The Filmmakers Behind ‘Searching’ Explain the Torturous Craft of Desktop Cinema

Director Aneesh Chaganty and screenwriter Sev Ohanian reveal the proof-of-concept short film that convinced financers to put faith in their filmmaking.

Searching
Sony Pictures Releasing

Transforming a desktop into a cinematic experience is a pretty big ask for an audience. I spend most days attempting to escape my computer screen, and the idea of a film converting my theater or television into another glowing timesuck I usually associate with the office is less than appealing. Director Aneesh Chaganty and screenwriter Sev Ohanian are not the first filmmakers to venture into this new format, but their film Searching is the first one to engage me on a deep emotional level.

How the hell did they do that? After the success of Unfriended, Timur Bekmambetov and his production company Bazelevs were looking to fall down a rabbit hole of Screen Life movies. Chaganty and Ohanian had an idea, but they didn’t necessarily want to follow all the rules that Bekmambetov demanded. For Searching, they were looking to take advantage of every tool that movie history provided them, and they believed that there was room to bend the borders of the desktop.

First, they had to convince Bazelevs that they could break the barrier of the gimmick by embracing the emotion of the characters. To aid in that endeavor, Chaganty and Ohanian took a weekend to shoot a proof-of-concept that would eventually morph into Searching. Going forward, this short film would be used to convince actors to join their cause, enlist their crew, and diminish whatever doubt came along in the process.

Chaganty and Ohanian were nice enough to provide Film School Rejects with that proof-of-concept, and as you can see below, so much of what would ultimately end up in the movie is already there…plus a few extra bits as well. I don’t know about you, but watching these few minutes would certainly convince me that they’ve got the goods, and based on the resulting cinematic experience, I would throw whatever money I had at these filmmakers going forward.

To celebrate the recent release of Searching on Blu-ray, Digital HD, and VOD, I spoke with Chaganty and Ohanian about the proof-of-concept, the 13-day shoot, and the two-year long post-production process. We discuss their confidence in the project, their eagerness to embrace the entire history of cinema in making Searching, and the endless hours of their life they poured into the film. We talk about bringing Bekmambetov over to their point of view, as well as the future of the Screen Life subgenre. And yes, we even talk a little bit about their new film, Run.

Here is the conversation in full:

You talk on that commentary track about how you had to beat the desktop gimmick by embracing the emotion of the characters early on. You did that by using these snippets of Margot’s digital life from birth. How confident were you at the start of this production that you would be able to achieve that connection with the audience?

Aneesh:       I was confident. Both Sev and I were basically putting our entire careers on a single bet that if you put emotion onto this very, very kind of what’s seemingly a cold conceit, which is taking a story and to having a story take place on screen. If you stuck that in with a lot of emotion, that would actually really, really pay off. The only sort of evidence that I had to say that it would work, would be honestly a lot of those Google commercials. Where I used to work. We would basically make screen-based stories that were super, super, super emotional.

Spending time there and learning how to make those. Watching the result of those things was always just like, “Wow.” You feel doubly emotional, because there’s one element of watching it that is totally new, and then the story underneath it, that if it’s full of heart can be super, super powerful. So, we had that as evidence, but as far as like could we pull this off in a 90-minute movie? That was something that we spent basically two years figuring out.

You shot Searching in 13 days and then you took nearly two years to carve it into what it ended up being. That’s a long time for post-production.

Sev:            Yeah, oh, man. So, making any film is really difficult, especially in a movie like Searching, which started off at its birth as an independent film. I mean, I’ll even go a step further and call it a micro-budget film. And the extra challenge of Searching though was that there wasn’t any template for us to follow. There wasn’t any recipe with directions. There was no sense of, do A, and then B, and then C, and all of that will equal to Z.

