Interview: ‘Searching’ Writer Sev Ohanian Talks Social Media and the Writing Process

Searching stars John Cho, who makes history as the first Asian-American actor leading a Hollywood thriller. The film is innovatively told purely through screens, as a desperate father attempts to find his missing daughter.

While it could be argued that having a film set through screens is extremely limiting and can create an emotional block, Aneesh Chaganty (co-writer, director) and Sev Ohanian (co-writer, producer) execute certain techniques successfully, that other movies filmed in a traditional format, couldn’t. David Kim (John Cho) often types messages and then deletes them, which successfully bridges the gap between appearance vs reality; what David truly wants to say vs what he actually says.

One thing that continued to surprise me throughout Searching was the extent to which Chaganty and Ohanian understand the relationship teenagers have with social media. I’m not referring to the general “social media is bad” sentiment other filmmakers instill in the audience, but a more nuanced message: social media allows people to be themselves (to an extent) but is also extremely isolating. Margot and David’s relationship from the onset is grounded in tension and unfamiliarity as they try and navigate life without Margot’s mother, Pam. Death brings people closer together, but the sad reality is that sometimes it does the exact opposite.

Throughout Searching, the audience can sense how the trauma is tearing David down, both physically and emotionally. This is elevated by him leaning closer to the camera to convey his distress while also increasing the film’s tension. That’s brilliant filmmaking.

Sev Ohanian, the co-writer and producer of Searching, is no stranger to Sundance Film Festival. From being a producer on Coogler’s Fruitvale Station in 2013, and later Duvall’s The Intervention, Ohanian has successfully managed to pave a path for himself in Hollywood. This year, not only has Searching been picked up for $5 million by Sony, but Ohanian himself has been awarded the Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award for Narrative Feature Producer. Recently, Lionsgate picked up the script for Run, which he’s making with Aneesh Chaganty. To put it mildly, Sev Ohanian is killing it.

Below is my interview with the co-writer and producer where he discusses the process behind Searching.

Disclaimer: Contains minor spoilers.

  1. How was it watching Searching with an audience for the first time? And how has the reception felt for you and Aneesh since then?

So, one of my big producing things is that I’m a huge believer in exhaustive feedback testing. Aneesh and I did it even in writing the screenplay. We’d send our rough draft to a number of friends, and then after each person read it, we’d ask them over an hour’s worth of questions on the phone about each scene, character, and sometimes even sentences. We’d compile all of this into a completely crazy spreadsheet — not unlike the one John Cho’s character David makes in trying to find his daughter in the film. And we did the same thing with the rough edit of the movie.

But even knowing that, even with our scientific data, you just NEVER know how a real audience at a film premiere will respond. Spoiler alert: the audience completely loved the film, and we could not have had a better premiere.

But I won’t lie, I had no clue during the screening how it was going. In fact, I think the big way my anxiety manifested itself was that I was convinced while watching the film that the entire audience had already figured out the ending because we had made it too obvious. Luckily that was absolutely not the case.

  1. One of the most shocking, but realistic, parts of the film is Abigail proclaiming that she wasn’t friends with Margot, but later on posted a video where she cried about her “best friend” missing. Why did you decide to include that specific scene? And do you think social media has helped in real-life missing people cases or ruined them entirely?

Oh man, so many reasons why we included that.

  1. You can’t deny it’s hilarious. And it was important to us to balance the dark tone of the film with lighthearted moments, all to create the best theater-going experience possible.
  2. It’s a great indicator that Abi is very comfortable lying. And if she’s lying about that, what else could she be less than honest about to David?
  3. And finally, it’s absolutely a nod to real-life instances of people using social media to take ownership of or personalize tragedies.

