During their time in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California in the early 2010’s, Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian found some minor success as writing partners when they made “Seeds,” a two-minute short film they shot on Google glass. A couple of years later, Chaganty and Ohanian found themselves in a meeting with the production company that financed the 2014 virtual horror movie “Unfriended.” The company was looking for filmmakers to take on their next computer-driven project.
The producers’ initial pitch, however, didn’t interest Chaganty. He didn’t want to follow the same blueprint laid out by the few tech-minded thrillers and horror movies that had come before. He wanted to do something new and different.
Chaganty and Ohanian were given that opportunity with “Searching,” an effective and unique thriller displayed exclusively on the screens of devices like iPhones, laptops and hidden cameras. The film, which is directed and co-written by Chaganty and co-written and co-produced by Ohanian, tells the story of the disappearance of 16-year-old Margot (Michelle La) and the great lengths her father David (John Cho) goes to find her by following her digital footprint.
I sat down with the filmmaking duo late last month in Austin to talk about their groundbreaking film, how they think their social media-heavy thriller will hold up once the featured platforms are dated, and their decision to cast Cho in the lead role.
I loved the opening scene of this film. It’s great to see a pair of first-time feature filmmakers understand that capturing an audience on an emotional level is important to make a film work. Was that your intention from the start?
Aneesh Chaganty: It was in that sequence where we realized there was a potential for this story to be emotional, cinematic and engaging. One day I texted Sev and said, “I have an idea for an opening scene.” He texted me back and said, “I have an idea for an opening scene.” And we pitched each other the exact same opening scene – a five-minute montage that takes you through a bunch of years of [this family’s] life.
Sev Ohanian: The idea was that if audiences watched that opening sequence, they would forget that what they’re watching is all unfolding on devices and they could just get sucked into the story and characters and emotion.
Do you consider “Searching” and the other couple of films that came out before it that use technology in this way its own subgenre?
AC: I consider [“Searching”] a thriller. What we wanted to do was tell a classic thriller in an extremely unconventional way. We wanted to elevate the thriller. What makes it really interesting is that it’s told on screens. I think once you hit a certain number of films [of this kind], you’ll be in a subgenre.
Yeah, since this is only the third or fourth film that has been made this way, I don’t think we’re there yet. This is like when “The Blair Witch Project” came out and everyone was trying to figure out what they were watching. Then, somewhere down the line, it was labeled a “found footage” movie.
AC: Yeah, when found footage came into the picture, it had a lot of flexibility. It was just a camera. Here, you’re talking about the same visual constraints. If you’re not finding a way to drastically change the concept, it will be a subgenre that will get old very fast. What we tried to do [with “Searching”] was make it the most cinematic, extreme version of itself.
What is your relationship like with social media? How did your tech savviness influence the script?
SO: We’re pretty tech savvy. We’re on all the usual social media, but we’re not the posting five times a day trying to get likes. One of our guidelines was to try to make the movie feel grounded. Early on, we decided we would use real websites and social media platforms to get into the story.
I recognized about 90 percent of the websites. I had never heard of YouCast though.
SO: In real life, it’s called YouNow. But, yeah, we had never heard of it either. As we were writing the story, we knew we wanted to have David stumbling upon Margot’s diary – where she keeps all her honest secrets. We didn’t know what that [platform] would be. Aneesh stumbled across YouNow and it did the exact thing we needed it to do. Teenagers can record themselves for up to like eight hours and strangers can message them and buy them presents. We’re talking thousands of teens. This was two years ago. Now, every social media platform has a way you can go live. For us, we just explored and looked for things that would make the story work.
Were you at all worried that any of the social media platforms you chose to feature might be considered out-of-date once the movie was released?
AC: We knew the moment we shot this film it would be a period movie.
SO: It’s probably the quickest turnaround for a movie from extremely modern to period that has ever been made.
AC: I mean, already, Facebook looks different than it does in the movie. YouTube looks different. Archaeologists might discover this movie in a few years.
SO: We should bury it right now.
Do you think “Searching” is going to hold up 20 years from now?
SO: I’m going to answer this in a humble and non-bias way, but I think it will because we put so much emphasis on classic storytelling. It’s a whodunit. It’s a mystery. It’s a father-daughter story. That will, hopefully, elevate it and make it stand out.
You both are filmmakers of color. Was it a conscious decision to hire a lead actor who might not get the opportunity to do a film like this in Hollywood?
AC: Yes, we wrote the role specifically for John Cho. He’s a wonderful actor and he doesn’t get enough roles. Both of us grew up watching stuff that we didn’t recognize ourselves in. It was less of a story about race and culture and more of a story about mystery. Those are the films I wish I saw myself in.
SO: We immediately recognized the opportunity we had to cast a character and a family at the center of this story whose race is never talk about in the film. For us, that was our way of saying, “This is a movie I would’ve loved to watch when I was younger.” In order to change the way things appear on screen, storytellers have to diversify as well. Both of us plan to extend opportunities to storytellers with similar backgrounds. We are hearing a voice in Hollywood right now asking for change. That voice has never been louder than it is right now.
Now that “Searching” is out in the world and getting great reviews, I’m sure you know you’re going to be getting a lot more phone calls for other projects. If you were given an opportunity to make a major blockbuster – the next “Jurassic World” or a “Star Wars” film – would you take it?
AC: Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been making short films. I’ve always made them the way that I wanted. They’ve always been my babies. For me, I don’t want to relinquish that creative control over a project. One thing I decided when we were making “Searching” was that the next film I do shouldn’t be a massive step up in budget, so I could always maintain some sort of creative control. If someone were to offer me “Jurassic World” right now or another big franchise, I would probably say no. There is one big exception though: “Mission: Impossible.”
With a 65-year-old Tom Cruise still kicking ass!
AC: Yes! That’s Tom Cruise in his prime! If they called me for “Mission: Impossible 7,” I already have ideas for stunts. I can’t wait!