How Google Creative Lab Primed Aneesh Chaganty For His Feature Film Debut
Interview by Mike O'Donnell / Editor of the WNW Magazine
Choosing to make a 100-minute thriller entirely from the point-of-view of smartphones and computer screens sounds more like boxing yourself in than opening the door to a new approach. At least that's how it initially sounded to WNW Member and first-time director Aneesh Chaganty. But after co-writing a story strong enough to command attention over the film's framing, he signed on to make it, and by all accounts he pulled it off. His film, titled Searching and starring John Cho, opened in late August to strong reviews, earning the thriller a 91% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
Searching tells the story of a desperate father who breaks into his missing 16-year-old daughter's laptop to look for clues to find her. In our interview below, Aneesh explains that it was his tenure at Google Creative Lab that provided invaluable experience in embracing technology to tell relatable stories. By fully leaning into technology, Searching adds a more frightening and cathartic dimension; the film captures the context of our day-to-day, and is more attuned to how the average viewer would react to a terrible situation than the typical thriller fare.
Aneesh also discusses why being a first-time filmmaker actually helped in tackling Searching's unique approach, and offers advice for fellow advertisers looking to make a similar jump into filmmaking. Lastly, he reveals why it's the casting that he's ultimately proudest of. "We were the first Hollywood thriller to ever feature an Asian American lead, which is crazy because we didn’t know that until a few weeks ago... Because we were able to cast John Cho, we were able to cast a group of mostly unknown Asian American actors around him, who will now have this movie as 'precedent.' And now they will hopefully be that person for other people moving forward. I think in a weird little way we can start a chain, and I'm very proud to have been the first little hook on that chain."
Mike: First, congratulations. This must be a very exciting time for you. When did this entire endeavor first kick off?
Aneesh: We started working on this movie in August of 2016. We had written the film throughout 2016 up until August, and then brought in the editors first. They made a comp of the entire film because it all takes place on screens, temporarily starring me in what was an hour and 40-minute cut of the entire film. And then we shot the actual film in November of 2016 and then edited it for about a year and a half. It was an intense edit by nature of the complexity of the movie. We finished it right before it premiered at Sundance.
Mike: It sounds like you also got some acting experience under your belt filling in for John Cho ahead of the actual shoot. I can’t wait to see that performance in the director’s cut. Can you talk a little bit about the story specifically, and what motivated you to frame it in the way that you did, telling the story entirely through screens?
Aneesh: Funny enough, my co-writer and producer Sev Ohanian and I never wanted to make a movie on a computer screen; it was just an opportunity that was presented to us by Bazelevs, the production company that ended up financing the film. They really wanted to make a film that took place on a screen. They had just made a movie called Unfriended and they wanted to follow it up with another film just like it. But it was never an exciting prospect to us because (A) it had already been done before and (B) we had watched the films that used screens to tell themselves and they were never, to be quite honest, a direction that we wanted to go in. They never felt like a capital-M Movie to us. Really, it was coming up with the stand-alone opening sequence of the film that helped us to see the potential of our movie as something more than just a gimmick. We saw that it could be genuinely cinematic and emotional, and hopefully make you forget that what you were watching was on a computer screen. We felt like that hadn't been done, and if we pulled it off it would be a very cool experience.
Mike: So to find your way in, you had to first stand in for your future audience and give yourselves a story that you could connect to. And that’s ultimately what allowed you to approach the film’s framing as a secondary concern...
Aneesh: Exactly. Regardless of our workflow coming up with the idea, it always needed to feel like the way we were telling the story was secondary to the story itself. And the framework was only being informed by the story, as opposed to the other way around. And so us coming up with the opening scene told us that we could first and foremost tell you a story, and the way that we're telling the story could kind of fade into the background and just serve the overall narrative.
Mike: I grew up obsessed with thrillers like The Fugitive, Die Hard, and Heat. And it was funny seeing how quickly all of my favorites became dated once everyone owned a cell phone. It’s like "Well, now that could never happen. He could have just phoned a friend." It feels like it would be harder to make a thriller nowadays without fully leaning into technology.
Aneesh: You see that in so many movies, where they basically try to put you out of cell service, but it's just hard to ... you either have it or you don't. For us it's the reality of the way we live our lives, and that's what I love about this movie. If somebody were to go missing today, you would go on their computer. And you have clues there, we all have evidence of our lives on these devices, and it was a cool narrative challenge for us to be like, "Okay, if I'm a dad breaking into my daughter's computer, what kind of treasure boxes can we hide throughout the internet that we all know and that we all use every day?"
Mike: Can you talk about your advertising background a bit?
Aneesh: I used to work at Google in the Creative Lab in New York. And I was a filmmaker there, so I was writing and directing their commercials.
Mike: Did you always want to make movies, or was it something that you saw the potential of through advertising?
