very suspicious of telling it via screens, and on that basis, ended up saying no. In retrospect, I like to say, I wonder if it was because Aneesh and I spoke via a device, through the telephone, instead of meeting face-to-face. He came back at me, and we eventually sat down. And it was then that I was convinced that it was going to be a movie not a YouTube video. He explained that his intentions were in the storytelling and also — I just sort of developed a crush Aneesh —
On the record.
Cho: — and decided, there’s a path to doing this movie. And if anyone could do it I felt, at the end of the meeting, it was him.
Sev how would you describe it as a co-writer?
Ohanian: How would I describe John’s crush on Aneesh?
Ohanian: It’s first and foremost a thriller. It’s a regular film. It has all the ups and downs and twists and turns and, as you mention, the emotion that you get with any film. We just happened to make it in a really crazy, unconventional way. To be honest with you, Aneesh and I are writing partners, and he directs, and I produce. When we first had the opportunity to make this film, we also said no. Actually, it seems to be a pattern. We pitched it as a short film and the company, who also produced Unfriended, asked if we could make it into a feature. And for the same exact reason as John, I think, we were hesitant. And it wasn’t until we came up with this opening montage — for those of you that saw it — it was an opportunity for us to use this crazy conceit, but tell a really grounded, human, and most of all emotional story in it. We called that opening montage if Pixar’s Up meets a Google commercial montage.
This is your first feature film. You have a background in short films, but how do you leap from doing shorts to an indie film and specifically this one? Maybe another way of asking that is how did you get to Sundance and win?
Chaganty: Carefully and over a long period of time. Basically, before I was making this film I was at Google in New York City at the Google Creative Lab. I was writing, developing and directing commercials which was a gig that I just kind of found my way into. It was there and I really learned how to emote on computer screens. My bosses had made some of the best Google commercials, actually commercials period. There was one on the Super Bowl a few years ago, 2005, it was one called Parisian Love where it’s all told in a Google search bar. It’s about a kid who goes to Paris and meets the love of his life and it’s just told through searches on Google.
There’s another one that was just on Gmail about a dad writing letters to his kid called Dear Sophie. It follows the growth of his kid. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, these are such unconventional ways of telling the story but the story itself is so universal and something we can all relate to.’
This whole project [Searching] came together after Sev met with this company and they wanted to make movie on a computer screen. He was like, ‘Hey! My boy works at Google. You should meet with him too.’ It felt like this movie was a seamless next step in it, although at no point did we ever feel like this was a homerun, you know?
I quit my job at Google to make this movie and we made this movie with like five people in a very small editing room with two iMac computers that were crashing every two hours and we’d loose like 15 to 20-percent progress. We were going from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. every single day for almost two years. If this movie had failed, no one would have batted an eye because no one believed in this movie from the beginning. We took a crazy leap of faith and trusted that we all had done enough at that point to figure out how to do something absolutely new. Somehow we applied to Sundance, got in and then twelve hours after our premier got a worldwide distribution deal.
Ohanian: What’s funny, is I remember when we got the call about Sundance. It’s a filmmaker’s dream come true. They normally call the director, right? And I’ve be lucky to have a couple of movies in Sundance and it was always the director who would call me and give me the best news of my life. Aneesh was traveling.
Chaganty: Yeah, I was on the jet way from India to Bali.
Ohanian: He was trying to find himself.
Chaganty: I was trying to flush my brain actually of every screen that I had seen for the last two years.
Ohanian: We had strategically planned this out. We were like, ‘Aneesh, you should change your voicemail message to be like, ‘Hey, I’m out of the country, blah, blah, blah. If you’re Sundance leave a message I’m checking.” I happened to be at lunch with my producing partner Natalie, our editors and everyone else on the film because we were doing a technical test of the movie like a month before in case we got into Sundance. And I got the call from Sundance to my phone. I acted really chill, ‘Oh cool yeah, we’d love to come. Sure, cool. Thanks.’ Then as we hung-up, we started going crazy in this restaurant. We’re like ‘Holy shit, Aneesh doesn’t know.’ And we called Aneesh and he’s like, ‘Hey man, I don’t have good service. I’m about to take off on this flight.’ And we told you the news right as you guys are taking off, right?
