February, 2017. Aneesh Chaganty, a first-time feature director who once worked for Google, had five days to finish his film by deadline. He'd been working with two iMacs. They were crashing six times a day and he and the editors would have to start from scratch each time. He didn't have a single finished frame.
The movie, Searching, to be released in US cinemas Aug. 3 this year, has an unusual conceit designed for the digital age: The viewer sees the action play out entirely through screens. It follows a father, played by Star Trek's John Cho, searching for his missing daughter.
Confined to his computer, he digs through social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and even a made-up live video streamer, to solve the mystery. The dot-dot-dot bubble of waiting for someone to type an iPhone message has never been more tense.
The movie also explores cyberbullying, online grooming, social media witch hunts — all that it is to grow up in the digital age. Chaganty triggers nostalgia with the familiar sound of a computer booting up or a user switching from a Windows computer to a Mac. It's all centred on the haunting disconnect between a person's online life and a person's real life as a father realises he doesn't know his daughter at all.
Because of the screens, the emails, calendars and social media platforms, editing the movie was complicated. While a normal movie has one or two layers of video in the editing program, Chaganty's had 33. Hence the frequent crashes.
"We'd have to start from scratch," Chaganty says. "We'd be like, 'OK, shit, what did we do, what do you remember?'"
The tiny team of five in the editing room, including director Chaganty, two editors, a co-writer and a producer, would save a lot. But it took so long it was, "like its own little part of the day."
It wasn't just the editing that was complicated. Chaganty had to mock-up the entire film before he'd even shot it. He played every role: The father, the mother, the daughter, the police chief (Debra Messing in the final version). The mock-up, made seven weeks before a single frame of the real movie was shot, was crucial for the actors and crew to understand what Chaganty wanted to make.
"John is essentially acting in front of a webcam the whole time, but he's always looking at moving the computer," Chaganty says. "Every single button that he touches, every single window that he closes, every single search bar that he types into, he needs to know exactly where that is."
So before every sequence, Chaganty showed Cho the reference movie. Cho was acting to a blank laptop screen with a GoPro mounted behind, wiring the footage to a computer the crew could watch.
Chaganty had no idea whether his hard work would be worth it. He'd quit an advertising gig at Google to work on the film. His short film Seeds, a two-minute journey to India following a son delivering life-changing news to his mother, went viral in 2014 with 2 million views within two hours of going online. He shot the short entirely using Google Glass. The next day, Google offered him a position in a team called Google 5: Five creatives working on the Google brand from New York.
The film he left Google to make didn't even have a distributor yet.
"It was a constant feeling we're never ever gonna finish this movie, ever ever… we'd turn or make a right, and we'd go back onto the floor, and be depressed again.
"Especially with the thought that after all of this, maybe people wouldn't even like the movie."
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Then that little movie made by five people, with its quirky conceit they didn't know anyone would get, got into the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The response was glowing. It won the audience vote for the festival's Next category of filmmaking. In our review, CNET praised the "Hitchcock levels of suspense." Twelve hours after the premiere, Sony picked it up for a worldwide release.
It didn't stop there. Chaganty and Searching co-writer Sev Ohanian saw their next project, an original screenplay for a thriller called Run, picked up Lionsgate in June.
"It's crazy," Chaganty says of Searching's success. "I still get teary-eyed thinking about the journey of that little story. How much pain and sweat that we put into it."
It was a movie that "no computer was prepared to make." But the rainbow of death, the chaos, the late nights, the two years of hard work, the deadline, couldn't stop Chaganty and his team from finishing the film.
"Seeing the movie now, it's been a crazy fairytale of an experience."
Searching boots up in theatres August 3 in the US and August 31 in UK cinemas.
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