Screen Time with Aneesh Chaganty

The director of “Searching” and “Run” talks about diversity in Hollywood, producing “Searching 2,” and his love for Christopher Nolan and Hrithik Roshan.

Devanshi Patel

May 20, 2021

Screen Time with Aneesh Chaganty
Aneesh Chaganty on location in Winnipeg, Canada for "Run" (Courtesy of Chaganty)

Last March, when the pandemic broke out in California, Aneesh Chaganty’s parents were in India. To help them take care of their garden, he moved back home to San Jose. (My parents — who live in the same neighborhood as Chaganty’s — implored me to come home as well, but I’m far less dutiful than he is.)

The 30-year-old writer-director of Searching (2018) and Run (2020) loves writing, because as he puts it, it’s the only unstructured part of his life. Searching — the 2018 Sundance favorite, starring John Cho as a widowed father looking for his missing teenage daughter — was a hit that critics called “an exceptional feature debut [that] does the impossible.”    

Last year, Run, the Sarah Paulson-starring thriller, released on streaming platforms around Thanksgiving, as the pandemic shelved its theatrical release. The film — about a 17-year-old who begins to suspect that her mother might be holding her captive — went on to become Hulu’s most streamed original film.

Chaganty — whose debut drew comparisons to M Night Shyamalan — also inadvertently bucks minority stereotypes in his films: Run marks the debut of 23-year-old Kiera Allen, the first actor who uses a wheelchair to star in a major thriller since 1948’s The Sign of the Ram. Searching represented the John Cho renaissance, giving audiences what they craved in #starringJohnCho memes, which envisioned the Asian American actor as the lead in popular films. But for Chaganty, neither of these choices are ham-handed talking points, the forced diversity of a college brochure.

When we got on Zoom, Chaganty was in his Los Angeles home, half-packed and preparing to move in with his fiancé. He had just returned from Colombia, where he was on location for Searching 2, which he is producing. Like its prequel, Searching 2 chronicles a missing-person search through a unique visual style. We delved into what makes a good movie, his Bollywood and Telugu faves, diversity in Hollywood, and what’s next.

What makes a good movie to you? Is there something that you want to subvert or avoid in your own work?

I certainly watch more movies I don't like more than movies that I do. I always look at a screenplay first. And so, I think the things that I don't like about movies are just...bad writing. It's funny because I think people could critique me on that too. This weekend, I was rewatching the Bourne movies because I was just like, "Man, can you remake these, or redo them?"

I watched Bourne one (2002), Bourne two (2004) and Bourne three (2007), and those were incredible, incredible movies. And I watched the fourth one today with Jeremy Renner yesterday, and 20 minutes in, I was like, "Done." I just got bored of it. It's hard to define what exactly does that, but the bad writing is the thing that turns me off. Original filmmaking is the thing that turns me on more than ever.

More than anyone, growing up, Christopher Nolan gave me that feeling of making movies that you hadn't seen done this way before. And so, I always try to make really out-of-the-box ideas. My first short film was backwards. Nolan was the one who taught me that the most.

I also think of these Indian movies that I love. Whenever I get into a car, I'm either in an English week or in a Bollywood week. I'm just listening to old soundtracks. [Like Dil Chahta Hai.] Great soundtrack.