In a year that includes the biggest superhero crossover event ever, an almost silent horror smash, and a stunt-happy Tom Cruise risking his life about a dozen times in almost as many countries, it’s still fair to call Searching one 2018’s most ambitious and audacious projects. The small-budget missing-girl thriller takes the Unfriended formula to new levels: a father, played by John Cho, tracks his missing daughter by trawling through her social media feeds, calling her friends (mostly through FaceTime) and tracking suspicious people’s details through the darkest corners of the web. Director Aneesh Chaganty‘s camera never leaves the laptop or smart-phone screen, and so we watch Cho’s anguished face in one window as YouTube videos, Venmo accounts, and emails spring up in others, revealing new clues in the case, and big twists in the story.
Chaganty, whose 2014 viral short Seeds, shot entirely on Google Glass, has racked up millions of views, says the new movie took two years to complete, with the shoot itself taking just 13 days – the rest of the time was consumed by prep, editing, and animating. The work has paid off: The movie is a hit with critics (93% on the Tomatometer right now), who note that for all its technical achievements, it’s a story with plenty of heart and thrills. It had a strong first week at the box office, earning $360,000 in limited release before it opens wide this Friday. Ahead of its expansion, Chaganty spoke with Rotten Tomatoes and broke down exactly how he made one of 2018’s most impressive movies.
“I read A Quiet Place‘s script, and it’s crazy because that script is just like 60 pages, and it didn’t even have to be 60 pages. It was like pictures of the Monopoly board…that script is so short, it’s crazy. But ours was definitely the same way. We realized early on that a traditional screenplay format wasn’t going to serve us well. What we ended up doing was basically – like every other process of this movie – creating an entire new workflow for it. We created what we ended up calling a “scriptment,” which is obviously a script meets a treatment, and basically creating the rules of this film. For example, if someone would type text and backspace it, it would be literally crossed off on the page. We split the whole scriptment into chapters, so they’re easily digestible. Because a normal script can tell you what needs to happen, that a scene is set in a sports bar, but how do you do that when you’re setting a scene on, like, a search bar? It is just a totally different way of writing, so we had to create a new format as well.”
“This was Sev Ohanian’s idea, who’s the co-writer and producer. We were like, ‘We should make this movie before we make this movie.’ The reason being there are two cameras in this film. There’s the camera inside the walls of the movie, and there’s the camera of the way we’re framing all of that. And we needed to know how those two play with one another.
“We hired the editors seven weeks before [shooting] and we brought them to a room. And they would screen capture the internet and take photos and do little recordings of text messages and stuff. We ended up coming out with an hour and 40-minute cut of the movie starring me playing every role of the movie – the dad, the brother, the mother, the father, all of Margot’s friends.
“We showed that to the crew, the night before we started shooting, for them to understand what we were making. Most importantly, on set we used it with John’s character, because his character is the one operating the computer in the movie, but the computer [screen footage] is done by the time of shooting. He needs to know though where every eye line [is], every single button he needs to press so that he can look at it the right way, where every single cursor goes, every window pop up. He needs to know exactly what’s happening on the screen.”
“We couldn’t set up a video village to save time, and basically we had a GoPro set up on [John’s] computer. And then in another room, on the other side of the house, is Debra [Messing, who plays a detective in the film] with the same setup. And they’re both looking at these programs, but they can only see the other person and they’re both wearing earwigs so they could talk to one another and we need to get clean audio. So, they’re talking basically to a computer screen that looks nothing like the one that’s going to be in the final version of the movie, and interacting with one another. They were literally acting up against almost nothing – a massive acting challenge that they knock out of the park.”
“We used four different actresses to play Margot over the course of 15 years in the opening montage of the movie. And there’s changes in clothes, [we’re] changing everything, we’re changing literally the device she would use to capture everything, because we’re always trying to mimic the technology that it would actually be captured with as time goes on.
“John always cites that day as his favorite day of all 13 because it felt so natural. The opening montage, it really grounds the movie in something very, very emotional. Sev and myself pitched it as Up meets a Google commercial, and we basically went from there.”
“That was a definite thing that we set out to do. We wanted to turn small-screen devices that we use all the time into a cinematic canvas. And the way we do that is basically by finding the emotionality underneath everything. Even something as plain and simple as the standard Windows XP backdrop of rolling hills carries emotional weight in this movie. Or seeing how crowded a desktop is, or seeing what photos are on a desktop in the movie – it means something. When we were writing, we were quickly realizing that in order for this movie to have some weight, every single button, every single aspect of the UI of the technology, had to mean something more than just what it was. That’s how we approached the entire movie.”
“I don’t think any film in history has a quicker turnaround from being a modern movie to being a period piece of art. Even before we wrapped to edit it, even before we had finished the film, we had made a period piece, because inevitably Facebook had updated its UI or Google has changed something, or whatever. So, our solve for that was by setting the movie on a specific day. It takes place on May 11th, May 12th, and May 13th of 2017, and every single news item, every single front page, matches that. And every website matches how it was used, it looked, and worked on those specific days.”
“We found out a couple days ago that we are the first mainstream contemporary thriller to ever, ever have an Asian-American lead, which is just crazy. It was important for me having grown up in San Jose to cast a family at the heart of it that looked like the families that I grew up with. I grew up loving movies, and all my favorite movies, none of them ever had characters that looked like me, or heroes that looked like me. And here was an opportunity for us to cast people, and give a younger version of ourselves, someone to hopefully look up to. Or just see as themselves. [The family] was Korean-American because we wrote the role for John Cho. But it was Asian-American with intent, because when’s the last time this has happened?”
Searching is in theaters everywhere August 31