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Making a movie on iMacs ain't easy, says Searching director

Ex-Google employee Aneesh Chaganty soon realised his movie was way more ambitious than most.

Sony

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 and he'd come to dread that rainbow-colourful spinning beach ball signalling another failure was imminent.

Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival - Opening Night Premiere Of "Searching" - Arrivals

Director Aneesh Chaganty

Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

The movie, Searching, in theatres this weekend, has an unusual conceit designed for the digital age: The viewer sees the action play out entirely through screens. A word-of-mouth hit at the Sundance Festival earlier this year, the film 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 and social media witch hunts -- all that it is to grow up in the information 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.

search-sundance-john-cho

John Cho plays a father searching for his missing daughter. Yes, he uses Google.

Sundance

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, the search giant offered him a position on 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."

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 by Lionsgate in June.

With Korean-American Cho in the lead and Indian-American Chaganty at the help, Searching is part of a wave of flicks from diverse filmmakers garnering a lot of buzz this summer, including Crazy Rich Asians and To All The Boys I've Loved Before.

"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."

Now playing: Watch this: Searching trailer: Thriller for the digital age
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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 a limited number of theaters on Aug. 24 in the US and UK, getting a wider release Aug. 31. It opens Sept. 13 in Australia.

For more about the film, check out our discussion with  the star, director and co-writers John Cho, Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian.

First published July 19, 6 a.m. PT. 

Update Aug. 23, 7:38 a.m. PT: Updates release dates for the film.

Update Aug. 24, 5 a.m. PT: Adds link to CNET's interview with John Cho, Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian.

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