How 'Searching' Rewrote The Rules For Live-Action Filmmaking

“There was really, really no part of this process that looks remotely similar to a live-action movie,” director Aneesh Chaganty said of his thriller starring John Cho.

On a wave of landmark movies for Asian-American representation, “Searching” arrived with a splash.

Director Aneesh Chaganty’s innovative thriller immediately appealed to critics when it premiered in limited release last month, amid the success of #AsianAugust. Since then, the John Cho-led movie has expanded to more cinemas across the country, earning a respectable box-office showing along the way: a worldwide total of $33 million so far.

It’s a major win for Hollywood, a signal that the usual rules of live-action filmmaking can be broken. After all, the film takes place entirely on its characters’ computer and phone screens.

“Searching” is premised on a conventional mystery: David Kim (Cho) is in search of his missing daughter Margot (Michelle La) and enlists the help of police detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) to find her. But the film deftly balances its traditional storytelling elements with an infusion of internet-friendly devices and digital media that come to shape the way we consume the tale: David turns to Margot’s social media accounts to uncover clues and possible leads in his investigation. His character develops through the text messages, emails and FaceTime requests he sends to his supporting cast.

In an interview with HuffPost, Chaganty explained that he wanted the film’s risky narrative approach to vault it beyond “a gimmick” ― to allow its audience to “forget that what you were watching was on a computer screen ... make you forget the way we were telling the story, and just focus on the story itself.”

To do that, Chaganty had to “invent” his own rules for shooting a feature-length film using an iPhone and GoPro camera. Throughout the course of our conversation, we discussed all that, and what he thinks his film has to say about humanity’s relationship to technology and social media.

Director Aneesh Chaganty (left), with actor John Cho (right), on the set of "Searching."
Director Aneesh Chaganty (left), with actor John Cho (right), on the set of "Searching."
Screen Gems

On how his previous job at Google influenced the conception of the film:

Before making “Searching,” his first feature film, Chaganty worked at Google, writing and directing promotional films for new products.

“Using screens and technology and kind of framing them in an emotional way was sort of like the overall agenda, regardless of what the specific product or application that we were advertising was,” he said. “To show someone’s face, to see how they’re feeling: You can do it in these alternative ways, like a cursor clicking a button, or closing a window, or deleting a file or typing a query in a search bar. There are plenty of ways to make people feel. That was something I thought was really cool. But to do that in two minutes or one minute, I thought, was always the goal. It was never to make something in 60 or 90 minutes. I thought that would never be possible.”

On worrying that the film would become “a gimmick”:

The film’s production company initially approached Chaganty and co-writer and producer Sev Ohanian with the idea for a movie that would happen entirely on screens, but “it was something that we were very, very hesitant to do because it felt like a gimmick,” Chaganty said.

After some brainstorming, they saw a way forward. They developed what became the film’s opening scene, a montage of David’s family memories — videos and photos saved on an old family computer — comparing it to “[Pixar’s] ‘Up’ meets a Google commercial.”

“It felt like all of a sudden, the way that we were kind of getting into the story was not only different and better than all of the films that took place on screen before, but it was doing so in an emotional way, and a cinematic way, and an engaging way,” he said.

On choosing different screens and other digital footage:

“Searching” authentically replicates the clutter of desktop computer folders, open tabs and windows, email and text message notifications, and missed calls. At one point, David scrolls through Reddit threads promulgating conspiracy theories about what might have happened to Margot, a realistic depiction of falling down internet rabbit holes.

The film starts to shift when the investigation into Margot’s disappearance becomes broader. In more traditional movies, filmmakers might signal that the story is about to take a turn and change its scope by using, for instance, a wide, panoramic shot.

But in “Searching,” Chaganty introduces the shift through the use of TV news footage — “still keeping our footing in the computer-screen world,” as he explained, but moving beyond David’s screens and turning “into a public interest story.”

Cho in Chaganty's movie "Searching," which takes place entirely on computer and phone screens.
Cho in Chaganty's movie "Searching," which takes place entirely on computer and phone screens.
Screen Gems

For Chaganty, the panoply of screens and digital media was another way of finding a fresh take on the concept and keeping the audience captivated.

“Especially with these conceit-driven films, you have to sort of evolve the concept,” he said. “Not only the plot, but the way that we’re seeing the plot unfold has to evolve. Otherwise the audience is going to be like, ‘I am watching a movie on a computer screen.’ The moment that they realize they’re watching a movie on a computer screen, we’ve lost them.”

On shooting the film on iPhones and GoPro cameras, and other unconventional parts of the production process:

“Honestly, there was really, really no part of this process that looks remotely similar to a live-action movie,” Chaganty said of the film’s production. “Every single person on this film sort of had to relearn their job in order to make this movie.”

To adequately re-create the look and feel of the characters engaging with their devices, Chaganty thought: “Why not shoot things on the cameras that they’d actually be presented with in real life?”

Scenes involving cellphone video were shot using Chaganty’s iPhone. Other scenes used camcorders or digital cameras. For scenes involving FaceTime or Skype, “we rigged a GoPro behind a laptop that was not working — that was just there on set for actors to use, to interact with to some capacity — and we put it right above the top of the laptop,” he said.

Chaganty and Ohanian have described their screenplay as “a scriptment,” a cross between a script and a treatment, because it accounts for elements like the layout of David’s computer screen or his mouse movements. The film’s editing started before shooting even commenced, in order to develop the characters’ screens — for example, editors took screenshots of iMessage and Skype windows.

Chaganty said they even created a new role: “director of virtual photography, which is a title we kind of made up.”

Their work resulted in what was essentially a mock-up of the entire movie, with Chaganty playing each character and modeling their interactions with the screens.

“It was important because (a) it taught us how to make the movie; and (b) John Cho’s character, who is operating the computer, has to know exactly where every button is, where every cursor is, where every window is popping up,” he said.

On why the film isn’t a critique of technology and social media, but a more nuanced view:

“I think a lot of these ‘Black Mirror’ episodes, or Facebook PSAs, or whatever — like, they’re always telling us about how technology is going to ruin our lives and do all these terrible things for us. Overall, that’s the consistent message that Hollywood gives us,” Chaganty said, when asked if “Searching” is of a piece with other movies and television that present cautionary tales about social media and technology.

“But as a Google employee, and as a human being, it doesn’t ruin my life. There are definitely negative aspects to it, but there are negative aspects to anything when done past moderation,” he said. “Any sort of aspect of my life that encompasses as much as technology does, there’s got to be some negative. But in my experience, there’s always far more positive than negative. So I felt like this film is sort of zooming out and trying to show you more of the whole pie, ideally not portraying it as a good thing or bad thing, but just as a thing.”

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