John Cho And Aneesh Chaganty On 'Searching'
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SAM SANDERS, HOST:
NPR, I'm Sam Sanders. IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. We have a very special episode for you today - two guests onstage in front of a live audience. This is a good one. Earlier this month, I got to hang out with John Cho, the actor, and Aneesh Chaganty, the director. You know John from "Harold & Kumar" and the "Star Trek" films, a bunch of other stuff. You may not know Aneesh yet, but you will. Aneesh is a first-time filmmaker getting some major acclaim for his first feature film. In this film, he directed John Cho. The movie's a psychological thriller called "Searching," and it's a real twist on the genre. It makes you ask these really big questions about the role of technology in our lives. The movie hits theaters later this month.
We talk about that movie and how they made it and how it kind of twists the genre. But we also talk about whether this movie, which is directed by an Asian-American person, has a majority-Asian-American cast - I ask, does that make it an Asian-American film? John and Aneesh, they did not agree on the answer, which I liked. We talk more about that in the chat. There's a ton of other good stuff in here, too. With that said, let's get into it. Me, Aneesh and John and a few hundred friends at the LINE Hotel in Los Angeles. Enjoy.
AUNT BETTY: Hey, y'all. This is Sam's Aunt Betty. Thanks for coming to the show. Now please welcome to the stage your host for the evening and my favorite nephew, Sam Sanders.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SANDERS: How are you guys? It's so good to be here. Many, many, many thanks to all of you for being here. It's going to be a great show, I promise. As you know, one thing I always do before every time we tape anything for the show is take my shoes off, so I'm doing that. You guys can't see it, but I'm wearing some wonderful watermelon socks tonight courtesy of Nordstrom Rack in DT LA.
SANDERS: With that said, I want to get to it so we can get through it. We are here tonight to talk about a movie called "Searching." Who's heard of it?
SANDERS: It's going to be a big deal, I predict, OK? It is a tech thriller unlike any you have ever seen before. And I know most of you have not seen it yet. But it's already getting tons of buzz. It won the very prestigious Alfred P. Sloan award at Sundance this year. It's a big deal, right? Applause. Applause. Yeah.
SANDERS: That award is given to a film that is, quote, "an outstanding feature film focusing on science or technology as a theme." I have here one of the stars of "Searching" and the director of "Searching," John Cho and Aneesh Chaganty. Come onstage, you guys.
SANDERS: Don't they look great?
JOHN CHO: Koreatown.
SANDERS: How are you guys feeling?
ANEESH CHAGANTY: Good.
CHO: Thanks so much for having us. Thanks for being here, everybody.
SANDERS: Thanks for being here. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
SANDERS: So you guys have been...
CHAGANTY: It's 12 people.
SANDERS: Well, there's one over there who's really excited, and I'm loving it. What's your name?
ANNE: Oh, I'm Anne (ph).
SANDERS: Anne, I am so glad you're here.
SANDERS: Your energy is going to get us through this night.
SANDERS: So one, I got to say thank you both for being there because I know you're very busy. You've been on a press tour for this movie, and you've been everywhere. Were you just in Hong Kong?
CHO: Yes, we were. Yeah, very briefly, we were at a tech conference called RISE just because of the themes of the movie. "Searching" is a thriller that takes place on all the devices we use all the time, so it seemed like the appropriate place.
SANDERS: How was it?
CHO: Good eating.
CHAGANTY: Yeah, a lot of food, yeah.
CHAGANTY: We went to a restaurant called Ho Lee Fook...
CHAGANTY: ...Which is the coolest thing about that restaurant, you know?
SANDERS: Which one of you is a better traveler?
CHAGANTY: Probably you are.
CHO: Probably you.
CHAGANTY: OK, me? OK.
SANDERS: Oh, that's sweet.
SANDERS: Why do you say the other's better?
CHO: I feel like Aneesh has (laughter) - Aneesh has a very self-actualized wardrobe style, and so it's simplified. It travels easy. And I feel like (laughter) - I feel like a debutante traveling through India in the 18th century with lots of trunks - men carrying trunks.
SANDERS: How much product do you bring?
CHO: What was that?
SANDERS: I said, how much product do you bring?
CHO: Well, it depends. On - like, on a trip to Hong Kong, I've got to bring stuff, Sam.
CHO: I've got to bring stuff.
SANDERS: You know your process. My secret to travel is only one bag. No matter where you go, only one bag.
CHAGANTY: I like that.
SANDERS: And it should be carry-on size.
CHAGANTY: Hey, wow.
SANDERS: Thank you.
CHAGANTY: They got some love for carry-ons (laughter).
SANDERS: On that note, thanks for coming out. Have a good night.
CHO: So passionate.
SANDERS: Anyways, let's talk about the movie.
SANDERS: It is called "Searching." I saw it last week. It's getting buzz on buzz on buzz on buzz on buzz. Aneesh, describe your movie in 30 seconds or less. I'm timing you.
