[Interview] How ‘SEARCHING’ changes the game on thrillers & the “screen-life” cinematic lexicon

Director/co-writer Aneesh Chaganty and John Cho on the set of SEARCHING. Courtesy of Sony Pictures.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

After hearing the challenges presented to co-writer/ director Aneesh Chaganty and co-writer/ co-producer Sev Ohanian on SEARCHING, it would seem this movie should instead be called MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE.

How the pair were able to turn in an emotionally taut, Hitchcockian thriller, all unfolding on the screen of a laptop, is genuinely astounding. However, producer Timur Bekmambetov, who’s cornered the market on other “screen-life” features (like UNFRIENDED, UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB and PROFILE), knew exactly what he was doing when he hired the energetic duo after their initial project pitch.

SEARCHING follows frantic father David Kim (John Cho) as he searches for his missing sixteen-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La) through clues she’s left via her digital footprint on her laptop. With the help of decorated, determined Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), it becomes a race against the clock to find out what happened to Margot.

At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, Chaganty and Ohanian said their pitch began rather comically. Ohanian said,

Initially, we were thinking they wanted us to make a feature – which is something Aneesh, especially, didn’t want to do. They were actually asking us to make a short film to be part of an anthology film as a follow-up to UNFRIENDED. We came up with SEARCHING as an eight-minute short. We sent them a pitch packet. They had us come into a room, surrounded by financiers and executives, and told us they didn’t want to make the short. We were bummed. Then they said, “We want to make it into a feature. We’ll finance the whole thing.”

Chaganty surprisingly didn’t take the bait and turned it down.

It was one of those crazy, stupid things I’m both proud of and appalled at. In that moment, it seemed like we’d be taking something that we found to not be a gimmick in eight minutes and stretching it right back into ninety minute gimmick again. That’s the last thing any filmmaker would want to do. More than that, it felt like we were being asked this, not because ours had artistic merit, but because another movie was a hit.

We left the room and kept talking about the enormity of the opportunity. We’d be on the phone every day, trying to crack the story that wouldn’t be a gimmick – and just couldn’t. Until one day, I texted Sev and said, “I have an idea for an opening scene.” He said, “I have an idea for an opening scene.” We get on the phone with each other and pitch the same opening scene, which is now the opening scene in the film – the seven minute montage that takes you through fourteen years of a life told through a desktop computer. There was something that felt like light bulbs going off where there’s more potential in this story, in this format, than that had been done before. The concept hadn’t been done before.

Ohanian added,

Our goal with that opening montage was that the audience would just forget what they were watching takes place on a screen and just get sucked into the character’s story and, most of all, the emotions.

Bekmambetov said his decision to green-light a feature based on Chaganty and Ohanian’s three minute pitch for a short wasn’t based on rational thinking.

It was an emotional reaction. I immediately understood they knew how to tell stories and that they could make it better if they had more time and resources. I understood that the concept they pitched was really relatable. I’m a father and can imagine how other parents would react. It didn’t matter how they’d make it. I knew immediately how the audience would react to it.

The term “screen life” is something that’s sprung into our collective consciousness within the past several years as technology is becoming part of our daily routines. Something Bekmambetov began noticing was a hole in the marketplace, telling stories that show how society functions in the digital era.

It’s how we live today. There’s no way to tell stories about today’s heroes and today’s world without showing screens. Most important events happen on screens – falling in love, losing friends, lying, cheating, making moral choices. If you want to tell the story and show the dramatic way we live today, we have no choice. Screen life isn’t a genre. It’s just language – a medium. It doesn’t matter what genre it is. The only way to explore this world is to tell stories.

Director/co-writer Aneesh Chaganty and Debra Messing on the set of SEARCHING. Courtesy of Sony Pictures

The first – and only – choice to play distraught dad David was John Cho. The casting decision wasn’t solely based on Cho’s masterful skills, but also that he resembled the people in Chaganty’s childhood neighborhood.

Sev and I wrote the film for John. The reason we did that was, I grew up in San Jose, and it was important to cast people in the film who looked like people in the city I grew up in. Both Sev and I, growing up, we wouldn’t see ourselves in the movies that we wanted to make or that we loved. This is the first contemporary thriller to have an Asian American lead. For us, it was a matter of doing something for the first time, in that regard. If John didn’t say “yes” I don’t know what we’d do.

Cho was humbled that the two filmmakers thought of him first for the role. But it was also rather daunting to undertake something as technically challenging as this project.

I did say, “No,” the first time. I’m embarrassed to tell you that. I read the script and I loved the story and the genre. I said, “I want to do the movie. Could we not do it on computer screens,” was my issue. I was just scared of it. I thought that it would look like a video and not like a movie – and it does feel like, and look like a movie.

My mistake was I didn’t meet with [Chaganty]. Aneesh just didn’t stop. He said, “You have to do this.” So we met and I liked him so much. He’s got great energy and is charismatic. “Maybe he can do it. Maybe he’s the guy who can crack this nut.” He also told me, “We’re going to make a movie. It’s going to look a little different, but it’s going to feel exactly like a traditional, classic thriller.” True to his word, we did that.

There was still, at the end [of the conversation], like “Okay. If you say so.” I’m old. I just couldn’t get there in my mind. I didn’t know what it could be. But at some point, I decided to believe him.

One of the major challenges presented to the actors was that their physicality had to be somewhat restricted. Both Cho and Messing were tasked to revise their formidable training. Cho said the filming process was disorienting at times.

I didn’t really have any sense of where I was. The tools that I was accustomed to using were not there for me. Rhythms were all off. Rhythm is a big thing where you do the wide [shot], we’ll do the medium, and then we’ll go over the shoulders. You just pace yourself. We were just in a close-up the whole time. It was very intense days.

Aside from it being intense, it was extraordinarily precise. When the camera’s that close you have to be very annoyingly precise. You’d look at Instant Messenger over here and it would be, “No, John. That was an inch too far. Now it looks like you’re looking out the window.” Those things were very integral to the storytelling when you see something here or there. It was a little complicated. It was trickier than normal.

Even the basics of just reading the script was a whole other deal as well. Messing stated,

Within the first page of reading this, I was like, “What is this?!” There was no dialogue. It was, “Cursor moves to upper left. Typing happens.” I thought, “This is going to be so cold and boring.” And then the story began.

We’re dealing with a visionary. I did not know if it was going to work, but frankly, I didn’t care. I just want to be there. [Chaganty] offered me a role that was so outside of the box. That made me feel like it’s going to be okay.

That doesn’t mean Messing didn’t still have her doubts. However, she ultimately found any trepidation to be creatively stimulating.

I haven’t thought of it as a freedom. It stretched my imagination further than it’s ever asked to be stretched before. It’s beyond just building a character. I have no information to go by. When I get a script, I read it and write down in a notebook everything other people say about my character. And then I write down what do I say about myself. When you read those two things together, it’s incredible how much information you get about self-perception and the masks you wear. I realized I had nothing I could write down what other people think of me. I had no safety net. I had no one to lean on. Nothing familiar in terms of my process. I felt unsafe and unsettled. I know we all did. Perhaps in some tangible way it served the film.

SEARCHING is now playing in limited release. It opens wide on August 31. Read our review here.

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