Lockdown Lens

The filmmakers behind found-footage hits Searching and Host share their best tips for making movies in quarantine. Hint: you’ll need to tape your camera to your laptop, move away from the wall, and plump up the budget for post.

There is a really opportunistic moment here that you can take advantage of, if you come up with the right thing.” —⁠Aneesh Chaganty

Listen to the full interviews on the Lockdown Filmmaking episode of The Letterboxd Show.

A low-budget thriller starring John Cho as a desperate dad, Aneesh Chaganty’s 2018 debut feature Searching, co-written with Sev Ohanian, shook up the found-footage genre with its seamless blend of content from chat rooms, social platforms, security-camera footage and news coverage. Chaganty and Ohanian’s next film, Run, which also takes place mostly inside one house, will debut on Hulu later this year after its theatrical release was quashed by Covid.

Meanwhile, a 56-minute séance horror that appears to take place entirely on a Zoom call became the most popular film on Letterboxd within a week of landing on Shudder in July (our popularity score is based on the amount of activity across our platform for each film, regardless of rating). Host—conceived and completed within just twelve weeks—was written by Gemma Hurley, Rob Savage and Jed Shepherd, and directed by Savage.

Our editor-in-chief Gemma Gracewood asked Chaganty, Hurley, Savage and Shepherd to draw on their expertise in making browser horrors and other limited-setting stories, to inspire other aspiring filmmakers sheltering in place.

Joseph Lee and John Cho in TV news footage from Searching.
Joseph Lee and John Cho in TV news footage from Searching.

Keep the parameters tight

“Making a story in a limited setting is a very smart thing to do for an aspiring screenwriter—first and foremost because it’s produceable,” Aneesh Chaganty advises. ”If you’re an unknown entity in the film world, the cheaper your product takes to make is probably a better bet for you to be taking as opposed to writing a kajillion-dollar project. The first project that I wrote was a $90-million movie that Sev and I wrote. ‘Why did we do this?!’”

Chaganty also stresses the need to ensure your project wants to be a limited-setting story. “A lot of times I’ll read a found-footage script and it will often feel like all it wants to be is a not a found-footage script. There’s a lot of times where it feels like the writers don’t want it to be that.”

Explore the whole box

Chaganty encourages aspiring writers to imagine your limited environment as a box. “You’re writing within this box, all the characters are in this box, I think the best way to examine it is not to ever try leaving the box, but make sure you explore it every which way. The box upside down, the box right side up, the box left, the box right…

“This is an objective that should apply to all films, but it’s easier to objectively analyze whether you’re doing it in a limited setting. With a film like Searching, we have to make sure that every possible iteration of how a narrative can take place on a computer screen is done. Looking at a movie like Buried, they’re doing every possible iteration of how that story can be told underground, in a coffin, before [the location] starts to change.”

(Good news for fans of Searching: with new tech platforms appearing all the time, it turns out there are more parts of the box to explore. A sequel is in the works, but Chaganty won’t be in the director’s chair.)

Give yourselves a deadline

With no end to the pandemic in sight, it’s easy for one day to melt into the next. Keep your team motivated with a deadline. “I gave us two weeks,” says Rob Savage, Host’s director, who co-wrote the film with Jed Shepherd and Gemma Hurley, after his Twitter prank went viral.

“So we had two weeks, all three of us, to come together,” adds Hurley. “Let’s figure out a structure, let’s figure out these character dynamics, figure out a way to build tension around this idea of a séance and hang a story and a journey for the characters, for where we want the séance to end up. We had a Google doc where we were editing it together. I’d go away and do my pass, Rob would go away and do his pass, and Jed would. And that was it. It was really just like, run and gun, go go go.”

“If things had gone to plan we would have had this out in two months; in the end it took three,” Savage continues. ”It took twelve weeks from when I first called Jed up and said ‘let’s make a feature’, to delivering the movie—roughly breaks up as two weeks of writing, we shot for three weeks, and then a lot of editing and VFX time.”

Know your story inside-out, but don’t labor the script

“We’ve got some hearts to break, here,” warns Hurley. “There was no official script in the standard way because there just wasn’t time. The whole point was capturing a zeitgeist moment… If we went away and wrote a feature-film script, well, ‘we’ll see you after the pandemic’s over, guys!’. You’d miss that moment. That was the joy of it. You didn’t have time to labor over every syllable.”

Some of Host’s key moments were scripted, Hurley reassures. “We had lines we wanted them to suggest, but more than giving them dialog it was about giving them prompts for every scene.”