The hardest thing for us, even harder than making the film, was just kind of figuring how the heck we were gonna make it in the first place. It all came down to taking it one step at a time. I think I could argue that if we had known at the beginning of that process what we were gonna be trying to accomplish together, we may not have been as gung-ho about it. As a team, we broke it down, and we kind of had to figure it out. One of the ways that we were able to have confidence going into that 13 days and then the long post-production process was that we made a proof of concept way before any of that. And it was one of the hurdles that our financier Bazelevs asked us to do for them, because they had a movie called Unfriended way before we came into the picture.

They are making a career of making films that take place on screens. But the thing that unifies all of their screen projects is that they all take place entirely in one shot. When we were pitching the film to them, Timur [Bekmambetov] kind of gave us the commandment, which was actually three commandments. Number one, the movie must take place in one big wide shot, like, the full F-stop. Number two, it’s gotta all be in real-time and to never have any edits. And number three, it can only be from one objective person’s computer. And when Aneesh and I were developing Searching we told them right off the bat, like, “We don’t want to do any of that. We want our film to take place in a very cinematic way.”

We wanted to apply all of the past hundred years of cinematic techniques and zooms and pans and dollies and all these really exhilarating emotions that kind of help and make audiences even more engaged on a computer screen. We don’t want it to be real time. We want to explore an entire childhood and the seven most scariest days of a parent’s life. And most importantly, we didn’t want it to be an objective move. We wanted it to be subjective. We wanted to be emotional. And their response, to their credit, was, “Okay, cool. We have no idea what you guys are talking about, but can you show us?” And that’s kind of what led us into the proof of concept.”

So, once you resisted their initial idea of what a screen life film looks like, they were pretty open to everything that you brought to the table then?

Sev:            Yeah, we basically just showed them and told them why we weren’t gonna make a movie that way. And gave them our emotional arguments as to why we think the way we wanted to make it was a superior way. That sounds super, super pat on the shoulder, but we were just trying to do something really emotional but the only way we would ever do that for us is if we felt like what we were making was actually new and could contribute to movies, because it’s such a concept-based story. In our opinion, you can only make Memento once. You can only make a backward movie once. And if we were gonna make this, and we were making this after Unfriended, it needed to be something that was new and actually did something fresh and made the whole thing feel like you’re watching for the first time again.

I do wonder about Timur’s desire to make a whole bunch of Screen Life films. Will there be an explosion of desktop movies like we saw with found footage movies after The Blair Witch Project?

Sev:            Yeah, I mean, to be honest, I don’t know if that’s gonna happen. I think what happened after Blair Witch was momentous. I mean, everything was found footage. I think there’s a part of me that has to be really candid and say, I think making a found footage horror film is probably astronomically easier than making something like we did with Searching, because it’s not necessarily an easy way to make a film. With found footage, you have the benefit of, “Well, we really don’t have to light it.” Sometimes it helps to not have famous actors. With our film, we have to do so much more technically to create a polished cinematic look. So again, I don’t know if we will see a wave of Screen Life movies.

But for us, I think part of what made the film work, I’d like to think, is that we really approached first and foremost as a classic Hollywood cinematic film. At its core, it’s a whodunit. The bond that keeps you attached to the film all throughout is the character. We have so much classic storytelling within the movie that the conceit of it all taking place on screen is only, kind of in a lot of ways, like a side detail. I think you talked about the montage, I mean, Up did that beautiful way before we did.

For us, it was really not a matter of like, “Well, let’s just do what Up did.” But it was like, “Can we do this in a way that feels unique to us?” Rather than seeing a moment where somebody finds out their mother or their wife has passed away, we seem them deleting a calendar event that says, “Mom comes home.” And it tells you everything you need to know, but in a way that’s really relatable, and more than anything, really unique to us. So if there are future movies that will be made in this concept, that they can stay true to making a classic Hollywood story that has emotional characters that you care about and they use the storytelling function to really make it unique to that story, I mean, I wish them the best of luck.

Well, and to your point, you need phenomenal actors to pull this off. With John Cho and the rest of the cast in Searching, we really do engage with what they are bringing to that screen.

