About Sev Ohanian
Sev Ohanian is a writer, producer, and recipient of the 2018 Sundance Institute / Amazon Studios Producers Award. His credits include Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station and Clea DuVall’s The Intervention. His latest film, Searching, opens in theatres this weekend. He sat down with Lunacy Productions to tell us a little bit more about this amazing film.
Lunacy: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, and congratulations on the film. We had a chance to see it at Sundance and it’s amazing. First of all, how did you link up with your core creative team, director / co-writer Aneesh Chaganty and producer Natalie Qasabian?
Sev Ohanian: I met Aneesh when I was a TA for one of his classes at USC. The guy has the energy of a five-year-old kid who just ate a Warhead. He’s always bouncing up and down, full of life, so excited by good ideas, and never deterred by bad ones. For somebody I’d want to be partnering with, those are important qualities.
I met Natalie right after USC, and I was pitching her a screenplay that Aneesh and I had written, and she interrupted me and finished the pitch for me, even though she had never heard it before. I was shocked that her sense of storytelling matched ours, and also that she had the balls to do that. I was like, “Okay, cool. I’m going to work with these people.” Not only do they match my level of intensity and hard work and preparation, but we also complement each other in really good ways. The three of us have formed a really good team.
The most important thing a collaborator can ask for is complete trust, and I know I have that with them for sure.
LU: Excellent. Well, let’s talk about how Searching came to be. How did this project start?
SO: Aneesh and I had made a short film shot on Google Glass called Seeds, and that basically blew up and got Aneesh a job at Google directing commercials. He and I were also writing partners at that time, trying to come up with a good project to do together (specifically one that would be small enough that he could direct it as his first feature).
Around that time, I had a general meeting with this company Bazelevs Productions, which had just made a lot of money on a movie called Unfriended, which takes place entirely on computer screens. They were looking to make more content like that, but they were actually interested in making short films. They were going to try to do eight shorts, all on computer screens, and make it into an anthology.
I immediately was like, “You guys have to meet my writing partner, Aneesh. He’s making commercials at Google that utilize some of the same technology you guys are interested in.”
I have meetings all the time, and people are always looking to make projects, to find material, and meet new filmmakers … but after this particular meeting I remember I immediately called Aneesh and told him, “You’ve got to clear your schedule and come and meet these people.” I just had a really good feeling.
We all met, and they really liked Aneesh and asked us to come up with a short film idea. So we spent a few weeks, and we ultimately came back and pitched the idea for Searching as an eight-minute film. They called us in and said, “Hey, guys, we don’t want to make this short … We’d rather just make a feature based on the same idea!”
By this point, I had produced several indie films. My whole goal after producing Fruitvale Station was to get my name on as many indie feature films as possible so that I can build relationships, build a reputation, build credits. I did a James Franco movie, I did a Chinese movie … I did all sorts of different things just to make sure I covered all the bases.
So the guys at Bazelevs said to me, “Sev, you have a good reputation, so we trust you to produce it.” And they said to Aneesh, “You’ve been directing commercials at Google, so we want you to direct it. We trust you guys.” It was a dream come true. They were willing to pay for the whole thing, and they had just made so much money with Unfriended, it was a perfect moment for us.
And then Aneesh says no.
In the meeting, he literally says, “No, thanks.” I nearly hit him. In fact, I think I kicked him underneath the chair, because I’m thinking, “This ungrateful bastard. I just brought you to a filmmaker’s wet dream, and you’re saying no without even talking to me.”
LU: Yikes! What was his reasoning for turning them down?
SO: His concern was that doing his first feature entirely on a computer screen could be perceived as a gimmick and he wouldn’t be taken seriously. Beyond that, Unfriended had already come out and was a success, and he really didn’t want to follow in their footsteps. Honestly, I definitely shared those same concerns, but I also believe in seizing every opportunity.
So I said, “Hey, guys, we’re going to think about it. We’ll get back to you guys.” Aneesh says, “No, we’re not going to get back to you.” I said, “Yes, we’re going to get back to you guys.”