I think despite the “fakeness” that’s prevalent in our online personas, unarguably social media has helped during missing people cases. In fact here is a screenshot from a portion of our original pitch packet for the film in which we listed some actual instances:

  1. There’s a scene in Searching where John angrily demands to know where a boy was the night his daughter disappeared, followed by him typing “Bieber Concert” onto the spreadsheet he’s been making which gained a few laughs in my screening, and I imagine, in other audiences’ as well. Was keeping the balance between the small parts of humour, and tension difficult, or if anything, did you see it as a necessary thing to draw audience’s closer to the characters?

That is by the way, the single biggest laugh we get in every screening! The movie was made in a large part by five people specifically: Myself, Aneesh Chaganty (co-writer/director), Natalie Qasabian (producer), and Will Merrick and Nick Johnson (editors). The five of us spent a good year-and-a-half in a tiny editing room putting this thing together piece by piece. And there were specific moments throughout the process that we had to really pull on each other to make happen. This was definitely one of them.

Believe it or not, originally in the script we actually had David having this heated conversation with an entirely different character that we cut. It was Margot’s teacher. And when we changed it to Derek Ellis, as a group we pitched each other many different combinations of the punchline answer: ballet lessons, acne treatment, etc. And during one of our feedback screenings, we actually just started pitching the ideas directly to the audience. And when we did “Bieber Concert,” rather than the audience raising their hands to agree, they just burst into laughter and we knew we had it.

I remember I specifically fought hard to have the “(confirmed)” get typed right after because I wanted to make sure nobody felt that Derek was lying. And to my surprise, it worked as an extra double laugh.

Sev Ohanian, John Cho and Aneesh Chaganty
  1. What was the most difficult scene to write?

There’s no question about it: the climax.

In any thriller, the ending is so fun to write. You have the scene where the hero puts it all together, and then they rush out the door. They speed through traffic, running red lights and frantically dialing a colleague who’s not picking up. They arrive at the culprit’s place, KICK DOWN the door and tackle them to the ground. It’s so damn satisfying to watch that.

But we couldn’t do any of it.

Because of our central conceit we had to completely think of an entirely different way to bring together the mystery of the film in a way that would do justice to the story and the format of the film. It was actually a really tough situation for us, and all throughout the writing process we would just table the discussion of how we would do that to “tomorrow.” But by the time we got to the end of the script, we had no choice to face the problem head on. It meant that for two weeks we didn’t write a single word, because we would meet up and just go for walks to talk through every possible way of cracking it.

Ultimately we came up with the best idea that works, and I wish I could talk more about it here but it’s a massive spoiler of course. I will say that it works especially in the sense that it makes you rethink the entire film you’ve been watching this whole time with a new perspective. Which may not have been as effective had we had John Cho kicking down doors.

  1. Out of all the relationships this film could have been centered on (mother/daughter, father/son), why did you specifically choose to focus on the one between a father and a daughter?

It was about creating the most distance we could imagine in that relationship, and a father and daughter felt naturally like we would have the most drama to milk as he uncovered the “real” Margot on her computer. I hate that missing girl stories probably have become a bit cliche, but it really made the most sense for us in this context. There is so much more I want to say about this question, so please follow up after the movie has been widely released.

John Cho in ‘Searching’ (2018)
  1. Congratulations on Run being picked up by Lionsgate. Family seems to be the main theme in this as well, is this something we can continue to expect to be the centrepiece in yours and Aneesh’s future projects?

Thank you! We are VERY excited about Run. Family is definitely a running theme in all of our projects together, and you can even trace it back to our 2 minute Google spot Seeds.

We both come from very tight-knit families, and him being Indian and myself being Armenian, family is at the root of both of our native cultures. It’s not something we consciously set out to do, but when we come up with ideas for movies we immediately try to find an emotional center for the characters and it tends to always end up being a familial connection.

One thing I will say about Run: That movie will (like Searching) definitely center around a family. But it’s going to get far darker, far crazier, and far more out there than what we did on this last film.

You can expect us to still be making Google spreadsheets to figure out the best possible version of the story, and to again explore the theme of family, but this one’s going to go darker than anything else we’ve done — or possibly ever will do. 

 

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