Chaganty: I turn off my data because my international data plan sucks, so I basically had to time it every 20 minutes to check if I got any messages. And in the 20 minutes, I missed the call from Sundance, and I was like damn!
Ohanian: But I’ll tell you one thing. Sundance tells us the most important thing is you cannot tell anybody your movie’s in Sundance, because they’re gonna announce it two or three weeks from then. So we told Aneesh, just don’t tell anybody and you were trapped in a plane with how many people?
Chaganty: Well, I was trapped on the jetway and everybody knew that something major had just happened in my life. But I don’t think they knew if it was positive or negative cause my reaction was just like, ‘Oh. My. God.’ So hopefully one day they’ll piece it together, but I doubt it.
John, the voiceover in the Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle trailer describes you as ‘that Asian guy from American Pie.’ But then last night, I watched Searching, a story about a father searching for his daughter and losing his family who just happens to be Asian American. What are your thoughts as an actor, and a performer on how your career has changed the definition from being that Asian guy, to now doing leads in movies like this and Columbus?
Cho: It’s certainly been an interesting journey. For me, this movie is a bit of the future right now. And what I mean by that is the race and ethnicity and culture of the family — and it is a whole family that’s represented in this movie — that those things are specific and germane to who the characters are. And yet, it also doesn’t matter. I’ve been saying for a while that I used to take pride in the fact that I would be cast in white roles, and that was a point of pride because I had resisted what they had written for me — for Asian men. This is an example of the end game which is to get to a place where the character is written on the page Asian, but it’s also not a point in the plot. This is in some ways, a culmination of that journey and of that auspicious start.
How does a movie like Crazy Rich Asians fit into that future and continue to move things forward?
Cho: What I’ve been reading kind of in the milieu of the Crazy Rich Asians’ press, and I wholly support this idea, that no one film should have to carry the banner for a culture. It’s absurd because we are diverse. We’re deep, and I think it’s insane for — I mean, that’s the trap of representation is to have to say this person, this story represents all of us. I think, where we all want to go to is moving towards a plurality. And only then can it represent us. Because no one story, no one person, no one narrative, and no one culture can represent us, and really representation starts with being absolutely specific. And when you foist the yolk of representation on any one project or person, you’re going to have to be general. And that is not authentic. It is false and it will not work. IMO.
Going back to the conceit of the film again. The screens added this beautiful tension within moments. And you waited for that start screen to happen in David’s bedroom or to see the lava screensaver just to release that tension. How was this like to make? Because it’s a great story, but I imagine making this seems really unusual.
Cho: Can I say something? I don’t know if everyone knows, I’m just going to pay these guys a compliment, which is that when I first saw the movie, I texted him and said, ‘This is contributing to the vocabulary of cinema, which is incredibly difficult to do.’ I think for many years now, story tellers in my business have been struggling with how to dramatize what’s happening in our culture which is that more and more human beings are having exchanges through technological devices. Scenes that would’ve happened face-to-face, now, we are — if we film them sometimes face-to-face, we’re not being authentic because people are texting those. Those exchanges. People are emailing those exchanges. They’re having those exchanges on Facebook, or FaceTime. And so how do you dramatize that? And I think the traditional way has been to film a person typing. And shoot from behind their back. And if you recall Meg Ryan sort of mouthing her instant messages out loud while she typed. It’s been false. We haven’t gotten it right. It was the first thing that I read. That offered a solution to that problem as a storyteller, which was to go inside the device. And it was quite thrilling, when I saw it one of my impressions was that I was shocked at how much it made sense. We are on seventh and eighth generation of devices and we have, nostalgia for devices. And so we have a shared history and I think it’s the first year that we could have made this film because our collective understanding and history with these devices has arrived.