Sev:            Yes, I mean, agreed. John is really, really, really fantastic in this movie. I mean, all of our actors, I really, really am so thankful for them. They elevated the movie. We had goals of always elevating this thing, and I think they all took it to a level that we were, I mean, hoping for, but it was like, only in our wildest dreams. We’re very, very thankful for the kind of quality they brought to us.

Now, getting back to the Blu-ray release, one of the joys of re-watching the film is hunting for all the clues that the two of you have spread throughout the film and on that screen, whether it’s pausing on notes from Margot’s mom, to the idea that the name Rosemary Vic, as you point out in your commentary track, is a direct reference to Rosemary’s Baby And Vic Mackey from The Shield. What was your process in scattering all this information throughout the film? It can’t all be in the screenplay. Does it come in the editing process, does it come in the shooting? Where does it all get integrated?

Sev:            Oh, man, the answer is all throughout. For us, like, the Easter eggs and everything always has to take a backseat to the main driving narrative. We don’t want to make that mistake of being the people who were trying too hard to impress the audience, rather than just telling a good story. So, in the script, we honestly didn’t have very many Easter eggs at all, or any of these fun secrets, because we don’t want to be distracting from the read. But as Aneesh and I were delving the story and pitching each other all the beats of the script, one of us would be like, “Oh, man, it would be so cool if this happened.”

And it would always kind of start off as a little bit of joke, and then we would kind of realize, “Well, wait, that actually is not a bad idea.” And the script for Searching is 117 pages, but it came to our attention quite dramatically that the actual script, when you count all the lines of text that you can read in the movie, from all the comments, and news articles, and everything in between, probably represents closer to 1,000 pages. We realized, “Well, if we’re gonna have to go write all this stuff anyway, we might as well have fun with it.” And that’s kind of how like that alien subplot gag came into play. I’m sure you probably read about that also, right?

Oh, yeah.

Aneesh:       All of that was really just basically a natural progression of, “Well, we’re gonna write something. Let’s have fun with it.” And like, there are so many fun little subplots that … Like, one of my favorites that I feel like doesn’t get enough love is, in the film, David and Margot, they’re from Korea. And because of this horrible tragedy is happening in real time, his mother flies from South Korea to come to join the Chin family in the Bay Area.

And all throughout the film, if you really pay attention, you can see her and David are communicating via email and text. At the very end of the movie, she’s literally like, at the airport. She’s like, “I just got Wifi. I got to the airport. I’m headed to you.” The crazy thing about all of that is, it’s all in Korean. And you Sev said you basically had a friend help you and like write all that stuff, right?

Sev:            Yeah. We just had constant opportunities. At first challenges and obstacles in the beginning, when we realized the scale of the work we had to do, but then what really quickly became opportunities to help expand the world of the movie, like email inboxes are a constant one that we had to fill up. You’re thinking about other storylines that could possibly be happening. And more than that, the email threads that we can carry on. A, because it’s cooler, and B, because it’s easier to come up with ideas when you’re telling one story too.

And the mom storyline happening in Korean was just like something that came up, and had a friend help with some of the translations, and thought it would be cool to track her geographical location through the whole thing. But I mean, that’s just like one of a kajillion things, which we realized early on actually while making the proof of concept, that this would be something that we had to do, which is like filling an entire world up. The proof of concept was a significantly easier challenge than the film, but back then we thought it was crazy as well.

It’s an astonishing amount of work, and I would imagine it’s something that you can easily get lost in as well. Was there ever a moment where you were like, “Well, those are too many clues.” Or, “That reference to her, or that side plot is too much?” Did you ever have to withdraw from that process?

Sev:            Yes. All right, because I think the alien subplot was done maybe to the detriment of some of the others. And I think that we had very little creative difference in the making of Searching, but we had a massive … The movie almost entirely fell apart, because Aneesh and the editor didn’t want to do the alien subplot, and I told them, I’m like, “This is gonna single-handedly make this movie a masterpiece for the ages.” And they agreed. [Laughter]

And that’s why, because of the alien subplot, that’s why the movie made so much money, and it has such a high rating on Rotten Tomatoes and won all those awards. So, I’d like to think I was right at the end day. In fact, I know I was. [Laughter]

There is a lot to dissect there.