CHAGANTY: OK. Oh, yeah. So Sev Ohanian and Natalie Qasabian are both producers on the movie. Sev co-wrote it with me. John produced it. So it's our movie. But the movie's called "Searching." It is what we like to call a classic thriller told in a very unconventional way. The classic part about it is that it's about a dad looking for a missing kid. And the unconventional part about it is that almost all the movie takes place on his daughter's laptop screen as he breaks into his daughter's laptop to look for clues to find her. How many seconds?
SAN SANDERS, HOST:
CHAGANTY: Thank you very much.
SANDERS: I was not timing. Aneesh, why make this movie this way, only through screens? This seems like you were asking for more work than you needed.
CHAGANTY: Oh, yeah. We were. Yeah. It took - the movie took about two years to edit, which is about...
SANDERS: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Really?
CHAGANTY: Yeah. Yeah, I know. So never again is the current (ph) answer.
CHAGANTY: You know, Sev and I were first approached by a company who had done - who had made a movie called "Unfriended." Have any of you guys seen the movie called "Unfriended" before?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Cheering).
CHAGANTY: OK, some love. So it takes place on the computer screen, and they wanted to follow it up. And for a long time, Sev and I just kept saying no and no to this opportunity to make another movie on a computer screen because, for us, that sounds like a gimmick. That sounds really lame. And we had seen all those other films. And we're like, that's not really something that we want to do.
And then one day, we kind of came up with an idea for an opening sequence for this movie. It's, like, a very standalone opening montage when you guys check it out. And for some reason, it felt like we had unlocked this potential of this format that was, like, more than what had been done before but that was something that was actually engaging, cinematic and emotional and would do something that other films hadn't, which is, like, make you forget that what you were watching was on a computer screen.
And we thought, like, if you could tell a story and have an audience completely just focus on the story of a missing person and a father's search to find her and then only at the end realize - wait a second. That was all on a computer screens - wouldn't that be a really, really cool feeling? So we kind of just chased that feeling for two years longer than we thought we would.
SANDERS: Were you hesitant, John, to do this kind of project given that format?
CHO: I was. I said no at first.
CHO: Yeah. I love the script. I love the story. I love the genre. It's a very classic, suspenseful thriller. But I said, why the screens? And it was probably because, ironically, that Aneesh and I spoke over the phone, through a technological device, that we didn't really connect. And - but to his credit and, you know, to my luck, Aneesh didn't take my no.
And he kept coming back. And so we had a meeting face-to-face. And you know, two things happened. One, I was just really impressed with the person here. I said, I think I'd like to follow this person. And secondly, he assured me that what we were making was something cinematic, that it wasn't going to be a YouTube video. It was going to feel like movies that I grew up with and that he grew up with. And I think that's what we made.
SANDERS: Why'd you keep pushing for John?
CHAGANTY: He makes that sound so much less creepy than it was. I, like...
CHAGANTY: You know, that - when he - that first phone call, he was like, yeah, it's technological devices. And that was, like, the first time I ever talked to a celebrity. And like...
CHAGANTY: ...You know? And like, you know, we got on the phone. And they were like, hey, John Cho wants to talk to you or talk to you about the script because we had given the script to his agents, and he had read it. And I was like, oh, my gosh. John Cho wants to talk to me. Like, I told all my friends, all my family. They all...
CHAGANTY: Like, they all knew that I was about to get on the phone...
SANDERS: You're not supposed to do that.
CHAGANTY: I know. No, I know.
CHAGANTY: And, like, I get on the phone with him. And 15 minutes go by. And I hang up the phone. And I was like, that - I completely [expletive] that one up. Like, you know?
CHAGANTY: Like - and, you know, a few days later, he passed on the project. And there was so much about the movie that I didn't get to say. I learned more about directing in that 15 minutes, like, talking to him and letting him ask me questions and not telling him what we wanted to do with it than I ever did. But thankfully, a few days later after it was a hard no from him and from the team saying it was a hard no, we realized that of all of the phone numbers, you know, when we were in preproduction, we often got connected via a third-party line to whoever...
CHAGANTY: ...We were talking to except for John who called me on his actual cell phone number.
SANDERS: So you had his number.
CHAGANTY: Yeah. And I literally - I remember being like, we already lost him, you know? Like, so we're like, why not? So we pulled out my phone. And I was like, hey, dude.
CHAGANTY: You know, I heard you said no to the project. To be honest, I don't agree with all the reasons why.
CHO: I texted back - who dis (ph)?
SANDERS: That's, like, mad aggro, man.
CHAGANTY: Yeah. No, it was - I was, you know, it was like - it could've been career-ending. Who knows? But you know, I basically asked him out to drinks if he was at all open to changing his mind. And I remember, he was like, it bubbled. And then it went away, and then an hour went by.
CHAGANTY: I'm like - I was like, oh [expletive]. So...
CHO: I don't remember this.