Ohanian: You mentioned the movie is tense. And part of what makes it tense, for those that saw it, is as you’re watching you’re just waiting for things to happen on the screen. I think that also reflects how we felt making the movie, in post-production specifically. Aneesh mentioned we were working on two computers. Probably the computers you guys use to write articles are stronger than the computers we used to edit. And we all became really religious during the making of this film. We became followers of the ‘Rainbow God’ — you guys know the spinning ‘Rainbow God’? Every time we’d be editing, it would pop up and we’d start praying, ‘Please, don’t delete everything we just did for the last three hours.’ And usually it did. It was crazy, because we were trying to come up with a path that hadn’t really existed before.
Chaganty: Yeah, and speaking of a path that didn’t exist, the first thing that we did with this film — So basically, for those of you guys who don’t know how exactly we shot it, in the film there’s all of the footage that is on a computer screen. There’s the Skype camera. Or there’s YouTube videos. There’s news footage.There’s every website — basically your computer. And there’s the way that we’re seeing it, which is our additional camera that we’re adding to all of that. So, basically, to make this movie, and this was Sev’s idea. 7 weeks before we even shot a frame of the movie after we had written the script. The first group that we hired weren’t the actors or anybody who comes on set, they were the editors who traditionally work after the film is shot. So, in this case they came 7 weeks before, and they just basically open up these two computers that would be their home for the next two years. And basically, started screen capturing the internet and taking photos of text messages and taking a bunch of photos of me. And basically what we ended up with after the course of 7 weeks was an hour-and-forty-minute cut of the entire film starring me playing every single role: Like the dad, the brother, the mother, all of her friends, just talking to myself —
Ohanian: Especially the daughter.
Chaganty: Especially the daughter, yeah. My best performance. This was honestly to teach ourselves how to make movie but on a very practical level John when he is on set your looking at the face the entire time shoot on a GoPro process every single tiny eye motion is extremely exaggerated. So he needs to know basically where the cursor is at every single point. Where every pop-up window is happening. Where every web page is popping up. Where every text message is popping up. So everything has to be matched perfectly. And he needs to know everything that he’s always doing. So we needed to make the movie first so we could make the movie so we could take that footage and put it back into the movie that we had made first, and then continue to make the movie again.
Got it, got it. You were talking about YouTube windows and Facebook. Do you need to get permission to use that stuff on screen? Or how did that go about?
Chaganty: One of the most important things — I think historically — one of the big ideas that we wanted to do in this movie is get the internet right. I feel like no Hollywood movie or television show or anything for that matter ever does technology right. They always cut to a phone and the text messages are massive. It’s just like — shows you what you need to see. Or you cut to a website and it’s just totally made up, and they never show you logos. And we were like, ‘No, no, no.’ For this movie to work, it needs to feel like this is your computer, nothing is made up, everything is totally real. So from day one, our biggest philosophy was — and this is something that we backed with a legal team that had made Unfriended which is another movie that came out before and also represented Family Guy — if we’re showing these applications the way billions of people use every single day in a way that isn’t lying or isn’t portraying them in an overtly negative light on purpose, why not use them? We’re not doing that. This movie isn’t a indictment on technology. It’s just, in a weird way, showing that we live our lives on screens by the pure fact that we’re able to tell a story about a dad looking for his kid on screens.
But that actually adds a layer of comfort when watching. The first few minutes you’re like, ‘Yeah, I get this.’ Or you hear the Windows chime, and it’s like, ‘Yeah that.’ It allows you to get to know the family, and set the plot up so when later things happen, you’re just losing your mind. There’s all these details on the screen. There’s all these side details. And one that popped up was a news scroll. And it said something like, ‘Hollywood producer suspected of film editor’s — ‘
Chaganty: It says, ‘Hollywood producer prime suspect in murder of film editors.’
