Aneesh Chaganty: Searching to me is what Following is to Christopher Nolan
The Indian origin director talks about his debut film Searching, the portrayal of technology in Hollywood and Christopher Nolan's works in this interview
Aneesh Chaganty, the Hollywood director of Searching that got released in India last week, was in Hyderabad at the time of this conversation. It isn’t every day that a Hollywood director travels to India to promote his film, and Searching’s not a studio-powered film either. This film, according to Aneesh, has no precedent, and for the three years his team worked on it, they didn’t really know if it would even get released. “And no one would have batted an eyelid if it didn’t,” he says. But it has been released, of course, and to generally positive reception — especially over its form.
Excerpts from a conversation with the debutant director:
Part of the buzz around Searching in India is because of your Indian origins.
I’ve been coming to India since I was one foot high. I grew up in the States, yes, but my family is in Hyderabad. I’d stay here for months at a time, and now, to come to Hyderabad to promote my feature film… is quite something. In fact, the first video to get me attention was the Google Glass commercial I did. I came to Andhra Pradesh to shoot it, specifically Bhimavaram. I went on to make an Android commercial, a Google Translate commercial. I have a network of people in Hyderabad who can help me get things done. I may not be here all the time, but I make sure I’m here for at least one week every year. Hyderabad is like my second home. It’s good to be back.
What about Searching do you believe will appeal to Indian audiences?
I grew up on a mixture of Hollywood, Telugu cinema, and Hindi cinema. Even before I knew I wanted to become a filmmaker, I was soaking in elements from each of these industries. From Hindi and Telugu cinema, for instance, I learned the importance of emotion. Everything I make and want to make is emotional and sentimental.
Emotion that Hollywood would typically classify under melodrama?
Yes. Indian films wear their emotion on their sleeve, and American audiences don’t like to go to a film that’s overtly emotional. My goal is to hide this emotion under a genre. Despite what Searching’s trailer may tell you, it’s a family drama. It’s extremely emotional. There’s an opening montage sequence of about seven minutes that will leave you tearing up at the end.
I read that one of your first short films was narrated in reverse. Searching, of course, is a story that’s told through a computer screen. You’re clearly not one to make ‘easy’ films.
I guess I’m a weird kid (laughs). I think it’s because I’m attracted to the originality in telling stories differently.
And it also helps that such a unique narrative device helps attract eyeballs?
Exactly. Some of my peers keep asking themselves what sort of artistic, personal films they can make. I think it’s also important to marry such films with strategy. Make art, but also make sure there’s a strategy behind it. My Google Glass video, for instance, was made three weeks before Mother’s Day, so it could be released on that occasion.
Typically, stories woven around technology focus on its negative aspects — take Black Mirror, for instance. With Searching, what are you going for?
I’m not just talking as an ex-Google employee here, but every person who makes the apps and the tools we consume every day, does it with good intentions. I’d say they are almost altruistic. But the media and Hollywood usually portrays technology in a negative light. Searching isn’t one such indictment. Yes, technology can alienate, but it can also connect. It can make us hope, it can make us love… and maybe, it can bring a dad and daughter together — like in Searching.
The technology we use in Searching is largely relatable, unlike many Hollywood films that show technology unrealistically. We decided we would show technology exactly as we use it in our everyday life. Originally, we toyed with the idea of making him a software engineer, but we did away with it. We then got to thinking about small things we do on a computer — like closing a window, initiating a forgotten password request, deleting a file… We asked ourselves what the emotional significance of each action could be. What’s the emotion behind deleting, say, a video? What if it’s a sentimental video? Is that a memory he’s deleting? He would feel something when he did that. We picked up cold interfaces and utilised them in an emotional context under the three-act structure.
At what point during your own computer usage did you realise there was a story to be told through it?
Good question. I think it happened early on. The concept came first and the story later, but it had to seem otherwise. Searching needed to feel like it is the only real way in which this story could be told. If a film had to happen through a laptop, we knew it had to have information a character needed. What if he weren’t the owner of the laptop? That seemed more interesting. What if he had a missing child, and he desperately needed this information? And what genre would we slot this film into? The film is about information, and it’s truly in the mystery genre that information is withheld from the audience. And that’s how Searching was conceived.
The editing must not have been easy at all.
It was so complicated that we gave an additional credit: Director of Virtual Photography. What has been accomplished, with limited resources, is a miracle. The job went above and beyond traditional parameters of editing.
In a sense, with such a narrative, are you channeling the voyeur in the viewer?
I think the viewer becomes less a voyeur and more the actual character, because you’re looking at everything as the character does. If you were put in such a situation, what would you do? It’s more or less what the main character does.
Did it ever seem daunting — this idea of telling a story through a man’s laptop screen?
I wasn’t convinced at all first. I had seen a couple of films made with this conceit, and decided that you couldn’t tell a gripping story with this idea. It was when I found this dad-daughter story that this computer gimmick stopped being the centrepiece. After the first 7 minutes of the film, you forget this gimmick. The story is the main attraction, and when it’s married to an unconventional way of telling it, the whole packaging becomes unique. Think of Christopher Nolan’s Following… or Memento. It’s kind of a statement to the world.
Searching is your Following, then?
Well, for starters, both end with –ing, don’t they? (Laughs) But wow, that’s actually great. I never thought about that. I’ll say that to my people.