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Aneesh Chaganty on Searching, Pitching John Cho, and Pushback on Casting an Asian-American Family

Aneesh Chaganty. Photo: George Pimentel/Getty Images

At first, John Cho didn’t want to do Searching. He thought it sounded like a YouTube movie, and to be fair, the writer and director Aneesh Chaganty fumbled the initial pitch. “It was the first time I had ever spoken to a celebrity. I told all of my friends and family that I was getting on the phone with John Cho. I was so nervous,” Chaganty says over the phone. “I remember hanging up the call having basically been the participant and not really explaining the vision of the movie. Lo and behold, a few days later he comes back with a no.”

What he wanted to say was that Searching would be the “Memento of screen movies.” It would be a thriller told entirely through computer screens (Skype, text messages, surveillance video, etc.), but at heart it would be a simpler story about a single dad trying to track down his missing daughter. So Chaganty wanted to try again, and sent Cho a text asking him if they could get a drink. Cho said yes. “I remember the second that he sat down, I stood up and I just pitched my ass off,” says Chaganty. “I gave him the best vision of this movie that I’ve ever given. I sat down and he looked at me for like 30 seconds and then checked his watch and was like, ‘Hey, I promised my kids I’d put them to bed. Thank you so much for taking the time,’ and he shook my hand and left. And I was like, ‘Okay, we lost John Cho again.’ Then, the following Monday they got a call from Cho’s agent saying he’s in.”

From there, Searching debuted at Sundance, where it won the Audience Award, and came out in theaters in limited release the weekend of August 24, where it found itself in conversation with a completely different film, Crazy Rich Asians. Suddenly two very different films found themselves part of #AsianAugust, with the films buoying each other on social media. Searching went wider the following weekend, recouping its entire budget. We spoke with Chaganty, 27, on the phone after Searching went into wide release and discussed the joy of his feature film debut, (spoiler-y) clues about the movie’s final twist, and experiencing pushback when he wanted an Asian-American family.

Searching went wide this past weekend, and the box-office numbers are really strong. How are you feeling?
It’s such a surreal experience that it feels incredible. Someone asked me, “How would you measure success on this movie? Is it box office?” I thought about it and that’s probably the objective measure that other people have, that Sony had. I would probably have too for any other movie, but in so many ways we already won. This movie was made in a very, very tiny room with five people who did not know anything about whether it would ever be seen by anybody. I quit my job, a job that I was making money at and had the ability and comfort of saying, “I worked at Google in New York City.” I was 23 to 25 years old. It was comfortable, it was fun. I was making stuff the world got to see — stuff I was proud of. I had my entire life in New York. The only thing I didn’t have was the life in feature filmmaking and that’s the thing I always wanted.

So I quit that job, basically to make a movie on a dime. I went through all of my savings and for two years had no idea whether anybody would see this crazy movie. There were so many points in the two years of making it that everyone was like, No one is ever gonna watch this, this is stupid. No one believes in this project. We pitched it to people like, “It’s a thriller that takes place on a computer screen, but its super-cinematic,” and they were like, “Oh okay, cool, well good luck with that.” You deal with that for two years and the fact is that the only people who really believe in this project are making it with you.

For that movie to premiere at Sundance, [and] sold in a bidding war and — at least from a standpoint of cost — to get the best sale at Sundance, and then be shown and distributed not only around the country but worldwide. Regardless of the money that it makes, we won. And it really also helps that Sony thinks that we won too. It’s been a really great weekend. Without getting into the specifics on what the budget of this movie was, we definitely made the budget back this weekend.

[Spoiler alert from here on out!]

The opening montage of the Kims’ lives together, from Margot’s birth to Pamela’s death, really sets everything up in terms of what you’re trying to accomplish visually and emotionally. I have to ask: Was Up your reference point?
Mm-hmm. The opening scene is very very specific and [Sev Ohanian, co-screenwriter and producer, and I] came up with this idea at the same time. We called it Up meets a Google commercial. It felt like in that moment that we had cracked this weird potential, and made me feel on the whole story-level the way that I felt when I first saw a Google commercial, which is that I felt that I knew a language that I never knew I knew, and underneath all that was emotion. I felt that we had come up with an idea that was not only thrilling, emotional, and engaging on a character basis, but would actually make you forget that what you were watching was on a computer screen. For me, that was the objective. To not make this movie a gimmick movie, you have to have a story be first and the gimmick is a part of the story, not the other way around.