CHO: Yeah, of course you don't.
CHAGANTY: And then, you know, finally an hour later, he's like, yeah, I'm down. And we were like, hell yeah. And we both met at a bar in LA. And basically, he came, sat down. And the second he sat down, I stood up. And I gave him the best pitch I've ever given to anyone before, after, during, you know?
SANDERS: Are you going to give it to us here right now?
CHAGANTY: No, I don't think I can replicate it.
SANDERS: OK (laughter).
CHAGANTY: It was so good. The desire was so strong. But you know - and I remember thinking, he has to say yes. And I remember sitting down, like, 15 minutes later, 20 minutes later with, like, a laptop in my hand and sitting it down and him looking at me and him being like, you know, I promised I'd put my kids to bed. Thank you so much for taking the time. And he shook my - shakes my hand and leaves. And I was like - and then he got - like, he's gone. And I was like, all right, we lost him, you know, for sure. And I called...
SANDERS: But it worked.
CHAGANTY: Yeah, it apparently worked. But like, that moment, we thought we lost him. And then it turns out that Monday that after, I guess, some soul-searching...
CHAGANTY: ...John came back with a yes. So - but apparently, it was from that meeting. But it's funny how we have totally different perspectives of the same event.
CHO: Can I just say, you know, the reason I didn't say yes at the time and I was like...
CHAGANTY: Oh, I...
CHO: ...You know, during the meeting, I was like, I think I want to do this movie. I like this guy. But I have this manager. And whenever we set up a meeting, sometimes he says, don't take a meeting. I know what's going to happen. You're going to say yes. You're going to get all caught up...
CHO: ...Because you love ideas. You love people who get excited. And you're going to say yes and - which is an unfair characterization. But I remembered what he said. And I said, I'm not going to say yes right now. I'm going to go home and think about it. But I did want to say yes at the thing.
SANDERS: And here we are now.
SANDERS: That's beautiful.
I want to break down how making a movie like this was a challenge for you both, acting and directing it. John, first for you - I'm watching this movie last week. And I realize a lot of the physical work that you're used to seeing actors do in a film is a bit limited in this movie because you have to be in a screen. And for a lot of the film, you're in a chair in front of a laptop or, like, computer screen. How did you navigate that? What was your process? What was your method? Was it harder or easier?
CHO: You know, it wasn't like hard-hard, like being-a-busboy hard.
CHO: But it was tricky. And it was - the issue for me was I didn't have anything I could - past experiences I could rely on.
CHO: And so I felt like I didn't have anything to hold on to. It was all sort of an extreme close-up for most of the movie. And as you say, I didn't have anything - much physical to do. And for me, what's nice about having physical action as an actor is it's really hard to be false when you're running.
CHAGANTY: That's why Tom Cruise must do it.
SANDERS: Have you seen the movie yet? This is the new "Mission: Impossible."
SANDERS: Is it that epic of running?
CHO: What's that?
CHAGANTY: A lot of epic running in the new movie, yeah.
CHO: (Laughter) But it's - when you're lifting something or having to drink, it's just sort of, like, hard to look false. And so for me, there were no shortcuts. It was just all being there and doing more work than I like. And so...
SANDERS: More work.
CHO: Yeah, more work than I like. And then there was the fact that the laptop was blank, and it was dark.
SANDERS: Oh. During shooting, there was not stuff on the screen.
CHO: During shooting, there was nothing there.
SANDERS: So you're talking to a dark screen.
SANDERS: For months.
CHO: It was two weeks. But...
CHO: But yeah. So it was just a very unusual acting activity. And frankly, I was kind of scared to make a wrong move because the camera was so up in your face. It was challenging.
SANDERS: So did the screenplay have notes that said, like, eyes dart left, eyes dart right, eyes go up, eyes - really?
CHAGANTY: Yeah. I mean - so basically, every stage of this movie - every stage of it looked different than making a normal movie so starting from the screenplay. Even the screenplay itself, we couldn't write it in a traditional screenplay format because we realized - any of you guys have read a screenplay before?
SANDERS: It's LA. They have.
CHAGANTY: Yeah, we - they like - OK.
CHAGANTY: OK. For those of you that...
SANDERS: They have a few in the audience to give to you later on later on tonight.
CHO: OK. How many of you have one...
CHO: ...Underneath your seat...
CHAGANTY: Once I...
CHO: ...Ready to give us?
CHAGANTY: But - like, every single - because we realized, like, in a traditional screenplay whenever you have a scene header, it's interior, you know, stage dash evening, you know? You set the whole scene.
CHAGANTY: And for us, we realized early on that, like, no movie was - no screenplay format could ever handle, like, interior, Facebook photos dash Facebook dash Google Chrome dash...