Savage adds: “The thing that we did really well, at the end of the two weeks of writing, is every single scene, me, Jed and Gemma, you could quiz us all in separate interrogation rooms, we’d be able to tell you the purpose of every scene and what we wanted to get out of them. We had the movie so clearly in our heads in terms of how we wanted it to feel.”

An advantage of having a treatment rather than a completed script? “A sense of discovery every day,” says Savage. “The actors just brought that amazing spontaneity to it and these incredible performances, because we knew the parameters.”

Aneesh Chaganty and John Cho on the set of Searching, with a GoPro behind the laptop capturing the webcam view. — Photographer… Elizabeth Kitchens
Aneesh Chaganty and John Cho on the set of Searching, with a GoPro behind the laptop capturing the webcam view. Photographer… Elizabeth Kitchens

Choosing your camera (spoiler: it’s not your laptop’s)

“John is acting against a black screen,” Chaganty reveals. “There’s nothing on his computer, he’s literally looking at nothing.” To ensure complete control over their footage while preserving authentic eyelines, both sets of filmmakers taped additional cameras to the laptops of their key talent. In Host, each of the Zoom participants had iPhones recording at their highest resolution “so we knew we were getting a clean 1080p,” says Savage. In Searching’s case, it was a GoPro taped to the rear of the various computers used by John Cho.

“Before we started shooting the film,” Chaganty explains, “we had to make [an animatic] version using Adobe Premiere, because much of John’s performance is knowing his eyeline. He needs to know exactly where the iMessages open up—in order for us to know that we almost have to know those decisions already.” Chaganty and his team developed a 100-minute animatic cut, with Chaganty playing every role; “understanding where every window is, where every cursor is, so that by the time we get to set, what I’m doing is showing John ‘okay, this is where that message pops up, and while you’re talking to Deborah, you’re going to look over there, go down there, open Chrome, type in…’ So everything is very specific eyelines. Sometimes my notes after a take would just be ‘John that was great, just move the cursor a little further to the left this time’.”

Haley Bishop as séance host Haley in Host.
Haley Bishop as séance host Haley in Host.

Develop your characters and the genre will take care of itself

Chaganty and the Host team have the same advice for how to ratchet up the tension in a limited-setting film: it’s all about character. “If you’re going to end up putting these characters through tough times and potentially kill them,” says Shepherd, “develop them as real characters, so that we care about them.”

Although Host’s script was, in fact, only a seventeen-page beat-sheet, the most important part of its structure was the long stretch up front where the characters are dialling into the call and catching up—what Shepherd calls the “getting to know you bit”. “That first part is really important because if it wasn’t for that, the third act wouldn’t work at all. The best thing to do is make your characters real, authentic, believable. Everything else takes care of itself.”

Chaganty agrees: “When you are writing something that is genre, your other decisions don’t have to be genre, and in fact it might elevate it more when you don’t do that, because everything else is already doing that, you know?”

In particular, he advises, trust your talent to lean into their characters, rather than into the genre. “This was my challenge at least, as a totally amateur director: sometimes what I was looking for was the most obvious take as opposed to the most subtle take. “When we left the shoot I was thinking it was take six, or the one where it was most obvious [John] was angry or he was sad or something—and what we ended up using was the most subtle takes. That subtlety, that underneath layer, so much of that was him. He’s so good. He’s so good. I hate to say it, but I didn’t realize how good he was until we edited it together.”

Spend time getting the interface right

Found-footage films and browser horrors rely on the believability of the content. Searching and Host work because the footage feels real, even though the reality is there are multiple takes and a lot of post-production. Just as Searching was built around a detailed animatic, Host is, in fact, not a recorded Zoom call, but a result of three weeks of filming every actor in multiple takes, with stunt set-ups, followed by the addition of VFX and Zoom interface details.

“Originally the plan was just to screen-record a Zoom call, but then we realized that we were pumping so much money into doing these crazy stunts and effects that we could blow half the budget in 30 seconds,” says Savage. “You’re basically making five movies. We have to make sure the performances are all tight in every single screen. Radina might be amazing in take one and Jemma might nail it in take three and we have to cut them all together so they work seamlessly.”

Savage praises Host editor Brenna Rangott for pulling it all together, underscoring the importance of post-production in your budget and schedule. “Honestly, what Brenna did with all this footage? It’s her movie as much as it’s anyone else’s movie. She absolutely smashed it.”

