The sneakily brilliant new thriller Searching found $7.6 million at the US box office and another $6.5 million abroad over the long Labor Day weekend. That makes it a smash hit for Sony, which picked up the Audience Award-winning film at Sundance for a cool $5 million, and an even bigger triumph for first-time director Aneesh Chaganty, producer Sev Ohanian, and star John Cho, given its tiny budget (reportedly about $1 million) and low-key advance promotion.
Searching looks to have an even brighter box-office future ahead, because the internet is just beginning to discover the hidden Easter eggs made possible by its unique conceit: The film takes place entirely on computer screens. The format—like 2015’s horror hit Unfriended, by the same Russian production company, Bazelevs—was called a “meticulously constructed storytelling device” by the New York Times. It has all the action of the film taking place through Cho’s protagonist, David Kim interacting with screens of computers, smartphones, streaming media devices, and via webcams.
The story focuses on Kim’s desperate search for his missing daughter Margot via her enigmatic, multilayered social media trail, which sets the scene for Searching’s found-footage-by-way-of-Black Mirror format. To avoid the hilariously bad shots of unrealistic computer screens that movies often resort to, the film’s creators had to build a believable online universe for the film to take place in—and that meant they had to create a huge amount of content to fill each screen’s background windows.
“It just hit us like a train when we realized it: Even these windows that David wasn’t looking at, the ones that weren’t focused on the primary story, had to have specific content,” Chaganty told me with a laugh. “So it was a massive amount of work. It’s a little hard to quantify, but I think we ended up writing about 25 times more text than we had in the original screenplay.”
Rather than making that additional content meaningless chatter, Chaganty and Ohanian, who cowrote the script, decided to load it with side stories focused on off-screen characters and even a gigantic, unseen conspiracy, elevating Searching from a basic whodunit to a fully realized cinematic universe.
“That was completely intentional on our part,” says Chaganty. “We could have taken the easy way out, but we felt that every story demands to be told a certain way, and this one was asking for this level of detail.”
Chaganty and Ohanian ended up creating 26 different Google Docs labeled “A” to “Z,” one for every four or five-minute chunk of the film. The docs each contained 20 or so pages of background content—images, email text, subject headers, news articles and headlines, text messages, and so on—much of which is woven together into parallel storylines, to be discovered by only the keenest-eyed viewers. (There are also a wide array of more traditional Easter eggs, like in-jokey references to friends, family, cast, and crew—many of them beginning as pranks that Chaganty or Ohanian never thought would end up making it into the final cut.)
All of this makes Searching a film that demands multiple viewings. Enjoy it the first time for its devious plot and its career-defining performance by Cho (an actor with an adoring following, who has a long history of being the best thing in just-OK movies and TV series). But a second and third viewing will allow you to join the growing number of online sleuths discovering the strange and hilarious plot lines at the picture’s digital margins.
“There’s no prize for you if you figure out everything, but I have a feeling Reddit will be on top of it anyway,” says Chaganty. “We never did this to incentivize people; we always wanted these to be just something you might accidentally discover as you went through the film. So at the end of the day, if occasionally look to the sides of the screen while you’re watching for the second or third time, you’ll always find something new to talk about on the way home.”
Listing all the Easter eggs here would ruin the fun, but Chaganty was kind enough to provide a list of clues and places to look. Here they are, categorized by type:
- “Watch the opening montage closely. I don’t want to give it away, but there’s actually a lot of foreshadowing in there. In fact, if you’re really careful, you have the clues and keys to put the entire mystery together within the first 15 minutes of the movie, if you know what you’re looking at and are really paying attention. You have part of the answer by minute three. Half of it by minute 10. And you really can put it all together by minute 15.”
- “There’s a lot going on in the messages being sent to Margo from other people. These are all friends from middle school, now in high school, so you can learn a lot about the relationships between the different kids by reading the messages and comments.”
- “If you look at the emails that scroll past when David is looking at his and [his wife] Pam’s Gmail accounts, you can see the evolution of friendships and rivalries between the parents of these kids, which also contextualize the different nature of their relationship with Pam versus David.”
- “Pay particular attention to names that come up again and again and try to connect them. There are a lot of clues that don’t come in the form of clues—like screen names, ‘oh this name was in minute 2, now here it is in minute 50’—lots of connections that are coming together away from where the cursor is. In this film, it’s like doing close-up magic: The cursor is always the right hand, and we’re using it to draw your attention away from the left.”
- “I think Sev’s favorite side-plot is ‘Hannah Couch’; she’s a girl David recently went on date with, and throughout the movie you’ll see she’s reaching out to him, trying to get a second date, but he’s obviously too distracted to respond to her, and she gets continuously more frustrated. Then finally, she learns about Margot and emails him to say, ‘OH MY GOD, your daughter is missing, I didn’t realize, I’m so sorry…what about next week?’”
- “My own favorite side-plot is David’s relationship with his mother, who’s in Korea—she doesn’t speak English so all of his interactions with her are in Korean. As the story continues, you can see how often his mom is emailing and calling and messaging, and you can see how much more he’s responding to her keep her updated. And finally, you see her writing about buying a ticket to fly to the U.S. to help out, and all these things happen to her while she’s trying to get through the airport and so on…we built her as a complete character, who only exists in messages and emails. It took a ton of homework, but it was so much fun. Even the timing of the messages, showing that the date and time zones are different.”
- Other relationships that can be explored through email messages include David’s friendship with his college buddy Derek Rhodes, who now lives in Miami; with his boss, who’s passive-aggressively wondering when he’s going to come back to work, if ever; and with a very nice PTA member named Mary Costa, who keeps on coming by to drop off food for him, which is what David is surviving on while he’s engaged in his epic search for Margot.
- “Any time there’s a set of trending links, you’ll see hidden backstories or in-jokes. On one YouTube page, you’ll see a thumbnail for an Honest Trailer for Searching—I really hope someone makes one!”
- There’s a link to a trending YouTube video that is labeled as being from Laura Barnes, the undead protagonist of the 2015 cult hit movie Unfriended—produced by the same company, and also taking place solely on computer screens. Perhaps it’s a suggestion that all these “screenlife” movies take place in a shared cinematic universe.
- “There are so many references to my cinematic hero, M. Night Shyamalan—there’s a photo on Margot’s Facebook page where everyone tagged is a main character of one of Shyamalan’s films, from Signs, The Village, Unbreakable and so on. And then later, there’s a Facebook news item which says ‘Filmmaker Meets With Superfan After Surprise Cameo in Film.’ I don’t think Shyamalan has any idea who I am so I may just tweet that out at him to see if he responds and follows through!”
- “There’s a TMZ article link ‘Hollywood producer wanted for murder of film editor’—which is my joke on Sev [producer Ohanian] and the incredible challenges that went into the 18 months of editing this film.”
- Article links also frequently feature pictures of or references to Chaganty and Ohanian’s friends and family. In one TMZ thumbnail, Chaganty’s parents are shown as a “Celebrity Couple” vacationing in Italy.
- “Just about everything that you see in every iMessage side-thread is an actual text that one of my friends sent me while I was in the process of writing this movie. That’s one of the cool things about this movie—Sev and I were able to put everyone we know in it as a secret cameo.”
- Finally, while Chaganty doesn’t want the weirdest side-thread of the film exposed, audiences might want to pay close attention to anything in the margins that refers to unexplained phenomena. Anyone putting all the clues together will realize they reveal something much bigger going on than anything in the main plot. It might even be a spoiler for a future project in the Bazelevs “screenlife” universe.