CHAGANTY: ...David's computer that night. It doesn't make any sense. And you can't read it that way. So we literally had to, like, create a whole new form. We called it a scriptment (ph), which is a mix of a script and a treatment, that would kind of tackle how text messages looked, what would they look when they're backspaced, how to handle a cursor. It almost looked like a book. It was like a chapter kind of book. And that was actually what we sent John, not a traditional screenplay.
SANDERS: So it was thicker and bigger than a - how like...
CHAGANTY: It was actually smaller.
CHAGANTY: Had we - had we written a normal screenplay, it would have been, like, 300 pages because, like, every time you switched over a different window, it's a new scene header. And scene headers take a lot of space on a page. So we really realized, like, let's just write a small little book and...
CHAGANTY: ...Convince people on that instead.
CHO: And you know, it's interesting. When I finally saw the film, I texted Aneesh and said this - it's crazy. You've added to the vocabulary of cinema. And how far we've come along as a society, you know, in our computer literacy, you know, so that all those cues, all those - we even have computer nostalgia. We've gone so far into the computer age so that all those deletes, all those backspaces, all those, like, forgotten icons have - are imbued with meaning now. And that's sort of why the movie works. We couldn't have made this movie 10 years ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SANDERS: All right, time for a break. When we come back, how do you keep a film about technology current when it takes two years to edit it? BRB.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SANDERS: Speaking of the time and technology, I'm guessing, if you were in edits for two years and doing stuff before then, some of the technology in the film changed over the course of making the film.
CHAGANTY: Yeah. We realized pretty quickly that this is probably the fastest turnaround from a modern movie to a period piece, like, ever made.
CHAGANTY: You know? So we were like...
CHAGANTY: ...I'm pretty sure during our edit, it became a period piece.
CHAGANTY: We were just too far along. Like, Facebook updated its UI, and we're like oh, [expletive].
CHAGANTY: So you know - but I think the way to solve for that, the way we kind of fix that is like - OK, let's acknowledge that. Let's just make sure that our movie is set on very specific days and stick to that. So our movie takes place - in the world of our movie, it's May 11, May 12 and May 13 of 2017. And every single webpage that David visits, every single news item, every ticker, every single thing like that matches the local, regional and national news and events and websites of those specific days.
SANDERS: It was only three days?
CHAGANTY: Yeah. Oh - well, there's some more movement in the movie. But the majority of it takes place...
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
CHAGANTY: ...Over three days.
SANDERS: Yeah. I mean, there are these themes of technology and the interesting way that you make this movie. But also, at its core, there is just family drama. And John, you were playing this father who loves his daughter and is trying to find her. And I want to talk about how you channeled fatherhood for that role. But I first want to play a clip that really kind of gets at the level of intensity you brought to, I guess, representing the love a parent has for their child. I think we have the clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SEARCHING")
CHO: (As David Kim) I just want to know where you were the night my daughter went missing.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I was busy.
CHO: (As David Kim) What are you hiding?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Nothing.
CHO: (As David Kim) Where were you the night my daughter went missing?
DEBRA MESSING: (As Detective Vick) You can't assist in the investigation anymore.
CHO: (As David Kim) What does that mean?
MESSING: (As Detective Vick) It means that we can't have someone this close to the case helping investigate it.
CHO: (As David Kim) All I'm trying to do is to help you find my daughter.
MESSING: (As Detective Vick) You can't see things clearly.
CHO: (As David Kim) If it wasn't for me - not you - you and I would both be thinking that my Margo ran away. But because of me...
MESSING: (As Detective Vick) We don't know that she didn't run away.
CHO: (As David Kim) You're cutting me off.
MESSING: (As Detective Vick) You broke his jaw.
SANDERS: Are you that dad?
CHO: I think every dad is that dad and every mom is that mom. And if you're pushed that far, we can all become biting animals. That wasn't - though, I didn't even have to think about that. You know, I remember, like - this is weird. This is the first time I'm telling this story.
SANDERS: That's what we like.
CHO: One of my first...
CHO: One of my first memories is when we immigrated, when I was 6 years old, to Houston, and I started kindergarten.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Cheering).
SANDERS: Shout-out, kindergarten.
CHO: Shout-out, kindergarten.
CHO: Oh, we got some kindergartners in the house.
SANDERS: Say what?
CHO: I didn't know how this - we shared desks. And I - there was a pencil box, and I took it home. And it belonged to another boy. And you know, my mother got word that my teacher said, that Chinese boy took it. And she - I just have never forgotten it because she felt that somebody had pushed, you know, kind of pushed her boy down. And I - it made this very strong imprint on me. And I just considered my mother a mild-mannered person. But she was like a tiger unleashed.
SANDERS: Did she go to the school?
CHO: Yeah, I believe so. I think...
CHO: But you know, I think everyone's capable of it. And you don't even know...
CHO: ...What could set off those...
SANDERS: Did playing this role, the father of a child who was abducted, change in any way or even the way you think about parenting?
CHO: It's made me think about - you know, my boy is 10. And I see what's coming down the pike, which is, you know - I mean, I've been saying it's, like, with these devices in your kid's bedroom, you know, you used to say watch out for the pervert at the 7-Eleven.