It could be a lot of people, yeah.
Chaganty: It could be a lot of people. It could possibly be [points to Ohanian] Sev our producer sitting right next to us.
Ohanian: The editors are fine, okay?
Chaganty: Yeah, they’re fine.
We have not seen them.
Chaganty: So basically, this film, on the script, we’re always talking about the plot. But if you pause this movie, you can always see other things. So once you see this film, try and look at anywhere apart from the main action. Pay attention for clues. Every single line of text in this movie, whether it’s the side text messages, if you open up iMessage, or every single email, or every single description of every Finder file: What date that was added, the size of the file, the type of the file, every time, every single website. It was all written by us for this movie. Every single line sort of line had to have added significance. And there was a lot of clues, side stories, sub-plots everything going on. So we had a lot of time for fun.
Ohanian: My favorite one that Aneesh wrote was — early on when you see David texting with his daughter one of the side texts is from a woman named Hannah who I guess he had gone on an eHarmony date the week before. And she’s like, ‘Hey! Had a great dinner. Would love to grab a drink.’ And then a couple days into the movie she follows up, no response. And then when his daughter’s missing and everyone knows about it, she’s like, ‘Oh, your daughter’s missing. Maybe next week?’ The movie’s so tense — there’s all these really fun subplots and huge Easter eggs that people haven’t caught yet.
Having that camera mostly centered on John’s face, his reactions, his eyes and eyebrows tell so much. I’m wondering John as you’re filming this how did you link the emotionality of it, but also just the technical hurdle of dealing with the screens?
Cho: I felt you a little lost. I was struggling with my performance the whole movie. It turned out okay.
Chaganty: He’s great, he’s great.
Ohanian: He’s phenomenal.
Cho: This is so unlike anything I’d ever done before that it was, I just didn’t have anything to hold onto. Also there were no people on set and so I was performing alone and that’s really unnatural in my opinion. Sometimes people like blocking — blocking is how you stage a scene — and sometimes directors like: You know that shot of the guy talking, gazing out the window, and ruminating to a person behind him? Sometimes directors will like that kind of staging, and I don’t even like that because if there’s a person in the room I want to look at them and talk because it always gets — it’s the best way to a good performance. Not having a person on set was strange and difficult. So it just really was about being super specific.
Like even in some of those chats with other characters, they’re not in another room or part of the studio?
Cho: Sometimes there were. Debra Messing was on location. She was in another room and we communicated by an earpiece. But that’s also another weird thing for me — Just having an earpiece in. And she was on the screen, but we couldn’t do a normal size because —
Chaganty: This program wouldn’t allow us to expand this video of Debra Messing in this other room past this size.
Ohanian: To be clear, we were using software that you use to setup security systems in your home. There are supposed to be four cameras but we only had one.
So we have a unique thing here. We have a gentleman with a first feature film — an indie film. Sev, you’ve produced several wonderful independent films, especially Fruitvale Station. But John, you’ve been in a lot of popular films, the Star Trek series and Harold and Kumar. And I wondered what you guys think of this proposal for the Academy Awards adding a popular film category?
Cho: I don’t know the details. I certainly personally appreciate the focus on quality and I hope that that doesn’t obscure the overall goal of the Academy Awards which is to reward craftsmanship.
But what about you indie guys?
Chaganty: I think we went from having no shot at the Academy Awards to like 1-percent chance at the Academy Awards. So I’m pretty excited about that. They haven’t released any details about how it’s going to work. What Best Popular Film means. What is the definition of a popular film? Is it box office? Is is marketing spent? We don’t know any of that. So they just sort of announced it and I think it’s part of a larger proposal to bring up viewership and everything. But I love the Oscars, so I’m sure they got it.
Ohanian: I mean, I don’t like to pass judgement till we have more information, but I hate it.
Chaganty: Alright now we have a point five percent chance.
