Sundance interview: Search director Aneesh Chaganty and writer Sev Ohanian

Sundance Programmer Shari Frilot and Aneesh Chanty | photo by Weston Bury. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Search was an awesome discovery at Sundance. Though presented entirely on a computer screen as a frantic father (John Cho) looks for his missing daughter, Search is not a gimmick.

Within a day of its Sundance premiere, Search sold to Sony so you’ll see it later this year. Monsters and Critics sat down with writer/director Aneesh Chaganty and screenwriter Sev Ohanian during Sundance to find out how they made Search work.

Monsters and Critics: Did you start with a normal story of twists and turns and then figure out how to make it on a computer screen?

Sev Ohanian: Not necessarily. The movie wasn’t a movie that we just came up with ourselves and went out to pitch.

The way it came together was Aneesh and I had known each other at film school at USC. I was his TA in his class and I was always drawn to him. So we teamed up and became writing partners. We committed to writing projects together.

Because I had this independent film producing background and Aneesh was going to be a first time filmmaker, we realized we’ve got to find something small that we could do together.

Aneesh Chaganty: I was at Google at the time. I was writing and directing their commercials prior to this. Long story short, we had the opportunity presented to us to be able to make a short story that took place on a computer screen. We came up with an idea, the first idea for Search was the short story of Search.

A single frame from Search, courtesy of Sundance Institute

SO: It was going to be eight minutes long. The same idea of the movie as you saw, but we just saw it as a short. We presented a pitch document to the company who was going to finance it.

They asked us to come in to meet with them in person. We came in to meet with them in person and they gave us the news, “We’re not going to make the short.”

We’re kind of like oh, that’s a bummer, and they said, “Actually, we’d rather make it into a feature. Aneesh, you’re going to direct it. Sev, you’ll produce it and you guys will write it together and we’re financing it.” And Aneesh’s response was…

AC: I said no. By the way, I said no and immediately I could feel Sev’s heat radiating from my left side.

SO: I’m like kicking him under the table.

AC: But in the moment it felt like we would be taking a concept that worked really well at seven minutes and stretching it into a gimmick, something that wouldn’t work. Who wants to make their first movie on a computer screen?

Sev was like, “We’ll keep in touch.” We left and we talked about how rare of an opportunity this is. Is there something we can do in this concept? A few weeks go by, we kept thinking about it.

We actually both ended up calling each other one random night and both having an idea for an opening scene and then pitching each other the exact same scene at the exact same time without having communicated about it.

The opening is that montage that takes you through the whole family’s life. We both kind of came up with a scene and immediately we knew what the next scene was, the scene after that was.

All of a sudden we had this idea that didn’t feel like a gimmick anymore, that felt like we were using something to make a commentary about the way we live our lives but also something that was extremely emotionally engaging and cinematic most of all.

Sev Ohanian and Producer Natalie Qasabian, photo by Weston Bury. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

SO: And very character-centric. Our goal was to make people forget, within 10 minutes of starting the movie, that they’re watching all of this take place on a computer screen. I think that opening montage helped us achieve that.

AC: So long story shot, it was always a screen movie. When you said it could also work as a live-action film, we always made sure that every beat that we wrote would perfectly translate to a live-action movie.

We are always asking ourselves the question: What is the screen adaptation of that beat? And executing it that way.

M&C: It’s also not a gimmick because no one in the movie makes a big deal out of the fact that they’re doing everything on a computer screen. It’s just how they do things.

AC: Yeah, we always stopped each other whenever something got a little too extreme, we were pushing our concepts too far.

SO: And it did force us in a lot of ways to write a certain thing. The entire climax of the movie was something we discovered. Okay, if we have to have this climax and we have to be on a computer screen, it kind of had to work in the way it worked.

AC: It really informed a lot of ways, and it kind of revealed, sometimes only single paths we could take when it comes to a writing level to make it feel natural. Because there’s often sometimes only one thing that we could do that would feel natural.

SO: But that challenge was, honestly, I think effective. It kind of forced us to be extra creative and extra clever.

AC: It forced us to play with everything we had to another level.

Sundance Programmer Shari Frilot and Aneesh Chanty | photo by Weston Bury. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

M&C: Since the lives we live, we’re so used to Facetime and sharing videos, did that help in a way that Search couldn’t even exist 5-10 years ago?

AC: Yeah, this movie is set in 2017 on three specific days in 2017. I don’t think it would’ve really been able to be made in 2014 or 2013 or 2012. It sort of exists right now because it can exist right now.

The tools that we are getting every day, every week, every month, the tools that are given to us by technology, whether it’s an app or it’s a website or it’s a device, they all allow us to emote or feel or connect in a different way.

Our objective with this movie was making sure we were using all of those and maximizing what they could do in a way that was only possible in 2018.

M&C: Very little of the dialogue is about the devices. Was that conscious to minimize it?