CHO: Or you know, don't get lost in the woods. But it's like all the perverts and all the 7-Elevens can come into your...
CHO: ...Into your child's bedroom via these devices.
CHO: And we have to watch out for that - and then coupled with the fact that you're never going to be as computer literate as your kid. It's just never going to happen. You're never going to close that gap, and they're going to be ahead of you. So it's a tricky time.
SANDERS: You come from Silicon Valley. You worked for Google. What did you do for Google?
CHAGANTY: So I was working at the Google Creative Lab in New York City, where I basically wrote and developed and directed their commercials.
SANDERS: Watching this movie, it feels like it's directed by a person who probably doesn't that much like big tech.
SANDERS: What were you trying to say about companies like Google or YouTube or Facebook or whoever with this movie?
CHAGANTY: You know, it's funny. People often, like, I think assume when you see the trailer and stuff that it's very anti-technology. It's not. You know, and I think - this is probably the ex-Google employee in me speaking, but, you know, I think technology as a whole gets such a negative rap in media. You know, like, whether we're watching a "Black Mirror" episode or a Facebook PSA or you're reading an article, it's always about, like, how obsessed we are with our phones, how, like, we're addicted to social media, how, you know, technology is going to be the end of us - like, buy canned foods now - you know, like, very negative stuff.
And to me - and again, maybe this was seeing engineers working at Google and talking to them, but, like, it felt like media had just picked a small slice of the pie of what technology is and said, this is what it is, as - and what we wanted to do with our movie is zoom out and basically say - give technology a much more holistic picture and say - like, it's like looking at a hammer and saying, hammer is bad, as opposed to hammer is bad, hammer is good, hammer is sad, hammer is whatever you want it to be if - depending on how you use it. And for us, that's what this movie is about.
SANDERS: John's laughing.
CHO: Sad hammer.
CHAGANTY: Sad hammer, baby.
CHAGANTY: The "Searching" story, yes. Sad hammer, the "Searching" story, yeah.
SANDERS: I found myself, while watching the film, asking myself, is this an Asian-American film? There was one moment in which, you know, the characters are talking about kimchi gumbo, and I'm like, yeah, it is. Then there are other moments where I say to myself, well, anybody, any family could be this family. Is it an Asian-American film for both of you?
CHAGANTY: On three - one, two, three. No.
SANDERS: Drama, drama.
CHO: You know, the fact that it doesn't have to be an Asian-American film makes me want to claim it as an Asian-American film in that I want to claim...
CHO: You know, like, just - yeah, if it was an action movie that had nothing to do with being Asian - like, no karate, I mean - like, a shooting, punching movie but it had an Asian star - I'd say, yeah, that's an Asian-American movie because it has an Asian-American actor. And I don't mind it not being one either. But the fact that it's - to me, the thing that makes me want to claim it as an Asian-American movie is that it's an Asian family, and I've been - many times, I've been the only Asian character in the movie or actor, and this was particularly meaningful to me to see a whole Asian family and one that loved one another.
Sometimes, you know, the theme in a movie with a lot of Asians is that you're running away from your Asian-ness (ph) to find love outside of your culture. And this is - just doesn't - that doesn't compute in this. This is about fathers and mothers and children. And so for that reason, I, you know, kind of want to lean into the yes of it.
SANDERS: And you, sir.
CHAGANTY: Yeah, yeah.
CHAGANTY: You know, I say no for - it's funny; I say no for the exact same reasons. You know, because I think what - you know, growing up, you know, all of my favorite movies, like the thrillers and the action movies and the mysteries and all those kinds of films - like, they just never had anybody that looked like me, and they still don't. I don't think I've ever seen an Indian-American or Indian person in these Hollywood action films. But, like, in here, we had an opportunity to kind of do that and, like - and those films never talked about race or culture or the color of your skin. They were just like, here's a spy and he needs to break into whatever. There were just other scenarios. And we had an opportunity to do that here and make a movie that had nothing to do with that. And I think what - it's really - we found out the other day actually through a Vanity Fair article that this is the first mainstream contemporary thriller to ever have an Asian-American lead in it. And I think, like...
CHAGANTY: ...What - see - which is cool. And I think what has made it an Asian-American film is the fact that it is the first to do this, you know? Like, this isn't - like, this is a movie that could have anybody in it, and that was the point - is that it - we don't - for once, we didn't have to - you know, usually you have to explain, what is the Asian hook? Like, why is this family Asian? But there's nothing about this movie that explains it. Like, it's just, like, there's no justifying why we're here. It's just, this is our movie. So, like, for us, like, it isn't, but by being it and by apparently being one of the first movies to do it, it has become that film. And, like, it's something that I'm very proud of, but at the same time, like, its intention is, like, the endgame where it's just like, we don't have to justify why we're in a thriller.
