Searching director Aneesh Chaganty on how he crafted his game-changing tech thriller
Searching director Aneesh Chaganty opens up on the unique challenges of making a 'screen thriller', Black Mirror's gloom-ridden depiction of technology, Mani Ratnam's versatility and more.
In the digital age, how confidently can you say your online identity reflects your offline personality?
After all, it is so easy to hide unfavourable aspects of your offline self and embellish your online one. It is this distance between our two personas that allows us to feel more uninhibited and express ourselves more openly online. But as the boundary between the virtual and the real becomes increasingly blurred, we risk opening portals that may end up revealing the carefully hidden skeletons in our closet.
David Kim (John Cho) learns this the hard way in Searching (opening in wide release across India, US and the UK this Friday). When his well-behaved teenage daughter (Michelle La) goes missing, David must first find out who she is before he can uncover where she is.
Aneesh Chaganty's game-changing tech-thriller received a rapturous reception when it premiered at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. In his very first feature, the Indian-American newcomer chose to tell his story, in its entirety, within the confines of computer screens, smartphones and security cameras.
This narrative experiment may seem novel but it was introduced way back in 2013 by a little known short film called Noah and was later adopted by the much more popular feature film, Unfriended, which went on to earn more than 60 times its budget at the box office. Its inevitable sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web, released just last month. There have been others too — The Den, Open Windows and Cyberbully, all of which play out wholly or partially from the point of view of computer screens.
But while Unfriended uses the clever gimmick to tell your garden-variety teen slasher flick, Searching transcends it with a taut, engaging screenplay. "It stopped being a gimmick when we came up with the central storyline," Aneesh asserts in an exclusive interview to Firstpost. "The story must always come first and the gimmick must be inspired by it as opposed to the story trying to fit into the gimmick."
Aneesh does make a valid point. Unfriended, The Den and even Open Windows need not have been set against an internet-based backdrop — or use the screen as a canvas for the film's action. Searching, on the other hand, did.
Interestingly, Aneesh and co-writer Sev Ohanian had pitched Searching initially as an eight-minute short film to Bazelevs Productions, which incidentally also produced Unfriended. Bazelevs agreed but they wanted to turn it into a full-length feature, eager to explore the concept introduced by Unfriended. But Aneesh was apprehensive. "For me, despite the optimism with a first-time filmmaker being offered straight up money to make a feature-length movie, it wasn’t the right reason. We were being asked to do this not because our movie deserved it but because another movie was a hit," reveals Aneesh.
But, a couple of months later, they were brainstorming ideas about what the film's opening scene would have looked like had they taken up the golden opportunity being offered to them. Ecstatic with what they had come up with, they chose to make the movie after all. Searching opens with a seven-minute montage of poignant Up-like vignettes chronicling the lives of the Kim family over 16 years — from Margot's birth to her mother's death — all told through emails, family photos and home videos on the family's desktop computer.
"It was a crazy cool way to open a movie and all of a sudden it felt emotional, it felt cinematic, it felt engaging and, most of all, it felt like if we accomplish the opening the way we had visualised it in our minds, the audience would be so invested in the story and the characters that they actually forgot that the movie was taking place on a computer screen. And if we nailed that for 90 minutes, we're golden," says Aneesh.
But he was adamant about not making another horror-thriller in the vein of Unfriended and yearned to tell a more compelling story with Searching. He was enticed by the prospect of filming a chilling mystery that actually warranted the audience staring at a computer screen for close to two hours, undeterred by the constricted framing. "In a mystery, you are in pursuit of information. The character and the audience are devoid of information and you’re constantly trying to uncover more details. In this movie, the search for information happens on a laptop with the added emotional component of a dad attempting to track down his daughter, before it’s too late. So, it needed to be told on a computer screen," he reasons.
Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa practically masterminded the tech-thriller genre with his 2001 film Kairo, which made for a terrifying parable about the growing sense of despair, isolation and emotional alienation in the wake of our increasing internet addiction. Of course, the lessons were clearly not heeded with Black Mirror needing to reinforce more cautionary lessons each year about the dark endgames of humanity's over-reliance on technology. However, Aneesh compels us all to simmer down with the doom and gloom.
"I think the only aspect of technology that I’ve seen depicted in media and in Hollywood is that technology is ruining our lives. Every Black Mirror episode, every Facebook PSA, every Instagram PSA, we’re always addicted to our phones. We’re alienated from society. It's all too negative. To me, that is just one slice of the pie, it’s not the whole pie," clarifies Aneesh, who previously worked with the Google Creative Lab team making commercials before switching careers.
He stresses the importance of taking a more holistic look towards technology, noting that "it can alienate and scare us but, at the same time, connect us and make us love and hope."
"I can’t tell you how many times when I was working at Google, there would be ideas which came up and someone would say, 'That’s too Black Mirror.' I think that’s exactly what Charlie Brooker wants. It’s important for us to be mindful of things and know what are the negative aspects of anything we use," says Aneesh before adding, "But I also got to see engineers making products with the best and most altruistic intentions. Technology is rarely portrayed for all the good things it can do, which far outweigh the bad."
