An Interview with Sev Ohanian (screenwriter, Searching)

Sev Ohanian is a co-writer and producer for the film Searching. The film is a thriller that depicts the search of a man for his missing daughter- only in Searching, the story is told entirely on digital screens. Released in a limited release this past weekend, Searching will expand to a wide release this upcoming weekend. Please enjoy our interview with Sev about the novelty approach to filmmaking that went into the making of Searching.

Alex Sitaras: Hello Sev, thank you for talking with us! Your film, at its very core, is a “missing person” film. Are there any thrillers in particular that inspired Searching?

Sev Ohanian: Of course. Because Searching is such a crazy, unconventional film in that it’s a movie that takes place through devices, we looked to make the storyline really feel traditional and almost even conventional, purely to combat the fact that the rest of the movie is so nontraditional. We looked at movies like Gone Girl– which is a HUGE inspiration for SearchingPrisoners is another big one for us. Also movies like Se7en. What’s cool about our inspiration is that we didn’t just look at films. We looked at a lot of docuseries like Making a Murderer. We wanted the film to feel at its core like a true crime story. We also looked at Serial the podcast. There was a video game called Gone Home, an indie game, that explores a girl coming back home after being away for a year and understanding what happened to her family by exploring the empty house and what’s been left behind. And all of these inspired Aneesh [Chaganty] and I as we were writing the script.

Alex: As you said, Searching is told entirely on digital screens. Was there ever a point where you considered breaking away from the constraint of having the entire story told through screens?

Search - Still 1Sev: All the time. Anytime you’re writing a screenplay, it’s always “what are we going to write next?” and “what happens in the next sequence?” In our case, not only did we have to come up with the “what,” but we also had to come up with the “how.” Even knowing what was going to happen in the story, we didn’t quite always know how we were going to execute a scene given the conceit of the movie. So all the time, we were frustrated and- without giving anything away- it’s actually in the last act of the movie there’s some events that we had the hardest time thinking of a way to make them work within our conceit. There’s so many thrillers that have climactic ending scenes that are shot in a really flashy manner in which the protagonist is racing through the streets, running red lights, kicking down doors, etc. etc. We didn’t quite have that as an option. So we had to be incredibly creative.

We had such a smooth process writing the script until we hit one of those roadblocks- writer’s blocks I should say- that we actually ended up spending I think like a whole week just walking around Aneesh’s neighborhood and debating every version of what the story could be. We ultimately stuck by our guns and found really creative solutions that could do justice to the story. Ironically, even in production, John Cho, our lead actor, would ask us probably every single day, “do we have to do this scene like this?”, “can we get real coverage?”, and we didn’t blame him at all for asking. We stuck to our guns and I think the final product, hopefully, makes for a better viewing experience as a result.

Alex: That’s pretty funny with John Cho. Definitely an unconventional acting style here. Do you have any thoughts on the roles of screens and digital technology in film? By nature, showing screens on the silver screen presents a challenge to any filmmaker or writer.

Sev: For sure. I think a lot of people can relate to watching a movie and there’s a moment where a character has to pull out their phones and what you see is like a really big, ugly UI that looks like nothing else online, or people will be on their computers and typing- there’s a really famous scene I think in NCIS where they’re hacking and the hacker has someone help them on the same keyboard and they hack at the same time, and it’s frankly ridiculous. It takes you out of the story and that’s the worst thing that could happen for anyone watching a movie or a television show.

So for us, those challenges exist because it is frankly hard to get technology right, and in our case, one of our tiny missions with the film was to hopefully do justice to technology and portray things on-screen as the way they actually exist, and again, kind of going back to what I said earlier, our goal of that was to hopefully give the entire movie and story a sense of authenticity so that when you’re watching it, you then recognize and relate to the task that is happening on-screen.

Black Mirror is a great show that we love, but it tends to portray technology in a negative light, and how it’s going to trap us all, and how we’re going to be consumed by social media, and things like that. With Searching, we wanted to try and portray technology in a more holistic way. And on the technical side, portraying it as it really is grounds David trying to find his daughter in real life, and the technology provides a way for David to hopefully find her.

Alex: Speaking of what occurs on the screen, are there any Easter eggs or hidden messages on the screens that audiences should look out for?

Sev: 100%. With the screenplay for Searching, it’s 117 pages, but the true script for what you see in the film – all the words that we wrote on all the screens- I’d say it would probably be over 1,000 pages. Because in the course of the movie as David is looking for his daughter, he’s looking through emails, texts and websites. There’s obviously really important story information that he’s finding and that the audience is reading, but every text, every sentence, every period – all of the other things that are happening on the side of the screen- we personally went and wrote them ourselves.

Part of it is because we had to, and we didn’t want to put in filler text you see sometimes in films, and on the other hand, it was so fricking fun for us. We populated the movie with a lot of clues about Margot’s disappearance, and beyond that we put Easter eggs. There’s references to other movies, there’s really funny side-stories. There’s basically like ten subplots running simultaneously through the entire movie.

Searching_2I’ll give a tease of one of them. On the side of the movie, you might see a message from a woman David has been seeing- ‘I had a lovely date with you last week, I’d love to grab another drink with you if you’re available,’ and then in the next day of the story, if you’re paying attention, you might see a message from the same women ‘hey David following up, I would love to meet with you again’. And a couple days later, when the investigation has really progressed, she says ‘oh, your daughter is missing!… Maybe next week?’

This is something that we have going on at the side of the movie, and beyond things like that, there is one HUGE Easter egg in particular you can find during the entire film. It is an enormous one where every single scene in the movie has elements of it, and once you understand what the Easter egg is, it kinds of makes you realize that there’s a much bigger scale to the movie than you can imagine. I know that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I’m trying to be spoiler-free and let people find out by themselves. But to answer your question, yes, there’s a lot of Easter eggs, and if someone watches the movie a second time, I think they can have fun looking for all of them.