SANDERS: How do you feel about having that pressure when an outlet like Vanity Fair is saying, this was the first Asian-American thriller, or this is an Asian movie? And so many times - and I've talked to folks on the show about this before - when you are a first or close to the first, you have so much weight on you because there aren't that many others. Aneesh, do you feel that with this movie? And John, have you felt that before in your career? Either of you.
CHAGANTY: Yeah. I've felt that lately. I've felt that the last few days with that article. You know, like, it's, like, in not trying - in trying to do our own thing and trying to, like, put our head down and work hard and make a movie with five people in a tiny edit room for two years, we have now - there's now another light on our movie. And we're talking about our film in a different capacity than I ever expected us to be talking about it. You never expected this, the Asian-American-ness of this film, would be a thing?
CHAGANTY: No, I didn't expect us - that we'd be record-breaking in that way. You know, like, it just, like - it's not...
SANDERS: You didn't, like, search Wikipedia and see that there wasn't one before?
CHAGANTY: My entire search history is like, first thriller, first mystery film with - yeah, no. No, because, I mean, I figured people would talk about it, but at the same time, like, we were like - honestly, I thought, like, a movie like "Crazy Rich Asians" - that's going to be the movie that the Asian-American community goes behind. You know, that's what they're going to go behind. Our movie is like, we're just a thriller, you know? And now, you know, I get a lot of, like...
CHO: Crazy worried Asians.
CHAGANTY: Crazy worried - yeah, yeah. That's good. We should change it - "Crazy Searching Asians." Yeah, I don't know. It's, like, people will message me now and - it's so nice to have, like, an Indian-American, like, I can follow in the footsteps. It's like, damn dude, like, I got to work on the next movie, I guess, you know? It's - I don't know.
CHO: You know, the - I understand that thing - wanting to shine a spotlight on something you're happy about. And I understand that impulse. And I actually really appreciate it because it comes from love, and it comes from pride. And I also understand feeling burdened by it because one thing it does is it can chip away - if you're not careful, it can get just a little in the way of the fun of it. And it is our job to play - you know? - as storytellers or as actors. So you don't want to hear it so much that it interferes with your sense of play and fun because that's what we're good at.
What's great about - like, in this situation, what's special - even though, like you, I didn't really think about it until we were there in Sundance, but what's special about it in retrospect is that this is a young storyteller who is of Indian descent who's, you know, making waves and is being creative. I'm just excited about moving the discussion away from casting about some people going, I'll use you - you know, and the - like, the typical example is using a Chinese pop star in a big action movie in a side role, and that - moving it away from celebrating that idea to celebrating the storyteller and celebrating voices getting louder and louder.
CHAGANTY: I will say, though - just one last point about casting - one of the things that I'm so proud of, apart from the editors who - we slaved over the film for two years - is the fact that because we were able to cast John and because he said yes that day, is we are able to cast a family around him that are largely unknown actors and actresses. And now they will always have this movie in parentheses for them to be in the next movie. So that's...
CHO: That's so funny because...
CHO: I'm sorry to interrupt.
CHAGANTY: Yeah, go ahead. Go ahead.
CHO: I used to - you know, one of my script-reading experiences when I was starting out was, like, if I'd start reading a script and I wasn't paying attention to what role I was supposed to read and I - or I made an error and I started following the wrong character and I thought, oh, this is my character, and then I'd bump into a sibling or family member, I'd go, oh, I made an error. I made a mistake. I knew that because I knew they would never cast two Asians. And I'd go, oh, I have to go back and read the cover letter. I guess I chose the wrong character. And that's...
CHO: (Laughter) That's the reality of things. But, yeah. And it's also important to just start - I just - you know, whenever I hear, you know, there are no Asian - fill in the blank - you know, actors or actresses who are bankable, it's always like a farmer to me going, there's no crops. But, like, I want to say, you didn't plant any seeds. At some point, you have to plant the seeds.
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SANDERS: All right - time for one more break. When we come back, Aneesh tells me about a famous director he saw in a magazine when he was a kid and how that moment made him say, huh, that guy looks like me. Be right back.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SANDERS: Before we go to Q&A, last question for you two, and then the questions will come from the audience. But you, John, have been an Asian-American in this industry for a little bit. And I'm guessing you've been...
CHAGANTY: He's been an Asian-American his whole life, actually.
SANDERS: Your whole life - but in the industry...
SANDERS: I know, yeah. But, like, you - like, Aneesh is, like, starting this journey - the one piece of advice you want him to carry with himself as a person of color in this weird, funky place.
CHAGANTY: Teach me.
CHO: You know, I think there's a lot - I'm going to look at you.
CHO: I think there are a lot of people who want to take your chi. And there's a lot of people who want to give you advice and steer you. But I think the most important thing is to listen to the impulses that got you here, the sense of play and the sense of creativity and to tell stories that entertain you. So it's - you're telling bedtime stories to boy Aneesh, and you've got to make that kid smile. And that's the job from job to job.
