Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople in the industry. In this entry, we chat with Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian about how their unique collaboration translated from their previous film Searching into the more traditional thrills of their new Hulu original, Run.
The last time we spoke with Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian, they were riding high off the critical and box office success of Searching. That film’s production was an arduous, nearly torturous endeavor. Thirteen days to shoot, two years to cobble together. In their minds, they knew their gimmick had legs and could stand tall next to other thrillers. All they had to do was expertly and flawlessly execute the craft to expose the emotion behind the schtick.
Toward the end of our first conversation, we discussed their excitement regarding their next project briefly. At the time, they were already days into shooting Run. On a few occasions, Ohanian stopped himself, coming very close to spilling the beans on key plot points. The filmmakers were giddy, bouncing like children in a candy store, finally operating in a cinematic arena mastered by the greats.
Run is their chance to deliver a film they would adore. The premise is razor-thin but deadly sharp. A teenage daughter (Kiera Allen) begins to suspect the control her mother (Sarah Paulson) has on her life stems from more than a medical concern. What are those pills she swallows every day? What happens when she pockets them in her piggy bank? When trust erodes, will a dark truth reveal itself?
Speaking to Chaganty and Ohanian today, it’s clear that their energy and enthusiasm for their new film has only elevated. As the director, Chaganty wants to prove to himself and others that he can play with the rest of the kids. He’s no one-trick pony.
Run is their stab at Hitchcock. It’s designed to bob and weave, to hit you with an expected right hook as a means of distracting you from the big wallop coming from the left. The audience knows what they’re buying into when they sit down to watch. The filmmakers’ joy extends from their ability to slap the viewer and knock them from their defiant, crossed arms position.
“On a perception level,” says Chaganty, “I did not want to place myself in a box. Searching is technically complex and a gimmick. I think we pulled it off, but it’s still a gimmick.”
At least, that’s how it started. Searching was an opportunity to showcase. Run was always the future.
“I was a filmmaker who was nobody before that film,” continues Chaganty. “If we nailed [Searching], if we did it really, really well, it could be the platform where I actually get to make the movies that I want to make.”
Having access to the more traditional tools of filmmaking was both freeing and constricting this time around. As co-writer and producer, Ohanian concedes that yanking the narrative off a desktop opens the plot to infinite possibilities, but sometimes endless choices equal stagnant thought.
“Did we miss the restrictions that we had on Searching?” he asks. “Probably not. In a lot of ways, those restrictions on Searching created opportunities. To be frank, the benefit of Searching taking place on a computer screen is it kind of allowed us to modify the edit in ways that are not possible with a regular movie because usually, we have to re-shoot people and schedule actors to come in. With Searching, you can just click and drag something.”
With a conventional structure comes conventional problems with conventional solutions. To achieve the bob and weave of a successful thriller, relying on the standard execution is not permitted. Chaganty and Ohanian needed their audience to dig deep into the minds of their characters.
“There were other restrictions on Run,” says Ohanian. “Primarily, Run is a film about this young lady who for a lot of the movie is either by herself or opposite her mother. One of the things that became really difficult was: how do we get into this girl’s head? We don’t have that best friend character where she could be like, ‘I think something weird is going on, and here’s how I feel.’ I wish we did. Sometimes it would have been great.”
There is no shortcut dialogue. The camera, the actors, and the edit do the heavy lifting. If one falters, they all falter.
“It forced us to be even more creative,” continues Ohanian. “You have to let the audience get into her head, not necessarily about what she’s saying, but what she’s doing, and more importantly, how she’s feeling. That is something that I really think we excelled at, to Aneesh’s credit, and Kiera nailed. Her performance is so good, especially knowing this is her first-ever full-movie.”
To get their audience into the characters, they first had to get their actors into them. The challenge became working with two actors who have two very different styles of approach. On set, Chaganty constructed dueling game plans.
“Before the movie started,” says Chaganty, “I wrote this sixteen-page, ten-point font backstory booklet for [Sarah Paulson’s] character. Her whole life with her mom, her mom’s mom. Every moment from the moment she grew up. All these little tiny stories of the objects in her house. Our time before shooting was spent going over that, less than the script. We knew Sarah was so talented, obviously. All she needs to do is soak in the right information, and it’ll pop out with fire.”
On the other end, with Kiera, Chaganty took a radically different approach.
“We went over everything,” he says. “It felt like my job wouldn’t be to give [Kiera Allen] the material — the backstory to soak in — but rather for her to create it herself or feel ownership of it. I made her write her own sixteen-page, ten-point font backstory about every single moment in her life and everything in her house and why it’s there and when was the last time she used it. Oftentimes, I would literally go into before shooting something and be like, ‘What’s that? How’d you get that?’ Just asking these questions because she would then process it and take ownership of it.”
Since Paulson and Allen don’t share the screen in every scene, operating in such a duel fashion with the actors didn’t often result in schizophrenic direction. However, when they did occupy the same scene, Chaganty’s approach would eat up a little more time. Time well spent.
“With Sarah,” he explains, “my directions were so technical. From take one, she was killing it. The decisions in the edit room were not choices between a good take and a bad take. They were choices between what we want her to think about at this moment. Whether we want her to be a little upset at that moment. They were genuinely valid pathways that she was providing in every take. I would basically be like, ‘Hey, can you do that faster? Can you pick up this thing?’ It was very technical.”
“With Kiera,” he continues, “I was sitting down with her, hushed whispers, talking for minutes at a time, across the same scenes. The thing is, both processes were resulting in this great take.”
Along with producing partner Natalie Qasabian, Chaganty and Ohanian have established an unbreakable collaboration. Whenever a creative partnership clicks, one should latch on. There are so many obstacles within the industry and within yourself. If you can find someone who motivates you to be the better you, that’s a crucial and necessary relationship.
“We first met when I was a TA on Aneesh’s film school movie,” says Ohanian. “We wrote our first movie, which is like a hundred million dollar movie that maybe one day we’ll make. Then we made this Google Glass video called Seeds, then Searching, and then Run. We’re producing Searching 2 together. We got our next movie we’re writing right now. We’ve become truly equal partners in so many ways.”
The bond has strengthened but not staled. They are not the same filmmakers that made Seeds, or even Searching, and maybe not even Run. They make room in themselves for growth.
“The trust has gone up,” says Chaganty. “The shorthand has gone up. The relationship always has to change because you, as a person, is always changing. The movies that I love now are not the movies that I loved as much as when Sev and I first met. My taste has changed and evolved into something different than where it was, for better or worse.”
Run starts streaming on Hulu on November 20th.