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What’s on the Screen of the Guy Who Made a Movie Set Entirely on a Screen

Searching director Aneesh Chaganty wants to have a healthy internet life—but he’s still reading what you say about him on Twitter.

Aneesh Chaganty.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Elizabeth Kitchens.

At its best, the internet is a never-ending cocktail party, to which we each bring our own special libations. (Its worst is some other column’s problem.) This is How I Internetwhere the web’s most interesting personalities share what’s in their punch bowl.

This installment’s subject: Aneesh Chaganty, director and co-writer of Searching, a new thriller (in select theaters Aug. 24) that takes place entirely on a computer screen
Age: 27
Location: Los Angeles
Hardware: iPhone 7 Plus and a MacBook Pro
Representative post:

Slate: Why did you choose the all-on-a-screen format for this movie?

Aneesh Chaganty: I wish we had a cooler answer for this. The production company that ended up financing this film had made another film called Unfriended that took place on screen. They basically wanted to follow it up with another film that took place on screens. They first presented it to Sev [Ohanian] and myself, Sev being my co-writer and producer, with the idea to make it a short film. Then they were like, “Actually, no, let’s make it into a feature.” They wanted to finance the whole thing and let me direct my own first feature, have me and Sev write it, and have Sev produce it and all that stuff, and I said no. It felt like we would be making a gimmick of a movie.

For a long time we kept saying no to it. We kept talking about it and seeing if there was a way into it, but we couldn’t find it. Two months after that meeting where we got offered the feature film, we ended up coming up with an idea for an opening sequence. It takes place over 15 years of their lives. For us, coming up with that idea was something that felt like we had kind of cracked the story in a way. All of a sudden it felt like despite the fact that there was another movie that had been made on a computer screen, we could do something very new. We could do something emotional, engaging, thrilling, and, most of all, hopefully have an audience forget that what they were watching was on a computer screen. That was something that I felt like had never been done before. I’d been making commercials at Google for a while. I love how emotional Google commercials can make you feel. We felt like if we can do that for 90 minutes, I can’t complain. We kind of committed to the idea then, and I quit my job at Google and moved to L.A.

What’s your personal relationship to technology?

I’m part of the generation [where] I remember what my life was like before the internet, and I remember what my life was like after the internet. I was a kid when we first got a computer in the house. I knew what Google.com was. I remember calling my parents one day and being like, “Hey, when you guys get home, we should all go on the internet tonight.”

I don’t think my usage of technology is, to be honest, any more extensive or prolonged than the next person. What makes [me] unique a little bit is just that I have been trained in a weird way to look at it from a narrative level and see what are the emotional implications of every feature that a technology can provide. That said, since making the movie, I now own a screen protector over my FaceTime camera.

What were some of your early experiences with the internet?

We had dial-up in the beginning. That [dial-up] sound is so iconic. We couldn’t put it into our film because the age of the daughter doesn’t allow—it was too late in history for us to have dial-up in that movie even though we wanted it originally in the opening montage. Which is why you can actually hear traces of a dial-up in the production company logo when that flashes up. That was our reference to it.

My first thing that I did on the internet was eBaum’s World, which was popular back then. I was on their sound boards all the time. I was obviously on AIM. My early memories are of addictinggames.com or playing the maze game. I had a Yahoo email account. I remember going on different movie websites—Apple Trailers, trailers.apple.com, was like my homepage. And then LimeWire, I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that I used it, but I know what it is, I guess. It was really interesting because I got to watch it kind of grow up and watch these different tech companies change their logos in front of our eyes.

Social media fuck/marry/kill: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter.

I would kill Twitter, fuck Instagram, marry Facebook.

Facebook is my least-used app, but it has the longest life in my opinion, which is why I picked it to marry. It’s just gonna be there. I get a lot of friend requests from people who know a lot of people that I know or send me messages. But my rule is I have to have met you.

Twitter I’ve only started using recently, after this movie. I always check the hashtag and see what people are talking about. It’s a cool way to keep track of this movie’s life. Twitter has this extremely ephemeral quality to it. I can find other places to consume those things, whereas Instagram, I’ll only curate it to the people that I know in my life.

I have a public profile right now, so anyone can follow me on Instagram. I did this thing a couple of years ago where I was just like, “From now on, I’m only going to follow the people who I feel like I could like every single thing on my social media feed.” Those photos really shape my idea of what is happening around the world outside of my immediate POV. I want that feed to be people I actually care about. The people I follow are friends—very, very few celebrities. If I do, there has to be something very interesting about them. I mean, like, I follow Barack Obama: people that I really, really like to hear about. Literally in the last two weeks, three weeks, I’ve been thinking about making a second Instagram account, a private account just for my friends where I don’t feel any pressure to curate or put together a certain sort of image.