SANDERS: "Super Soul Sunday."
SANDERS: Thank you both.
CHAGANTY: Thank you, Sam.
SANDERS: We're not done yet.
SANDERS: Yeah. We had some notecards out at the front for people to leave questions, if they wanted, for our wonderful guests. We've collected some. We have three. The first one comes from Jailene (ph). She says, have you played or written racial stereotypes because it was work, or a paycheck? What was that like?
CHO: I tried not to. I do recall one that I thought was, like, kind of iffy. But I went - I did the job.
SANDERS: What was it?
CHO: I want to say it was a Chinese delivery guy on "The Jeff Foxworthy Show."
SANDERS: Oh, my goodness (laughter).
CHO: I think - the way I justified it for myself, going back to that accent issue, was the joke was that he had a Southern accent and that he...
SANDERS: The delivery guy.
CHO: The delivery guy - and that Jeff Foxworthy was expecting a ching-chong accent.
SANDERS: Of course he was.
CHO: And that was the joke. And I thought, OK. Well, I'll take the check. It's like, I'm not doing an accent, blah, blah, blah. When I got there, to me, I remember what I was most bothered by is - what was most icky was there was a laugh. And I looked out at the crew. And this is - you know, perhaps this is changing. It certainly is changing. I haven't done a sitcom in a while, but it was all older, white men. And I looked out there, and I looked at myself. And I thought about what I was doing. And I thought, this feels icky. And I don't want this feeling again.
And you know, they don't pay that much (laughter). It's not like you're getting rich. And then I thought about, like they said - well, then you want to keep working. I was like, I don't know if I want to be the guy that does this. And I don't know if that really leads to a great career. It didn't compute to me. So I just tried to avoid that. I did the best I could. I don't know if I have the most spotless record, but I did try to avoid that as best I could.
SANDERS: Do you have an experience like that, even making stuff for Google?
CHAGANTY: No. I...
SANDERS: Well, OK.
CHO: Somebody's old. Somebody's young.
CHAGANTY: Yeah. Yes.
CHAGANTY: That's exactly what it is.
SANDERS: I love it. I love it. I love it. This question is from Pallavi Sastry (ph). She says, do you feel a responsibility to reach back and champion Asian-Americans in Hollywood? Who reached back for you?
CHO: Yeah. I think of all those actors that mentored me when I first came into town. This is a great moment to mention that, with all the excitement about what's happening with Asian-American filmmaking, we can lose sight of the fact that there were - there have been generations of Asian-American actors who've been doing great work. And without their mentorship, I just - I wouldn't be here without specifically - one specific example from my past is East West Players, which is a theater in town where I got my start.
CHO: And playwrights David Henry Hwang and Philip Gotanda, on and on that had been doing it.
CHAGANTY: Yeah. You know, it's - the first - the thing that got me into filmmaking as a thing was, you know, when I was a kid - I was, like, 8 or 9 years old. This was, like, 1999 or 2000. And I was, like, in my parents' bathroom. And like, there's a magazine. This starts off weird. It gets to a good place.
SANDERS: We sure hope so.
CHAGANTY: Yeah. Right. Yeah. The end.
CHAGANTY: And, you know, there's a magazine called India West, which is, like, a popular magazine newspaper that kind of, like, I think Indian-Americans get but North America. And you know, there's an art section in it. And I remember opening it up one day and looking in the art section because I've always loved movies, but I had no idea what I wanted to do. Movies were just a thing I liked. And I remember seeing the picture of a guy who was directing a movie. He was behind a camera on some set in Philadelphia.
And it was for a movie called "The Sixth Sense" that was coming out. And I remember looking at that photo and literally thinking, like, that guy looks like me. And like, that is - literally, about six months later, I picked up my first camera. And like, it took one person - like, one person - for me to see, like, that guy looked like me for me to do what I do. And like, as far as responsibility, like, in a lot of ways, I think to continue to do work, hopefully, will inspire somebody else who is sitting on a toilet in their parents' bathroom...
CHAGANTY: ...You know? But at the same time, like, yeah, I think - are we - I do feel a responsibility now to kind of give an opportunity for somebody who wouldn't have it otherwise.
SANDERS: Yeah. You know, speaking of giving opportunity, we should sidebar and note the role that your mother played in getting you into film.
SANDERS: If I understand correctly, she would help you, like, cut class...
CHAGANTY: Oh, there she is.
SANDERS: ...To go see movies.
CHAGANTY: Oh, my gosh. I'm glad she's not here. She'd be crying right now.
SANDERS: This photo is of you and your mother just looking so cute and smiley and happy. What's her name?
CHAGANTY: Her name is Subha, but I call her Amma. And...
SANDERS: So - OK...
CHAGANTY: I've never called her Subha.
SANDERS: She would take you out of class to go see movies?
CHAGANTY: Yeah. So she grew up in India in a state called Andhra Pradesh. And...