Aneesh: Ever since I was a kid I've wanted to get into feature filmmaking; it was just always the goal. I made a spec video that was shot on Google Glass, and that got the attention of Google and they asked me to come out to New York from LA and make commercials for them. And it was originally something that I didn't even want to do because I thought it would be a weird step away from everything in my life. But it ended up being this really productive stepping stone, where I learned how to tell stories, how to make people emote through channels that they didn't think they could feel through, and how to create an effective and relatable narrative in a totally different world. Those were all concepts and skills that I learned directly from my bosses at the Creative Lab.
Mike: It sounds like your time at Google has helped to position you as a young up-and-coming filmmaker with a totally unique background. Do you feel there were other things from your time at the Creative Lab that helped shape your approach to Searching specifically?
Aneesh: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of the commercials that I made at Google used screens. I learned how to start by treating it more like an animated movie than a live-action film. You're starting with sketches and you're moving slowly out from sketches before you're finalizing anything. The making of the movie is the last step of it: you need to have every single thing planned right before it. And that workflow was just magnified from a one-minute objective to a 90-minute objective. But that workflow literally informed that year-and-a-half of editing. I was very appreciative to have that perspective.
And also just working with crews. There was an element of leadership that I was placed into at Google, and also an element of DIY. Despite the name that the Google brand conveys, I felt like as a filmmaker at the Creative Lab it was very much "Choose a camera and go out and shoot something." And what you ended up shooting could be a national commercial, but you never knew. You just kind of used the resources that you had and made something that hopefully felt authentic.
And Searching ultimately was a huge exercise in making it work, because despite the scale of this movie or its leads, this movie's production never had that scale. We were five people in a tiny editors’ room for two years, editing a movie just on blood, sweat, and tears. We were always having to make things work and using the limited resources that we had to hopefully make something good.
Mike: What about the experience overall makes you proudest?
Aneesh: I don't mean to pat myself on the back, but I'm very proud to make something original in an era where everything that you get in a theater is a remake, a sequel, or a prequel. But the thing that I'm most proud of in this film is something that I didn't think I'd be proud of, and that's the casting. We were the first Hollywood thriller to ever feature an Asian American lead, which is crazy, because we didn’t know that until a few weeks ago.
Every studio right now is hearing the loud rancor and the outcry about, "We need to cast people that look different now." At the same point, on a studio level, on a business level, no one wants to make a bet on someone who doesn't have precedent. Just on a purely amoral level, you don't want to make an investment on something that hasn't proven itself on the market, and unfortunately the only things and people that have proven themselves on the market tend to look the same way. It's very difficult to take a risk on somebody new, even though as a human being you may want to give everybody a chance.
And I think what I'm most proud of with Searching is that because we were able to cast John Cho, we were able to cast a group of mostly unknown Asian American actors around him, who will now have this movie as “precedent.” And now they will hopefully be that person for other people moving forward. I think in a weird little way we can start a chain, and I'm very proud to have been the first little hook on that chain.
Mike: That has to feel great, to be both ahead of and hopefully behind that kind change. What was it like working with John Cho in terms of his process and how you directed that process? Were you a fan of his work previously?
Aneesh: Yeah, I was a huge, huge, huge fan of his work. I think he's just one of those people who you watch and everyone who watches him goes, "Why isn't he more famous?" And then no one puts him in more things. I think he's always been that guy who's clearly been good at comedy and drama and just hasn't been given the job to pull that off yet, and I think what we wanted to do in this film is give him that opportunity to be the movie star that he is.
There was a movie last year that came out called 'Columbus', which was my second favorite movie of last year, and it is so, so, so good, and he's so fantastic in it, so subtle and reserved and quiet. And in this film we did, he has to kind of do it on the other end, he has to start off subtle and reserved and quiet and become manic and crazed as he can't find his daughter, and I think that's a range that you can see his potential of even without his work, these two last pieces of work in it.
Working with him was awesome. I think he's an incredibly cerebral actor. Once something clicks for him, you're using that take. And my challenge to him was less working with him than mostly getting my self-consciousness out of the way, because this is my first movie, and I was more worried about whether I was saying the wrong thing, as opposed to if he was getting it. And he got it. He got everything, and that just speaks to how good of an actor he is.
Mike: This being your first feature, I imagine there were a lot of nerves on Day 1. What were some of the things that surprised you, and some of the things that scared you, and was it nice to have, like you said, a strong team supporting you and you supporting them, to take some of that edge away?
