The movie Searching is a gripping thriller told in an extraordinary way.
Starring John Cho, it follows a father trying to find his missing daughter. What makes the film truly inventive is that it uses only laptop and phone screens to drive the story forward. For the majority of the film, Cho literally acts alone.
CNET’s review of Searching hails it as ‘edge-of-the-seat tense and enormously funny.’ And the film already took home two prizes from this year’s Sundance film festival: an audience award, and the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, for an outstanding feature about science or technology.
Cho visited CNET last week, along with co-writer and director Aneesh Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian. We discussed the insane undertaking of making a movie that takes place solely on screens. Hint: it takes a lot of eyebrow work.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: How would you describe Searching to people who haven’t seen it yet?
Chaganty: Searching is a very classic thriller told in a very unconventional way. The classic part is that it’s about a dad whose daughter goes missing and he tries to find her. The very unconventional part is that the majority of the film takes place on his daughter’s laptop screen that he breaks into to look for clues to find her. When I say the majority, the rest of it takes place on other computers, and laptops and tech devices. It’s all told on screens we use every day to communicate.
John, how did you get involved with this film?
Cho: It was sent to me the traditional way, through my agents, and my first impression was that I really loved the story [but] I was very suspicious of telling it via screens, and on that basis ended up saying no. In retrospect, I like to say, I wonder if it was because Aneesh and I spoke via a device, through the telephone, instead of meeting face-to-face. He came back at me, and we eventually sat down. And it was then that I was convinced that it was going to be a movie, not a YouTube video.
Sev, how would you describe it as a co-writer?
Ohanian: It’s first and foremost a thriller. It’s a regular film. It has all the ups and downs and twists and turns and … emotion that you get with any film. We just happened to make it in a really crazy, unconventional way … It was an opportunity for us to use this crazy conceit but tell a really grounded, human and most of all emotional story.
This is your first feature. You have a background in short films, but how do you leap from doing shorts to an indie film (and specifically this one)? Maybe another way of asking that is, How did you get to Sundance and bag a couple of awards?
Chaganty: Before I was making this film, I was at Google in New York City … I was writing, developing and directing commercials … It was there I really learned how to emote on computer screens. My bosses had made some of the best Google commercials — actually commercials, period. There was one … called Parisian Love … about a kid who goes to Paris and meets the love of his life, and it’s just told through searches on Google. There’s another one that was just on Gmail about a dad writing letters to his kid, called Dear Sophie. It follows the growth of his kid. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, these are such unconventional ways of telling the story, but the story itself is so universal and something we can all relate to.’
[Then] Sev met with this company and they wanted to make a movie on a computer screen. He was like, ‘Hey! My boy works at Google. You should meet with him too.’ It felt like this movie was a seamless next step … although at no point did we ever feel like this was a home run.
I quit my job at Google … and we made this movie with like five people in a very small editing room with two iMac computers that were crashing every two hours and we’d lose like 15 to 20 percent progress. We were going from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. every single day for almost two years. If this movie had failed, no one would have batted an eye, because no one believed in this movie from the beginning. We took a crazy leap of faith and trusted that we all had done enough at that point to figure out how to do something absolutely new. Somehow we applied to Sundance, got in and then 12 hours after our premiere got a worldwide distribution deal.
John, the voiceover in the Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle trailer describes you as ‘that Asian guy from American Pie.’ What are your thoughts on how your career has changed the definition from being ‘that Asian guy’ to now doing leads in movies like this?
Cho: For me, this movie is a bit of the future right now. What I mean by that is the race and ethnicity and culture of the family … are specific and germane to who the characters are, and yet it also doesn’t matter. I’ve been saying for a while that I used to take pride in the fact that I would be cast in white roles, and that was a point of pride because I had resisted what they had written for me — for Asian men. This is an example of the end game, which is to get to a place where the character is written on the page Asian but it’s also not a point in the plot.
How does a movie like Crazy Rich Asians fit into that future and continue to move things forward?
Cho: What I’ve been reading … and I wholly support this idea, [is] that no one film should have to carry the banner for a culture … We are diverse. We’re deep. And I think it’s insane … to have to say this person, this story, represents all of us. I think where we all want to go to is moving towards a plurality. And only then can it represent us. Because no one story, no one person, no one narrative and no one culture can represent us, and really representation starts with being absolutely specific. And when you foist the yolk of representation on any one project or person, you’re going to have to be general. And that is not authentic.
Going back to the conceit of the film… The screens added this beautiful tension at moments. You waited for that start screen, or to see the lava screensaver, just to release that tension. What was this like to make?
Cho: Can I say something? … I’m just going to pay these guys a compliment … I think for many years now, storytellers in my business have been struggling with how to dramatize what’s happening in our culture, which is that more and more human beings are having exchanges through technological devices … I think the traditional way has been to film a person typing. And shoot from behind their back. And if you recall Meg Ryan sort of mouthing her instant messages out loud while she typed. It’s been false. We haven’t gotten it right. [This] was the first thing that I read that offered a solution to that problem as a storyteller, which was to go inside the device … When I saw it … I was shocked at how much it made sense. We are on the seventh and eighth generation of devices, and we have nostalgia for devices. And so we have a shared history, and I think it’s the first year that we could have made this film, because our collective understanding and history with these devices has arrived.
