Sev Ohanian and Aneesh Chaganty, who won the 2014 Script Pipeline First Look Project and placed as 2015 Screenwriting finalists for their script Animal Heist, have been steadily building the foundation for a phenomenal career. Their thriller Searching, starring John Cho, was picked up by Sony at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival for $5 million and released to massive critical acclaim. Their next feature, Run, will be produced by Lionsgate.
You originally thought of Searching as a short, and then turned it into a feature. Was the development process as grueling as one would naturally believe it to be? And how did you find a way to make the “gimmick” so. . . un-gimmicky?
Aneesh: So the only reason we ever decided to expand it from 8 minutes to a feature film is because we found a way not to make it a gimmick. And ultimately, if I had to give one answer as to why it didn’t feel like a gimmick it’s because it was emotional. We had come up with the opening scene, the opening montage–in a weird way–to prove that even though this wasn’t the first film made taking place on screens, in a lot of ways, hopefully it would be the first one that felt cinematic. Something thrilling that makes you forget what you’re watching is on screens. And to us, if we could execute that for 90 minutes, let’s go in that direction.
But in order to do that, essentially we had to pay attention to story structure and make sure that whatever we were doing we never did it twice. We were following a very classic, almost basic screenwriting structure, but within that structure, constantly evolving every beat. So we told ourselves to, for example, never have two iMessage conversations. Like everything is happening once. We studied every button on a computer screen and asked what the emotional implication of this is, where in the story does this implication belong. . . .
If you had been in the position where you had to circulate this script cold to industry, as great as it is, do you think it would have had a tough time gaining traction? It’s just a script that needs to be seen to be fully appreciated, right?
Sev: I think if I’m being honest and blunt: between my reputation as a producer, Aneesh’s job as a former Google director, making commercials, and the strength of the script itself. . . I have a feeling we probably could have found a decent amount of success. And also, not to mention, the prior success of Unfriended. Because this isn’t the first movie made on a computer screen. For us, just the sheer fact that it wasn’t a spec, it was always a writing assignment, made us never even think about that question. At no point in the months or years that Aneesh and I have been writing partners did we ever think, “let’s write a spec of a movie that takes place on computer screens.” This is entirely a result of Bazelevs [producers of Searching] liking us and asking us to present them something.
I don’t think I’ve seen a writer/director duo hustle on the marketing front as much as you two have. It’s crucial, and I know your bona fide motivation is fueled 100% by how much you believe in this film. And rightfully so. But given the storytelling logistics and the hurdles in carving out an identity for the film, was there ever a point in the development or production process, even in the days before Sundance, where you were like “is this even gonna work? Will audiences get it?” Did doubt ever start to creep in, or did you know for certain you had a hit on your hands before the Sony pickup?
Aneesh: Every day. Every day we wondered.
I mean, ultimately, our bet was that by basing this extremely unconventional visual style in a classic and studied and timeless structure, in a lot of ways, we would be making something that marries those two extremes, but at the end of the day, what we were trying to do was something that had never been done before. And when you’re doing that, you just don’t know if people are going to like it or if it’s going to be good. We had strong instincts, we had strong feelings that the final product would turn out well. But there were times at every stage of the process–whether it was in the writing, in the production, the pre-production, or in the year and a half we spent editing–where we were wondering “is this gonna be worth it? Is this something that’s actually gonna be capital G good?” As opposed to an interesting experiment.
And that was our bet, but it was a bet we were making. We really didn’t know until that first screening on January 20th  at Sundance when we were like “That paid off. . . . All of that paid off.”
You were a finalist in the 2015 Script Pipeline Screenwriting season and won the 2014 First Look Project (Action/Adventure) for a script called Animal Heist. It was clear to us you both had serious writing chops. But on the spectrum of genres, that script would fall somewhere around the polar opposite of Searching. How do you manage to find such a tremendous range?
Sev: What we’ve worked on, or written, or will make is always going to be less about the genre and more about the experience of the read and the “watch” of the movie. We’re really drawn to engaging and propulsive stories that have a real momentum and don’t waste time in getting the story started. But at its core, there always has to be a gooey center of heart. I think that’s reflected in Searching, and it was certainly reflected in Animal Heist (for you and the other two people who ever read that script). Our next one we have set up (Run) is also a thriller, but the one we want to do beyond that is not necessarily a thriller, and we have so many more that, hopefully, we get a chance to make someday. They’re all going to be different genres, but they’ll always be connected by the fact that they’ll be engaging, propulsive, and still have a big emotional core at its center.
Should writers only pursue stories they’re passionate about, or, what now seems like a generic tip, should they stick to a certain genre? Personally, I think the latter has always been patently false–and frankly, really bad advice–but it’s subjective. How does one give themselves a chance to get noticed?