I told Aneesh, “Look, I agree that this thing sounds stupid and gimmicky and probably will never work, but let’s at least spend a bit of time exploring what this could be.” We knew what the story was going to be (a father looking for his missing daughter) but we didn’t quite know how to extend that into a full feature. So we spent a couple weeks going back and forth on it and then one day it was like this beautiful thing where he called me saying he had an idea for an opening scene, and I told him that I had an idea for an opening scene, and we pitched each other the exact same idea. And that’s the opening montage you see in the movie.
We knew from that moment that we had an idea that would transcend the gimmick. It would be emotional and human, and make you care about the characters, and if all goes well, that opening scene would make you also forget that what you’re watching is happening on the computer screen.
LU: The script to this movie must have been very unusual because of the way the story unfolds in the digital world. How much of that detail did you include in the shooting draft?
SO: The script for Searching is 117 pages long. But, if you really wanted to look at everything that was written for the movie, it would probably be closer to a thousand pages. The movie shows David Kim going down this crazy labyrinth of trying to understand where his daughter is, and in the process of doing so he’s going through her emails, her private computer, all sorts of online mazes that he’s trying to make sense of it. In order for us to portray that accurately, we had to actually populate everything that you see on screen.
So, David opens up his Gmail inbox to go open up one email and as he’s navigating to that email, you’re scrolling past thirty other emails. We had to go in and write all those emails out. Who it’s from, what the subject is, what they’re saying. Every text message, every Facebook message, every comment, every Instagram post. All of it we had to make ourselves. We couldn’t use anything from the real internet because we wouldn’t have the rights to those images.
In doing so, naturally we started to have fun with it. We incorporated so many cool Easter eggs and clues and just a high level of detail that hopefully makes the movie really fun on the re-watch. One of my favorites, for example: you might notice in the first scene when David is texting his daughter that he has a text from a woman named Hannah. And if you really pay attention, it looks like David and Hannah must have gone on a date recently.
A couple of story days later, you might notice that she texted him again asking, “Hey, when can we grab another drink?.” And then, halfway through the movie when the search for his daughter becomes a huge news story, she says “Oh my god, I’m sorry. I did not realize your daughters missing. Maybe next week?” There’s so much more, but that’s just one example.
LU: Wow. Sounds like you guys did a lot of world-building. The results are very convincing.
SO: Well, a lot of the credit for that goes to our editors, Will Merrick and Nick Johnson. Those guys are rock stars. Will we had already worked with, because he’d edited our Google short film, and we brought Nick on to help. To be frank, we probably should have brought on seven more people, but we didn’t realize it at the time. Luckily, those two are technical geniuses. The things that they made the editing software do … it was not designed to do that. But beyond their technical expertise, they are also creative geniuses.
They truly understood the vision that Aneesh had for this project, and they put in the work and time. These poor guys lived in this eight-foot by eight-foot room for the better part of two years, slaving away on this movie. And it wasn’t really a linear process. Things that we were trying to do were sometimes just not working creatively, because nobody had ever done this before. But they never lost hope. They always had a good attitude, and they were so adamant to the process.
Aneesh says all the time that Searching was really a movie that was made by a committee of five people. It was him, myself, Natalie, and Will and Nick. The five of us really went through a lot of ups and downs together. It was a really weird process, because we had a feeling that what we were creating was going to be a big deal, even if there wasn’t always evidence of it.
LU: I remember there was an audible gasp in the Sundance Q & A, when you said that every single screen that you saw was actually created from scratch, or something to that effect.
SO: Early on our plan was to screen record the whole movie. Meaning, have somebody open up Facebook and perform whatever the main character is supposed to be performing, etc. But we realized our goal with the film was to make it more cinematic, and more emotional than any movie that’s ever been set on a screen before, so that idea went out the window. We needed zooms and close-ups and montages and all these things.
But we wouldn’t have the resolution to do that if we recorded a computer screen. So we had to recreate Facebook and Google and all of these devices pixel by pixel. It was complete madness.
