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August 23, 2018

Sundance Hit Searching Gets Major Theatrical Release

By Phenia Hovsepyan

On July 18th the USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) held a very special screening of the highly anticipated thriller, Searching. The movie, which was written, directed, edited, scored, and produced by USC alumni, played to a full house at Eileen Norris Cinema Theater. The screening was followed by a question and answer session, featuring the star of the film, John Cho. Accompanying Cho were director and co-writer Annesh Chaganty, producer and co-writer Sev Ohanian, producer Natalie Qasabian, director of photography Juan Sebastian Barron, composer Torin Borrowdale, editors Nicholas Johnson and Will Merrick, co-producer Congyu E, and first assistant director Carly Sturgeon. All nine filmmakers graduated from USC, and all but Borrowdale, who studied at the Thorton School of Music, are SCA alumni. “None of this would have happened without the creative partnerships we forged at USC,” Qasabian said. 

Searching, the story of a loving father’s (Cho) desperate search for his missing teenage daughter with the help of a local detective (Debra Messing), is unlike anything audiences have seen in theaters. In a 21st century twist, the entire film takes place on a computer screen. It’s a remarkably innovative approach to classical storytelling. Director Aneesh Chaganty finds a way to create complex characters, elicit suspense, and emotionally engage the audience, from a fresh vantage point. A film as stylistically interesting as Searching cannot be fully explained, because a concept this new can only be understood by seeing it. No surprise then that Searching was one of the buzziest films at January’s Sundance, selling to Sony as the first big acquisition of the fest. “From the beginning, we all knew that this was a special project and that it was going somewhere. We had a lot of ups and downs and it was very frustrating for us because we knew we had something great, and then Sony and Sundance happened,” said Borrowdale. 

The past few months have been a whirlwind for Searchingwith anticipation and acclaim for the film growing exponentially. Through all their work and travel, the one event the Trojan team had envisioned from the very beginning was showing their movie at USC. Before the screening, the nine alumni took some time to reflect on being back at their alma mater, with a film awaiting international release. Their excitement was palpable. “The minute the cast and crew came together we thought about how fun the USC screening would be” said Qasabian. “I don’t know how we would have made this movie if we didn’t have the specific USC people on board. This is the sweetest part, bringing the movie back to USC with your USC people.” Editor Will Merrick said there was nothing like being the guest instead of the student: “After the Sundance premier, the screening I was most excited about was the USC screening. We all went through 190 [Introduction to Cinema] with Professor Casper, we all sat in Norris, and this movie we made in a tiny room being shown in Norris is a big deal.” 

Chaganty came to USC directly from the airport, with the passion he felt for his directorial debut offsetting any amount of jetlag he was experiencing. “This is a USC movie. I took a twenty-hour flight from India to be here right now for this screening,” he announced. “Without USC this crew would not exist,” he said gesturing to his Trojan colleagues, “And this movie would not exist!” 

Searching is notable for the importance of the editing process, which was even more tedious than a typical indie feature because of the “movie within a screen” premise. Merrick and Nicholas Johnson began “editing” the movie before principal photography even started, assembling the “computer” from a blank screen. They would continue to edit for an entire year after production had completed. “We shot this movie in thirteen days. Aneesh and Sev wrote it in a couple months. These guys [Johnson and Merrick] were editing it for a year. That’s unheard of, even for a studio movie,” Qasabian said. After spending a whole year in what they called “a tiny room with two iMacs that were crashing every second,” Johnson and Merrick then had the monumental task of re-editing Searching, which has many social media screenshot scenes embedded in the film, for foreign release. “We are one hundred percent editing every bit of text into Italian, Spanish, German, all the languages. This movie is the hardest movie ever to translate for international release!”

As the Searching filmmakers looked back at their time at USC, they were filled with advice for the next generation of students studying at SCA with hopes to one day bringing a project back to Norris Theater. “The great thing about SCA, is that it teaches you how to play the game,” Chaganty said. “The questions you should be asking yourself as a young filmmaker is both ‘what can I come up with that is emotional and personal to me,’ and also ‘what should I make that is the most strategic for me’? Your job is to set yourself apart as much as it is to make something meaningful.” Co-writer Sev Ohanian, who has produced thirteen feature films since graduating in 2011—including Black Panther director Ryan Coogler’s debut feature Fruitvale Station—and won the 2018 Sundance Producer’s award added what the others joked has become his signature piece of advice: “Self-educate.” It’s not enough to go to class he said: “Look up all the books you can find, read all the scripts you can find. Continuously become the smartest person in the room.” 

From meeting at SCA to Sundance success to having a movie set to open on 2500 screens, “I think it is so cool that just the people that you meet here [at SCA] can give you the tools to come out and make something small and then have this massive release,” Chaganty observed. “We are a bunch of kids who met in film school and made a movie with no money, and now we are back here screening it. It is truly a homecoming!”

Searching is playing in select theaters August 24th, and opens everywhere Labor Day Weekend, August 31st

Above from left to right: Director/Co-writer Aneesh Chaganty (BA Production '13), Producer/Co-writer Sev Ohanian (MFA Production '12), Producer Natalie Qasabian (BA Cinema and Media Studies '14), Composer Torin Borrowdale (BM Thorton '13, GC Thorton '14), Director of Photography Juan Sebastian Baron (BA Production '13), Editor Nick Johnson (BA Production '13), First Assistant Director Carly Sturgeon (BA Production '11), Co-Producer Congyu E (BA Production '14), Editor Will Merrick (BA Production '15) FIGHT ON!