It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: your child has gone missing and the subsequent investigation seems to be going nowhere.
That premise is at the center of “Searching,” the new thriller starring John Cho that opens this Friday in select theaters. Directed by former tech worker Aneesh Chaganty, “Searching” stands out from other thrillers because his film exclusively takes place on a computer screen. In “Searching,” the family computer is both an archive of the characters’ everyday lives and a place that hides several layers of secrets. Moviegoers watch as anxious father David (played by Cho) begins his own search for his missing teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La). David’s online journey takes him to some of the murkiest corners of life on the Internet.
We had the chance to chat with director Chaganty about his new film, telling Asian-American stories and the good and bad things technology introduces to our lives.
The Teal Mango: As I’m sure you know, this is the month of the Asian American movie. Is it exciting for you to have Searching come out at the same time as “Crazy Rich Asians” and “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before”?
Aneesh Chaganty: Yeah! We had no idea, and it was never the intention that this would get released in theaters at the same time as “Crazy Rich Asians,” but it’s cool to be part of this larger conversation. I think that in a weird way, it’s nice to have quantity in terms of being a viewer. There is no one movie that represents [the Asian-American experience.]
I think that whenever you but the weight of a whole culture or social movement behind one thing, there is a natural mistake that happens, which that people think ‘OK, we did it! Asian Americans are in movies now! It’s done!” But I think the real progress is quantity, it’s the quantity of storytellers, it’s quantity of stories.
It’s cool to be in a month where you can speak to that quantity and to make a movie that is very different than “Crazy Rich” in a lot of ways. So I was unexpectedly thrown into this conversation, but I am happy to have this talk.
TTM: You recently did an interview with NPR in which you said that “Searching” couldn’t necessarily be labeled as an Asian-American movie. Can you expand on that a little?
AC: What I meant by that was that I feel like our goal with this movie was never to draw attention to the background of the family and that they were Korean American or Asian American. That in a weird way has always been my goal: to make stories that are specifically about Asian Americans, Indian Americans or, you know, anyone but never made the plot dependent on that.
I grew up watching movies like “Mission: Impossible” and “The Bourne Supremacy” and they were awesome. They were never about what the main characters looked like but when you are casting a minority, the plot always has to explain historically why they are there. To us, it’s like, ‘let’s make a movie that doesn’t explain that.’ They are still specifically Korean American, but the movie doesn’t have anything to do with that. It is not an Asian-American film because it is not about culture, it is not about race. It’s just, we’re there. That’s it.
In a lot of ways, to me, that represents the end game. Because there can be a lot of movies about race and culture and identity, and that’s awesome and important. But those are not the only movies that are important and deserve investment and attention. There’s this weird expectation in Hollywood that diverse filmmakers should make films about identity and that those are the only movies that count. And I have those stories, but this this not one of those.
We found out the other day through Vanity Fair that we’re the first mainstream thriller to ever have an Asian-American lead. That has thrust us right back into the conversation of what we hoped would be a non-big deal. It’s a really interesting conversation to be a part of.
Had a blast at @CrazyRichMovie! Fun fact: the director @jonmchu once gave me notes on a USC short film. Who would’ve known that kid would be opening a movie the week after him one day?!?!?!! Go see Crazy Rich!
— Aneesh Chaganty (@aneeshchaganty) August 20, 2018
TTM: As you mentioned, this is a different kind of role for John Cho. What was it like working with him?
AC: We cast John because he’s an incredible actor and I think sorely underused. We wanted to give him a leading man role which, at least in thriller, we haven’t seen him like that before. Working with him was extremely fun because the type of person who can succeed in a film like this, and the type of person who says yes to a film like this is someone who is willing to take risks and who is willing to relearn something. You know, every person who worked on this film had to relearn aspects of their job to make this movie.
TTM: “Searching” is different from other films because it takes place completely on a computer screen. How is that different for you in terms of directing a movie like this?
AC: It’s completely different. Normally, in a normal movie, you go out and shoot the film. In our film, the footage that we are shooting is going inside the presentation. It’s a lot different because you have to be thinking of the context differently. You have to be thinking of context inside the frame but also outside of the frame and how we are presenting this information.
As filmmakers, then, you have to come in very prepared. When we are shooting on set, John Cho’s eye line has to match perfectly. He has to know where every cursor is and where every type of window pops up. He needs to drag things from one side of the computer to the other, and those things have to be perfectly done. So you have to shoot things with a very specific eye, which is a very precise eye.
TTM: And for many in your audience, it will be the first time they are getting that kind of cinematic experience. What made you decide to make the movie this way?
AC: I said no to the opportunity a lot of times. But it ended up when we came up with the opening sequence that’s what brought us to the story. The opening sequence is like a five minute montage that takes you through about 16 years of the family’s life as told through their home computer and as the characters age and applications age and things like that. That, to us, coming up with that felt like we came up with the emotional basis of the movie.
We felt like we then had the inspiration then to make a movie that felt new and felt fresh and felt cinematic. Most of all, hopefully we make the audience forget that what they are watching is on a computer screen, which is ultimately the goal.
TTM: This movie showcases a lot of both the good and bad sides of the technology that surrounds us. You actually used to work in the tech world, is that right?
AC: Yes, that’s right. I was working at the Google Creative Lab in New York City and I was writing and directing their commercials.
TTM: There’s obviously this ongoing conversation about the impact of technology and the internet on our lives. Part of what makes this movie scary is that you see how the internet can both conceal and reveal things about people.
AC: Tech has its negative sides to it, that’s absolutely true. Since making this movie I now own a screen protector that shields the camera. We’re watching that in the headlines and as a society we are starting to take notice, and we are starting to draw lines. That’s an important and inevitable thing that has to happen with the growth of any industry. We’re at that stage of technology right now. But in Hollywood, with regards to tech, we haven’t grown. We’re always talking about the negatives of technology and how it can hurt us and how it can kill us and how we’re addicted to our screens.
With this movie, we wanted to take a holistic perspective and zoom out a little. Because yeah, tech has the potential to do all of those things, but it also has the potential to help us love and laugh and make the world a genuinely better place. That is much more like my relationship with technology and my experience with technology.
TTM: What was it like making that jump from corporate world to the film world? Had you thought about it for a long time before making that plunge?
AC: Yes. Well, I was working at Google from the ages of 23 to 25 so I was making money and being paid by Google and getting free food. Plus, I had the security of saying that I worked at Google.
It was a really, really cool job but I’ve always wanted to make movies. Even when I worked at Google, I knew that it was just a path to make movies. It was an odd path and an unexpected path, but it was a path to get to movies. So when an opportunity came up to make a movie, I thought, ‘okay, it’s time. New York is done, my time at Google is done. I’ve succeeded in using this opportunity to get another opportunity.’
On top of that, everyone in my life like my parents — and my dad especially — are very much like ‘take risks. Follow your passions.’ So to have that support system on top of my passions I had for films in general was something that ultimately put me over.
TTM: That’s so great. And what’s next for you? Is there anything that you can tell us about?
AC: Yes! We are working another thriller, ‘we’ being Sev [Ohanian] and I. It doesn’t take place on a screen this time. We just wrote it and we sold it to Lionsgate recently. It’s about another parent-child relationship, which tends to be the theme of the stuff we do. Except that this time it’s very dark and twisted. It’s called ‘Run’ and we’ll hopefully be filming it later this year or early next year.
‘Searching’ opens in select theaters on August 24 and nationwide on August 31.