How do you make a movie like Missing, a mystery-thriller that unspools entirely on phone and computer screens? The same way you make any movie, says producer Natalie Qasabian: You start with a captivating, emotional story, then work out the details.
“We start from a place of, ‘Let’s make a really good thriller,’ and then we think, ‘Okay, now how do we work into the challenge of it all has to come from the perspective of screens?’ If these movies don’t stand on their own, just as good mysteries, as good thrillers, then the screen stuff starts to feel like a gimmick. But our hope is that you kind of forget that you’re watching on screens, and it just brings this extra kind of texture or elevation to it.”
Qasabian produced Missing with Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian, who also wrote the story for the film. It is their follow-up to the acclaimed 2018 John Cho film Searching, in which he played a single dad desperately searching for his missing teenage daughter. This time the family dynamic is flipped: A high school student (Storm Reid) must figure out what happened to her single mom (Nia Long) after she disappears on a vacation to Colombia with her new boyfriend (Ken Leung). Though Chaganty and Ohanian wrote the Searching script and Chaganty directed, this time the editors of Searching, Nicholas D. Johnson and Will Merrick, wrote the script and directed.
“These are such unique movies to make,” Qasabian says. “They’re like doing an entire live action movie and an animated feature, and merging those two together on a shoestring budget. … If Aneesh isn’t directing it, there’s only two people in the world that could do this, and it’s Will and Nick. So we’re really grateful they said yes, because this movie probably wouldn’t exist.”
When we spoke to them Thursday, hours before the film’s public premiere, they said they probably don’t have the energy to make another film in the Searching universe because of the unusually intense effort it takes to make a film told entirely on screens. But of course, that’s also what they said after Searching. In between the two films, they’ve made the top-notch thriller Run, and Ohanian was an executive producer on the double Oscar winner Judas and the Black Messiah.
Missing brings them back to the franchise that helped them break in. Searching was born from a general meeting between Ohanian and producer-director Timur Bekmambetov, the pioneer and greatest champion of the screen-story genre, which he calls Screenlife. His 2015 horror film Unfriended was the first Screenlife hit, and he has continued and expanded the genre by producing films like the terrifying Russian film Blue_Whale. But the collaboration with him almost didn’t happen, Ohanian explains.
“They were looking to make a follow up to Unfriended that would be like eight short films, all on a computer screen,” he recalls. Ohanian had begun collaborating with Chaganty, who had gained industry attention by making gorgeous films as an employee at Google. They had an idea for the film that became Searching, but weren’t sure it would work as a Screenlife, because it wasn’t horror. They presented an 8-minute version to Bekmambetov.
“And he said, no — his company said that — and actually, instead, they wanted to make that idea of ours into a full movie that Aneesh would direct, that we would write, that we would produce.” They eventually came around to the idea.
Because they don’t follow some of the rules of Screenlife films — Bekmambetov had strict rules around punching in and editing, for example – they prefer to call Missing and Searching “screen thrillers.”
Chaganty explains that they are “basically movies that use the devices that we use every day as the only and primary means of telling the story — but not limited to just single shots or wide shots, but rather just treating [a screen] just like a setting — you know, like just like in a normal place, you would cut in for a close up, or have oners, or swivel the camera or whatnot. We’re just using it as a location to place our cameras, as opposed to the thing that you’re shooting.”
The films are incredibly grounded: Everything the characters do on-screen is possible with existing technology, including a marvelously clever thing the Storm Reid character, June, does at the climax of Missing. But at the same time, there’s one way they aren’t grounded. (SPOILERS FOLLOW!) As sharp-eyed Redditors and other online fans quickly observed, Searching contains a subplot, unfolding at the margins of the screen, about aliens invading the Earth. That subplot continues in Missing, in which a mysterious character named “The Green Angel” rises up as a consequence of the invasion in Searching.
“She’s basically a superhero that emerges to help tackle the events that began in searching,” says Qasabian.
“You might have fun pausing and looking in the corners and you might see essentially like a full-blown, genre film, tentpole, three-act structure Marvel movie happening, literally, while you haven’t been paying attention,” Ohanian says.
Missing is now in theaters.
Main image: Storm Reid as June in Missing.