I’m curious about the evolution of this project. What were some early ideas that didn’t end up making it into the final cut? And feel free to talk about spoilers.
Merrick: There are going to be deleted scenes on the Blu-ray, which is really fun.
The overall story stayed mostly the same from script to final. There was a sequence, for instance, early in the movie when [June is] going down this rabbit hole, Googling how dangerous of a situation her mom might be in, where she watches all these videos on a website called One Patrol that’s based on Citizen of people being kidnapped or people being robbed. And we realized you just don’t need that, for instance. Sev, what were you thinking?
Ohanian: Yeah, I was going to say even earlier than that. When the studio first came to us with the ask to make a sequel, I remember Aneesh, Natalie, and I were in my office, quite literally on a whiteboard writing what are the core tenets of this movie? Is this going to be family-oriented? Theme of connection. Obviously, twists.
When we started landing on this idea of international. I remember early on it was like, “Well, how do we create stakes for the character? Obviously, she’s going to be in L.A. while all the danger is elsewhere.” There was a lot of times where I remember in the early days of writing this treatment, Aneesh and I. We were like, “Is the midpoint that she’s on a plane? Does she go to Colombia? Does she go anywhere?” I think that’s ultimately what led us to coming up with what I think is a really great idea, of a midpoint twist being that she’s not even in Colombia.
Chaganty: Yeah. We kept realizing that these true crime stories are only as good as it feels like it could happen to you, or they could happen in your backyard. And it felt like, in the movie, it’s like, “In your backyard, in your backyard…” and then we go, “She never left L.A.!” But Sev had the idea to flip the protagonists early on, and then we just basically threw out a thousand other throughlines of the entire film versus that idea. And we ended up coming back to it. There were so many ideas that were completely different. They were just thrillers on computer screens. And now if you look at it, this one’s obviously very similar to “Searching” as far as its core tenets go. But we tried it up against a lot of other completely unrelated stories that didn’t necessarily even have anyone being kidnapped or taken. It was just simply like, “Okay, there’s a serial killer on the loose and they’re leaving clues on Reddit or online.” Stuff like that. [We kept saying,] “Is that better than this idea?” And it ultimately came back to this.
So since spoilers are on the table, tell me about finding the right balance of twisty storytelling to keep people guessing. Was her dad always the one behind everything? Even in the earliest incarnation, once you guys had settled on this as the structure?
Merrick: Yeah. It was always headed toward that ending from the very start. And then as far as dialing in the twists and turns along the way, we have a test screening process that we do where we screen, not just for anybody, but for small groups of good friends. We bring them in and more than ask them, “Did you like it or not?”, we ask them a bunch of really targeted questions about, “What were you focused on here? What were you focused on here?” And from there, we sort of engineer the experience we want people to have. So I would say the structure of the twist was always there. And then we had people watch it to make sure it was accomplishing that goal.
Qasabian: I think the benefit, too, of having the treatment come from Sev and Aneesh and then it went over to Will and Nick is, [was] we have four awesome minds working on the story. So it just felt like at every stage we were elevating and plussing. We never deterred, I don’t think, too far from the original treatment of it.
Merrick: I remember when I first got the treatment, I made popcorn and sat down for a whole evening of reading it, because I wanted it to be memorable, my first experience reading the treatment. So that when it was time to tweak scenes, we knew what to do. And I remember some twists, I was like, “Whoa! Mind blown!” And those appear exactly as in the treatment. And then other ones where I was like, “Interesting. Maybe we should tweak that.” We ended up, we all agreed.
Chaganty: We had a big … I’m just thinking about in the story. There was a big debate. Have we talked about Heather? Is that worth it?
Merrick: Heather was a later addition.
Chaganty: This is all spoilers. So the death of Heather was — there was a big debate about the moment where June goes into the office and finds Heather’s body, basically, dead. We shot two versions of this. One version is Heather dead on the floor, and then the other version is a dummy of Heather’s feet hanging from the ceiling like she [took her own life]. Sev or Nat, any of you guys could probably talk as to why. But Sev was very adamant we shoot the hanging one for a good reason.
