It was 2016, and Aneesh Chaganty was fumbling through the most important phone call of his barely-begun career. The young filmmaker had been given 15 minutes to convince actor John Cho to star in Search, a mystery about a father trying to track down his missing teenage daughter. The characters’ ordeal—and their entire relationship—would be told via a series of screens, as its hero uses everything from Facebook to FaceTime to Reddit to solve his kid’s disappearance.
Other films have taken the same web-centered approach, like 2015’s horror hit Unfriended, but Chaganty wanted to do something different: “The Memento of screen movies,” he says. For Cho, however, the concept didn’t click. “It was the first time I’d spoken to a celebrity in my life, and I completely botched the call,” says Chaganty. “I didn’t tell him we were trying to do something new. His hesitation was that this wouldn't be a movie movie—that it would just be a YouTube video.”
Chaganty, 27, didn’t give up. He still had Cho’s number, so he decided to text him, to see if they could get some actual face-time together. The two eventually met for coffee in Los Angeles, no longer separated by a device. “He sat down, and I stood up and just pitched my ass off,” Chaganty says. He wound up selling Cho on the film, and a year and a half later, Search was screening at the Sundance Film Festival, where it would win multiple awards—and be scooped up for $5 million by Sony’s Screen Gems division. Newly retitled Searching, the movie opens today in several cities, following a highly promising limited-release opening weekend.
Co-written with Sev Ohanian—who produced Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler’s breakout debut—Searching is the latest film to deftly employ small-screen habits to tell a big-screen story: This year alone, there’s been the speedy text-message chain that kicks off Crazy Rich Asians; the soul-baring YouTube videos of Eighth Grade; and the parent-baffling emoji-missives of Blockers. It’s a marked change from the countless goofy interfaces and Finder-Spyder searches that dominated movies and TV shows starting in the ‘90s. Now a new generation of filmmakers, many of whom came of age in the digital era, are finding ways to ensure the online experience is presented as IRL-ish as possible.
“Ever since [1998’s] You've Got Mail, people have been this trying to figure out how technology falls into a story,” says Chaganty. “House of Cards was one of the first shows to have text messages pop up, and that was revolutionary in its own time. But I think the success stories we’re seeing now is because people are saying, ‘How can we keep it accurate and realistic, and still serve the tone of the movie?’”
In Searching, Cho plays David Kim, a recent widower who’s constantly in touch with his only daughter, Margot (Michelle La). When Margot doesn’t come home after school one day, David begins scouring her online life—Venmo transactions, Facebook friends, livestream archives, even old Tumblr posts—in an attempt to figure out where she went. He also enlists the support of a deeply concerned detective (Will & Grace’s Debra Messing), whom he communicates with largely by FaceTime.
Much of the early part of the film plays out on David’s computer, including an opening montage that condenses the first 16 years of his daughter’s life, as well as the final years of his wife’s cancer battle, into a series of clickable videos, calendar events, and email exchanges. It’s a niftily constructed and unexpectedly moving sequence, one that serves as a reminder of just how much of our existence plays out in front of us on-screen.
Chaganty began thinking about filmmaking when he was 8 years old, having seen a photo of writer-director M. Night Shyamalan in the newspaper India West. “I vividly remember thinking, ‘He looks like me. I want to do that,’” Chaganty wrote in a letter he posted to Twitter last week. As a middle-school student growing up in San Jose, California, he began using hand-me-down, slightly outdated cameras he’d been gifted by his parents, two movie-loving software entrepreneurs. Chaganty made home movies with titles like The Shed and The Attic, inspired in part by the no-budget short films Shyamalan had made as a kid. “I thought, ‘Oh, he made movies using the means I have now—which is no means,” says Chaganty. “Those really got me into filmmaking.”
He and Ohanian, 31, first met at University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Afterward, the two collaborated on Seeds, a touching short-form travelogue shot using Google Glass. Chaganty would end up working in the company’s Creative Labs division for two years until quitting his job to pursue Searching. “I called my dad up after I started at Google, and told him about my day,” says Chaganty. “He was like, ‘Awesome. But remember: You’re coming back here to make movies.’ They’ve been very much, ‘Don’t chase a paycheck, chase your dream’ since I was growing up.”
While writing Searching, Chaganty and Ohanian took in as many crime-culture artifacts as possible, from the big-screen version of Gone Girl to Netflix’s Making a Murderer to episodes of Serial. Because the movie takes place on screen, the two wrote what they called “a scriptment”—essentially a 50-page outline featuring dialogue and action descriptions, but downplaying the technical specifics.
“Early on, we realized this couldn't be a script that said, ‘INT. — GOOGLE CHROME — FACEBOOK — TAGGED PHOTOS — NIGHT,” says Chaganty. “If you're trying to convince actors to be in a movie, that’s the worst way to do it.” And while the film itself was shot in less than two weeks, Searching’s editors spent months putting together the David Kim’s on-screen world: “Every single asset you see‚—whether it's a line of text on a text message, or an email window—had to be created from scratch.”
The glut of online ephemera in Searching means the filmmakers were able to spread hidden in-jokes, clues, and messages throughout the film—including a nod to the man who unknowingly helped launch Chaganty’s career nearly two decades ago. “There's a moment where we log onto Facebook,” he says, “and a news item that says, ‘M. Night Shyamalan: Filmmaker agrees to meet with super-fan director after director’s surprise cameo in film.’ Hopefully, someone will send him a screenshot, or tell him, ‘Go watch Searching.’” If so, it would give Chaganty a near-perfect twist ending of his own.