A world within the computer monitor

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Growing up in California, Aneesh Chaganty remembers seeing the photograph of director Manoj Night Shyamalan prior to the release of The Sixth Sense in the magazine India West, which his mother was reading. As a boy, Aneesh remembers thinking he could be on those pages too. “The work that Shyamalan did in his early years of filmmaking got the audience excited. This was different from the big, mainstream movies. I felt I could walk in that direction. Emotional thrillers have been my favourites,” he says.

Aneesh’s first feature film, Searching (initially titled Search), scheduled to release soon, is an emotional thriller. It premièred at Sundance film festival early this year, fetching glorious reviews in international media and was lapped up by Sony Pictures for distribution.

‘Seeds’ to ‘Searching’

The short film that got him noticed, Seeds, filmed via Google Glass, and his debut feature film Searching, are a coming together of technology and emotional stories. Aneesh thinks this combination was incidental. This Indian-American filmmaker is being touted as the new bright spark to watch out for.

While in Hyderabad for a special screening a few weeks ago, Aneesh told us that Searching was intended to be a short film. As a feature, it tracks the upheavals of a father (John Cho) looking for clues on his 16-year-old daughter’s computer after she goes missing. The audience watches the film unfold through the computer screen, as John sifts through browser windows and several folders.

Searching wasn’t an easy film to explain, says Aneesh. Seven weeks before shooting it, among the first to be hired were the film’s editors. They worked on a rough cut with Aneesh, as he enacted all the roles; the editors framed each sequence through the computer, thus creating a blueprint. Before shooting, this rough cut was shown to the actors to give them a clear idea. He describes Searching as a “live action film within an animated film.”

Two sides

For two years, Aneesh worked with the creative lab in Google’s New York office, writing, developing and directing their commercials. During this time, he had observed tech teams spending several hours at work, developing well-intended products. “Technology often gets a negative rap in the media. The good in the cyberspace outweighs its negatives. There could be danger lurking in the dark corners of the web, but there’s a much better world that’s possible through internet connectivity,” says Aneesh. He wanted to underline the limitless possibilities of technology. “Saying technology is bad is like saying hammer is bad. It’s what you do with the tool that matters.”

Initially, he and his co-writer Sev Ohanian pitched Searching as a short film to the production team that backed Unfriended (2014). “I was working in Google during the day and at night, brainstorming ideas with my co-writer to find a way back to cinema. At that time, Sev had met the representatives of the production house and they wanted something different from Unfriended, but something that would use technology and storytelling,” Aneesh recalls.

The producers were open to the idea of “a feature film that looked like it’s got a number of short films”. Aneesh was game to think on those lines but didn’t want to make a film on a computer screen. “A couple of months later we pitched Search as an eight-minute short. They liked it, but wanted it as a full-fledged feature. And I stupidly said no,” he recalls. He was worried that if stretched, a good idea would end up as a gimmick. Nevertheless, unwilling to let go of an opportunity to make a feature film, he and his co-writer got thinking. “Incidentally we both had similar ideas for the opening scene,” he says. The standalone seven-minute sequence is his favourite portion of the film. He felt they’d have a winner if they manage the mix of emotional, fast-paced and cinematic storytelling through the film.

The post-production part seemed never ending with the editing process. The two iMacs kept crashing every hour and the team would make slow headway. At one point, they were glad even if five more people would watch it. The Sundance première brought in a full house audience and several applauses. “About 45 minutes into the after-party, we were whisked away by our agents who wanted us to be present for the bidding process as studios stepped in. Sony Pictures picked up the film. Those 12 hours after the screening changed our careers,” he smiles.

Looking back, it was Seeds that set a strong base for his career. “We had the Google Glass and me and Sev look up YouTube and saw that they didn’t have a commercial for the product and we thought we’d make one,” remembers Aneesh. Seeds unfolds from the view of his Google Glass, capturing everything during his journey from Hyderabad to Bhimavaram. The two and a half minute spot, soon went viral. “We had two million views after the first weekend; then I got a call from Google asking me to come and make commercials for them,” he says.

The combination of technology and an emotional story in both his films were happenstance, he feels. But he had always been drawn to “multidimensional storytelling”.

Aneesh is happy with the conceit of a computer screen turned cinematic screen in Searching. His next film titled Run, which he hopes won’t be changed to Running, is an emotional thriller as well. “But it’s a normal film, no computers,” he laughs.

He notes that SeedsSearching and Run are about a parent and child and attributes this to the strong relationships in his and Sev Ohanian’s families. “Though Run will have a dark, twisted relationships between the mother and daughter, I feel relationships are the most important aspect of our lives.”