Featured Image: Director Aneesh Chaganty, Chloe (Kiera Allen), shown. (Photo by: Allen Fraser/Hulu)
In January 2018, an incredibly exciting new mystery premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Searching, starring John Cho, was the story of a father trying to track down his missing teenage daughter. The directorial debut of Aneesh Chaganty had its finger right on the pulse of our current technological moment in more ways than one, accurately depicting the negative influences of social media on sensationalized mystery cases. But we weren’t just seeing this story through the father’s eyes; we were seeing it through his computer. Made for less than a million dollars, the entire film plays out on computer screens and smartphones as the audience watches a whole mystery unravel through text messages, Internet searches, and phone calls. Much more than a gimmick, the format provided a unique opportunity to build tension in a way that audiences had never seen before.
Two years later, creators Chaganty and Sev Ohanian brought that same savvy for suspense to their latest project: Run. This tale of a dangerous mother (Sarah Paulson’s Diane) and her tenacious daughter (Kiera Allen’s Chloe in her first major acting role) is more of a return to the traditional thrillers of the past, but that doesn’t mean you should get comfortable. Filled to the brim with nail-biting anticipation and chilling twists, Hulu’s latest is a fantastic film with an ending that is sure to leave viewers breathless. You’ll be happy you’re watching it in the safety of your own home, where you can keep the lights on.
TV Wasteland had the opportunity to sit down with director Chaganty and co-writer Ohanian to discuss stories about family, why Run feels particularly exciting in the lineup of modern horror, and their evolution from “modernity to maternity.”
Searching and Run may not seem like they have too much in common on the surface, but at their cores, they’re both stories about parents. Both Diane and John Cho’s David are alone in raising their daughters, and their inner struggles stem from their protective natures and a deep fear of letting their child fall into harm. Though one’s efforts are well-intended and the other’s are decidedly not, it’s a fascinating topic to address and one that will likely strike home with pretty much any guardian. According to Sev, “both Aneesh and I, and even our producing partner Natalie [Qasabian] kind of grew up with really tightly-knit families and cultures that really prioritized family.” It was one of the factors that brought them together as a creative team, and the theme of Searching running below all the twists and turns was that love and emotion that inherently comes with such a strong parent-child connection. To Ohanian, “it kind of felt like a natural, maybe not an evolution but a devolution, to try and do the opposite on Run, explore that same love between a family, and maybe see what happens when that love’s taken one or two or five hundred steps too far.”
As mentioned before, the more traditional Run may seem like an unexpected step after such a complicated debut, but that was exactly Chaganty’s intention. “I made something [in Searching] that was very complex and modern… I needed to prove to myself that I could make a normal movie.” He’d seen other creators fall into routines of making the same projects multiple times. Once you’ve developed a reputation for making one type of film and that’s what people want and expect from you, it can be hard to deny that, so his main goal with Run was to avoid those easy pitfalls. “I didn’t want to be the filmmaker who was only put into this box of making tech stuff.” Now that he has officially broken that mold and explored the world outside of the laptop screen, “it feels like there’s a whole other space of stuff that I feel like, on a purely personal level, I’m able to go out and tackle.”
However, the beginning of tackling that did make Chaganty a little nervous during his first few days on set. While most movies save the most intense scenes for last, allowing the team to build up to those points as the plot does, Aneesh started production off with a bang. Due to the Winnipeg setting, all exteriors had to be shot before winter set in, so Run’s biggest set piece, Chloe’s desperate expedition across the roof of her house, was day one. All of the exteriors came in the second half of the film, where the stakes are much higher and that “left to right” method of easing into the drama wasn’t an option. “This was the first time I’d ever made a normal live-action movie… coming off of a computer screen movie, those were sort of scary and jarring experiences. I just remember how I felt and all these little awkward moments.” He found himself worrying that he’d said the wrong thing or that everyone around him might know that he was new. Though of course, the scene turned out perfectly, the flawlessly balanced tension likely to leave many nails bitten down next to nothing, but it was just the beginning of Chaganty’s journey. “Overall, the experience of me making this movie was like a kid who didn’t know how to do this, ending with a kid who kind of did.”
