SCA alumnus’ film ‘Search’ goes to Sundance Festival

For School of Cinematic Arts alumnus Aneesh Chaganty, the Sundance Film Festival held in Park City was more than just surprising — it was surreal. Within 24 hours of its premiere, Chaganty’s film, Search, received a distribution deal from Sony Pictures Worldwide, and by the end of the festival, it won the 2018 NEXT Audience Award.

The technology thriller, which was filmed from the point of view of smartphone and computer screens, follows a father who is trying to find his missing teenage daughter. Photo courtesy of Aneesh Chaganty.

“It was like fame for a week and a half,” Chaganty said. “Every restaurant we went into, every bar, every screening and every time we walked on the sidewalk, people would stop us and be like, ‘Hey, you guys made Search.’ It was an unreal experience.”

However, Chaganty said the film’s reception at Sundance has been long in the making. Search, a technological thriller about a father trying to find his missing 16-year-old daughter, began as an idea between Chaganty and his writing partner Sev Ohanian in fall 2015. Ohanian, who graduated with an MFA from SCA in 2012, now works as an adjunct professor at USC and met Chaganty in a film production class.

“He had a lot of creative energy to him and he seemed to have really smart ideas in class,” Ohanian said. “Most of all, he just gave off this vibe of really being like a hustler.”

When Ohanian was approached by Google to make a short film using Google Glass, he knew he wanted Chaganty by his side.

“I wanted to build their reputation for myself as one of those producers who would love taking on challenges,” Ohanian said. “Any time somebody had a film that they wanted to direct that was kind of over the top or really ambitious or almost reckless, I would always immediately sign up.”

The team shot a short film titled Seeds entirely on Google Glass, which quickly went viral. The film also grabbed the attention of officials from Blumhouse Productions, the creators of Unfriended, a 2015 horror film that took place entirely on computer screens.

Ohanian and Chaganty were invited to pitch a short film to the company, and developed the idea for Search, placing a family thriller in the same computer screen format that Unfriended was shot in. When Blumhouse offered to finance a feature-length version, Chaganty originally declined, but Ohanian encouraged him to take the offer.

“I told them that what Aneesh means by no is that we’ll get back to you guys,” Ohanian said.

After several months, the duo started writing a screenplay and assembling a team of editors and producers for the film, most of whom were USC alumni.

“Search is really a USC mafia production, more than anything I’ve ever worked on,” said USC alumna Natalie Qasabian, who worked on the film as a producer. “It was honestly pretty incredible to have so many USC grads on a really collaborative movie.”

Ohanian said that collaboration was the key to the movie’s production, as its unusual narrative style required extensive editing and careful planning. Before lead actors John Cho and Debra Messing arrived on set, the production team had already created a rough cut of the film with Chaganty playing every role to plan out the various websites, chat windows and popups that tell the story in advance.

After filming wrapped, Qasabian, Chaganty, Ohanian and editors Will Merrick and Nick Johnson worked together in one editing room for nearly two years.

When Search finally premiered in January, the team was thrilled just to put their project out into the world, although they did not expect the dramatic response they received at Sundance.

“We made the movie with five people in single edit room and all of a sudden on our premiere night to have 550 people watching that movie on a screen way larger than the iMacs that we edited the movie on is already enough of a surreal experience,” Chaganty said.

When the film was picked up by Sony, awarded the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for using engineering in film and chosen as an audience favorite, Ohanian said that the intense amount of work put into the film had finally paid off.

Ohanian said that one of the best moments after the film’s release was receiving a compliment from the SCA Dean Elizabeth Daley at a staff meeting.

“She said that it really warmed [her] heart to see that these students are such a team,” Ohanian said.

The production team is currently in talks with distribution and marketing departments and plans to hold a nationwide premiere for the film by the end of 2018. They also plan on hosting a large screening on campus.

“I remember sitting in [the Eileen Norris Cinema Theatre] a billion times a week as a critical studies student, and just being really pumped for the day that I could come in and screen a movie of my own,” Qasabian said.