This interview originally aired on the pilot episode of The Global Film Podcast, a new weekly film podcast featuring in-depth global roundtable discussions from worldwide contributors. For their disability month special, Film Inquiry contributor Diego Andaluz interviewed Run‘s director Aneesh Chaganty and co-producer Natalie Qasabian, discussing their unconventional rise in the industry, inspirations for Run, and working with star Kiera Allen to ensure the film painted an accurate portrait of disability.
Diego Andaluz For Film Inquiry: So, let’s just get right into it! A quick question right off the top, what inspired you to become filmmakers in the first place?
Natalie Qasabian: I actually don’t know what inspired me. I woke up when I was 10 years old, on a morning before Christmas, and I was like, I want a video camera. And I was lucky enough that my dad didn’t question it. He got me one for Christmas, and I just started making films. I think I just fell in love with it, and I’ve been making stuff ever since. I just love the feeling of making something and watching someone enjoy something that I made
Aneesh Chaganty: My mother really loved movies. She always used to take me and my brother out of class early on Fridays, and make us wait in line when a big movie would come out. So I think I fell in love with these movies as these things that people wait in line for, like, go see a crowded movie in theaters. I grew up on those kinds of movies, too. Before I even fell in love with movies was just like, enjoying that experience. I think around that same time of like, where I could get a camera, I picked up the ones that my family was using for like home videos, and then use an extra tape. It’s crazy, because back when I was doing it, you hear all the filmmakers talk about their time, and it would be back in the day with different technology, and we were using new technology. And now it’s like, wow, back in the day, we used to have like DVR tapes, and you would like rewind, and you shoot and then you pick your take and then you like you rewind back to the exact moment that you needed a cut and then you go shoot your cut and cut back to your thing and you literally edit it live so as to make movies that way when I was a kid up until high school and just kept doing it and got to film school and was able to, luckily to get a chance to make it for real.
That’s incredible! Your first collaboration was Searching, but you both have an extensive background in short films. So, I’m curious to hear what was the journey like from going from making short films to finally making a feature like Searching?
Aneesh Chaganty: After college, I graduated from USC and was just another film student in LA with a film degree trying to make it work. Thankfully, though, my writing partner, a guy named Sev Ohanian, who’s also a co-writer and producer on Searching, and Run, along with Natalie, basically found a pair of Google Glasses through Google, and together, we all made this short film without Google asking for it, and we just kind of made them a commercial without them asking, and that commercial went really viral and got me a job at real Google. And so for two years, I worked at Google, and I made commercials for them. And as you can probably imagine, all of Google’s commercials are very techy, they look like Searching. They could take place on Google Search bars, or Google Maps, or all these other Google Apps. So I got a chance to make a lot of stuff in the style of Searching before Searching happened. Then Searching happened because that same guy Sev Ohanian, was basically taking a bunch of meetings in LA making movies, and eventually took a meeting with a company called Bazelevs, which made a movie called Unfriended, and a bunch of movies that were similar to Searching’s style. So through a long relationship with Bazelevs that started off with us trying to make a short film that took place on computer screens with them, eventually, that opportunity to make a short film on computer screens actually turned into an opportunity to make a feature film on computer screens, which eventually turned into the idea for Searching, turning into me quitting my job and going to LA and trying to make this movie. Then Natalie came along, produced the movie with Sev. And together, we’ve been sort of making this movie. So it’s always sort of been like, at least in my perspective, one-upping the next time, but I’m sure Natalie has her own perspective on that.
Natalie Qasabian: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting, like Searching didn’t come together like a normal indie movie in the sense that the company had the idea to do something on screen, and they reached out to Sev, who was kind of like, Iron Man, and like, reached out to all of us and brought the Avengers together, and while Aneesh was working at Google, Sev and I produced a bunch of indies together, so we built up our relationship as producing partners, and then, you know, the company reached out wanting to make Searching and he had the perfect director in mind (Aneesh), and he had me in mind to help him produce it, and we just brought in a bunch of other people from USC, that we went to school with and made Searching
So, After the success of Searching, what inspired you to make Run as your next project?