Sev:            So to us, what’s cool about the proof of concept is like, this movie has been completely taken apart by the Internet, right? It has multiple chains about it on Reddit, TV tropes, all these message boards, all the comments on YouTube. People have found nearly every single thing they can about this film, and they’ve examined it. But the cool thing is, nobody knows about the proof of concept. Like, we’ve never released it. It’s never been analyzed. And I think what’s cool is you guys are basically the only publication ever to have that.

I think the movie is impressive for all the right reasons, but the proof of concept, we made that thing for like, I think $2,000, over basically a weekend. And it was literally the company saying, “Okay, you guys want to do this crazy cinematic version of a computer movie. Here’s $2,000, prove it to us.” I was the only producer at the time, and Aneesh was obviously on board, and we had only one of our editors, Will, on board. And we had to come up with literally how to do this within a month on no money.

Aneesh:       We got the phone call that said, we need to make this basically days before we needed to start this thing. And all of a sudden, like, I had just moved from New York to L.A. to make this film, because I quit my job at Google to come back and do this thing. And I didn’t really have an immediate network around me to just be like, “Oh, I need photos of you immediately, because I need to start making the short within minutes basically.”

I just looked down my hall at my new roommate, and was just like, “Hey, do you want to play, Margot? Do you have photos of yourself?” And she just gave me a bunch of photos of herself, and we basically cast my roommate as our original Margot in this proof of concept video. And spent about a month and a half total editing this movie, this little two and a half minute, or three and a half minute proof of concept. And at one point during the entire making of this thing, literally, we lost every bit of memory and file that was saved on the hard drive-

Oh my god. No.

Aneesh:       Yeah, literally. Will, who’s an editor, and was a freelance editor, has a thousand hard drives with the project, went out to Coachella, and someone stole it. So we had to literally start from scratch. And thankfully, he knew everything and had this incredible way to like piece everything back together. But we had to start from scratch after someone basically stole the hard drive while he was at Coachella. I was on another gig. So it was this incredibly intense moment. It was the first time we were like, “Are we ever gonna finish this movie?” Because like, the amount of things that we had to redo –

Sev:            I’d like to think it all worked because the version that we ended up making was so much better than what we had before. So whoever stole Will Merrick’s laptop out of the back of his Toyota whatever at 2016 Coachella, thank you, because you really helped us get to this point.

Wow.

Sev:            So, we literally were shooting this thing in two days no permits, no permission, no crew. It was shot on Aneesh’s cellphone. We got a great actor named Roy Abramson, who played the role of David, and we had Aneesh’s roommate, Danika, play Margot, and we basically experimented. We included a lot of footage we found online from news footage and stuff, and we tried to really nail the tone. There are a couple things in there that we knew were never gonna end up in the movie itself. Like, there’s Margot with the pregnancy test. At one point, David grabs the gun.

But it was really important to just kind of sell the idea, like, “Look, this can be cinematic. This can be cool.” And one of the other great discoveries for us is that Torin Borrowdale, who’s Aneesh’s composer since film school, did the score on that thing. And he ended up going onto make the score for Searching as a movie itself, and it was a great test of like, okay, combining Aneesh’s vision, our story, Will’s technical expertise, and creative expertise, and Torin’s music on top of it all, to kind of create something really cool.

And we used that proof of concept to bring on our actors, to bring on our crew, and really all throughout the process, to kind of make sure if anybody had any doubts of what we were gonna make, was gonna actually end up as an actual movie, we would just show them that three minute thing, and they’d be like, “Okay, you guys can make a three minute thing. Whether you guys can make a 90-minute thing, I don’t know, but I’m on board.”

