In Missing. the computer never takes its eyes off the action as the audience tries to solve this clever thriller through its ever-present gaze. Panning left, panning right, sometimes without a human to direct the narrative, the computer watches a story unfold about itself as the hero. That’s the genius of this film, producer Sev Ohanian told me in an extensive interview about his latest outing with Sony Pictures.
With cinematic emotionality, fast-paced twists and a shocking ending, there’s a lot going on Missing apart from others in the on-screen horror genre – including its prequel, the critically acclaimed 2018 Research.
HBO’s Storm Reid (Last of us, euphoria) stars like a teenage girl-turned-digital sleuth who must harness a myriad of technologies at her fingertips to rescue her mother who disappears two thousand miles away while on vacation in Cartagena, Colombia.
For fans of Researchthe film follows a similar format – a family member goes missing, a stranger is enlisted as a helpful sidekick, there’s Google searches and hacking, TV news, TikTok sleuths step in, and the film goes awry with an ending as far-fetched as white lotus 2.
For two hours, not a moment drags. It’s cheeky, it’s scary, there’s an adorable Task Rabbit played by Portuguese actor Joaquim de Almeida who deserves his own series. He even buttoned up HBO’s Ken Leung Industry — and then there’s that alien subplot looming in the background.
AI plays a part in both the making of the film and the plot, and Ohanian shared his thoughts on that with me.
The following is a transcript of our conversation that has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Missing, which is a computer screen film, is released on January 20, but only in theaters. Why is that?
You know, it just made financial sense to have the initial release in theaters. The first movie, Research, was a global hit that grossed $75 million theatrically, including $20 million in Korea alone. Additionally, the film was designed to be experienced in a community setting. As a filmmaker, I always ask the studio to save me a spot at screenings because I want to see what the audience feels – clinging to their seats, the slowness of terror, the applause. There is simply no substitute for it.
Any project to bring Missing streaming?
Yes, Missing will eventually be released on home media and we have invested heavily in world building to increase replayability for fans who love easter eggs. In the context of Researchwhile the father is spending the worst five days of his life trying to find his daughter, if you look closely in the background there is all sorts of information about an alien invasion descending on the planet that he is unaware of. This subplot continues in a very unexpected direction in Missing.
How much did it cost to make Missing? After shooting in both Los Angeles and Cartagena, were you able to do it for less than a million dollars, like Research?
No, certainly not less than a million, but I would say not much more. We did it in a very economical way, which is one of the most appealing aspects of this franchise. For Research, we were able to do it for less than a million dollars ($880,000) and with a very small printing and advertising budget.
You and Aneesh Chaganty wrote the script for Research, but turned to your editors, Will Merrick and Nick Johnson, to write the Missing script and direct it. Why?
In 2019, when we got the call from Sony to do the sequel, Aneesh and I were busy with other projects. We had read a spec script that Will and Nick had written for Paramount and knew they were great writers. So we wrote a three-page treatment for Missing from start to finish, with all the major beats, character arcs, and twists, and gave it to them to support their writing and directing debut, while we remained producers.
Missing Editors Arielle Zakowski and Austin Keeling told me how AI-enabled editing tools like Adobe Premiere Pro allow anyone to achieve a professional level of cinematic finishing for their film projects. Do you agree with that?
The technology is great and I’d love to see more original storytelling come out of it, but it’s still very difficult to make a compelling movie in this computer screen format. We spent a lot of time trying to find ways to make it fresh, quirky, surprising, and satisfying, and yet it remains to be seen if it could be done over and over again without audience fatigue.
Does that mean you’re not going to make it a series?
Well, we’re working on a sci-fi series with Warner Brothers TV for HBO Max called The future which contains some of these elements, so we will have to see.
AI has played an interesting role in Missing, not only in production but also as a character. What do you think of ChatGPT being cast in one of your future productions?
As for ChatGPT, I love it. In fact, I fed him all your questions and proofread his answers – just kidding! Fans suggested I run ChatGPT as a cat fisherman – so you never know.
Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian follows you on Twitter – relationship?
Haha no, although sometimes I joke that we are cousins, but we are not genetically related, although we have become friends.
What’s next for you?
I have a production company called Proximity Media with Ryan and Zinzi Coogler, producers of Judas and the Black Messiah, Space Containment 2and soon available Creed IIIand we also have an agreement with Disney+ to do the Wakanda series Stone heart for the Marvel Cinematic Universe – I can’t wait for it.
And of course, I’m super excited to see how the public appreciates Missing.
Sony Pictures provided three-day access to preview the film.