In May 2014 when Aneesh Chaganty first broke out into the scene with his short film Seeds, which was shot using Google Glass, little did he know how much it was going to change his life. After the short film went viral, Aneesh got an offer from Google to join their Google Creative Lab in New York. Having worked there for nearly two years, Aneesh says that it was an invigorating experience.
“My job was to look around at various teams at Google and understand what they needed, and make it happen. We were supporting their branding initiatives and making tech commercials. We were also ideating about making commercials for products that don’t exist yet. It was an awesome lab, and they let us work on anything under the sun as long as you believed in it and it was for a cause,” Aneesh says.
It was his first job after graduating from the University of Southern California (USC) with a degree in film production. Seeds was produced by Aneesh’s longtime friend and producer Sev Ohanian, and he played a crucial role in putting together Aneesh’s directorial debut project Searching. It began when Bazelevs Group, a production company which scored a huge hit in 2014 with Unfriended - a supernatural horror thriller where all the characters interact with each other over a Skype conversation - met Sev to work on a project that’s on a similar vein. It was Sev who suggested Aneesh’s name to the team.
Ironically, he nearly turned down the project when it came to him. Recalling the origins of Searching, Aneesh says, “Initially, they wanted to make a feature film which had a bunch of short films, all of which unfold at the same time on the screen. I thought it was a cool idea. I wrote a concept, which was more like a short film version of Searching. When we finally met the studio three months later, they liked the idea and they thought it could be a feature film. My first reaction was a big ‘no’. I wanted to make a movie badly and it’s been my dream for as long as I can remember. But at that moment, I thought what I had conceptualised was good enough to be a 8 min-short film, not a 90 minute feature film. Moreover, a filmmaker’s first film is extremely important because it sets the tone for the rest of the career. You get only one chance. So I wanted to do it the right way. The thought of making my first film that unfolds on a computer screen sounded quite unattractive to me and I really thought it was a ridiculous move.”
Few weeks later, after Aneesh and Sev kept brainstorming to expand on their original idea, the duo had their first Eureka moment. It was the opening sequence of the film that got the ball rolling and finally, they had found a story to tell.
“The first four minutes of the film has a beautiful montage that tracks the family’s journey in comparison to how much technology has evolved over the years. The montage scene begins with Windows XP, Vista, Myspace, AIM, Gmail, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter. As the technology keeps changing, so does the family,” Aneesh confesses. He was also pretty clear that he wanted to chart a different territory compared to Unfriended, although both of them unfold on a computer screen.
Explaining the core theme that Searching tries to address, Aneesh says, “Once we found the story that we really wanted to tell, it didn’t feel like a gimmick anymore. We were very clear that by telling this story we were also commenting on the way we live our lives - not only in terms of our dependency on technology but also what tech can give back to us. All this is told through a thriller which has nothing to do with those themes. Here, the theme is separate from the plot. It’s a huge change if you really want to compare with Unfriended. We could mess with time, emotion, tension, and all of this is controlled by camera motion and cuts. All of a sudden, it became an interesting movie for me. The production firm liked this idea and that’s how it all started.”
Aneesh Chaganty’s parents, who hail from Andhra Pradesh, moved to the US in the '80s and he grew up in San Jose which had a dazzling mix of people from different nationalities. Searching too is set in San Jose and it narrates the story of a Korean-American family. The film stars John Cho and Debra Messing, and revolves around a Korean-American family.
It’s hard to talk about the impact the film makes without watching a trailer or the film itself. To draw an analogy - imagine you’re watching Liam Neeson hunting down every possible suspect in Taken, but all the events unfold on a computer screen through multiple channels like Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Youtube to name a few. It’s so dynamic that it forms a life of its own.
Soon after the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2018, Aneesh was praised for both his artistic style of filmmaking and also for embedding technology as a storytelling tool. All this makes you wonder if his stint at Google Creative Lab laid the foundation for what he has done in the film. He nods in agreement saying, “I think it helped us in a lot of ways. I was making commercials that took place on screens and User Interface was a key part of the process. I got good at projecting the same amount of emotion that you get from a facial shot when you are toying with a screenshot. In a way, it becomes more like putting together an animated film and I learnt the complete workflow.”
The film couldn’t be more timely, so to speak, especially when there’s plenty of debate about how privacy (or the lack of it) is changing our lives and how we communicate on the internet. Considering how much we reveal about ourselves on this girl who he never knew, through all the channels that teenagers use these days. In the past few years, a lot of content about technology that you come across on social media mostly highlights the negative side of technology and how it’s bad for us. We are addicted to social media, hashtag this, double click this, double click that…it’s easy to conclude that we are all so obsessed with technology. That’s true. But what really interested me is as much as technology and social media makes us feel alienated, obsessed and unhealthy, it also has the potential to make us feel connected, feel loved and also give hope. We are addressing a lot of other themes through the film like horror, love, hate…and I hope people see the bigger picture. It’s expressed in a different way through technology in the film,” Aneesh signs off.
Searching, directed by Aneesh Chaganty, has been acquired by Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions for $5 million. It also won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Award at Sundance Film Festival, apart from NEXT Audience Award at the same film festival. The film is slated for release worldwide on August 3.