How Searching star John Cho became convinced computer screen movies weren’t just gimmicks

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When the horror flick Unfriended came out in 2015, it seemed more like a stunt than a legitimate movie. The entire movie took place on a computer screen, with audiences watching from a first-person point of view as a user navigated from Facebook to Spotify and back again, all while chatting on a group Skype call. The movie serves up a modern take on I Know What You Did Last Summer, as a group of friends are picked off by a righteously angry former victim. But against all odds, the movie was actually entertaining and compelling, and it was followed by more “screen movies,” as producer Timur Bekmambetov called them at the time.

But neither Unfriended nor its dour 2018 sequel could have prepared audiences for Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching, which screened at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Searching isn’t gimmicky, and isn’t a cliché teen horror flick, either. Starring Star Trek’s John Cho as a father trying to track down his missing daughter, the film elevates the core screen-movie concept into a film that’s both authentically nerve-wracking and unexpectedly emotional. But as thrilling as the finished film is, Cho wasn’t necessarily sold on the concept when the project first came to his attention. In conjunction with the film’s home video release, I jumped on the phone with the actor to talk about representation, the challenges of acting opposite a laptop, and how he overcame his initial skepticism.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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The first thing people talk about with Searching is that it takes place entirely on a computer screen. What was your initial reaction to that aspect of the project?

Well, I read it, and I thought the story itself was really exciting, and it was a great whodunnit. I couldn’t guess the ending until I read it. I thought the characterizations were really right there, on the page. The opening sequence of the film, if you recall, that sort of digital family-photo-album sequence was very affecting, even in its abbreviated form on the page.

But I was like, “Why do this movie on screens? Why would we limit ourselves? Why would we make a movie that looks so different from the movie I just saw in my head?” [Laughs] Especially for the last third of the movie. It seemed like an unnecessary restriction, and I didn’t know why we should do it. So I was resistant.

How did they end up selling you on that idea? It had to feel stunty at first.

Yeah. I think for me the danger was, “Are we just doing something to amuse ourselves, or are we trying to attract attention with this gimmick, instead of putting our focus on telling a story, and putting our focus into character?” Because it is a device that could overwhelm the movie. And as a result, I passed on the project. But Aneesh says when we spoke on the phone, he was not prepared to talk to me. He says not only was I the first real actor he’d ever spoken to, I was the first famous person he’d ever spoken to. He was just not on his game, and didn’t know that he had, you know, 15 minutes to sell me on this movie. And he was not good at it, frankly. [Laughs]

But on that phone call, I had called him directly from my cell phone instead of being connected through my agents, so he had my number. And like a week later, he texted me and asked if he could have a second chance. Which, you know, was dangerous. He’s not supposed to do that. [Laughs] But I really liked him. Just speaking over the phone, I got a good vibe from him. Also, he was a filmmaker of color, starting out, who had written this project for me. I just felt like if he had something else to say, I should hear him out.

So we met in person, which for me was important. I think if I hadn’t met him in person, I wouldn’t have said yes. But he was very compelling in person, and I liked him so much. And at that meeting he was assuring me, walking me through graphics, and telling me how we would stay on character, and telling me that even though the camera seeing my face would be static, the camera — my eye, my point of view, the one that looks at the screen — would be very dynamic, and would behave like other film cameras with zooms and pans and stuff. But even then, it was really just a feeling, and trusting him, and taking his assurance that we would not be making a YouTube movie.

Director Aneesh Chaganty works with John Cho in front of the GoPro rig on set.
Photo: Screen Gems

Did knowing the project would be shot like that change your performance or preparation?

You know, they plan these things out so critically. I couldn’t change the blocking the way I could on a set. I think it was a much more dependent relationship with the director than I’ve ever had. You know, I walk on to a normal set, and I can see where the dining table is, and where the sofa is. And for this one, I was leaning on him so much. “What am I seeing here on the screen? And then you’ll pan to this? And what will that graphic be?” He just had to describe everything in incredible detail, so I wouldn’t be vague and general. I had to be super-specific about all my minute looks. Because those looks are plot points. So it was just a very strange, intimate relationship with the director.

What did you have to work with on set? Did you have a laptop of any sort to play off of?

The graphics didn’t exist on my laptop. The laptop was a dummy, which they mounted a GoPro camera onto. When the camera’s that close, if you actually looked all over your screen, it would look like you were looking all over the room, because of the proximity of the camera. So we just had to put little dots on this blank screen, that were, like, an inch apart. And that’s what I was looking at. There was nothing on the screen.

That sounds like doing green-screen work, only more limiting, because you aren’t moving around.

Yeah, it was like micro green screen.

Was that frustrating?

Personally, I was frustrated. It was really difficult. You know, what I look for in performances on film is not like “the correct” performance. It’s like, “Does this feel like an authentic human emotion?” And it’s really exciting when you see actors having an authentic human moment. So you go on set, and you try to do things that will replicate authentic human emotions internally — set things up externally so things happen internally, you know? And for this, everything was internal.

The easiest way to get an authentic performance is to look into a human being’s eyes, and look at their face, and say compelling things, and then things will happen on your face. [Laughs] That’s the best way to get there, and I didn’t have that. So sometimes it was just frustrating, looking into a camera. It was just incredibly hard not to feel self-conscious, because in large part on a set, you try to forget that the camera is there. And it was just really difficult when it’s, you know, four inches from your forehead.

Also, I’m just older. Michelle La, who plays the missing daughter Margot, said she didn’t find it particularly unnatural to talk and be in front of a webcam. I suppose that’s a generational difference, having grown up with FaceTime and stuff. I still find it very distracting to talk to people over FaceTime.

Photo: Screen Gems

Sometimes it feels like you’re doing a real-time selfie.

It’s difficult not to look at your own face, either. I think that’s the real difficulty of the webcam, in terms of authenticity. It’s sort of like you’re splitting your attention from the person you’re supposed to be talking to and your own face. I think the equivalent in the physical world would be to have a conversation with someone at a restaurant, and be holding up a hand mirror and looking at yourself at the same time. It would make for a shitty conversation. [Laughs]

When the film was released theatrically, it rightfully got attention because it was the first contemporary thriller with an Asian-American actor in the lead. You mentioned earlier that Aneesh being a filmmaker of color was part of your decision-making process. Were issues of representation front of mind when you were making the film?

I was unaware that we were hitting that particular first. But yeah, when you’re making a film, you’re just hoping to… Honestly, for me on set, it’s always, “Does this make sense? Are we telling the story properly? What are we supposed to be doing in this particular scene? What is the audience supposed to understand?” And that’s really it. And then afterward, after the film is wrapped, it’s “Is it going to assemble correctly? Will it make sense? Will the audience understand it? Have we embarrassed ourselves?” [Laughs] It’s so much more basic. “Will anyone like it? Will any film festival accept it?” So each stage of this production, and release, has been a surprise.

And then the fact that it mattered was a surprise. Not only the fact that it entertained, but the fact that it happened to matter in a larger cultural context was a pleasant surprise. It’s been nice to talk about not only the film itself, but what the film represents. It’s been an opportunity to discuss things that are important to me. So it’s nice, but completely unexpected.