‘Searching’ director Aneesh Chaganty and cowriter Sev Ohanian explain the challenge of making an emotional thriller that takes place entirely on a computer screen.
Here’s an easy prediction: few people who see Searching opening weekend will be prepared for the emotional devastation of the film’s first ten minutes. Searching, the latest addition to the ‘Screenlife’ collection of computer-screen-centric movies from producer Timur Bekmambetov, opens on the log-in screen for a mid-’90s operating system. Director Aneesh Chaganty and producer/co-writer Sev Ohanian then take us through the Kim family’s early days through a progressive montage of home videos. Finding tragedy in the unlikeliest of places – notably, a series of rescheduled calendar reminders – we watch as Pamela Kim (Sara Sohn) is diagnosed with cancer and slowly succumbs to her disease, leaving David (John Cho) and Margot (Michelle La) alone in their grief.
It’s the kind of montage that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Pixar movie, which was exactly what Chaganty had in mind to overcome any initial resistance to the film’s unique execution. “The barrier to entry is really, really hard to get into,” the director explains. “What we wanted to do was construct a sequence that would be not only emotional, engaging, and cinematic but most of all make you forget that you’re watching a computer screen in the first place.” For him, opening the film with a strong emotional beat would reframe everything that follows for any skeptics in the crowd. “It’s like Up meets a Google commercial is how I like to pitch it.”
After this devastating opening sequence, Searching becomes the unconventional whodunit promised in the trailers. When Margot goes missing after an all-night study session, David launches into a search for his missing daughter, kicking off an enormous search-and-rescue operation that makes a splash in local newspapers and online communities dedicated to her disappearance. In his attempts to retrace Margot’s activities over the past few days, David combs through her social media accounts and friend lists, discovering that his daughter kept an entire part of her life closed off from her father. In other words, to figure out where she went, David must first figure out who his daughter had become.
Despite the presence of actors like Debra Messing in supporting roles, Searching is effectively a one-man show. Most of the film follows David as he ransacks Margot’s social media accounts and chats online with friends and family members. To make the experience as comfortable as possible for their leading man, Chaganty filmed a short version of the entire movie as a reference tool for his cast. “We made an hour and 40-minute mock-up of the entire film before we even shot the movie, starring me playing every single role just so that we could show to John so that he’d know where every button that he was pressing was going to be on set,” Chaganty explains. This provided the actors an opportunity to visualize their performances in relation to a fixed perspective and to think of how they would interact with objects – keyboards, cameras – in the foreground of each shot.
Since most of the movie also takes place partially on David’s desktop, the filmmakers also put a lot of thought into the various social media applications would appear onscreen. Like most Screenlife films, we are treated to a creative interplay between the audience and the interfaces of platforms like Facebook, but Searching goes a step further to explore the different personalities we adopt online and the surprising candor this can inspire with strangers. The challenge of telling two stories simultaneously – one a traditional thriller and one a complex exploration of our digital footprint – meant emphasizing the areas of overlap between the two. “When David’s looking for his daughter, he realizes he didn’t lose her two, three days ago,” Ohanian explains. “He lost her years ago and he didn’t realize until he saw her real self.”
Searching also breaks tradition – or what little tradition exists, anyways – with how other Screenlife films have incorporated music in their films. Rather than have the soundtrack exist as a desktop application like iTunes or Spotify, the Searching duo elected to incorporate more conventional non-diegetic music in the soundtrack. This decision came with some strong feelings from the movie’s co-writer. “I’ve got to be dead honest with you: I have no freaking idea why in the other screen movies in the past, they chose to interpret music as being diegetic only,” Ohanian admits. “It’s a cinematic experience. You’re supposed to use music to help supplement emotions. I don’t understand it. They treat it like it’s neo-realistic Dogme 95 film or something.”
At once entirely conventional and a bold choice for a Screenlife feature, the decision to use non-diegetic music also put both filmmakers at odds with their producers. Ohanian and Chaganty were given three distinct “commandments” by Bazelevs Entertainment and fellow Screenlife director Bekmambetov: the two men needed to shoot the entire film as a single unbroken wide shot, they needed to write a script that would unfold in real time over 90 minutes, and they needed to shoot the movie from a single objective perspective. Needless to say, each of these rules were spectacularly broken. “The music, the camera movements, the passage of time, it was always – from the very first pitch of this project, even as the short film that we pitched – going to be like that,” Ohanian explains. “There’s no rule book because in our case there wasn’t any rules.”
All of which allows Searching to be something unique among its peers: a movie that chooses to exist on a computer screen but isn’t afraid to veer into more commercial territory. And if this suggests a film in danger of aligning itself too much with a specific filmmaking movement, well, Ohanian and Chaganty have an answer for that, too. “We accepted from the very beginning this is going to be a period movie,” Ohanian says. “I think there’s a part of us that maybe knows that 50 years from now people will not be able to watch the film and understand it unless they’re archeologists trying to dissect what happened with society at this point in time. Hopefully, the story and the characters and the nuance and the emotion is what kind of helps the movie transcend its stuck-in-a-time-box appeal.” Here’s betting that opening sequence will still make them cry.