Aneesh: Yeah, absolutely. For me, the nerves mostly came in the form of when I was directing actors who people recognize, who had all worked with way more talented directors and filmmakers than myself, and here I am having the same job as those more talented filmmakers. And just wondering for a long time, "Am I saying the wrong thing? Are they seeing right through me? Can they tell that I don't know shit? How does this work?" It took me about three days, I think. We shot it in 13 days, but it took me about three days. And I think by day four, there was a click in me that realized, "Wait a second, I'm the only person here that can convey to them how to make this movie. I know how to make this movie. I've always known how to make this movie." There was a click that immediately gave a confidence that just sort of eliminated that self-consciousness. So that, to me, was the biggest element of, "Well, I'm doing this for the first time," but also realizing that all of us were doing this for the first time. My co-writer and producer had made 13 movies, and this was his first time making a movie like this. No one in the cast or crew had ever made a movie that takes place on screens, and we wanted to make something new. So it was very reassuring that while it was my first time directing, it was essentially everyone's first time doing their job, too. So I was able to hide my amateur-ness in everybody else's amateur-ness as well, which I think was very, very comforting on this project.
Mike: Before that confidence kicked in, were you approaching your job in an extensively collaborative way? As opposed to impersonating Martin Scorsese thinking, "I've been doing this for my whole life. I know exactly where I want everything and everyone to be"?
Aneesh: It's funny, Sev always jokes that this movie, in a way, could only have been made by a first-time filmmaker because it involves so many rule-breakings and re-learnings of rules. So the only person who could actually have pulled it off is someone who has no idea how to do it in the first place.
And that was me, a kid who had no idea how to make this movie in the first place. And I kind of can see why he says that, because if it was a more experienced filmmaker, there would be certain film rules that would be harder to throw away. There's a lot that we had to throw away in this film, but in throwing it away we figured out how to do those things, just in a totally different way. And I think that willingness to be DIY, and just sort of figure it out, was something that being a newcomer definitely helped with. But again, this was a team effort and a team realization that we were all in the same boat together, that we were all doing something new, and that if we were to actually pull this off, every single one of us would have to teach every other person some new thing that they learned about their own craft that we could all together make the movie better with.
Mike: So what is the next project you are working on? It sounds like you know what it is. Is it under wraps?
Aneesh: We're not talking about plot details, but I can say it's another thriller. It does not take place on computer screens, it's a very normal movie. But it's about a parent and child, which tends to be the running theme in the works that we make, and we were lucky enough to have a bidding war on it and sell it to Lionsgate, and we're hopefully shooting it this fall.
Mike: That’s really exciting! Congratulations a second time. So we have a bunch of filmmakers on WNW now, but because we started out entrenched in advertising and that was your specific journey, is there any advice you have for fellow former advertisers or creatives looking to make that jump into film. Are there any major takeaways that you can share?
Aneesh: It’s a specific journey. I think anybody who ever makes that jump will give you the same answer. But I think that there are lessons to take away. I've known that I've wanted to make movies for a very, very long time. While at Google, I spent every single day working on Google commercials and products in the daytime, but spent every night on the phone with Sev figuring out how we could leverage everything that I was doing to get back into feature filmmaking land.
The opportunity didn't present itself on day one or day two or on day 365. It presented itself a year and a half into talking about this every single day. This was the most strategically sound and creatively rich direction to go in, and something that was worth quitting a job over. At the end of the day, we had no assurances that anybody would watch this movie, that anybody would care about it, or that the film would be something that was anything more than an absolute gimmick and a waste of giving up what I thought was probably the best job in the world at the time.
But we basically spent a year and a half working on it, and always coming up with pros and cons as to the strategic value of doing something, and making sure that there was still strategy and there was still an element of smart leveraging so that we were jumping from one opportunity to the other. But at the end of the day it's going to be 75% you taking a leap of faith into the unknown and 25% protecting yourself with some strategy. For me, I think that's the most that you can hope for. But I would say, if I ever gave a piece of advice for anyone jumping from one thing to another, it's this: you will always have more doubt than certainty, but just cushion yourself with a quarter of some strategy and a quarter of logic that tells you why you're doing this and why you're taking this leap.
Mike: I guess in closing, since it sounds like thrillers are what you're operating in right now, who are some of your biggest inspirations in that genre?
Aneesh: The filmmakers that inspired me growing up, and the ones who kind of got me into film, were M. Night Shyamalan and Alfred Hitchcock. I really studied those filmmakers’ work. Shyamalan is the reason that I make movies, the idea that somebody who looked like me could do what he was doing. When I saw his picture when I was an eight-year-old kid, I was like, "Oh my God, I could make movies." And then eventually graduating to movies by David Fincher and Danny Boyle, and Park Chan Wook and Joon-ho Bong, two South Korean filmmakers. I still study all of their work and hopefully I can emulate it in my own little way.
Mike: What movie are you especially excited to see this fall, and what's your favorite movie this year?
Aneesh: Oh, that's a good question. Favorite movie of the year so far is A Quiet Place, and the movie that I'm most excited to see this upcoming fall is First Man, Damien Chazelle's new movie. I saw a five-minute IMAX sneak preview before Mission Impossible and it was just so good, so I can't wait for that one.
Mike: Thanks so much for taking the time. And best of luck.
Aneesh: Thanks, Mike