Housebound

Run writer-director Aneesh Chaganty tells Jack Moulton about “slipping a card in the deck” for disability representation, his Mission: Impossible obsession, and whether he’ll be reading Letterboxd reviews of his new film.

A simple door knob becomes a massive challenge. How do you turn a standard house into a prison, and why have we never seen it exactly like this before?” —⁠Aneesh Chaganty

How was Aneesh Chaganty to know that the film that might perfectly encapsulate 2020 would be a thriller about Chloe Sherman, a housebound teenager? He didn’t, of course, and given the option, would much prefer that his new film, Run, was playing theaters across the globe. Instead, it will be occupying the same digital space as John Cho’s panicked online hunt for his daughter in Chaganty’s debut, Searching. Ironically, and just to really rub it in, one of Chloe’s few outside adventures in Run is a short trip from home to the closest small town to see a movie. In a cinema. Called Breakout.

Starring Kiera Allen, who uses a wheelchair, in her first big-screen role as Chloe, and Sarah Paulson as her over-protective mother, Run is a tense affair that bursts out of the gate and doesn’t really stop until it’s done. Chaganty and his regular collaborators—co-writer Sev Ohanian and producer Natalie Qasabian—all grew up with very tight families, and like their other work (including Google Glass short, Seeds), Run focuses on a parent-child dynamic. Unlike those other stories, Run looks at the negative effects of a parent’s love. “I wanted to dip my toe in the dark side for one second and talk about if you can love someone too much,” says Chaganty.

Sarah Paulson as Diane Sherman, with Kiera Allen as daughter Chloe, in Run.
Sarah Paulson as Diane Sherman, with Kiera Allen as daughter Chloe, in Run.

Nods to Hitchcock and Shyamalan throughout the film are deliberate—Chaganty supplied his crew with a specific library of “contained thrillers” as reference. In a podcast interview earlier this year, he told us that a newspaper photograph of M. Night Shyamalan was a pivotal moment in his career; seeing someone in the media who looked like him (as the son of Indian parents) gave him the confidence to pursue filmmaking. Personally aware of the life-changing consequences of representation in cinema, and having already cast an Asian-American lead in Searching, Chaganty and team created the leading role in Run specifically for an actress in a wheelchair.

“It’s something we want to do moving forward. We can objectively ‘give a win’ that is outside of the film, so the movie becomes impervious to being one hundred percent shit-on. People can at least be like, ‘Hey, they did that!’,” Chaganty jokes. “Obviously that’s just the funny way of saying it, but I think it’s important for us to use these opportunities to slip a card in the deck.”

The challenge, with a co-lead as iconic as Sarah Paulson, was in casting a young actress who could not only carry the film, but also go toe-to-toe with an industry legend. “It was really, really hard to find her,” says Chaganty of impressive newcomer Allen. Given the paucity of roles for performers with disabilities, “we knew that the person we were looking for most likely doesn’t have an agent or manager, may not have ever acted before, or know they can act. Our casting director, Rich Delia, did a massive hunt for an actress at school programs, after-school programs, art programs, disability programs, on Facebook, everywhere.

“Finally, we saw Kiera and her performance was so natural. We flew her to LA, she met Sarah, and then boom, we watched a star get born.”

Kiera Allen and Aneesh Chaganty on the set of Run.
Kiera Allen and Aneesh Chaganty on the set of Run.

Chaganty was conscious of the fact that “[he’s] not disabled, [but] telling this story of somebody who is”. Once Allen was on board, he consulted with her constantly. “I gave her the script and the production design layout of the house and asked her to please note it up—tell us what is wrong, what you wouldn’t do. So much changed because she told us that this is not how she lives. Her costume, her room, bits of her motion, her dialogue and her backstory changed. We were very open to that. I’d ask her about the title—is the title Run offensive? We’re doing a double-play on it, but is it mean? I made sure that was okay with her.”

Chaganty and Allen also discussed and adjusted the film’s ending—no spoilers here—so as to avoid any insinuations of ableism. “I spent a lot of time talking to Disability Studies professors and Kiera about her arc as a character. This idea of ableism is something I’ve really learned about in the past two years.”