Aneesh:       Okay. One thing I will say about the music though, like kind of touching on what Sev was talking about, like the discoveries that we made. When Torin was working on it, one of the really cool gems that came out of it was the main little search theme. That was discovered there. That little bit. Music usually happens so late once the project is kind of more put together.

So there was a significant amount of time between when Torin was working on that proof of concept, and when he got back to working on what we had as a feature product because we had to go shoot it, pre-edit it, all that stuff. And so, it was really cool to see that little nugget come back because when I was talking to him specifically about coming up with themes for the searching stuff and all of that, we were working on a bunch of different ideas. And then he pitched this idea of like, “What if we just do the same thing that we did in the proof of concept that worked, right?” And he used that as a basis, and we basically built our entire soundtrack around that, or at least the search theme elements of the soundtrack around those three notes.

Everything came from this short film. No wonder you want to get it out there now.

Sev:            Hell, yeah, dude. And also, in the proof of concept, there’s this amazing shot where like David is trying to track Margot’s timeline of where she was, and the camera shows a Google Map image, and it hurdles down and starts racing through the streets. It was one of the coolest shots in the proof of concept, and it was one that we really tried to put into the actual movie itself with Searching because it’s just so freaking epic. But what I love about Aneesh is like, he’s a rare kind of director that loves killing his babies. He was the first one of everyone to say, “Guys, this is the coolest shot in the world, but it doesn’t’ serve the story. It’s gonna slow down the pacing. We have to lose it.” So, part of this is like, we’re just happy to be able to have that shot have its moment in the day.

Aneesh:       We were both talking about this. When we wrote this film as a feature, we always wrote it for a very, very specific cast. But people did work on this movie even before it in a lot of ways. And I think like, Roy, and Danika, and like, all the other actors that are a part of it, were like part of this narrative of Searching. It’s so cool to see that the movie has done so well and to have their work also be out there because they were part of this whole thing, the telling the story as well. It’s cool for us to be able to show something that prior to this was really not allowed to be shown because it wasn’t the version of the movie that we were making. And now, we can show that, and that’s pretty awesome for all of us.

Now, before I let you go, I know you guys are partnering back up on Run. Is there anything you can tell us about your next project?

Aneesh:       Yeah. First of all, we’re not partnering back up. We are partners, and I think us, and Natalie [Qasabian], we are all moving together from movie to movie. But the next that we’re making, which we’re currently shooting right now actually, this is our off day, is a movie called Run, and it is basically … What can we say about it? It’s basically about a home-schooled teenage girl, who sort of discovers a very sinister secret about her mom, who she is living with. And that’s all we can really say, and it’s gonna feel very, very Hitchcockian and unlike Searching, completely takes place with very, very normal and traditional cameras. So we’re kind of going to the basics of doing what we’ve also wanted to do, which is like, tell a traditional story and just tell it really well hopefully, is the goal.

I imagine that had to have been a pretty exciting first-day set.

Sev:            Yeah, it was so weird, like, Aneesh was like, “Yo, where’s the camera, and I’m like, “That’s the camera.” He’s like, “No, I want to shoot from a laptop.” And I was like, “No, Aneesh, you’ve gotta use real cameras now.”

Aneesh:       I thought they were all as big as Go Pros. [Laughter]

Sev:            No, I’m kidding. It’s been awesome. It’s been really cool. I’ll just say this, what’s been fun being on the set of Run is that I feel that with Searching, Aneesh did so much with so little. He didn’t have all the usual tools that a director has, framing shots, and moving shots, and having blocking, and all those things that we didn’t have on Searching. It’s been really cool for me at least, having been with Aneesh now for so many years, seeing how he’s flexing those muscles. And performance, story, all that is number one and key, but some of the shots he’s been getting on this thing, I wish I could tell you about the shot we got yesterday.

Aneesh:       Yeah, the shot I did yesterday is great.

Sev:            But, do me a favor Brad, call us back in about one year and then we’ll talk about that shot. Run’s gonna be awesome.

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Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.