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‘Searching’ Writers Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian Want to Normalize the Asian American Narrative

Searching has been marked as revolutionary in filmmaking with the story being told through the eyes of the technology and devices we use every day to communicate. The thriller, written by director Aneesh Chaganty and producer Sev Ohanian, tells the story of a missing daughter and a father (John Cho) determined to find her using technology — social media, texts, emails, and various websites.

Searching marks Chaganty’s debut as director and has won several awards from the Sundance Film Festival, including the NEXT Audience Award and the Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Narrative Producer Award given to Ohanian. It has also been praised for being the first thriller with an Asian American lead and to showcase a Korean American family.

Chaganty and Ohanian were shocked to hear the last part because for them, seeing Asian Americans in the bay area and Silicon Valley is quite normal.

“We would always get asked that, ‘Why did you cast a Korean American,’” said Ohanian. “It’s not about that, we would just say ‘why not?’”

Chaganty and Ohanian always wanted to make the main character Asian American. They chose the name David Kim on purpose and sought out Cho for the part. Cho rejected the role at first, but after meeting with Chaganty, Cho changed his mind.

“To answer ‘why John,’ he’s a movie star and underutilized,” said Chaganty. “He’s an incredible actor who should be in more things and isn’t in many things.”

Searching
Searching director and his star

Chaganty explained that the role isn’t race-based and anyone could play the father trying to find his missing daughter. Chaganty and Ohanian wanted the idea of a Korean American family to be normalized.

“There’s no element of this film that tries to justify why there is an Asian American family at the heart of this,” Chaganty explained. “We don’t talk about it. They are specifically Korean American. This is completely separate from the plot of the movie. To us that was a victory for us to make a movie that doesn’t justify this.”

Ohanian agrees, “Beyond the actors, you have to look at the creators, you know the writers, directors, producer. I think the more diversity we’re going to see and hopefully that’s the industry they’re going in. We want to see more diverse faces onscreen. There is a time and place where it’s about diversity and representation. This is not one of those movies. It’s a regular film. It’ a thriller about a family. It’s a mystery. It’s a ‘who dun it.’ Even more reason to normalize that.”

Sev Ohanian_PhotoCred Sthanlee B. Mirador

Given almost two years to edit the entire film, Chaganty and Ohanian had to make sure the extra space on the internet was filled. Everything was created and written by Chaganty, Ohanian, and their editors, Will Merrick and Nick Johnson.

“By the time the movie that was over, the text that wasn’t the script was about 25x the actual script,” Chaganty said. “That’s things we worked over the course of time and now if you pause the film, every single line of text that you read is about this film written by us for this movie. That just came over time. It was important for us to make it world specific. We had time where he was calling people.”

They even made sure to have several Korean texts and messages from David’s mother, who was in Korea. Chaganty thought about all of this and made sure it all flowed, “You’ll see in the text messages the mom will be checking up. You can trace that mom’s storyline throughout the film starting out in Korea and, by the end of the third act, having come to America as well. They are talking about flight details and who is picking up who. You can track those kinds of storylines, which is one of the coolest parts of the movies. If you pause it, you can track 9 out of 10 things.”

Searching

The team worked hard to make sure there were Facebook photos, ads, messages, and numerous emails, including one email sent to David by Ohanian detailing the entire plot. Ohanian had no clue that would be in there until the final cut.

“We had him predict the plot,” joked Chaganty. “’I know what happened! He said this.’”

Because the film surrounds the internet and social media, the duo did have many friends and family in the movie. Ohanian’s mom even makes a cameo in the film as the piano teacher on the advertisement.

“There are over 1,000 faces,” said Ohanian. “We aren’t going to make these names up. We just grabbed all our friends and family.”

While the film was in the process of being made, Chaganty posted a status on Facebook asking if people would be interested in him using their photo and name in his movie and if they did, to just like the status.

Chaganty revealed, “I got 300-400 likes and we put that into a spreadsheet and for two years, they became our cast and characters.”

With the film being marked as “a new way of cinema,” Chaganty wanted to make sure audiences know this wasn’t a gimmick. “It’s a very classic thriller told in an unconventional way,” he said. “What is new about this is the way that it’s told. It’s a very cinematic way of telling it. What grounds it is the story. You’re not watching a gimmick for 90 minutes. You’re watching a story for 90 minutes. You’re watching a dad trying to find his daughter. You will forget the fact that’s it’s being taken place on the screen. I think that novel experience — to watch something new and familiar at the same time — is something that we felt hadn’t ever been done before.”