Search is quite a movie for a feature film debut. Not only is it a complex mystery full of twists and turns, but it all takes place entirely on a computer screen as David Kim (John Cho) tries to locate his missing daughter Margot (Michelle La). Detective Vick (Debra Messing) tries to help.
I spoke with writer/director Aneesh Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian in Sundance after Search won the Alfred P. Sloan prize but before it won the Audience Award for Next. Chaganty opened by sharing that he spoke with many other directors for advice about making his first film. Sony will release Search later this year.
Q: Who were some of the directors you spoke to and what were their tips?
Aneesh Chaganty: I spoke to Clea Duvall. I spoke to Alex Lehmann. I talked to Pat Healy. Chris Dowling.
Sev Ohanian: Just some really nice directors that I’ve worked with in the past who I knew would be open to talking to Aneesh.
Aneesh Chaganty: Clea Duvall was my favorite. Clea Duvall I got the most out of. Obviously, she directed The Intervention. She’s an actress herself so I really talked to her specifically about how to, because this was my first time dealing with a “big actor.” I came into it, especially on the first day of set with some nerves. Am I worthy of this, in a weird way. So she really talked me through how to behave around them, how to listen to them, how to talk to them and how to understand them to make sure they were performing and they had the space that they feel like they could excel in without me getting in the way. Thank you, Clea.
Q: Did you talk to any writers, Sev?
Sev Ohanian: Aneesh and I wrote the script together. Are there any writers we spoke to?
Aneesh Chaganty: We shared our work with every writer we trust. Every single draft of the screenplay, we sent it to a select group of writers we really trusted and got massive feedback, hundreds of questions, and saw if every beat worked.
Sev Ohanian: So the design was, I had been a junior producer on a bunch of indie films and I would be involved in the editing/feedback process where we would screen the movie and ask a bunch of questions about the movie. So often I would be in the back of the auditorium and be like, “Why did we not ask these questions during the script stage when we could actually do something about these?” So when we were writing our first script together, we really went out hard to our community of friends. We would have them read the script and hold them hostage on the phone for over an hour and just pinpoint, nitpick over every little detail. Those were a lot of our contemporaries and peers and writers we trust and look up to.
Q: Was it always John Cho?
Aneesh Chaganty: Yes, yes, we wrote it for John Cho. We had a Korean American family, an Asian American family in mind and it was just John Cho from the top. Being able to get him was a huge touchdown for us.
Q: Was he natural with the devices?
Aneesh Chaganty: Yeah, he was. The fun thing about this movie is everyone sort of has to learn how to make this movie while they’re making this movie. No one has ever done something like this nor will they ever do something like this. Acting was just as much of a new thing as directing this was as editing this was as everything. John did a lot of studying and thinking philosophically before he got to set about how we behave when we know a camera is looking at us, how we behave when we don’t know a camera is looking at us, all that stuff. On set it was just a GoPro and him. We would literally watch our takes back and be like, “Was that natural? Did that feel right?” We learned over the course of the first three days what the vocabulary of his body should be, how it should be moving, forward to back instead of left to right. We made these learnings as we progressed over time and soon we became very, very fluent in it but it was the same exact challenge like everyone else had on this film, which was learning to make it while we made it.
Q: When did you get Debra?
Aneesh Chaganty: Right after John. John we needed to get because there was a huge family component around him. Specifically with a Korean American family, we needed to know that was locked before we moved around to casting everyone else. Debra came right after. We sent it to her agents. She read it, got on the phone with me the next day and asked me 70 questions like what does this mean, what does this mean, what does this mean, what does this mean? about the plot. Not like what does what we wrote mean, but what’s behind it. It was such an amazing set of question that there were three questions particularly that literally I was like, “Sev, we should go fix some stuff.” We went back to the script, adjusted some things and were like, ”Thanks for the notes, Deb.”
Sev Ohanian: Debra was the biggest critic of the script, just always coming over and over again making us have to justify every single thing. It made the script better.
Q: Was she excited to get a role that shows her in a different light?
Aneesh Chaganty: I hope so. I think that’s why we wanted her to be in the movie. I think Debra’s an incredibly versatile comedic actress. This is the opposite of that role. That was just fun for us to even have the opportunity to do that. I’ve heard her talk about this movie quite a lot for the last few days. She was absolutely excited about this opportunity to try something new. I think that’s why she did it.
Q: What did coming into the festival with the Sloan prize give you?
Sev Ohanian: For me personally, the recognition by the Sloan foundation was a great validation. It legitimized the film as an elevated piece of cinema and not necessarily as, maybe some people might see it on the surface as a thriller that’s gimmicky on a computer screen. Because the Sloan prize recognized us for the commentary of technology and the way we live our lives, which is exactly what we were going for, it was the greatest validation we could ask. We’re so thankful to them for that.
Q: Has Sony given you any inkling when they’re going to position Search?
Aneesh Chaganty: I can measure on my two hands the number of hours it’s been since we sold this thing. I think that’s all conversation that’s going to happen once we all get back to L.A.
Sev Ohanian: All good conversation we can’t wait to have very soon.
Q: What kind of movie do you want to do next?
Aneesh Chaganty: One that does not take place on a computer screen. Sev and I, the ultimate thing we want to do is tell bold and original stories that have a lot of heart. In this movie, Search, it’s bold and original in a very obvious way but it has a lot of heart. The movie that we’re most excited about next is another thriller but it’s decidedly a live-action normal movie relative to it.
Sev Ohanian: And also explores a family dynamic, a very different approach to it.
Aneesh Chaganty: Very, very, very different approach to it which we’re really excited about but it’s something that, again, hopefully we can keep working on these thriller chops and hopefully be able to keep telling those kinds of stories.
Q: Now that you’ve had success, will you go back to L.A. and take meetings?
Aneesh Chaganty: Our objective is to make another movie. At the end of the day, we have stories we love and that’s all we want to make, is tell those stories and be able to tell stories passionately. We’re going to go back to L.A. and take as many meetings as we can to just try and make another movie.
Q: Which could be someone else’s creation, or in this climate more likely a pre-existing property?
Aneesh Chaganty: Sure, but the big thing for me, the lesson that I always take as a director listening to much more talented and much more accomplished directors is to take it easy. Studying the examples of Christopher Nolan, one thing he did really intelligently and also one thing I think the studios made him do intelligently, is he didn’t go from Memento to Batman. He went from Memento to Insomnia to Batman. Insomnia was how he got Batman. Even those are pretty big jumps but there’s other directors who go from really Sundance indie darlings to the next big thing.
Q: And it’s a mistake.
Aneesh Chaganty: Yeah, we know who we’re talking about here. That can work but one thing that’s important is we always like to have a grasp of our stories. Jumping from a budget like ours to a $100 million movie is, I do not think, the wise thing to do, but we can still tell a great story with just a little bit more money.