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The director of Searching on building a twisty thriller out of our internet lives

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Aneesh Chaganty reveals the reason it may take a few viewings to get the full effect of his debut feature

John Cho in Searching Screen Gems

The new thriller Searching finds widowed father David (John Cho) on a desperate search to find his missing teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La). The hunt takes place on the many winding paths of the internet — including Margot’s varied social platforms — which David uses to trace her steps and better understand who she was at the time of her disappearance. As a result, the audience, like David, begins to peel away the layers of an increasingly disturbing mystery that begins with the relationship between a mother, father and daughter, and is punctuated by that of David’s caring brother (Joseph Lee) and the dedicated detective (Debra Messing) leading Margot’s case.

On the surface, it’s easy to write off Aneesh Chaganty’s directorial debut as a gimmick-knotted mystery designed to immerse viewers into the unknown horror of the World Wide Web. In fact, Chaganty himself turned down the chance to make the movie several times. But what lies beneath the laptop-camera POV is a fresh, pulsating and surprisingly tender narrative that highlights the weight of our online relationships, and how they affect us away from the keyboard.

Chaganty spoke to Polygon about building a parallel online universe filled with non-visible personalities, understanding both the gratifying and terrifying aspects of the internet, and why he finally said yes to Searching.

[Note: The rest of this article contains mild spoilers for Searching.]

Polygon: What made you approach the film in this immersive, digitally familiar way?

Aneesh Chaganty: [Co-writer/producer] Sev Ohanian and I got the opportunity to make a film that took place on screen by Bazelevs, our production company. They wanted to follow up Unfriended with something that took place on screen. For a long time, we kept saying no to the opportunity because we didn’t feel like this would be anything more than a gimmick.

When we found out what this particular story could be, it just felt like we had unlocked a different potential of this format. It felt like we had discovered a way to make it new and to make it fresh. We came up with the opening scene, and it showed us that there was a way to make a story that was not only engaging and emotional, but also cinematic and ideally make you forget that you were watching something on a computer screen. We felt like that hadn’t been done in the past before. Like, “OK, if we take the very, very unconventional way of telling a story and marry it with a very classic structure, that marriage could be something you’ve never seen before. It could be really fresh.”

There’s an element of horror that comes from hiding behind the online cloak of anonymity. Navigating the internet can feel cold and impersonal. How did you strike that balance between the coldness of the internet with a story that’s so emotional and tender as the relationship between a father and daughter?

It was always a matter of taking something that is cold or mundane — devices that we use on a personal basis — and turn them into something that is cinematic. The way we do that is by putting emotion underneath it. It was less about “what do these buttons and windows do?” and more about what meanings can we put behind what they do.

We started off not looking at this as a screen movie but looking at this as a movie movie. We structured it very classically and traditionally. Let’s add characters in here with very simple motivations — a dad looking for his daughter — and have this emotionality underneath it. And then let’s adapt it on screen. Let’s study every button on a computer screen — every window closing, every website, every application, every function — and understand where in the story each could have the most emotional effect. It was always a matter of putting the story and characters first, and [having] these apps and websites really be in service of them as opposed to the other way around.

What was the process in creating the online personalities, who are so important to the story and the characters, but never appear on screen?

There are so many characters in this movie that you never actually meet face to face. They just exist in text or avatars or on Skype. We’re constructing a world. There are [a] few characters whose online personas are in the script and directly affect the storyline. A lot of these characters really exist on the side frame, right next to the main plot of the movie. Populating roles was a challenge for us. We had a massive amount of workload creating all the characters and avatars and profiles. What ended up coming out of it a year and a half later is what I think is a very pause-worthy movie, or a rewatchable movie. When you pause it, you’re able to see all these other characters, all these other profiles, all these other storylines, all these other emails and texts and messages and notes [David is making] to himself, [so] that you can literally piece together (a) the mystery and (b) five other stories that are happening simultaneous to the plot. It took a year and a half of work, and looking at every frame and seeing what we can do, to help expand it from one story to a whole world of stories.

We share the experience of learning about Margot through her online relationships, which is particularly poignant when you think about how parents struggle to connect with their children and find out who they really are in this digital age.

We knew from day one that this movie takes place in a world where everybody is connected. Part of that is the story about a dad and a daughter who are disconnected. In the process of looking for her, he realizes that he didn’t lose her yesterday; he lost her years ago. That was a really cool environment [to explore] on a screenwriting level as well as a directing level.

John Cho said it the best way: In the old days, you used to just have to tell your kid, “Stay away from strangers at the parking lot,” or, “Don’t talk to those creeps in the car or on the street.” But today, those strangers in the parking lot are in your laptop, and those creeps at the corner of your street have access to your kid’s Facebook account. That to us was a really cool place to milk some tension and fear out of.

People who did not grow up in the internet age seem to interrogate everything, while a younger generation who knows the web is more trusting.

I feel like I’m in a weird in-between. There are so many ways in which especially teenagers operate screens that I feel like, “Oh my gosh, I’m old.” The way that we all connect evolves every day, and there’s a huge disparity between the way kids find it — almost like it’s their first language — and how everyone else does. We picked it up over the course of our lives.

Director Aneesh Chaganty and star John Cho on the set of Searching
Director Aneesh Chaganty and star John Cho on the set of Searching
Screen Gems

Did you always have John Cho in mind for the role?

Yes. It’s in the script as David Kim, and I wrote it for John Cho. It’s a Korean-American family because we said we wanted John Cho. It’s an Asian-American family because that’s what we always wanted. We wrote this role for John because he’s an incredible actor and extremely underutilized, and [we wanted] to put him in a scenario that he had never been in before, which is a leading man in a thriller. We found out the other day that this is the first mainstream contemporary thriller to have an Asian-American lead, which is crazy because it’s 2018. And it’s crazy that we’re “mainstream” now; we made the film with, like, five people. But for us, it was important because in a lot of ways, everybody in this film is doing something new. Even Debra [Messing] is a type cast against type. John is cast against type. We are all doing something new, even the filmmakers. Every part of this movie is new. I think that’s what adds to its charm.

I do too. Debra Messing was so unexpected, as was the way everything unraveled by the end.

We really tried in the first three-quarters of the movie to give the audience enough clues to make them feel like they were smarter than the filmmaker. Then we pull the rug out and go, “Where is this movie going?”

You left a job at Google and went to make this movie. Did that experience help you to confront the way you navigate the internet? Did you find yourself altering your online activities?

It honestly hasn’t changed my relationship with the internet. I think it’s reinforced it in a weird way. I think media has given technology such a bad rap. It’s always like, “We’re obsessed with our phones,” or, “We’re obsessed with lights,” or, “We look at our screens too much.” It’s all so negative. Maybe this is the Google employee in me speaking, but I always felt like I was looking at a small aspect of the pie and saying, “This is the entire pie.” For us, it’s about giving technology a more holistic perspective. Yes, acknowledging that it has the potential to hurt us, but at the same time, it has the potential to make us love, make us feel, make us hope and make us connect. I think that holistic perspective was something that we were going for. That said, since making this movie, I now own a screen protector over my FaceTime camera.

You can never be too safe!

Exactly.

Searching is in theaters Aug. 24.


Candice Frederick is an award-winning journalist and editor (Essence Magazine), founder of Reel Talk Online, podcaster, and freelance TV and film critic. She also serves as a pop culture panelist on the ABC News Digital show “Real Live.” You can find her on Twitter or Facebook.