Right by his side for a lot of that journey was Sarah Paulson, a modern scream queen who is quickly becoming one of the most in-demand names in the industry. Aneesh firmly believes that she is “top five actors working today” and that her versatility is really what sets her apart. Whether it’s a horrific, funny, or dramatic project, the Emmy winner catches attention for her naturalistic performances. “Working with her in a lot of ways was very, very easy, because she’s just so good at her job… or at least didn’t require a lot for me to shape.” To help her prepare, Chaganty gave her a sort of bible of backstory about Diane. All these details would never make it into the final film, but they would make all the difference in how she interpreted the role. Many of their rehearsals were just centered around studying that document, and the two spent a lot of time developing Diane into the fully realized character we see on screen. Aneesh had nothing but praise for Paulson’s ability to act as a sponge and translate all of that unspoken information to the audience through just a line or a look. “For her, it was giving her the right sort of backstory and watching her just spit fire.”
Ohanian named Stephen King as an especially strong influence on the script, and eagle-eyed viewers will catch references to the horror master’s works throughout the film (watch out for sly name drop, including a nod to an iconic Maine town). Even though Ohanian and Chaganty grew up separately, they both developed a love for King’s books, and stories like Misery, Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, and Shyamalan’s Signs gave them places to draw from on everything from the tone to the visual style. Aneesh said, “these are the movies that sort of got me into filmmaking and made me so excited to do this thing, so we wanted to try to emulate that a little bit.”
But after decades upon decades of monsters and murderers, today’s viewers aren’t fazed by the things that left audiences in the fifties with nightmares. How do you still get modern audiences on the edge of their seats? For Chaganty, it’s avoiding a script that revolves around gore. “That’s an element that’s always at play,” but while viewers can get used to seeing bloody wounds and corpses, it’s hard to switch off your reaction to good old-fashioned suspense in the same way. “Suspense is predicated on whether or not something will happen, not when it does.” If you’re waiting to see if a mother will discover that her daughter was using the phone without her permission, a simple dinner scene can be a more intense roller coaster ride than any torture sequence. Chaganty loves high stakes, violent films where “life and death are at stake from the first frame” (citing Green Room and Don’t Breathe as two of his favorites), but he was especially enamored by that old style of letting the tension spread through the veins of a scene rather than burst to the surface right away. “I think the ability to hold things out and wait, those are much more like older films, and that’s what Run was always trying to be.”
While Searching was the first big Hollywood thriller to be led by an Asian-American actor, Run has also cemented its place in history as the first of its kind in over seventy years to star a wheelchair user in a leading role. For Searching, it wasn’t necessarily their original intention to focus on a Korean-American family, but to Ohanian, it was more of a question of “Why not?” However, from the get-go of developing Chloe’s character, they knew she should be portrayed by an actual wheelchair user. The protagonist is a refreshing departure from the usual depictions of people with disabilities, and apart from her powerhouse of a performance, Kiera Allen’s casting alone likely means big things for the evolution of diversity behind the scenes. That diversity is “probably going to be a common theme in all the work that we make together, and it certainly is in our upcoming two or three projects, but in a lot of ways, I wouldn’t even call it a mandate for us,” Ohanian continued. “As an Armenian American and an Indian American, it is just something that feels inherently obvious.” He’s optimistic for the future of diverse casting, and recent releases starring a variety of underrepresented groups bodes well for the industry’s current path.
Run is a mix of the old and the new. Combining storytelling techniques from the earliest days of film with modern sensibilities and authentic casting, Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian have created a contemporary classic that pays homage to Hitchcock and King but keeps its eyes set ahead to the future of genre filmmaking. Make sure you check it out, streaming right now only on Hulu.