‘Searching’ creators tell story of their taut computer-screen mystery

“Searching” is a sturdy, classical mystery about a father’s search for his missing daughter, tightly and cleverly constructed and absolutely thrilling.

Focusing on non-white characters, including its star John Cho, it’s culturally satisfying as well as human. Yet it takes place entirely on computer screens.

Director Aneesh Chaganty and producer Sev Ohanian collaborated on the screenplay after Ohanian, following 2014’s similarly themed horror film “Unfriended,” met with Timur Bekmambetov’s production company, which wanted to capitalize on that success with more content on computer screens.

With his friend Chaganty, who had been making commercials at Google, they proposed a short film about a missing girl.

Facing executives who asked them to write and direct a feature that they would finance, Chaganty says they at first declined the offer, mostly because they didn’t simply want to make a movie on the basis of a similar movie’s success. They wanted theirs to have its own merit.

And they didn’t want to follow Bekmambetov’s three “commandments” for computer movies.

“It has to be all one big wide shot. It has to be real time, and it has to be one screen,” Ohanian explains. “We were like, ‘Why?’ It’s like the earliest days of cinema where every film was just a camera sitting there and people acting in front of it.”

But they solved their problems when they created an opening that traces the history of the Kim family through old computers, different types of software, social media, videos, emails and more. The moving sequence effectively sets up the rest of the film.

In an office, editors Nicholas D. Johnson and Will Merrick then made a “demo” version of the movie using screenshots and cell phones, and with Chaganty playing the characters’ parts.

“We wanted the end result to be polished, no different from any other mystery/suspense/thriller you’d see,” says Chaganty.

The next step was to hire Cho. Chaganty says, “I have zero value. So I had to navigate the talent team, get to John, talk to John, and he said no. Then I had to go convince him in person.”

Cho recently had made “Columbus,” a film with many wide shots with no close-ups or coverage; “Searching” was a weirdly similar experience, only reversed.

“Sometimes I felt like we were doing a play in a black box, like we had to do a dinner scene, sitting on crates. I didn’t have props or other actors in the room. But you had to imagine and be specific. I really leaned on these guys just to know that things would work out and know that it would come together later,” Cho says.

“Within those tight parameters, there’s still room to play,” says Chaganty. “John was learning how to emote in front of a GoPro.”

Cho says having the character of David Kim written specially for him represents a kind of “endgame” in his career: “I started out in an effort to try to avoid playing stereotypes, and I used to get a lot of pride from taking over a white role. That meant I was playing something better, more human. And then I evolved into thinking, this is not right. Ultimately, it should say an Asian name on the page, and that would indicate that they’re thinking about Asian-Americans as full human beings.”

He continues, “In this movie, I love the fact that it’s David Kim, that his family is Korean-American, and it’s specific, but it also really doesn’t matter. Because a daughter is missing and we gotta get her! So that balance of being specific and not mattering, is where I would like to continue going.”

Starring: John Cho, Sara Sohn, Michelle La, Joseph Lee, Debra Messing
Written by: Aneesh Chaganty, Sev Ohanian
Directed by: Aneesh Chaganty
Rated: PG-13
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

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