Filmmakers are constantly looking to push the boundaries of how to successfully integrate technology into their storytelling. For instance, Steven Soderbergh, a director well-known for his low-budget indie films and disrupting genre conventions, recently came out with an iPhone-shot thriller, Unsane and also an interactive HBO murder-mystery miniseries called Mosaic, which debuted as an interactive app. But be it Unsane or Unfriended, critics haven't really warmed up to any of these experimental cinematic ventures. Aneesh believes this is not due to the critics' refusal to embrace technological innovations but mostly the filmmaker's inability to effectively incorporate technology into their story. "I think technology, as a whole, has not been cracked yet in its depiction. When House of Cards first superimposed text messages on-screen, we all went, 'Wow!' It was unique but soon, everybody started doing it and not all used it convincingly. So, it’s not a matter of critics' resistance but just a matter of how it’s done."
A technology that has most particularly excited is Virtual Reality (VR), with even the world's oldest film festival, the ongoing Venice film festival, embracing it and showcasing the best that the medium has to offer. It presents filmmakers a whole new canvas to tell their stories but, as Aneesh states, it is foolish to think it will replace cinema. "I think they can coexist. They’re on parallel paths because one of them is an active experience and the other one is a passive experience. As a moviegoer, you're paying for a ticket to sit down at a theatre and consume the content. As a VR viewer, you’re paying to independently explore a virtual world."
With the high barrier-to-entry in VR, Aneesh guarantees he'll be sticking to cinema for the time being. A cinephile of the highest order, Aneesh grew up watching not only English but also Hindi and Telugu films owing to his Indian origin. He fondly recalls how his mother — equally fond of the movies — would pull him out of class to go to the cinema as a kid.
He cites Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock as two of his biggest influences but his introduction to Hollywood cinema started with M Night Shyamalan, who inspired him to become a filmmaker himself. "I thought maybe I can make movies because that guy looked like me," he jokes. He also credits Indian directors Mani Ratnam and Sanjay Leela Bhansali for enhancing his cinematic sensibilities. "I just love how versatile Mani Ratnam is. He plays with form, style, genre and tone and switches up a lot of things but still maintains a certain level of emotion. That willingness to experiment is something that I really respect," he says, paying tribute to the master filmmaker.
Crazy Rich Asians — the romantic comedy sensation currently making waves in the US — has spurred excitement among Asian-Americans delighted to see actors who look like them in all the leading roles of a major Hollywood studio-made film — for the first time in 25 years. It has upended Hollywood's usual stereotypes of Asian characters and encouraged a national conversation about Asian-American representation in the film industry. Aneesh understands this all too well as he recalls, "Growing up, I never saw Indians in movies that I wanted to see myself — all the Mission Impossible films, thrillers and mysteries. I never saw Asian-Americans or Korean-Americans or Japanese-Americans either. So, I’m glad that there’s a public anger and a loud one right now that their stories aren’t being told, and there’s sort of a push now to tell those stories."
Searching too will hope to break more ground with its Korean-American lead. But Aneesh also emphasises the importance of telling stories that have nothing to do with race or culture or identity. "My movie's just about a dad looking for his kid, except for the fact that he happens to be Korean-American," he says.
He describes the plot of Searching as "every parent's worst nightmare." Some of this year's most compelling horror thrillers too have revolved around this subject from A Quiet Place to Hereditary. These films depict the fears, anxieties and pressures of parenthood that come with trying to protect children who can't really fend for themselves. But is it perhaps a reaction to the endless school shootings and the divisive rhetoric aimed at minorities in the current socio-political climate in the US?
"I haven't really thought of it like that. Be it Searching or the next movie that we’re making, it’s always been about parents and kids for me. I can always rely on that while making movies because family’s been a very important thing in my life and something I have learned a lot from. So, I always feel comfortable telling such stories," he says.
While it took only 13 days to shoot Searching, with the unique challenges presented with the chosen format of storytelling, it took a gruelling 18 months to edit due to frequent computer crashes. "It was an absolute complex kind of jungle that we had to navigate to complete the edit of this movie," he recalls. "In fact, the editing was so complex that we gave our editors additional credits in the film. So, they’re not only "edited by Will Merrick and Nick Johnson" but they have also been credited as 'directors of virtual photography.' Our editors have been as important as the stars in the film."
But there is no rest for the weary as Aneesh and Sev started working on their next film, immediately after the Sundance premiere. He confirms that it won't be another tech-thriller but a psychological one, which they have already sold to Lionsgate. Currently in pre-production, he claims the film features only one scene involving technology. After being coaxed to divulge a few more plot details, he concedes. "It’s a thriller about a mother and daughter, except this one will be a lot more twisted than anything that we’ve done before."
Considering the rave reviews from critics and a potential sleeper box office hit in hand, there will be the temptation to write a sequel to Searching akin to Unfriended: Dark Web. Stopping the yet-unrealised question mid-way, "No sequel. Absolutely not," Aneesh vehemently and thankfully assures us.
Searching releases in cinemas on 31 August.
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