The conventional meets the experimental in ‘Search’
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Ever since watching “Entourage” characters Vince, E, Johnny Drama and Turtle walk into the Egyptian Theatre in an episode of HBO’s hit show, Aneesh Chaganty was determined to, one day, make it to Park City.
“Whose dream is it not to have a film at Sundance?” Chaganty said. “I’m so humbled and I’m so proud.”
This week Chaganty is living that dream as he makes his feature directing debut with his film, “Search,” at the Sundance Film Festival. Previously, the director’s only experience out of film school included directing advertisements for Google. Chaganty also wrote the script alongside his friend Sev Ohanian.
“Search” is a thriller about David Kim (John Cho), a father unraveling the mystery of his daughter Margot’s (Michelle La) disappearance by logging on to her computer. Debra
Messing also figures into the film as Rosemary Vick, a detective.
“It’s a conventional thriller wrapped in a very, very unconventional storytelling technique,” Chaganty said.
Ohanian and Chaganty were first introduced to each other at the University of Southern California. After Chaganty landed his job at Google in New York, he and Ohanian stayed in touch across coasts, both desiring to get back to making movies. One thing led to another, and the two ended up co-writing “Search” together.
Production of the film – a puzzle involving everything from writing the script, creating the computer interface, storyboarding and shooting the live-action scenes – flipped the moviemaking process on its head.
“The answer is going to be simple: it was very complicated,” Chaganty said.
“We basically made an animated movie, then shot a live action movie and then decided to put the live action movie back inside the animated movie. We ended up feeling like we made three movies at the end of the day.”
The reinvention of the process extended to the very fundamentals of filmmaking. The film’s editing process began seven weeks before principal photography even began.
“What if we did something crazy? What if we started editing the movie before we started shooting the movie?” Ohanian said.
Before production began, Ohanian and Chaganty screened a prototype of the film, starring Chaganty in every role, for the crew to make sure they knew what they were getting into.
While Chaganty was new to directing features, the film’s stars, Cho and Messing, brought a considerable amount of Hollywood experience to the set. But with the film taking on such an experimental identity, Chaganty said they were as along for the ride as the rest of the crew.
“It was so awesome to find a couple of actors in John and Debra who were willing to take that risk with us and jump off a cliff with no idea where we were going and just hope that this, like, 25-year-old director had some sort of clue,” Chaganty said.
“Search” shares a lineage with other unconventional features. The film is produced by Timur Bekmambetov, a Russian-Kazakh movie mogul who has produced films like
“Hardcore Henry,” a 2015 action film produced entirely from a video game-like first-person perspective, and “Unfriended,” a 2015 horror film that takes place over the course of one grisly Skype call.
Chaganty is aware of the similarities between his film and “Unfriended,” and hopes to set his feature apart by contrasting his cinematic, filmic style to “Unfriended’s” realistic, cinema verite sensibilities.
“There’s 100 years of camera techniques and mise en scene and rules and things that have worked about film as they have advanced through the years that we can absolutely employ here … there has to be some direction,” Chaganty said of the film’s aesthetic. “Also, we have no ghosts.”
The director, who credits Ohanian as much as himself for making it to this point, said that it only recently hit him how much the festival has played into his development as a filmmaker.
“I realized how many interviews of filmmakers I’ve read that took place at Sundance and the advice and the information they gave in those interviews; I literally took that into whatever projects I was working on,” Chaganty said. “I’m so humbled and I’m so proud.”
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A special screening of Elizabeth Lo’s “Stray” will set the stage for a Nuzzles & Co. fundraiser.