The Host crew also relied on fellow filmmaker and designer Dan Hawkins to build the almost 4,000 individual assets in the film, and producer Douglas Cox, who went through the whole movie to type out every single name, label and other Zoom interface detail. “4,000 times he had to do that, and that’s what you see to make it play seamlessly.” (And, yes, they had Zoom’s permission.)

Jed Shepherd, Rob Savage and Gemma Hurley during a Zoom séance for Slashfilm with Chris Evangelista.
Jed Shepherd, Rob Savage and Gemma Hurley during a Zoom séance for Slashfilm with Chris Evangelista.

Trust your gut

The Host team were pursued for a feature-length version of Savage’s Twitter prank by a “mind-blowing” number of studios—“it was a really competitive situation,” says Savage—but they went with Shudder for one reason: instinct.

“It was the height of the lockdown and a lot of production companies just started ringing and saying ‘Is there a longer version of this? Because it’s the only thing we can shoot right now’. So we pitched to a bunch of places, and the pitch was basically ‘a Zoom séance, we don’t know if it’s going to be any good, we’re going to use our mates, are you in or not?’ and Shudder [was] like ‘of course we are’.”

It wasn’t about the money. Some companies offered more generous budgets, but wanted to release six to eight months after filming. “We were like, ‘no, this needs to be out this week’.”

You should never wait for the ideal circumstance because it doesn’t exist. Look at what you’ve got right now and use that.

—⁠Rob Savage, director of Host

Move away from the wall

Since so much of the movie business—all those endless meetings—has pivoted to video-calls, we asked the filmmakers for specific advice on how to present yourself online, in pitch meetings, table reads and the like.

The very minimum, they all agree, is to have good lighting. “It’s crazy what a difference a desk lamp can make to your environment,” says Chaganty. And move away from the wall. “Rule number one any director of photography will ever say, is don’t shoot at a wall,” he adds. “The further that you can place yourself from that wall, it’s just going to look better.” (It also gives you more protection from any demons that may burst from cupboards during your Zoom, Host’s filmmakers advise.)

Chaganty reveals that the pandemic has actually helped his pitching abilities in video meetings with executives. Chaganty and Ohanian are currently developing a heist movie, while simultaneously pitching a television show. “Right now pitches are all digital. Traditionally when you pitch something, it’s a lot of material and you just memorize it. But now, you can have your script with you—but you can’t make it seem like you’re reading off a screen.” The trick, he says, is to re-size the window of the person you’re pitching to, and re-size the script to the same dimensions, then place them directly over each other.

“So you’re reading and your eyeline is exactly where they are, and then you switch over, and they’ll never know and you’ve just pulled it off perfectly because you’re still looking at the exact same spot. It just kind of feels like an incredible performance where you’ve pulled these great words out of your mind and your heart, without anyone knowing.”

On the other hand, don’t put too much effort into details that nobody will notice. “We were doing a table read for a film,” says Host’s Shepherd, “and I thought it would be fun to change the background to correspond with what scene were were reading. I thought it was really clever but nobody noticed except me.”

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

There’s no time like the present

“When digital cameras came out, everyone started saying ‘this is a great thing for filmmakers because it really democratizes filmmaking’,” says Chaganty. “We are in a very small bubble where it’s even more democratized than it was before—that’s because everybody has the same resources that we do right now.

“It feels like John Oliver and Hasan Minhaj and Trevor Noah are all making stuff with the same quality that you can make, that I can make, just in our own houses right now. The longer this pandemic goes on, and the longer that it feels that Hollywood can’t make traditional stuff the way it used to, the more likely it is that the demand for content is going to rise.

“If you can make something good in this time, I think you’re in a really good spot as far as getting eyeballs on it. And eyeballs essentially are the things that can propel a career to the next stage.”

Plus, there are mental health benefits to making movies together, at a time when we are all being urged to stay socially connected while physically distant. “What’s been really nice about the whole thing is it just made it so clear how collaborative a process filmmaking is,” says Savage. “Normally people kind of forget about that and you have ‘a film by’, but here you had to put so much trust in everyone. It was just a really fun way of working. I recommend it to everyone.”

Host’ is available now on Shudder. ‘Searching’ is available via VOD platforms. ‘Run’ is coming soon to Hulu in the US and will be released theatrically in international markets. (Aneesh Chaganty has been diligently updating his Letterboxd diary, which includes one of our favorite recent reviews of Steve Soderbergh’s ‘Contagion’.)


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