Aneesh Chaganty: Run came for a couple of reasons. Most importantly, it came because to me, I wanted to do the opposite of Searching. Searching was such a complex movie, you know, it took place on screens, it was so, unconventional, that I personally just wanted to do the opposite to just show myself that I knew how to make a movie. Nothing was further from modern narrative that takes place on a computer screen than a movie set in a small town, in one house, with two characters and one camera, and just see if you can make it through it. To me, like, it was almost like a challenge to myself as, “if [I] can make this work, then maybe [I] can make movies work for real”, you know, because at the end of the day, Searching is not a normal movie, it’s like an experiment, and the experiment worked and it worked really, really, really well like, and it was that was kind of unexpected in really cool ways, but at the same time, if I’m supposed to make movies my whole life, I need to know how to make a “normal” one, so in a lot of ways this was that “normal” one, but the idea for the story itself came from like the headlines, and we kind of twisted it a little bit to make it a little darker and very Hitchcockian by keeping something secret from one character by another character and it slowly developed into what it is now.
Natalie Qasabian: Yeah, I remember when Sev and Aneesh first told me the idea, when we were editing searching still. We were all together for far too many hours a day, and I remember them pitching me the idea and thinking like this is a really cool opportunity to tell a story in which you know, the type of character at the center of the film, you know, with the disability is usually like the victim and these kinds of stories. In this movie, we get to see that character become the hero of her own journey and not really rely on anyone else and just using her smarts and her wits and that I remember that being like the thing that really excited me and made me pumped up to make the movie. Although I’d probably make anything that Sev and Aneesh write [laughs]
Throughout the film, I noticed a wide range of styles and influences that you seem to have incorporated into Run. What films or directors influenced you during the production of this film, and to what extent are they seen in the final cut?
Aneesh Chaganty: I think the biggest sort of influences were the films of Hitchcock and Night Shyamalan. Those are the sort of biggest sort of inspirations for this movie. I really wanted to make something that felt very old school, and nothing is more old school in the classic suspense/thriller vein than a good Alfred Hitchcock movie, as it doesn’t rely on blood and gore, but rather relies on increasing the tension. [We wanted to ask] “is this character going to find out if somebody else is making a phone call?” not, “is her head going to get cut off?” you know? I wanted to make a movie that felt very much more down to earth, without relying on blood and gore. The other thing that both of those filmmakers do [that stood out to me] is that they can compose a shot really well, and I wanted to borrow that. The way they compose their movie, they don’t shoot something, because something can happen in it, they shoot something because five things can happen in it, nine things can happen. It’s not like you’re cutting all the time, you’re trying to pick one frame that can convey a lot of action. I love the way they do that, so I wanted to borrow from all their styles to make a movie.
Natalie Qasabian: It was really cool to see when we were in Winnipeg, where we shot the movie, Aneesh was constantly citing all these movies, so we came up with this idea to create a library in the production office of all the films that Aneesh was referencing, and people would check out a DVD and then sometimes on Fridays, we would sit down as a whole crew and watch 10 Cloverfield Lane, Misery, and more, and it was a really cool way to all get on the same page and get inside of Aneesh’s brain.
As a member of the disabled community, I found it to be a very bold and welcome choice to have your protagonist be a member of the community as well. What inspired you to shine a light on disabled representation and center the film around her?
Aneesh Chaganty: Thanks! Growing up, when I was in high school, the movies that [I] would see that featured people that look like [myself] were always stereotypes. I’m sure you feel the same way, being part of your own minority group, and I always want to break out of that [idea], and the easiest way to break out of that is to just portray those characters in different lights. I wanted a brown kid to be cute, charming, and all that stuff. Half of the solution for that is just by creating those characters and not making it a big deal, but just making them fully dimensional characters and for us, Chloe was that. She’s so smart, she’s clever. She’s extremely witty and a genius in her own right, those are all quality traits that are so outside of disability, but like, by putting those two together, hopefully, young people who are watching this movie, who get to see that and then subconsciously connect like, hey, those personality traits, and that person can go together. I think, very subconsciously, those kinds of world openings are something that movies can do that very few other things can, and they make the world a better place in a very cheap kind of way of saying it, but the more empathetic and open we become, the more we’re able to progress as a society, is the grandest way to say that so that people can see it.
Natalie Qasabian: I think on another level, it is important to us to cast authentically and to find an actor, with a disability themselves, because far too often in Hollywood movies, that’s not the case and it’s the right thing to do, and this character has to experience so much related to the disability, and we just felt like, no one’s going to be able to do that as authentically as someone who’s actually living with a disability themselves. We hope in another way that films take note of that too and will cast authentically more often.