Ohanian: I just worry it might give films that would otherwise be up for Best Picture nominations — like if I’m an Academy voter would I want to vote for Black Panther for Best Picture if it can get Most Popular film? That is why I am not a fan of it for Black Panther award, this year. In my opinion, Black Panther should be up for Best Picture.
John, one series associated with you is Star Trek. I notice that Star Wars had been doing these B-side movies where it’s off the main plot. There was Solo earlier this year. But I’m wondering, is there room for something like a Sulu movie? Same letters almost.
Cho: If Solo, why not Sulu?
Chaganty: Yeah. I love that.
Chaganty: I mean he’s on the computer the whole time, right? Yeah. Like he’s the navigator. It’s the screen version of Sulu.
What if he just did the screen, the Searching version of Star Trek where it’s just all on computers?
Chaganty: I’m so down.
Cho: I don’t know that there is a day on shooting Star Trek that Chris Pine did not call me Solo.
Did you have a retort when he did?
Cho: No I answered to Solo.
You wouldn’t do like a Wookie thing?
Cho: You know, I’m not walking into that.
What are some projects you’ll be working on next or hoping to work on next?
Chaganty: Well, you know, one at a time. I can’t really, it’s hard for me to multitask on two major projects. But our next project right now — this has all been a result of this movie coming out at Sundance and now coming out is that people actually care about what else we want to make which I never thought that really what I wanted, but now that’s all I want. And we basically got a chance to write another film that we have been developing for a long time for a year before the editing Searching. And basically it’s another thriller. It’s still about parents and kids — everything that we have made so far is about parent and kids. This one is about a mother and a daughter. It’s very, very, very, very, very dark and twisted. It will probably be the only truly dark thing that we make and it does not take place on computer screens. It’s called Run and we’re hopefully shooting that in the fall.
Cho: I’m doing a feature next that hasn’t been announced. So I don’t think I should say anything.
Chaganty: Sulu: The Star Trek Story?
Cho: Yeah. Sulu: The Star Trek Story.
Ohanian: And, I’m with Aneesh.
Chaganty: So Sev and I wrote Run together. Sev is producing it, I’m directing it and then Natalie Qasabian who also produced Searching is also going to be producing that one as well.
So you mentioned you’re sticking with parents and kids — the family thriller genre. I wonder, are any of you guys fathers?
Cho: I am.
When you see something like Searching, how does that affect the way you look at how your children interface with the internet or social media?
Cho: My oldest is ten and he’s not quite there but it’s tough. What the film addresses is — you know, we used to tell our children, watch out for the weirdos at the park. But now, all the weirdos in every park in the world have access to your child in his or her bedroom. And so what do you do with that? I don’t know because, partially because my kid is already more computer literate than me. and I know that that gap is only going to widen. So, I think it probably has to do with being an actual good parent [makes a disgust sound]. But making sure that your children feel loved and safe so that they protect themselves.
This whole family thing, I will say I’m going to go back to Sundance which forgive me but it did remind me of this one more political point. When we premiered the movie, it was interesting to have the politics of it be absent or the representation question largely be absent while we were making it. We were so focused on making a working thriller. But it didn’t hit me in an emotional way until we are at Sundance and saw a family. And that’s what it really did for me because I’ve noticed that some of you are Asian. [to the audience] Let me know if you agree with this but so much of Asian representation in film has been, or families, is that generational story where an Asian person is running away from their family to find love which implies that love is excluded from your nuclear family and that Asian culture prohibits love, or even lust. I always thought that that was bullshit and hated it. And it was at Sundance when I saw this complete family. The film is premised upon — my character is a widower. And the mother’s shadow is very long through the film because it’s really about two people — me and my daughter — morning separately for the same person in a different way. And so it’s a family trying to be united in its a loving complete Asian-American family, and it was not until we were at Sundance, and I was watching the audience watch our film, that it hit me like a ton of bricks.
Thank you guys for coming out.