How ‘Searching’ Uses Tech Devices as Narrative Devices

Skype was on the fritz. I was trying to do a call with the filmmakers of “Searching,” a thriller that unfolds on computer screens and digital devices, but mine were not cooperating. The audio was clear but the filmmakers weren’t showing up onscreen, and the clock was ticking. I didn’t want to take time away to download an update to the app (and yes, I did that thing in which you deactivate and reactivate the camera button), so after some more fiddling, we decided to move the conversation to Google Hangouts instead.

Trying to figure out the best way to communicate through constantly changing technology is the story of my life right now, probably yours as well. And using tech to solve problems is pretty much a daily task. “Searching” takes these ideas to the most urgent of places: How well could we navigate a sea of technology if someone’s life depended on it?

This is the problem that faces David Kim, played onscreen (and on screens) by John Cho. David’s daughter, Margot, has gone missing, and he uses an assortment of digital tools and sites to try to find her. It’s a search assisted by Google, Facebook, Instagram, FaceTime, iMessage and so on. But when David logs onto his Margot’s computer for clues, he finds a chasm between the way he navigates the digital world and the way his daughter does.

“Ultimately on a computer screen, what we are looking at is lines of information,” the first-time feature director, Aneesh Chaganty, said in our Google Hangouts chat. “So we knew that if this medium that we were using is full of information, let’s make information both the obstacle and the objective of the story.”

Mr. Chaganty, 27, wrote “Searching” with Sev Ohanian, 31, one of its producers. They worked with another producer, Timur Bekmambetov, whose company, Bazelevs, has specialized in computer-screen horror like the “Unfriended” films. (Mr. Bekmambetov directed his own entry in the genre, “Profile,” which debuted in February at the Berlin Film Festival.)

Much like those earlier films, “Searching” takes an unconventional approach to storytelling, which meant even the screenplay was written in an unconventional way. I asked Mr. Chaganty via iMessage about the difference. He texted, “What we ended up writing was a scriptment — a creative mix of a screenplay and a treatment that factored in the mouse movement, text messages and browser windows.”

To move the story forward, the filmmakers used imagery from our screen lives in surprising ways. One of the first shots is of a field of rolling hills and blue sky. But we’re not in New Zealand. It’s the opening desktop screen of the Windows operating system, and it’s used to signify an earlier era in computers and to kick off a montage of a family’s life in tech.

“If you look at the history of technology, we often think of it as still very young,” Mr. Chaganty said. ”But I think we are at a point where nostalgia is an actual thing.” Because of the rapid pace of innovation, he explained, it’s easy to forget that we all began with the same interfaces, in the same AOL chat rooms, with that same dial-up sound. So when the Windows desktop pops up in “Searching,” it immediately reminds us of a time when Microsoft ruled the computer world.

Another scene turns the familiar into strange and creepy. The sequence starts in black with ominous music on the score, then the flurry screen saver, a common one on a Mac, comes into view. That moment, and many that inject jolts of energy, arose from Mr. Chaganty and Mr. Ohanian’s analysis of all the buttons and features of the Mac operating system. They elaborated on this thought in our Google Hangout chat:

And yet, with all these forms of expression, sometimes they pull us away from those closest to us. That becomes clear when David realizes he doesn’t know where his daughter has been spending her time. (In one scene, someone tells David that Margot has a Tumblr account. He Googles “tumbler.”) To visualize that difference, the filmmakers created a look for each character’s computer. David’s is more private, with less on his desktop and a sense of order. Margot’s is a social world that keeps opening up further, forcing David to figure out how to navigate it. From her Facebook and Tumblr to a live-blogging site she uses called YouCast, Margot has crafted a life that is exposed and open to the world but completely hidden from her own father.

That contrast is at the heart of what the filmmakers were trying to get at: a father on a search for his missing daughter and wondering if he lost her years ago.