How do you take a movie shot entirely on cold, hard computer screens and turn it into a moving tale of father-daughter love? For Searching director Aneesh Chaganty, the answer lies in the Hindi soap Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai. The Hyderabad-born filmmaker, who moved to America with his parents at a young age, credits the Tollywood and Bollywood movies he grew up watching with influencing his directorial debut. The John Cho starrer revolves around engineer David Kim, whose 16-year-old daughter Margot goes missing. He begins sifting through her social media accounts in search of clues, only to find out she isn't the person he thought he knew.
"There's an innate desire to create heart-stringy emotions. Even now, every time I go home, amma always has Star Plus on. Indian cinema has the ability to just milk the emotion out of anything possible. They'll cut to a phone call and there will be like a 'ring ring' and then cut to everyone reacting to the ring, reacting, reacting, reacting. Then someone will pick up the phone and they'll do it all over again. I want to make thrillers, but I love being able to balance it with that emotion," he said.
Chaganty said his choice of protagonists, a Korean-American family, was also a nod to his upbringing.
"The character was named David Kim right from the script. It wasn't easy to fight for. That's not something you tell financiers and expect them to go, 'Yeah, go for it!' in Hollywood. I grew up in San Jose, where the story takes place. It's Silicon Valley and has all these engineers. Our main character is an engineer and it was important that the cast looked like the people who actually live there, instead of the normally cast white people. Mostly, I felt that while I was growing up, all of the movies I loved, I never saw myself in, I never saw Indians or Koreans in."
Searching couldn't have arrived at a better time – the success of Crazy Rich Asians, with its all-Asian cast, and To All The Boys I've Loved Before, which has Vietnamese-American actress Lana Condor in the lead, has proven that 2018 is a landmark year for Asian representation.
Here's how the film came about – In 2016, production house Bazelevs Company approached Ohanian with the intention of making a movie similar to Unfriended(2014), a horror film they had financed. He roped in Chaganty, who was directing ads for Google at the time. The director was reluctant at first – "I didn't want this to feel like a gimmick," he said.
A month later, the two were on a phone call when they realised they had they exact same idea for an opening sequence. "It's a standalone seven-minute sequence, my favourite scene in the whole film. It's so emotional and cinematic. When we were talking about that idea, I realised none of these movies before had accomplished the emotion that we were going for and there was a way to do it."
(The sequence went on to attract praise from critics, with some comparing it to the heart-rending first few minutes of Pixar's Up.)
With Chaganty in New York and Ohanian in LA, the two began working on the script over the phone "We wanted everyone to go in and be like, 'This is a film that takes place on screens' and then forget that within the first five minutes and just focus on the story. That was the crux of our conversations."
It wasn't an easy task. The movie took two years to make, of which a year-and-a-half was spent editing. "We had two editors working around the clock. The computers were crashing every two hours and we would lose our work every time. It would take us 35 minutes to reboot each time because of the size of the program and we really felt like we weren't going to be able to finish the movie. The editors, more than anyone else, deserve all of the awards," said Changanty.
The work paid off. Searching premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in January, where it received the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize of $20,000 and met with rave reviews. It is set to release in India on August 31.
Chaganty spoke about his writing process, working with John Cho and Debra Messing and why the movie is a 'period piece':
Can you tell me a little about the writing process? You said an early draft was more like Taken. How did that evolve into this?
Early on, Sev's initial instinct was, 'This can be like Taken (2008). This can be more of an action film.' And what it ended up becoming was much more of a grounded mystery movie. Early on, we were like, 'There should be a scene he hacks into the security cameras to find out where his daughter is.' And then we were like, 'Is that the movie that we're making or is it about a dad who doesn't even know his daughter's laptop password? Because those are two different movies.' Early on, we realised that the easier version was the Taken adaptation, but quickly, within a few weeks, we were pivoted to this other version. I think the big realisation was that if we could have an internet that the audience was familiar with, it becomes a lot scarier and more realistic. There are no scenes that feature John climbing a building.
You likened the film to an animated movie during the edit process. Can you elaborate?
I like to see this movie as a live-action movie inside an animated movie. There's a lot of live-action elements to it within the context of an animated movie. The reason it is animated and not screen-recorded is because the camera is always moving around. There are rarely moments where the desktop in a wide shot. We're always highlighting moments. If we were to just screen-record the movie and zoom in, it would be grainy, there would be a loss of resolution, it would be blurry. So basically every single image in the film has been recreated from scratch for the movie. The editors used the whole Adobe creative suite to create every iMessage logo, every icon, every text message, every bubble – everything is recreated, put back into the film, animated. Then we added camera shakes, lens blurs, colour effects and all that to make it feel like you're watching a movie. That's why I called it an animated film, because there are so many stages in the process. It started with sketching. In the beginning, we just screen-recorded the internet, took screenshots, put basic animatics together. Then the animatic would become a screen-record, which would become live-action footage. Just talking about it makes me nauseous.
What was it like working with John Cho and Debra Messing?
John, I think, is a very cerebral person. With every single take he gave, we got deeper and deeper into the character and every time I gave him a note, he would think about it for a long time, he would challenge me if he felt like the character wouldn't do that. Debra Messing (who plays a detective), on the other hand, who comes from Will and Grace, and is used to doing things in front of a live audience is just like that (snaps fingers). You give her note and immediately nails it in one take. Often, we would just marry one of John's last takes – always his best ones – with a performance of Debra that we thought worked best. The entire time, I was like, 'I hope they don't see right through me and the fact that I have no idea what I'm doing.'
There are new apps out every day. How did you keep up with all of them and curate which ones to use as storytelling devices?
We realised early on that once we finished the film, Facebook was going to update, there were going to be new apps coming out. We realised that this film will make probably the quickest transition from being a modern film to a period piece. The second we finished production, it was a period piece. Google updated something and we were like, 'Ugh, we're done!' So to combat that, what we did was set the film very specifically on three days – May 11, 12 and 13 in 2016. The entire internet of the film reflects the internet that existed on those three days – any news articles you see were the news articles that popped up on those three days, whether it was local, national or international news. We tried to use the internet's most popular sites, most popular apps on those days.
Your co-writer had a list of around 200 questions to be asked to trusted friends and family during initial screenings. Could you tell me some of those questions and how they shaped the final film?
Every single cut of the movie, we would take 12 of our friends – filmmakers, writers, a few people we trusted in the industry, a few who had nothing to do with the industry – for a screening. We had these lists of 200 questions we would ask – 'On minute 4, did this make sense?' 'What did you think when you saw this?' "Remember that text at that the 40-minute mark? Did that remind you of this clue later on?' – all about clarity. Everyone had to fill out a two-page-long questionnaire. We left every one of these screenings with heaps and heaps of data about what worked and what didn't. And then we would go back and edit it again and try to fix the problems. What came out was not only still my 'movie', but also the best version of my movie.