This film had two screenplays. It had the one that we used up until production and then the one that we had to use for production, in order for production to understand it. We never wrote this as a screenplay format until basically right when we had to get into production, because we couldn’t just write “interior Facebook photos dash Facebook dash night.” It wouldn’t make sense. So we had to write a scriptment, which had every piece of dialogue and every text and every piece of action, like a normal screenplay. All we knew on a specific level was that this opening montage would take place over 16 years of a family’s life, or 15 years, depending on where we left it. It would take pictures of 15 years’ worth of family life and it would be documented on their home computer, which could be an XP computer. On that computer, we would see the family grow up, but we would see it in the context of the internet growing up as well. It would start off with old MySpace, Addicting Games, old YouTube, old Google searches, and slowly the documentation of it would become more richer and more comprehensive as technology became more richer and more comprehensive. We really wanted to include the dial-up modem sound, because that’s how I remember starting the internet, but we couldn’t because we did the math on how old Margot is and she wouldn’t have had that at the time, which is why you can hear a dial-up modem on the production company logo now.

So we just used that on a macro level. Once we started getting into the specifics of it, I was basically like, I’m going to make this like I would make a Google commercial.

Why John Cho?
Because he’s an amazing actor. He’s a movie star through and through and does not have the roles that he deserves and that everybody collectively agrees that he deserves, but still is not in those movies. I never met anybody who goes, “I don’t like John Cho.” It’s always like, I really like that guy but he’s not ever in stuff that you want him to be in. To us it was this opportunity to put him into those kinds of roles. In a lot of ways, I think every single person in this movie was sort of doing things that they’ve never done before. I felt like we should surround the film with people who are doing something new. I think that’s true for John, I think that’s the case for Debra.

For me, personally, I really wanted to cast an Asian-American family, because I grew up in Silicon Valley and I wanted to cast a family that looked like the families that were around me growing up and that my family had over for dinner and worked with. Also the movies that I grew up watching, the spy movies, the thrillers, the mysteries, the ones that had nothing to do with the color of your skin or were never a threat to your ethnic identity and never justified it — those characters never have to talk about their identity, but at the same time, I never saw myself in those films and I wanted to. I wanted to do that with people that looked like us. We don’t need to talk about it, and in our own little way that was our statement. That to me is the huge win of this movie: that there’s no justification for the color of anyone’s skin; there’s no explanation. We never ever thought that we [would] be part of a representation discussion, because we’re not talking about it. It’s not a movie about any of this stuff. But ironically by not talking about it and by not addressing it in the movie, but still making it specific, we became part of the conversation. I think a lot of it has to do with the timing of our release with Crazy Rich Asians. I feel like Crazy Rich Asians and us are part of the same argument, we’re just from completely different spectrums.

Was there any pushback or hesitation around casting an Asian-American family?
Yeah. I’m trying to do this in a way that’s sympathetic. The fact is, any corporation, any company, no matter whether you’re in the film industry, the auto industry, literally anything, you need precedent and it’s like, no one wants to put money into something that has never made money before. It’s pure financial principles. And so for this movie, what we were asking to do was cast an entire family of unknowns. I think everyone was like, “Yeah, that’s a cool idea to cast Asian-Americans, but like, why would we have to do that?” And that’s the beauty of having John Cho involved in the movie is that because they were able to get him, we were able to surround him with a lot of unknowns and bring a bunch of people into the movie. That to me is the thing I’m most proud of, is that we’re able to take John Cho and anchor an entire family around him, all of whom now, hopefully, one day will be able to be that anchor for more people in the industry.

At the end of the day, that’s all that matters, giving success to these projects that have Asian-Americans, that have minority faces in it, because it is the success of those films that allow other executives to say, “Okay, that person is someone I can take a risk on because this number of people know them, and this number of people paid a ticket to go see their face.” So that to me is a huge win, and probably the biggest win that I feel about this film as a whole is that we brought three other people — Joseph Lee, Sara Sohn, Michelle La — with meaty roles who did an incredible job.