Searching has aerial shots, crowd shots, shots in the forest, lakes, all sorts of wilderness. Some pretty big stunts. We see a child grow up twelve years in the span of five minutes. We do all these huge scale things, but we shot the movie in thirteen days. Thirteen days! Most of the credit for this goes to my partner, Natalie, who did some really smart planning and again, we threw out every traditional, conventional thought of filmmaking and planning and just looked at it from a really innovative way. Luckily the end result looks like a proper movie with all the scale and scope you expect.
LU: Speaking of big movie elements, you have recognizable cast, too. John Cho is excellent as your lead. How did he come to be involved?
SO: We knew when we were writing the script we wanted John in the movie. Aneesh is Indian. I’m Armenian. Neither of us are Korean, but in talking about the story and about representation in general, we just thought to ourselves, “You never seen an Asian family in this kind of movie.” And then, immediately, we thought of John. And because of John, the family became Korean American.
We approached him in the traditional way, through his agent. What really helped were the magic words, fully financed. Whenever I’m reaching out to an agent to cast an actor, I make damn sure that I underline those words so at least we get their attention.
John read the script and really liked it, so we set up a phone call with him and Aneesh. The way Aneesh tells it, that phone call could not have gone worse. It only lasted fifteen minutes. He didn’t articulate his vision and John ended the call with concerns that this movie was going to end up looking like some YouTube video. Then he watched Unfriended, to see what our film could possibly resemble, and he really didn’t like that either. I heard from a casting director that it looked like he was about to pass, and I panicked. I called his agent … I was in Armenia, so I was making these calls at three or four AM.
So I asked his agent “Hey, I heard that John is thinking of passing on this role.” And the agent said, “No, he is not thinking of passing … He passed, its over. Move on.” And it was really a devastating moment for us because we couldn’t even imagine anybody else playing that part.
So, the rules of Hollywood say that you’re supposed to move on. You have your casting director come up with a back up list and you just keep working. But, we were so passionate about having John in the movie we couldn’t give up yet. And as we were trying to come up with a game plan, we realized that John had called Aneesh directly, so we had his cell phone number.
Aneesh reached out to John, invited him out for a drink, and the moment John entered the restaurant, Aneesh began pitching. For an hour straight—How cinematic this movie is going to be. How emotional it’s going to be. Just trying to put all his fears to rest. And when he’s done, John just says, “I gotta go put my kids to sleep,” and left. And basically we had no idea what was going to happen, and then a few days later his agent called and said he’d do the movie. It was a great success for us. But, it was by no means easy.
LU: So your tenacity clearly paid off. Any other tips on casting?
SO: Be prepared. Our emails to the agents are very methodical. It’s all planned out. The email makes it very clear: We’re making a movie that could be much like this really successful movie called Unfriended. I have a long list of producing credits. We include links to all of Aneesh’s work. He’s a first time feature filmmaker, but by no means a beginner. We included a proof of concept that we had shot to showcase what the movie could look like (a three minute video that we spent two thousand dollars on). And of course, we have the script.
People say it’s hard to cast “real” actors in your movies, and I don’t disagree. It’s very hard. But you can make it a little bit easier by making sure you have producers with good reputations, a director that has something exciting about them (even if it’s their first feature), and really strong material as far as the script itself, and even a proof of concept if you’re trying to do something that’s a little bit outside the norm.
You want to basically prevent them from having any reason to say no.
LU: Looking to the future, Lionsgate recently announced that you’re working on a new project with them. Are you able to disclose anything about that yet?
SO: Yeah, totally. While editing Searching, Aneesh and I started writing our next script. After Searching was so well received, we had a lot of great meetings and got presented a lot of great opportunities to write, direct, or produce films that were already in development. But we really wanted to think strategically about the next step in our career together, and especially for Aneesh as a second time director. So we specifically wrote a script called Run. It’s a thriller about a mother and a daughter that is relatively contained. So, kind of like Searching in many ways. We really are drawn to stories that are about parents and kids. This one, however, is a darker story than Searching. It’ll be a very small studio movie; the perfect next step for Aneesh as a director, and for Natalie and I to produce. We start shooting that in the next couple of months, and we’re bringing the same energy and work ethic that we did with Searching to Run.
Keep following the Lunacy Blog for more great interviews with Sev and other indie filmmakers, and check out Searching in theatres this weekend!