SO: Absolutely. I think in general when we write, we try and have only the words that you absolutely need to tell the story. I think there is nothing unusual about a family in modern days who communicate primarily via their devices.

I think we really do live our lives on screens and I think part of the commentary was even though we can all be so connected the way we are now, there’s still a father and daughter who could still be disconnected and he doesn’t really know her real life.

Part of that was accepting that this is just regular life for them, that he Facetimes or texts her more often than he sees her.

#StarringJohnCho | photo by Weston Bury. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

M&C: Was it always going to be an Asian family?

AC:  Yes, pretty early on we wanted to make sure that this family looked and resembled the people that I grew up seeing in Silicon Valley. My parents are both in the tech industry and I grew up in San Jose where the story is set.

It’s just important that we cast people who look like the families that my parents would bring over that they worked with and that was important to us.

SO: And it’s not to say that people wouldn’t ask us, “Hey, why are we having an Asian-American family?” Our response was always the same which is just, “Why not?”

M&C: It wouldn’t even need to be Silicon Valley. It’s just a good thing to show diversity.

AC: Agreed, agreed, agreed.

SO: And similar to the device thing, there’s no commentary about that. It’s not a story about an Asian-American family. It’s a story about a family that happens to be Asian-American.

Aneesh Chaganty | photo by Justin Bettman. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

M&C: Did you look at any of the computer screen movies or specifically avoid them?

SO: To be honest, we did. I would say we watched every single feature film, television episode, commercial or short film.

If you care to know, we would always meet in the morning, write all the way up until lunch and during lunch we would watch 20 minutes of whatever.

AC: Exactly 20 minutes.

SO: We’d watch 20 minutes of the movie and then the next day watch the next 20 minutes and keep watching.

It was really fascinating especially because from the get go, we were trying to do something that as far as we know hadn’t been done yet on these computer movies.

M&C: It’s Open Windows and Unfriended. Were there more?

AC: Yes, The Den. Unfriended is the most recognized one, followed by Open Windows on a very indie level, followed even more super indie by The Den.

SO: There was that one that starred Maisie Williams that was partially a screen.

AC: There’s a BBC television movie. Then there was the Modern Family episode.

SO: We love that episode. It’s fantastic.

AC: Then there’s the great short film Noah, 14 minutes long. The production company made some. Liked. Maybe you’ll see that one day.

M&C: So you had some R&D?

AC: The production company we were working with is very screen friendly I guess as far as the movies they want to make, so they were working on a couple of them. We got a chance to look in and see again what was and wasn’t working.

Aneesh Chaganty and John Cho | photo by Weston Bury. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

M&C: And you weren’t trying to do real time.

SO: What’s interesting is, the production company which is Bazelevs who also produced Unfriended, they actually have a bible of the rules, the commandments of making movies that take place on screen.

There are three rules. Rule number one is the whole movie has to take place on a big wide shot. It can never cut, can never zoom, nothing. Number two…

AC: Real time. The whole movie had to take place, like you’re saying, in the duration of the movie.

SO: Uninterrupted time. Rule number three was it’s always got to be on the same person’s computer. So when we were presented with those rules…

AC: After we gave them the idea.

SO: Even our pitch package from the very beginning demonstrated this is not a real time movie. This is not an objective movie. It’s going to be all these other things.

To Timur [Bekmambetov]’s credit, our going into this project was even though it would take place on a computer screen, we didn’t want it to be any less cinematic than any other movie you could see.

I always say there’s 100 years of cinematic invention that’s happened over the past 100 years. Why throw all that away to have it be on a computer screen? Why not use the mise en scene and the zooms and the camera moves and all that stuff to get audiences just as engaged.

M&C: Were there any red herrings you took out because they were just too much?

SO: I love that question.

AC: Good question.

SO: We’re huge mystery fans and we knew that one of the ways we can keep the audiences engaged in the movie was by really having a nice sprawling mystery that forces them to keep paying attention. Talk about Mr. Lee.

AC: Originally there was a whole other character that was cut from the film which was her bio teacher, or her math teacher, one of those teachers. You actually see the name still pop up in an early text.

SO: “Mr. Lee would never let me fail.”

AC: That’s all there is now. It used to be this whole thing where he would talk to Mr. Lee on the phone.

SO: Because David got the sense that Mr. Lee was really nice to Margot. He was confused by that so he actually called him and yelled at him. You’d see him be one of the people being interviewed saying, “Yeah, the father’s kind of crazy.”

It was Aneesh’s idea. Aneesh is the greatest director to work with because he’s always willing to cut anything and everything. Sometimes I have to stop him from doing that.

We cut that out just because it was excessive, but we left in those texts saying, “Mr. Lee would never let me fail.” Multiple people have come up to us saying, “I thought it might be Mr. Lee.”

AC: In a weird way it still works as a red herring. Most of the other ones were the same. We might have even added more.

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