Merrick: Even before that; Heather didn’t even die. There was a time where she didn’t even die at all, and Heather revealed to June that everything her mom was doing was to protect her. That scene wasn’t quite coming together. There was a scene even before that where it was a boss that was harassing her mom. And that sort of planted the idea of this toxic masculinity that can happen.
But then ultimately, the idea of Heather as a red herring, having to keep her mouth shut partially because she’s also the one who saved Grace in the beginning…
Chaganty: The reason we ended up going with the way we went was because it helped answer why the cops would be gone in the third act. Because a lot of people were like, “Well, why are the cops leaving her alone?” We needed the dad in that final scene to have an interaction with her. And these movies take place on screens. You can only set them in certain places. So how do we get the cops out? That was the question. And so we were like, “Well, we just have to address it very clearly by having all these things.” And I forget why suicide didn’t play in that one. Sev, do you remember that one?
Ohanian: Yeah, I can talk about this. So I had this huge fear that if June stumbles upon Heather’s office and finds Heather murdered, then the cops who were already being portrayed as being somewhat incompetent, which may or may not be true to life depending on how much you see, that it’d be crazy that the cops would ever leave June without protection. She almost walked onto a murder scene.
So I was really insistent that we shoot a safety, which was we shot a version where she was hanging. And June is like, “I don’t think this is a suicide. I think there’s more to it.” And the cops are, “It looks like a suicide.” And Will and Nick were really adamant that they could make the current version work, where she is murdered.
We did some testing where we got some conflicting responses. But Will and Nick came up with this brilliant idea to literally add in the cops. This is such a small detail, Ben, but if you ever watch the movie again, the scene after June discovers that Heather’s dead, there’s a conversation which she’s having with Agent Park who is in Colombia. In the background, you see a couple of cops walking in her hallway. Those cops were never there. Nick and Will comped them in, and it was a really brilliant way to keep the story from getting even more complicated. Because it’s a very complex story, obviously. And avoid audiences thinking too much about what would or would not happen.
These ideas of me fighting for alts is a very common thread in all my movies. Half the time, we’re all happy we did it, and half the time, we didn’t need it at all. But the important thing is, as a team, we’re always exploring every possible interpretation and testing to make sure we get the best version.
Qasabian: This was the case, though, of your — Sev’s hunch was right. That people were going to have that bump. People voiced, “Why aren’t the cops showing up?” But that suicide wasn’t quite the right answer. So Will and Nick engineered this idea.
Merrick: It was a balancing act. Because the suicide made some people leave the movie thinking Heather had been involved in a bad way the whole time. So we had to juggle that against, “Why aren’t these cops here?”
Tell me about the commentary that you are making on true crime documentaries here. Why was that important for you to include?
Merrick: Well, for one thing, it’s a fun way to call back to “Searching” in a way that doesn’t require the audience to have seen it.
Johnson: Yeah, I also think that — this was in the original treatment, so I can let Sev and Aneesh speak to that as well, but I think one really cool thing about making this movie is it takes so long to make that you actually get a chance to engage in a conversation with the world as it’s happening, in a strange way. So there were a lot of high profile cases that happened while we were literally making that montage. And seeing how people were becoming amateur sleuths on TikTok, we were able to literally take that stuff and put it into the movie.
I don’t love how much amateur sleuthing — it’s fun, but it makes me a little uncomfortable sometimes. On TikTok, especially, when theories go off the rails. So I think we’re just having a little bit of fun with that, but also trying to point out that nobody knows what the hell they’re talking about online. And it can be painful to the victims and victims’ families.
Ohanian: And I think on “Searching,” there was a sub-theme of the personalization of tragedy. People were trying to be like, “Margot, she was my best friend.” And in this movie, to carry that theme, we try to talk a little bit more about the commercialization of tragedy. Of how we all love eating our salads at lunch and listening to a grizzly true crime podcast. And it’s fun. And the hosts are like, “Oh, you won’t believe this next story. It’s about a really tragic family that was murdered.” So with the movie, we just want to touch upon that in a very self-aware, meta way. Because obviously you’re watching a dramatization of something similar.