Aneesh: Good question. No screenwriters I know are like “I can only do one thing.” We all grew up on a love of movies, not a love of genre, for the most part. Slumdog Millionaire is one of my favorite movies ever, and it’s not a thriller, but it feels thrilling. As a brand, I do think establishing yourself early on in your career (which is where I think we are right now) is important, but the brand doesn’t have to be the same answer everyone else has. There just has to be something very specific. For us, every single thing we’ve done has dealt with parents and kids. Whether it’s Animal Heist or the Google blast commercial Seige or Searching or our next movie, which is a mother and daughter, and the one after that about a father and son. . . . Within that, hopefully, we have stories that are, as Sev said, propulsive.
I think it’s an easier sell to anybody when you can package yourself in some way, but you don’t have to be limited by the connotations the word “brand” gets you. You can create your own definition of what that is and make it understandable and clear from your work.
Safe to assume, any great script or pitch that crosses your field of vision, you’ll want to jump on. But when pursuing new projects, do you have a preference between developing material yourself from the ground up, or finding new scripts to produce or direct?
Sev: I think we’re open, but because we knew in the middle of making Searching what our next script would be and are now about to embark on that journey, we already know what the one beyond that’s going to be.
But we’re human at the end of the day. Aneesh and I had a pretty frank conversation with each other a few months ago. We realized that, even though we had a spreadsheet with literally a hundred ideas–what we call “story molecules”–we should be more realistic and remember that, besides being writing partners, Aneesh is a director and I’m a producer, and there’s only so much somebody can direct or produce.
This might seem so far off your radar right now, but: you totally have to make Animal Heist. We recall it getting good feedback from industry, however it was admittedly a tricky one to place given the type of premise. Elevate and reframe as an animated feature. . . ? An option, anyway.
Aneesh: Honestly, yeah. I think we could go in any direction. I mean, looking back on it, Animal Heist was the first thing we wrote together. It was the first time we both got excited about something, and we learned a lot from the entire experience. Not only on what to write and how to write, how to work together, but also what not to do. What to avoid. One of the things I look at now about Animal Heist is “yeah. . . that’s a harder sell.” With Searching, I can pitch it to you–it’s a thriller, this is what it’s about, it’s a very clear package. Animal Heist is a lot different. Is it a PG movie? It is a G movie? Is it a PG-13 movie? Is it live-action or animated? There are a lot of questions up in the air.
I think absolutely it can be an animated film. In fact, that’s not the first time I’ve heard that. At this point, whatever anyone wants to take it as, let’s go in that direction. What I love about that script is the impression of “what exactly is this?” has taught us to answer that question on every single film from now on. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say, too, that without Animal Heist, Searching wouldn’t exist. Aside from the fact that it was our first time working together, it’s a huge-scale heist movie with so many machinations and moving parts. All of those elements are very much present in Searching. The complexity of figuring out how to pull off a heist movie is probably not that much harder than having to pull off the actual heist. And with Searching, the main thing is that it’s a mystery, and what are mysteries if not puzzles? So it prepared us to be disciplined, how to reveal each piece.
Humility aside–because everyone realizes Searching is destined, on some level, for cinema history–what’s the dream project you would love to be a part of and is now (or can be) within reach?
Sev: I’ll let Aneesh answer this one.
Aneesh: Oh yeah, I know why Sev let me answer this. . . because the answer is very simple. It’s Mission Impossible.
Mission Impossible is one of the big reasons I make movies in the first place. I grew up going to watch those movies, and I am a completely unchained Tom Cruise fan. Everything that he does is gold. I think he’s the last movie star, and it would be an honor of honors to have a chance to make (hopefully) the final Mission Impossible movie with him. A Mission Impossible that makes you cry would be really, really cool.
Sev: You want to have, like, Logan but Mission Impossible.
Aneesh: It would just be called Ethan, I think.
Sev: What about Mission Impossible: Animal Heist?
Aneesh: . . . we could think about it.
It’s different for every person in the industry. For you two, what is the absolute ultimate peak career mark? Or–is there a peak?
Sev: Man, I don’t know. . . .
I think that’s a problem Aneesh and I probably both share, in that we both tend to be perfectionists. That mark? I would have probably told you two years ago it’d be to write a script together that gets into Sundance, and now the mark has changed, and it’s going to keep changing. It’s part of what drives us. And it’s hard to ever feel as accomplished as you can be–there’s always more to do.
If I can have a filmography that’s mainstream–specifically mainstream–and progressive, that would be awesome. Putting out pure emotion and getting rid of the negative connotation surrounding the word “mainstream” would be great. Most of what we get these days is just recycled, manufactured material, but if we can push mainstream back in an original direction and in an emotional direction, I think it would be a very cool achievement.
But. . . ask us again in 6 years. In the context of achievement, if you had asked us this question 5 years ago, the answer would have been to write something that would get the attention of a script competition. The first competition we submitted to was you guys [Script Pipeline]. I specifically remember we entered having no clue whether we were halfway decent writers, and then I’ll never forget the day where, Matt, I think you called me directly and I was like, “yo, did you call the right number? Are you sure?” I called Aneesh right after and said “dude, we won.”
It was completely “okay, cool. . . we may not suck at this, and we can probably keep going.” Thank you guys for being the first people who ever told us that we could put a couple words together.