Alex: Because you digitally created all the text and website layouts rather than film technology usage itself, I’d imagine Searching had to be meticulously planned-out in advance. Was there any room for improvisation on-set?

Sev: There was a little bit of room but as you can imagine, there wasn’t a lot. The movie has a lot of crowd scenes, aerial scenes, and driving scenes, set pieces, lakes, and forests, but we shot it in 13 days. It was a very, very short shoot. And part of our goal for the film was for the final result to feel like a Hollywood studio movie and have a lot of polish, and have every shot have a deliberate meaning behind it. We were trying to avoid having it feel like an “indie film.”

What I’m saying is that we didn’t want to go shoot the movie, and then have to figure out how to put it together. We didn’t have the time to do that. So what we actually ended up doing was starting to edit the film seven weeks before we even started shooting the movie, similar to the filming of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I remember seeing in the behind-the-scenes features of that movie, the director talked about how they actually made that movie by shooting the entire thing with their roommates initially. And because that movie takes place entirely on green screen, adding visual effects, they could take that version of the movie to stars like Angelina Jolie and get them to come on board by showing them the final product would look like.

So taking our cue from that, we started by editing the film seven weeks before we started shooting it. The editors put together low resolution screenshots from the internet, and we had our director act out every single role. We put all that together and it gave us a version of the film that we could show our crew the night before we started shooting the movie. And it kind of gave everyone a chance to see what we were trying to make, and we knew that by having that, the actors had a reference for where their eyes were supposed to be looking, and more than that, our department heads had the means now to really elevate their work on set. For example if they could see that a particular scene was going to be happening inside of a Facebook video, our costume designer could plan to have the wardrobe for a character match the color of the Facebook blue. That pre-viz version really gave us the ability and the means to make our film feel polished.

All of that meant though that we didn’t have a lot of space to try different things, to try different camera angles, different blocking, but at the same time we were able to give the actors enough freedom to improvise within the lines. I remember John and Michelle (the actress who plays the daughter) have a scene between the two of them that we spent a ton of time trying new blocking and dialogue. Ultimately the version we went with strayed a bit from what we had in the script but it was an improvement. Because Aneesh and I were both very involved with the production of the movie, which isn’t always the case for screenwriters, it did allow us that freedom to write new lines on the spot.

Alex: Were there any challenges that your actors, John Cho and Debra Messing, had to face in order to shoot a film that takes place on 2-dimensional screens as opposed to the 3-dimensional world?

Sev: John Cho actually put this in a really interesting way in the fact that as actors, he and Debra had been acting for so long, they had already developed so many “tools” over the course of their careers… but on this film, they couldn’t use any of them. Neither him nor Debra were able to bring the same tactics and skills that they developed. They had to relearn their entire craft in order to make this movie.

And I think everyone involved with the movie had to relearn everything they knew about making films, and in fact we were lucky that Aneesh had never made a movie before because sometimes I wonder that if we had a director who had, maybe they wouldn’t be able to do something that is this outside of the box in the way that Aneesh masterfully did.

And for the actors, rather than being on a sound stage or being at a real location, acting opposite another person who was reacting and giving them physical body language, cues, dialogue, and eye contact, it was John Cho staring at a laptop screen with a GoPro on top and nothing on the screen. I would imagine it’s the most unintuitive way for an actor to do their job, and it’s interesting, John actually compared it a lot to the Star Trek movies he starred in, in that those movies are a lot of green screen acting against CGI aliens and props. But our cast was able to pull it off so incredibly, and when you watch the film, you would have no idea that these aren’t real people acting with each other live, but rather using their imagination for the characters.

Alex: Definitely. Searching is held to a number of constraints in a way that normal movies aren’t. Did you feel that working on Searching allowed you to be more hands-on than you might have been had you created a different kind of film?

Searching_3Sev: That’s a great question. It gave us the ability to be hands-on in a very unique way. I’ve produced many indie films now, and making any movie is practically impossible every single time. But there’s a list of things you’re always supposed to do, and it’s always hard to do them, but that list exists. You develop a script, hopefully you have some money, you have some actors, you hire the crew, and then you make the movie. With Searching we had to do all those things, but we also had to make up entirely new workflows for the way to make a kind of movie that hasn’t really been done before. We’re not the first movie that’s taken place entirely on screens, but we are undeniably the first kind of movie that’s done in the way that we have. Where rather than the central conceit of the film turning into a kind of experiment, Searching is an actual cinematic film with all the emotional ground that you would have in any other film, and that means that by the nature of the job Aneesh and myself, and my producing partner Natalie Qasabian, our sleeves were rolled up, down in the mud, figuring this out one step at a time- kind of making it up as we went along. It definitely did result in Searching being more hands-on.

Alex: Your upcoming film, Run, is currently in development with Lionsgate. On your reddit AMA, you hinted that the film would be shot in a more conventional manner. Could you see yourself making another film told entirely on screens?

Sev: With Run, Aneesh and I wrote it and it will be shot more conventionally, but there is going to be a part of the film that’s shot in a way that has never been done before. But it’s not going to be on screens. And to be totally candid with you, we don’t ever, ever intend on making a movie on screens again. On one hand, we feel like we put everything we had into Searching. Any creative idea, whether it’s in the script or whether it’s in the directing or producing, to marry the theme of technology with a film that takes place on technology, we put into Searching, and we feel that we have exhausted our own creative resources. I’m curious to see what others can do with this medium, and obviously I wish them nothing but the best of luck, but I can’t help but feel like there’s only a finite number of ways to tell a story on screens. But as far as we’re concerned, we’re definitely done. No more screen movies!

For more info about Searching, click here to view the trailer.

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