In 2018, Aneesh Chaganty released a little thriller called Searching. It was the writer-director’s debut feature, and it garnered him a bit of attention (and eventually $75 million at the box office). Centered on a young father trying to find his missing daughter by scouring social media, the movie relied on a novel narrative tool: The entire thing was set on computer screens. At the time, it was seen as a smart gimmick. Little did Chaganty know that his filmmaking strategy would be an invaluable model for making movies in the middle of a global pandemic.
Back in March, Hollywood effectively shut down. As fears over the new coronavirus spread, social-distancing necessities rendered work on TV and film sets nearly impossible. As a result, studios and filmmakers began looking for a way to keep working from home. That’s when Chaganty’s inbox started getting bombarded. Originally, the inquiries “felt very smart,” Chaganty says. Friends in the business would write saying they’d just ended a meeting where Searching had come up, and everyone was wondering if the team behind it had any similar tricks up their sleeves. Then it happened again. And again.
“It just felt like nobody was realizing that everybody was having this same realization, that you can make something on a computer screen, or at least make projects on it a little faster during this time,” he says. “It was a little funny and disarming. In March and April, we were just getting like, ‘Hey man, we just ended up thinking about Searching!’ and it was like, ‘OK cool, so is everybody.’”
For the record, Chaganty does have a couple projects in the works. He has a movie called Run that got pulled from the release calendar when movie theaters closed due to Covid-19, and he’s working on a Searching sequel. Also, Searching wasn’t exactly made by recording Zoom calls; he filmed the actors in person and added the screen effects in postproduction. He’s not really trying to be the movies-on-computer-screens director, but he does see the kind of films he makes—mysteries, thrillers—as uniquely suited to these times. When all creative endeavors have to be accomplished remotely, over videoconference and email and Slack, you might as well turn the bug into a feature. “Ultimately, what computers are is information.” Chaganty says. “It’s just words; it’s information being conveyed to you and information you can send. No genre in the world has more reason for information than a mystery.”
The same is true for horror. In many ways, the genre is proving prescient when it comes to the limited kinds of movies filmmakers can attempt during lockdown. Way back in 2014, director Levan Gabriadze set his entire film Unfriended in a Skype call between a handful of friends. Its sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web, did the same. 2014’s The Den also leaned heavily on video chat. It’s no wonder, then, that one of the first features made during the Covid-19 pandemic—Host, which hits the streaming service Shudder on Thursday—is set in Zoom. Shot entirely by the film’s cast in their own homes, director Rob Savage’s movie—inspired by a prank he pulled on his friends—was made in less than three months. It centers on a group of six friends who perform a séance on a videoconference; naturally, things go wrong. (Fun fact: Savage organized a Zoom séance with his cast and an actual medium as preparation. A book flew off the shelf of lead actor Jemma Moore’s house.)
“We saw a short horror film Rob shot during quarantine that went viral, and we immediately asked if he had an idea for a full-length feature,” Craig Engler, Shudder’s general manager said in a statement. “What he and his team created in Host surpassed all our expectations.”
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Host is a prime example of necessity being the mother of invention. Savage had only so many tools at his disposal—basically his crew, their laptops, and what they had handy while quarantined—but he says he was also to get help from a lot of people because everyone was clamoring for a creative pursuit. The result is a movie that feels like a product of quarantine (because Zoom calls are now inextricably linked to the pandemic) but also something separate from it: a classic haunting flick full of jump-scares. “As a horror filmmaker, one of the things you’re always looking for is an idea the audience will take home with them,” Savage says. “You’re always looking for a way to ground it in day-to-day reality. We were just lucky that everyone is stuck at home, and everyone has this shared reality at the moment where 99 percent of us Zoom in how we communicate, how we see people.”
That said, no one—Savage included—wants to make a movie that feels like a gimmick, like they made it just to see if they could. Genre movies, and those who make them, are uniquely equipped for using computer screens as this stage, but that doesn’t mean making a movie that looks like it was made during a pandemic is wise. Nick Simon recently completed filming his latest feature by directing his cast over videoconference and having them film themselves. (They even did their own hair and makeup.) The currently untitled movie also features a group of friends who summon a spirit, but Simon’s film is decidedly a horror-comedy, something meant to lighten the mood during dark times. For that reason, Simon was pretty adamant that the movie not take place during the coronavirus lockdowns. Pandemic horror is pretty easy to do, but kinda gauche during a public health crisis.
“We wanted to come up with a story without ever mentioning that stuff,” Simon says. “This is just a story told with the restrictions we had. How do we write something, or tell a story, when we know we can’t leave our house? We know that we can’t have our actors together. Can we come up with a story that’s not about the situation we’re in?”
Everyone will find out when Simon is finished with his film, but the signs point to yes.