How do you direct actors to look at a computer screen? It seems like a challenge from both a directorial and acting standpoint.
It was absolutely a challenge because John and Debra are acting up against nobody. They’re literally looking at a black screen that does not have any of the material the final product will have and they’re asked to talk to nobody. When they’re talking to one another, they can see a little window of the other person in them, but for the most part, especially with John, he doesn’t know anything, he’s not looking at anyone. And oftentimes I’m playing the person that he’s talking to. He has an earpiece, and I’m literally doing lines with him. It’s a massive challenge, as John says, it eliminates all the tools that you have in your toolbox that you’ve developed over the course of your career and [you’re] asked to throw away all of that and work in a totally different way. [You] never look at a face or respond to someone’s face, which is a massive, massive acting challenge.

Seven weeks before we even started making the movie, we started making animatics of the entire film, starring me playing every single role of it, [and] hired our editors seven weeks before. We even started shooting a frame and they literally made the movie before we made the movie. This was Sev’s idea. The reason we did that was because John Cho’s character literally has to be using a computer every single minute of the movie and he needs to know where every cursor is and every button is, because his eyeline needs to perfectly match where every window pops up and where every Skype window comes in. He needs to only be aware of not only acting but also looking at exactly the right place. Not only giving him direction but also showing him video of this window’s over here, this window’s over here. “Great take, but next time could you look just a little more to the left.” It was just this technical and emotional challenge.

[Warning: The next question is extremely spoiler-y.]

You’ve said that all the clues for the end of the movie are in the first 15 minutes. Can you walk us through that?
Basically, by the end of the film it’s revealed that Vick is responsible for David’s troubles in the sense that she is trying to cover up and hide all of the clues and trails that David is going on, because she’s protecting her own kid. By the end of the film, you realize we’ve been watching a film not just about one parent trying to protect their kid, but two parents trying to protect their kids. One by trying to find Margot, and one by trying to keep Margot hidden.

So, the one trying to keep Margot hidden is the detective, Debra Messing’s character, and in the film we are able to track her son [Robert] and his relationship with Margot throughout the entire film. Starting with the opening montage, we have Robbie interacting with Margot, saying, “You’re so pretty,” or opening up her profile and liking her stuff and you just watch that character continuously interacting with her from a very young age, which ends up being these clues to this character who ends up catfishing her because he has a crush on her. Later on, at minute 15, David has to get back on his wife’s account to look up a phone number to talk to somebody, and one of the contact cards he’s able to open up is Able, Robbie, and the description is “had a crush on Margot,” one other thing, and “parent is a SVPD.” If you piece together from there, you already know that this kid’s parent is in the SVPD, he has a crush on Margot, and if you kind of start thinking about the clues moving forward from there and a little bit of the plot, those are enough clues to put together the whole thing.

As someone who worked at Google, and understands the emotional resonance of tech, I’m curious to hear what you think about the negative interactions that happen on social media like harassment. I think we’ve finally moved away from this idea that social media was this egalitarian, democratic utopia that would level hierarchies, and instead we’re seeing that they’re regurgitated. Do you feel like there should be measures implemented to corral that?
I’m kind of figuring this out as I’m talking, so I should say that I reserve the right to change my opinion on this one. But that’s a good thought, and I haven’t really thought too much about it. I think we are at a stage right now in technology where we are forced to reckon with what it has become. I think right now, where we are with social media, we are in an era of techlash. It’s that point where we are realizing that it’s not a utopia, because nothing is a utopia.

But at the same time, it can be great. And I think what you’re talking about is really instances that aren’t. I don’t know what regulation means to social media, as opposed to just the big company when it’s anti-trust cases, which I think we are slowly approaching: the era of big tech-company anti-trust cases. We’re getting closer to that, and that’s going to be its own version of reeling it back in. But I think we are at an era right now where you can absolutely see people trying to reel it back in to make it a much more positive environment. We need to create rules and regulations that allow people to still express every view that they have, no matter if it’s something that we agree with or we don’t agree with, but in a way that is hopefully conducive to everyone’s general sanity and hopefully not make the world a much worse place.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.