CHAGANTY: South Andhra, Yeah. And you know, she - movies were such a big part of her life. And kind of - she'd always go see, like, every movie, but, like, especially the Hollywood movies that would come to India would often be the same ones that come there now, is, like, the big, blockbuster-y, the ones that make money abroad. You know, the "Vertical Limits," the "Cliffhangers" - those sort of, like, big movies. So when she moved to the States in the '80s, like, those were the movies that she went out to see.
And you know, as a kid, you know, it was me and my little brother. And every Friday, you know, we would open up, in the morning, the newspaper and look at the timings of all of these big movies that were coming out. And basically, she would kind of, like - when it was a big enough movie and we predicted, like, oh, this one's going to be really crowded, she would, like, literally come 15, 20 minutes early before school ended and, like, get us out of school and, like, drive us to the movie theater and wait in line so we could be...
CHAGANTY: ...First in line for, like, a crowded movie theater and have the line pile up behind us and us get the best seats. So like, she did that - and even to this day, like, the Oscars are our family's Super Bowl. Like, I go home every year. And we - the only exception is, like, if one of us is actually there. So far, we've always been home.
CHAGANTY: But you know, so for us, you know, like, that - I kind of fell in love with movies as an experience through her first before I fell in love with it as a craft. And it was that love and then I saw M. Night Shyamalan's picture. But you know, it's so weird to, like, have her - she joined me on the press tour in India...
CHAGANTY: ...Last week. And it's so interesting for me to think, like, wow - to watch somebody who you gave something to and then have them do it on, like, even, like, somehow have just gotten lucky in a lot of ways and made a small movie and have it become this big. But like, that must be such an interesting feeling for her. But...
SANDERS: Have you asked her about that feeling?
CHAGANTY: There was one time we started - you know, after Sundance - you know, Sundance was a whirlwind for us. We were...
SANDERS: She was there?
CHAGANTY: She was there, yeah. She was there. Our whole family was there. And I remember, like, you know - she's going to hate me for telling this story.
SANDERS: I also love that y'all were like, the whole family was there because brown people represent. Do it, yes.
CHAGANTY: Oh my God, yeah. The whole family was there. Yeah. They've seen the film more times than I have. But you know, she was there. And I think, like, it was such a whirlwind of emotions. She was able to meet, like, all these stars. She loves movies. She loves People magazine, so seeing all these faces of everyone, like...
CHAGANTY: ...She was, you know - and even meet, like, Priyanka Chopra, like, who's a Hindi movie star and take a selfie with her and do all these things. And then, like, I think about a week afterwards, I got on the phone with her. And it was, like, the first time we were talking, like, you know, and everything had calmed down a little bit more. And like, I was telling her about a meeting that I had that day. And then, like, the dam broke. And she just, like, cried for, like - it was, like, a 30-minute - I was just listening to her. And it was - yeah. It was very touching for me, you know?
UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: Aw.
SANDERS: Yeah. I love that.
SANDERS: I love that. Last question from our audience from Genevieve (ph), quote, "walking up to home plate, what would your walk-up song be?"
SANDERS: I know mine.
CHAGANTY: What's yours?
SANDERS: "Return Of The Mack."
SANDERS: You can't beat it.
CHO: "Eye Of The Tiger."
CHAGANTY: "I Want Candy" by Aaron Carter.
CHO: Somebody's old. Somebody's young.
SANDERS: This was a beautiful, wonderful, amazing conversation. I thank you both for it.
CHO: Thank you so much.
CHAGANTY: Thank you so much.
SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SANDERS: All right, that's a wrap. Many thanks to John Cho and Aneesh Chaganty for talking to me about their new film "Searching." The movie is in theaters on August 24, and the wide release is August 31. The show this week was produced by Brent Baughman and Anjuli Sastry with help from Kumari Devarajan. Joanna Pawlowska is our senior events manager and makes all this live fun stuff happen. Our show is edited each week by Jordana Hochman. And our director of programming is Steve Nelson. Many thanks to our engineers tonight, Patrick Murray and Leo del Aguila, and also our engineering director at NPR West, Steve Martin. Thanks to our volunteers Angie Hamilton-Lowe, Melissa Kuypers, Brian Berumen, Will Mears, Pamela Thompson and the entire NPR West crew. Thanks to Renee Klahr for our visuals. And thanks to my big boss who signs my checks, NPR's director of programming Anya Grundmann. And of course, thank you, Los Angeles and this lovely, lovely crowd here tonight.
SANDERS: Listeners, if you loved this show, we'll be back live again in Los Angeles on Tuesday, October 2 at The Montalban theater in Hollywood. That'll be in partnership with NPR member station KPCC and their program KPCC In Person.
SANDERS: Yes. We are back in your feeds on Friday. Until then, I'm Sam Sanders. Talk soon.
SANDERS: Thank you, everyone. We'll see you in the lobby.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
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