What’s your current time-wasting habit on the internet?

I love reading Slashfilm, which is a film website. I check that thing all of the time. I’m usually on Rotten Tomatoes. I would say those are probably the two things that I go on the most. Lately, though, I think digital mindfulness is the next way of all of our thinking. I did this thing a couple of years ago where I downloaded a Chrome extension on my laptop and basically limited certain websites, like if I type them out it would redirect me to something else. I redirected every site that I thought was wasting my time in a day to the New York Times. Over the course of the year, I became an avid New York Times reader.

What’s your favorite emoji?

I use them all the time. They tend to come up more often when I’m flirting. The one that I use the most often is OMG-grinning-teeth emoji. With most of my friends, we have these inside-joke emojis; I have an ant emoji joke with a friend. Upside-down smiling face and the teeth guy are probably my most common ones.

What kinds of group chats are you in?

On my text messages, there’s a lot of work combinations. There’s like me and the producers, there’s me and the [director of photography], me and the creative team, there’s me and the editors. And then there’s every combination of my group of friends: my New York friends, half of my New York friends. I feel like every iteration of group hangouts that I’ve ever had has its own chain.

Whenever I start a new group chat, I always say in the message after the main message, “For those who don’t know, the people in the group chat are …” and I name everybody. Because not everyone has all the numbers all the time. It’s a tiny little practice I started doing that is I think very, very helpful.

You originally got your job at Google through going viral. What was that experience like?

It was the first big event in my life after graduating [college]. [Sev and I] found a pair of Google Glasses and tried to make them a commercial because there were no commercials online for them. We shot a little commercial, put it online, it got a million hits, and I got a job at Google. It was a very, very, very surreal four days, May 11, 2014. Which is so funny, actually, that the movie also takes place on May 11. Wow, I just put that together. But yeah, so May 11, 2014, was when that video came out. By that Sunday, Google had reached out. It was just one of those incredible experiences for me because as a filmmaker, you’re trying to stand out, you’re trying to get your name out there, you’re trying to start a career, and that to me was the first sign that, hey, I may have a place in this industry.

Do you think that affected your overall perception of the internet as a place that can be good?

The thing that my time at Google did the most for me was it really made me aware of the fact that all of the portrayals of technology in Hollywood and in media are almost consistently negative, whether it’s a Black Mirror episode or a Facebook [public service announcement] or something. They always talk about how we’re addicted to our phones, addicted to social media, obsessed with likes, technology’s going to kill us, all that stuff. I think working at Google and being at a tech company opened my eyes to the fact that engineers, normal engineers, make products with great intentions. The vast majority of my uses and my experiences with technology are good overall. I don’t think that that narrative got shown a lot. I started to really get behind what I was doing at Google, which is creating these emotional narratives around technology and branding it that way. I was very proud of that work. It was something I tried to bring with Searching. You can touch technology in a way that’s realistic and cinematic and emotional at the same time.

Did you have concerns about making sure the tech in the movie would seem current?

We realized while we were editing the movie that this movie would probably have one of the quickest turnarounds from being a modern movie to being a period piece. Basically during our edit we became a period movie, because we had to creatively lock it, and then Facebook updated its [user interface], and we were like, “OK, we’re period.” The way we solved for that is by not hiding it. We made sure that the movie takes place on a very specific set of dates. The movie takes place on May 11, May 12, and May 13 of 2016. Every single news item, every single front page of every news website, every trending topic matches what those websites looked like and what were trending on those websites on those specific days, whether it’s local, regional, or national news. And every single UI and website and application looks exactly like it looked like and operates [how it did] on those specific days as well. So we figured if we just set this movie in a very specific period, in a weird way it becomes a time capsule. Hopefully what makes it timeless is the story itself.

After making this movie, do you think there are more possibilities for telling stories this way?

Personally, I am done with making movies that take place on screens. I think I’ve kind of given everything I can to this one and that’s about it. Unlike the found-footage genre, I think this genre is a lot more difficult to maintain in the long term. A found-footage film—people often compare this movie to [that], but it isn’t. There’s a big distinction. A found-footage film, your iconography isn’t limited, just the way that you shoot your footage. You could be in Paris, you could be in London, you could be in Moscow, you can be on the streets of Topeka, Kansas. With a screen film, your iconography is limited: iMessages, your clock is at the top right, you’ve got Gmail, you’ve got Facebook, you’ve got the same tools in the same visual style. So to maintain a number of stories within this kind of format is something that I think is a lot more difficult, and for me as an audience member, something I think would be a harder and harder sell with each film.

But the production company behind the film really thinks that since this is the way that we all communicate, there’s going to be a huge demand for this. I’m curious to see how that goes. For me, I really do see Searching as a one-off thriller that hopefully makes the most effective use of technology so far to date. At least that was our intention.