That’s great! I’m also very glad that you chose to make her character someone who can show strength on her own. For instance, even in Sarah Paulson’s initial monologues, you made sure that it was clear that her disability is a part of her but does not define her, and we see that she’s truly a well-rounded character who goes through much growth throughout the film. [Spoilers to follow] The final third of the film has numerous reveals that were handled in an incredibly respectful way, so how did you make sure that throughout the writing of the film, you were able to write such authentic character without succumbing to any stereotypical clichés that many others fall prey to?
Aneesh Chaganty: The biggest thing that we all did collectively was to open ourselves up to changing the script, changing the story, changing the production, and changing the process slightly by our lead. Kiera really affected the story in a lot of tiny ways that added up to a movie. We constantly asked her “will your room be like this? Or would you say this? Or would you do this? What does the title mean to you? Is the title or ending offensive? How can we compensate for this and make sure that we are putting something out in the world that is overall a step forward as opposed to a step back? Just being open and bringing other people in because within [the group of] me, Natalie, and Sev, none of us are part of the disabled community, but Kiera is, and I think just making sure that we’re listening to someone who knows something about this world and throughout the whole process was something that ended up making the movie a lot more specific. We talked to a disability studies professor at Brown University, we also spent a lot of time with him and talked in-depth about ableism as well.
[SPOILER WARNING] For example, at the end of the film at the very final scene, and you know what she does, at the end of that whole sequence in the original script, Chloe’s character was walking. One of the things that the disability studies professor told me was, without telling me really, it was that the final was sort of suggesting that Chloe’s arc was complete, because she could walk as opposed to her arc being complete, because she was a complete character. So immediately, we just changed that role, so she’s using a wheelchair at the end now. And now what we’re doing is saying, the movie is over, and our arc is complete because she got the freedom from her mom, and her arc is complete, because of how fucked up she became, and look what she’s doing to her mom, but it has nothing to do with the ability or disability. I think these are examples of us opening up a little bit and also trying to make it as kind of welcoming as we can.
Natalie Qasabian: I would like to add that Kiera was such a huge part of the process, I remember the first time we met with her, she was like, “ask anything you need to know. I’ll be honest with you guys, it’s kind of an uncomfortable thing to talk about sometimes, but if we’re gonna do this together, nothing is off the table”. And we really appreciated that. Because even from a production standpoint, we felt that she was an open book. And we could ask her: What do you need? How do you do things? and not make it like this kind of weird taboo thing. That was really helpful from a story perspective too, I remember even down to the final couple of days in our sound mixing, we were deliberating over this one line that we were adding and we were stuck. We weren’t sure which way to go, so we called Kiera, and she helped us figure out which way to go with the line in the movie, which is one of the many ways in which she impacted the story.
One last question before we wrap up: what advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers who are creating in such a turbulent and uncertain world?
Aneesh Chaganty: In general, the piece of advice that I give to aspiring filmmakers or filmmakers who are trying to have a big break, or for the ones who haven’t made a feature film yet is to really break out in the short film space. I really think the key to building the blocks to getting to a feature, start with a short film, usually, and it’s a movie that should only be a maximum of four minutes, but usually two to three. And also write a story that you really love. But most importantly, write it for a brand. Find a brand that you love and find a way to tell the story that you want and incorporate that brand to a point where, if that brand had a logo at the end of it, it would also be a really cool commercial for them. Send the short film out to that company and get them to retweet it or share it or make it a commercial on their own. Now, if they do that, you got that brand’s commercial on your resume. Now you can get the next thing. So just think smart, not just with your heart, but also with your head.
Natalie Qasabian: For me, I guess the only advice I can really give is from my experience, and that is even if you want to be a certain kind of filmmaker, and you want to make big-budget things with stunts and whatnot, if you have an opportunity that comes in front of you to do, it’s just as important to just start doing things and start making things and getting experienced and getting to that goal of what you want to make. So just start doing the thing! That’s the easiest way to get into this industry.
Film Inquiry would like to thank Natalie Qasabian and Aneesh Chaganty for taking the time to speak with us!
Since this interview was released, Run has gone on to break records as one of Hulu’s most-watched original films ever.
Run is available on Hulu in the US and will be released in theatres worldwide in 2021.
Does content like this matter to you?
Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema – get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.