Producer Natalie Qasabian, producer-writer Sev Ohanian, and writer-director Aneesh Chaganty on the set of Run.
Producer Natalie Qasabian, producer-writer Sev Ohanian, and writer-director Aneesh Chaganty on the set of Run.

Run’s limited setting—much of the action takes place in the Sherman family’s rural two-level dwelling—accidentally captures the zeitgeist of being stuck at home. Coming directly off the back of Searching, the domestic mise-en-scène in Run feels like a signature Chaganty touch—not to mention a sure-fire way for an emerging filmmaker to get another movie under his belt.

Chaganty confirms this was the strategy: “I don’t want to be the filmmaker that I grew up watching who makes a sub-one-million-dollar movie that goes to Sundance then goes on to making a one-hundred-million-dollar movie and loses control, or loses sight of what it is to make a movie. I have every intention of making those big traditional movies that we grew up on one day, but I want to take it step by step.”

Limiting the story’s physical landscape means focusing on where the opportunities lie in the script, rather than in the budget—a writing exercise Chaganty says he and Ohanian are particularly drawn to. “Our subversion here was to take average domestic challenges and put our specific lead wheelchair-using character in them to turn those into Mission: Impossible stakes. Anybody watching this movie would be able to slam open the door but [for Chloe] a simple door knob becomes a massive challenge. How do you turn a standard house into a prison, and why have we never seen it exactly like this before? I think that was a cool challenge for us.”

Searching was notable for its seamless use of tech, much of which involved Cho acting against a blank screen, which was then brought to life in post-production. Though tech is just as pivotal in Run, there is deliberately a lot less of it. “Run could be made in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s or 2000s,” says Chaganty, “I was intentionally trying to evoke the same feeling that Misery or Rear Window had of ‘where are we, when are we?’—and that was very much a response to Searching.

“I didn’t want to be the tech filmmaker who could only make movies on computer screens. I needed to prove to myself that I knew how to make a movie. I wanted to make a movie that replaced technical complexity with simplicity, gimmick for a classical structure, and conversations about larger big tech with a straightforward, bare-bones thriller.”

For a timeless thriller, Run is oddly timely; we noticed an almost irrelevant detail: a bottle of medicine that Chloe is holding reads ‘4 Refills Before 02/21/20’. This date was just three weeks before lockdown in the US. “It’s funny because we put that date on the bottle thinking that’s so far ahead in time!” Chaganty is thinking a lot about how the coronavirus pandemic will affect storytelling, as he and Ohanian embark on their next screenplay.

“I think every single screenwriter right now is thinking about this too: is the story taking place in the pandemic or post-pandemic? Everyday I’m obsessed with the next Mission: Impossible, so my Google and Twitter feed is always about what they’re shooting, and they’re not wearing masks when they’re rolling. I would one hundred percent put money down that they reference the pandemic but [that] it’s something in the past and it’s not happening anymore.

“Michael Bay’s new movie Songbird has Covid-23 spreading rampant, and HBO Max is making a show called Station Eleven based on a pandemic story [adapted from Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel]. There’s going to be a limit to how much I can watch of these and I don’t want to feel that way all the time. I think we’re going to start looking at stories past the pandemic that just reference it and life goes on.

“That’s what our next film is going to do, because now that there’s a little bit of hope and optimism seeping into the general mainstream, as far as when a vaccine is going to come out and administration changes, we can start to look a year ahead and be like ‘okay, next Christmas might actually be normal’. We can start imagining the future.”

Back in the present, Chaganty admits to being somewhat glued to Letterboxd as his new film makes its way into the world. A member since 2018, he confirms that, yes, he will be reading reviews of Run. “Dude, I love Letterboxd. I’m going to be really honest, I don’t want to be a filmmaker who can’t look at the public opinion about their own work. If I’m to get better, I have to some degree be like ‘this didn’t work at all’ or ‘this is great!’.

“It makes the movie more attractive too in a way, since it’s not like we’re saying ‘here’s a perfect movie!’ It’s ‘here’s something we really tried out and I’m going to do better next time’. I know what I did really well and I know what I didn’t do well at all. It’s a balance. I just want to be a filmmaker who can talk about their work, and I plan on writing a Run review on Letterboxd sometime. I think I can get better that way.”


Run’ is streaming on Hulu, and scheduled for released in select international theaters.

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