Chaganty: Basically … in the film there’s all of the footage that is on a computer screen. There’s the Skype camera. Or there’s YouTube videos. There’s news footage. There’s every website — basically, your computer. And there’s the way that we’re seeing it, which is our additional camera that we’re adding to all of that. So … to make this movie, and this was Sev’s idea … the first group that we hired weren’t the actors or anybody who comes on set, they were the editors who traditionally work after the film is shot. In this case, they came seven weeks before … and basically started screen capturing the internet and taking photos of text messages and taking a bunch of photos of me. And what we ended up with … was an hour-and-40-minute cut of the entire film, starring me playing every single role, like the dad, the brother, the mother, all of her friends, just talking to myself … This was honestly to teach ourselves how to make the movie, but on a very practical level.
John — when he is on set, you’re looking at [his] face the entire time, shot on a GoPro. Every single tiny eye motion is extremely exaggerated. So he needs to know basically where the cursor is at every single point. Where every pop-up window is happening. Where every web page is popping up. Where every text message is popping up. So everything has to be matched perfectly. And he needs to know everything that he’s always doing. So we needed to make the movie first so we could make the movie.
You were talking about YouTube windows and Facebook. Do you need to get permission to use that stuff on screen?
Chaganty: One of the most important things … we wanted to do in this movie is get the internet right. I feel like no Hollywood movie or television show or anything for that matter ever does technology right. They always cut to a phone and the text messages are massive … Or you cut to a website and it’s just totally made up, and they never show you logos. And we were like, ‘No, no, no.’ For this movie to work, it needs to feel like this is your computer, nothing is made up … and this is something that we backed with a legal team … If we’re showing these applications the way billions of people use [them] every single day, in a way that isn’t lying or isn’t portraying them in an overtly negative light on purpose, why not use them? … This movie isn’t an indictment of technology. It’s just, in a weird way, showing that we live our lives on screens.
There’re all these details on the screen, all these side details. One that pops up is a news scroll, and it says something like, ‘Hollywood producer suspected of film editor’s — ‘
Chaganty: It says, ‘Hollywood producer prime suspect in murder of film editors.’ It could possibly be [points to Ohanian] Sev our producer sitting right next to us.
Ohanian: The editors are fine, OK?
Chaganty: Yeah, they’re fine. If you pause this movie, you can always see other things … Once you see this film, try and look anywhere apart from the main action. Pay attention for clues. Every single line of text in this movie, whether it’s the side text messages … or every single email … or every single description of every Finder file — what date that was added, the size of the file … It was all written by us for this movie. Every single line had to have added significance. And there were a lot of clues, side stories, subplots … So we had a lot of time for fun.
Ohanian: There’s all these really fun subplots and huge Easter eggs that people haven’t caught yet.
Having that camera mostly centered on John’s face — his reactions, his eyes and eyebrows tell so much. I’m wondering, John, as you were filming this, how did you link the emotionality of it, how did you deal with the technical hurdle of the screens?
Cho: I felt a little lost. I was struggling with my performance the whole movie. It turned out OK … This is so unlike anything I’d ever done before … I just didn’t have anything to hold onto. Also there were no people on set, and so I was performing alone and that’s really unnatural.
Even in some of those chats with other characters? They weren’t in another room or part of the studio?
Cho: Sometimes they were. Debra Messing [who plays a detective] was on location. She was in another room, and we communicated by an earpiece. But that’s also another weird thing for me: just having an earpiece in.
One series associated with you is Star Trek. I notice that Star Wars has been doing these side movies. There was Solo earlier this year. Is there room for something like a Sulu movie? Same letters almost.
Cho: If Solo, why not Sulu?
Chaganty: Yeah. I love that.
What are some projects you all will be working on next or hoping to work on?
Chaganty: [Because of Sundance] we got a chance to write another film that we have been developing for a long time — for a year before the editing of Searching … Basically, it’s another thriller. It’s still about parents and kids — everything that we have made so far is about parent and kids. This one is about a mother and a daughter. It’s very, very, very, very, very dark and twisted. It will probably be the only truly dark thing that we make, and it does not take place on computer screens. It’s called Run, and we’re hopefully shooting that in the fall … So Sev and I wrote Run together. Sev is producing it, I’m directing it, and then Natalie Qasabian, who also produced Searching, is also going to be producing that one as well.
Cho: I’m doing a feature next that hasn’t been announced. So I don’t think I should say anything.
Chaganty: Sulu: The Star Trek Story?
Cho: Yeah. Sulu: The Star Trek Story.
You mentioned you’re sticking with parents and kids — the family-thriller genre. Are any of you guys fathers?
Cho: I am.
When you see something like Searching, how does that affect the way you look at how your children interface with the internet or social media?
Cho: My oldest is 10, and he’s not quite there, but it’s tough. What the film addresses is — you know, we used to tell our children, Watch out for the weirdos at the park. But now all the weirdos in every park in the world have access to your child in his or her bedroom. And so what do you do with that? I don’t know … partially because my kid is already more computer-literate than me and I know that gap is only going to widen. So, I think it probably has to do with being an actual good parent … and making sure that your children feel loved and safe so that they protect themselves.