On the surface, Searching doesn’t sound like a terrifically out-of-the-ordinary mystery movie. David Kim (John Cho) has a daughter who goes missing, and he gradually grows more and more desperate as he tries to figure out what happened to her. When Detective Vick (Debra Messing) takes over, her investigation doesn’t convince David, so he uses clues he finds about her through social media to piece together the puzzle himself.
This is where Searching starts to separate itself from other movies, mystery or otherwise. While it’s plot hinges on mobile technology and the lives we lead online, Searching is told entirely through phone and laptop screens. It’s less a commentary about the “always on” connectivity of day-to-day life, and more an open acknowledgment of its reality.
We got the chance to sit down with director/co-writer Aneesh Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian about the painstaking process they went through to get their tech-facing mystery movie made.
The tech aspect of how you tell this story is obviously significant, but if you peel that back, it’s a really solid mystery story. What were some of the influences you carried with you while putting this together?
Aneesh Chaganty: We had two types of films we chose to be influenced by. Number one was films about the style, the way it’s told, but the one you’re asking about we watched more of. The tonal films. For us, those were basically every missing kid, kidnapped kid, ransomed kid story… Gone Girl, Prisoners, Ransom. We watched true crime documentaries, listened to true crime podcasts, we watched dramas.
Sev Ohanian: We even read some books about missing children, there’s a video game called Heavy Rain that was an inspiration…
Chaganty: If they were missing, we found it. Everyday when we were writing the script, we’d take a break at noon and over our lunch break, while we were eating, watch 20 minutes of another movie.
Any project that had been done on a screen, like Modern Family had an episode, we watched. [On] one hand, we were trying to see what everyone else had done and how we could learn from their mistakes, and on the other hand just trying to soak in as much of that true crime feel. And we tried to give shout-outs to everybody in the movie. Little mentions of Gone Girl, or whatever, was our way of saying “thank you.”
There have been lots of examples of movies and TV shows trying to utilize technology, but showing exactly how our own personal stories are affected by the screens we carry around with us still seems like a challenge. Was that the case here, given the rules you set for yourself?
Chaganty: Anytime technology is used to tell part of a story, we watched all of that, and we came to the conclusion that Hollywood has not… they haven’t found the way — yet — to convey technology, like you were saying. It’s always fake websites or fake UI, or there’s something off about the way they’re using it.
We figured the way to solve that, or at least our attempt at trying to solve that, was by treating it completely earnestly and just going into the screen. If screens are so important to telling these stories, then obviously we live our lives on them. And if we live our lives on them, let’s just tell a story on them.
The way we use a phone, we focus on things. We look at certain lines of text, or we drag our cursors the right way. And if we shoot it emotionally, and with the cinematic attempt that a live-action sequence would be shot, then hopefully you’d create something that felt more true. That was our overall strategy, just by treating it earnestly and honestly and cinematically.
Were there any elements to the story you had to alter or shed completely when you went from planning the film to actually shooting it?
Ohanian: For us, every great thriller has this moment where all the pieces come together, and you got this amazing shot of the detective just grabbing their keys and running out the door, calling someone while their driving…
Chaganty: Skipping every red light…
Ohanian: Skipping all the lights, showing up, breaking open the door, going in there and just tackling the bad guy. We couldn’t do that. We wanted to. And we had to really push ourselves. For at least a week, I don’t think either one of us put writing on our script as we were trying to debate how we could make this climax work and still be true to the roles in the movie. So, it was not so much that we had to change our plan, but we really had a hard time coming up with a solution. I think we came up with as organic solution as possible.
You know, as the film was leading to that point, I remember thinking ‘How’s this gonna play out here?’ Assuming, of course, you weren’t gonna break your own rules.
Ohanian: It was tempting.
How did the on-set mechanics of working the the actors play out?
Chaganty: It’s… different. But, again, this is my first feature. So, different is relative to other movies, I can only assume. Everybody’s sort-of relearning their craft, not just the actors, but everyone, but specifically the actors, who are all huddled together, because the cameras the story’s being told with are not traditional. They’re staring at them, constant close-ups, and the actor and the character are both aware there’s a camera there.
