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‘Searching’ Director on Asian-American Representation: ‘It’s Quantity That Ends Up Solving These Issues’

Buzzy Asian-American-led films like Warner Bros. “Crazy Rich Asians” and Netflix’s “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” are causing fans worldwide to celebrate what Hollywood is calling #AsianAugust. Next up to bat: Aneesh Chaganty’s “Searching,” a thriller starring John Cho as the father of a missing teenager.

Searching” tells the story of 16-year-old Margot’s (Michelle La) disappearance and its aftermath through computer and phone screens. The Sony Screen Gems project has garnered attention both for its technological production style and for its Asian-American leads.

Here, Chaganty chats with Variety about using cyberspace as a filmmaking landscape and catapulting more Asian-American stories to the big screen. “Searching” hits selected theaters Friday.

This film is rooted in screens. What is it about cyberspace that lends itself to movies today?

The reality is that we all live our lives on screens, and  Hollywood, I don’t think, has figured it out yet — how to show that and how to dramatize that in a way that is cinematic and thrilling and consistent with the style and tone of your movie. We saw early examples — with “Unfriended,” or with “House of Cards,” which was the first kind of — I felt like, on a cultural level — the first [project] to use pop up texts in a way that felt like it was part of the story.

Since technology has pervaded our lives, as storytellers we’ve been trying more and more to figure out what the way is that we get to depict these things because we use them so much. But in my experience, every single example of using tech onscreen is false. Whenever you cut to a phone … or cut to a laptop and it’s a weird website that doesn’t actually exist. But our bet — the bet that “Searching” made and the bet that I will continue to make, overall — is that there is a way to cut to technology and to frame it in a way that you are still using camera shots, that you can be consistent with your style, tone, and genre — your whole piece, even if it’s a live action piece — and still maintain one unique, consistent vision. It’s a matter of, this is a new thing, and we’re still trying to figure out how it fits into the larger thing that is capital “S” story.

Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” has also been getting a lot of buzz for its use of screens.

“Eighth Grade,” yeah! “Eighth Grade” did a great job.

Bo Burnham got his start on YouTube; you started at Google. How essential is it for modern-day filmmakers to be fluent in tech?

I would say, very. I didn’t know that — that’s a really funny connection of Bo and myself. I think more than it is a fluency, I think it’s an understanding of the importance of doing it accurately. The more time you spend on anything — and in this example, it’s tech — but the more time you spend on anything, the more that you notice when it’s done wrong. There’s so much truth and emotion that we give to and get from these devices, that it only makes sense that Bo, who kind of grew up and discovered success on YouTube channels and YouTube videos and that online community, and myself, who worked through the tech side of things making commercials, understands the importance of doing it accurately. Because when you do it accurately, you do it universally, and you do it in a way that billions of people around the world can immediately relate to because that’s what they do, themselves. I think that’s all what we’re tapping into, is this ubiquitousness. In doing something that is ubiquitous, we end up touching something on a universal level.

“Searching” has also garnered attention for its Asian-American cast. How can a smaller-scale film like this one make strides for representation, versus a huge production like “Crazy Rich Asians”?

If this movie that took place on a computer screen, that was a thriller, that was trying to be cinematic, failed, nobody would have batted an eye. But I think because what we’re doing is telling a story that gets people excited, and — on top of that — adding another element that we always wanted, sliding a card into the deck that we always wanted to be in the deck, all of a sudden, it’s a much more interesting package.

To me, I think the way that you champion these things, and the way that you move the conversation forward — especially as a smaller film — is by telling a good story that happens to feature people who don’t usually get a shot to be in these movies. The thing that I am most proud of “Searching” for, as far as its casting, is that it’s almost a picture of the end game. The movies that I grew up on — the mysteries, the thrillers, the action films — they never explain why the race of the lead character had to be that race, in order to … break into the CIA or jump out of a plane, you know? It just had nothing to do with that.

I think, as a whole, when we’re telling stories about race and culture and everything like that, there’s this weird, unspoken requirement that we have to justify it — that we have to explain why there’s somebody in this film who doesn’t look like everybody else, or who doesn’t look like people who have traditionally been in these films. But the thing that I’m most proud of is, we just told a good story, and these characters happen to be Asian-American — they happen to be Korean American — and in doing so, I think we are hopefully moving the conversation forward in a way that says, “You don’t have to justify anyone’s skin color to be in a thriller, to be in an action movie, to be in a mystery.” Let the story tell itself, and the people in it should hopefully just reflect everybody who lives in this country.

How do you balance casting up-and-coming talent like Michelle La versus movie stars like John Cho when representation is at stake?

This is now the most specific thing that I’m so happy about with the casting. On a financial level — if you’re looking at a film, if you’re looking at a production company, if you’re looking at the auto industry, whatever — someone who has money is often looking for precedent. You want people who have made money before — who have been in movies before. So, it’s very difficult on a purely financial level to say, “Oh, these people who have never been in movies before — we should take a big risk on them. We should put them in a major movie.” It’s tough like that, but when you have something or someone to anchor it around, it becomes a lot easier, and one of the coolest parts of this movie is that it’s a family.

Because John Cho has value — because he is a name, because people know what “starring John Cho” is and because he’s an amazing actor and a movie star, through and through — as the dad in the movie, we are now able to surround him with unknown with talent. This is a John Cho movie, but around him are now a cast of unknowns — or relatively unknown — amazing actors and actresses who will now have this movie in parentheses, moving forward, so that the next financial decision is a lot easier. Ultimately, if no one is fighting for unknowns, you should find a way to anchor them around other people, I think. That, to me, is the coolest part of this whole casting thing, is that Michelle La will have this movie in parentheses, and people will know what this movie is. That is so cool.

Some have criticized “Crazy Rich Asians” for failing to represent all Asian communities. How much of a responsibility do you think films with predominantly Asian casts should have to represent all kinds of Asian diversity?

They should have none, but they’re treated like they should have all of it. The second that you say any one idea, any one person, any one product, any one film represents an “entire” anything, you’re already setting yourself up for failure. If a white character is in a movie, no one says, “Is that white character representing all white people?”

The way that you solve for representing communities at large is not with a single product — it’s with many products. Quantity solves this issue. Quantity, as a whole, will hopefully represent all facets of people and all facets of a community. “Crazy Rich Asians” is not going to speak to the entire Asian-American community. It shouldn’t, and it shouldn’t have to have that responsibility. It can speak to a few people in it who maybe relate to it. Maybe ours can speak to a few others. Maybe “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” speaks to a different community, and hopefully stuff moving forward speaks to more and more, but it’s quantity that ends up solving these issues, not one thing.

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