Searching director Aneesh Chaganty on how to tell your parents you quit your job at Google
Picture this: You’re 23 years old, and you make a two-minute short film, filmed entirely using Google Glass. It blows up, garnering millions of views. Google loves it so much that they offer you a job at its Creative Lab in New York City. You now have one of the most coveted jobs in the world.
What would make you leave it?
In 2014, a film called Unfriended, a horror film told entirely on a computer screen, becomes a sleeper hit. The production company wanted to follow that up with a collection of short films all with a similar constraint. Who do they call? The men who made the viral Google Glass film—Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian.
“That was way more interesting to me than a feature film, because I was like, I will never make a feature film that takes place on a computer screen, mark my words,” says Chaganty.
The two then came up with Searching as a short film, an eight-minute story about a father trying to get into the computer of his missing daughter. The production company loved it—more than they expected.
“They said, we really like this idea, but we don’t want to make this into a short film, we want to make it into a feature film,” says Ohanian.
“In an instant, I was like, no,” says Chaganty.
“I was like, ‘what?! He means no problem!’” says Ohanian.
“In the moment it felt like we’d be taking a concept that we found a way to make it not work as a gimmick and then stretching it right back into another gimmick again. I told them again, I would never make a movie on a computer screen,” says Chaganty
“I was like, we’ll be in touch,” says Ohanian.
The two left, and though Chaganty had turned down the opportunity in the meeting, they both realized that it was insane to turn down funding for their first film together.
“No first time filmmaker ever gets told here’s the money to make your first movie, go make it. So we were like, ok, the best thing that we can do to pay respect to it is to try to find a way, and if we can’t, no shame, we’ll walk away,” says Chaganty.
One day, the two texted each other that they had each come up with ideas for an opening scene to a potential feature.
“We called each other up, and we pitched each other the exact same opening scene, which ends up being the opening scene in the movie. All of a sudden we had an idea that didn’t feel like a gimmick, it didn’t feel like we were following the success of another movie, there were characters at the heart of it, and it was thrilling and engaging,” says Chaganty.
“The opening scene made us compelled to do the project because we realized with that kind of opening, not only will you care about the characters and become invested, but hopefully the goal was that after five minutes audiences would forget what they are watching was happening on devices and just get sucked into the story,” says Ohanian.
But there was one big step—Chaganty had to quit his job at Google to make the film.
“How did that conversation with your parents go?” I ask the now-27 year old Chaganty.
“You know, it’s funny, because my parents are really weird in that they’ve always told me to chase my passion before I chase a paycheck. The first day that I started at Google, my dad was just like, ‘how did the day go?’ And I told him how awesome it was, and he said, ‘ok, remember, it’s day one of 365, you’re leaving after that!’” says Chaganty.
It was that support from his parents that empowered him to make that leap.
“He was always the person who told me to chase my passion, go after my dreams, and be smart about it, but they were the ones that told me I should be leaving quicker, and that I should be making movies sooner. It was a ‘good, I’m glad you’re doing this’ conversation as opposed to a ‘what are you doing’ conversation,” says Chaganty.
“In a lot of ways, I wish they would ask what I was doing, because I kept thinking, this is the stupidest decision ever! Why am I leaving Google! I get free food all the time!”
Flipping the narrative
Chaganty knew that, despite having a dream job, it wasn’t the way he wanted his career to unfold—and Searching was too good an idea to pass up.
“Sev Ohanian, my cowriter and producer, and I were always looking for that idea that would make me want to take the leap and make us want to make a movie together. This was the first opportunity that came around where we could make a film, but especially a film that we could make a mark with. Despite the fact that the downgrade of lifestyle I was taking from living in Manhattan and working at the coolest company in the world to making an indie film in the trenches was massive, it was a passion that I had to jump on,” says Chaganty.
With Searching, the two had the opportunity to flip the narrative that films have taken towards technology.
“It’s always technology is bad, this is why we’re getting obsessed, this is why it’s going to kill us. For us, it’s like looking at a tool like a hammer and saying ‘hammer is bad!’ when in reality it can be good, scary, happy—it can be anything. We wanted to zoom out and say, look at the internet as a whole, it has the potential to do everything to us, not just bad or good. The story was from day one, taking place in a world that is so constantly connected and in that world, focusing a story on two characters who are insanely disconnected,” says Chaganty.
“I think we’re the first people to show it in a positive way.”