So, it completely changes the way that [they] move, the way the emotion gets translated, the way physical movement gets translated, so these are all learnings that you’re making while you’re on set. But, for the most part, we went into the shooting of the film with as strong of a blueprint as we could.
The first people we hired were the editors, and seven weeks before production we brought the editors into a room and opened up Premiere and were, like, ‘Go.’ And they started screen-capturing the internet, and putting together an hour-and-40-minute cut of the film. So, the day before we started shooting, we had an hour-and-40-minute cut of the movie starring me playing the dad, the brother, the detective, the daughter, all of her friends, the mom, every single person.
Ohanian: The inspiration for that was Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I remember watching the DVD special features, and they had done the same thing. I think, in that case, they were trying to cast Angelina Jolie, so they realized the best way to tell her how awesome this movie will be would be just to make the movie.
In our same way, we realized we were entering such uncharted territory that the only way we could guarantee we could make something good about this film would be to test it first. We just happened to have Aneesh starring in every role.
Chaganty: And in the film there’s two cameras, right? There’s the footage in the world and there’s the way we’re framing it. So, for the actors, especially John, [who’s] the one operating the computer throughout the entire film, so his eye line always needs to match perfectly with where the cursor is. We basically had to show him, on the side of every take, where his cursor is, what he’s doing with it.
There’d be takes where it was like “Great job, do that again, except move your cursor more to the left.” It’s a very, very specific ‘art meets science’ all down the line.
Was it hard convincing any of the cast to get on board with this?
Chaganty: I don’t think anybody, including ourselves, takes a look at this opportunity of ‘lets tell a movie on a computer screen’ and is, like, “Yeah, I’m in.”
It takes a lot of convincing, and the argument that you’re always trying to make, or that I’m trying to make to John and Debra, is that the final product is something that’s going to be very, very cinematic. I don’t think anybody was always like “Oh my god, we have to tell a movie on a computer screen,” or “I’m so excited about that.” But I think what they both share is this bravery and this ability to jump into the dark –and risk a lot — [to] try something totally new.
I think once they were both accepted to the fact that there’s no precedence to this movie, that they’re just gonna have to trust this 25-year-old (at the time), who just quit his job at Google to make a movie here, because they, too, had no idea. All the rules were different. Everybody came into these new roles and we kind of embraced it from there. But every single person on this film had to re-learn their craft and ended up being re-energized by that.
Did John Cho and Debra Messing ever spend any time together prior to filming to build their characters’ rapport, since they don’t share any screen time in the conventional sense?
Chaganty: We had one kind-of big meeting before the shoot, and this is an indie indie movie, you know? If we have more than three days we’re triple our budget, [but] they met for that big session, and then on set, on the days their characters interacted, we made sure that they were working together.
There weren’t periods of extensive ‘getting to know one-another,’ but that is the nature of an independent film.
But when their characters had dialogue, they were actually bouncing their lines off one another?
Chaganty: They were. The way we did, John would be in one room on one laptop, and Debra would be in another room on another laptop, and they’d both be seeing the other person. So, they’d talk to one-another, but in different rooms.
And video village is literally halfway between those wires, so the wires can meet, and we see all the footage. His footage is being passed through video village back to her computer, and vice versa.
It certainly doesn’t distract from the story, but every so often I’d wonder exactly what certain scenes looked like from your perspective as the director.
Chaganty: I think that’s part of the fun of watching it, too. At one point, even if you’re caught up in the story, just to be, like, “Wait, how are they…?” That’s part of the magic.
Well, and all good mystery movies have rewatch value, and there’s a lot to go back and look for here. Wrapping up, what are you hoping audiences take away from Searching?
Ohanian: There’s a lot of themes within this film. It talks about the way we’re all connected and how people can still be disconnected, it has subtle commentaries about how we all act in our online lives, but beyond all that, I just want audiences to have a good time. We love sneaking into screenings and watching audiences gasp in that one moment, and seeing people constantly whispering their theories. And we didn’t set out to make a movie that had a big, splashy twist, but that’s hopefully what has happened.
Searching is playing in limited release now, with more theaters added next weekend. Find out when it’s playing near you by checking out the official website here.