Pacho Velez discusses Searchers, his documentary about online dating, which draws us into a series of intimate interviews with New Yorkers searching for love (or a hookup).
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Searchers is a documentary about online dating in New York, made during COVID, although the pandemic is barely brought up, and only noticeable because of shots of New Yorkers on the street wearing masks. “The stuff about COVID was the least interesting,” director Pacho Velez told me. “At the end of the day, looking for love and looking for connections has been going on since the dawn of time. It’s going to continue. The obstacles are different, but the search is pretty much the same.” Because Velez avoids explicit discussions of the virus, Searchers is less a cheap attempt to make a ‘relevant’ film, and more a sweet, wholesome, and empathetic examination of finding love.
Through short interviews with various New Yorkers, we get to intimately observe the way people interact with dating apps, whether they’re judging other people, or curating their own profiles. Velez shoots each interview in the same way: in a closeup and with the subject looking directly into the lens (over which Velez fitted a teleprompter with the app screen on it). The app they’re looking at is superimposed, out of focus, over the screen we’re watching. We have some idea of what the subject is looking at, but our focus is on their face. Velez presents each interview in a single, unedited take, so we get to watch them thinking, and observe how long they take to consider before deciding to swipe left or right.
Velez’s subjects — who span a variety of ages, sexualities, races, and experiences — are all extremely well chosen; every single one of them has something interesting to say. There’s the hilarious Cathleen, a seventy-four-year-old woman who explains how “almost every guy has a way of writing he wants sex.” There are the two Sugar Babies who deliberate over the potential safety of male clients. And there’s there’s Jon, an older gay man whose moving story about his last long-term relationship acts as the film’s emotional climax. In between these interviews, Velez includes B-rolls of couples walking the streets of New York, holding hands, making out, and even getting married.
“Documentaries are always a record not of the person in front of the camera, but the relationship between the director and the subject,” Velez told me, which is why he is careful to include himself and his crew in the film. Just a few minutes in, he includes a shot of a crew member carrying the boom around the streets of New York. About a third of the way into the film, he includes his own voice explaining the filming process to a subject. Then Velez himself, who is also online dating, appears on camera as one of the subjects, and later, he even includes an interview with himself and his mother. It creates a sense of equality between director and subjects; they’re all searching for the same thing.
Before the Sundance virtual premiere of Searchers, I spoke with Velez over Zoom about picking his subjects, documentary ethics, and choosing the visual style of Searchers. A true documentarian, he even tried to interview me about my own dating life.
Seventh Row (7R): What was the genesis of Searchers?
Pacho Velez: There were kind of two starts to the project. One is myself being online, dating online, and finding it frustrating but, at times, rewarding.
I also had a student who was making his senior thesis film, and I was advising it. The film was about his ninety-one-year-old grandfather who had just gotten divorced from his eighty-eight-year-old year old grandmother and had started online dating. This was his first time [being] single in sixty years, and here he was in New York, meeting women. That idea sounded interesting. The student was bringing back interviews with his grandfather where his grandfather was like, “I’m like a pig in shit! There’s so many women! Everybody wants to talk to me!”
It’s an approach to it I had never really thought about before. I’d always been in my own silo thinking about how difficult it was for me. Seeing this footage coming in from this student, Milo [Borsuk], I was like, “Oh, everyone’s on this same app, but the way that they’re interacting with it is so different, and their experiences are so different.”
My own background is in, like, anthropology lite, so I was like, “Oh, it’s a community!” You can do all these little portraits of individuals who make up this community, who are all sharing this funny nexus of the app. Milo went on to be a co-producer of the film, so he was involved throughout.
7R: Did the project start before the pandemic? I know you shot during the pandemic.
Pacho Velez: We started a little bit before COVID. We started shooting our very first test interviews last winter. We hadn’t gotten very far when the pandemic hit. We sort of shut down for six weeks or two months, from late March until sometime in early June.
I kind of thought that when we started shooting again that COVID would have somehow changed things, because it was changing everything. But I started talking to people, and it was the same problems. The stuff about COVID was the least interesting. At the end of the day, looking for love and looking for connections has been going on since the dawn of time. It’s going to continue. The obstacles are different, but the search is pretty much the same. It’s a film that could take place during COVID, and COVID informs certain parts of it, but I didn’t want it to be limited by COVID. Five years from now, I didn’t want it [to be thought of as] the COVID doc.
Can I ask, have you dated online at all?
7R: No, not properly! I’m curious about it, but I’ve been in a relationship for a few years, so I haven’t been dating.
I have friends who have gotten really obsessive about it. I had one friend who was going on at least one or two dates a week. I was skeptical, but then after almost a year, when he was about to give up and accept being single, he found someone, and they’ve been together for a year and a half now.
It seems like it actually works. But I like that someone in the documentary said that online dating is like a job. That really resonated. You can find someone, but it involves spending a lot of time and money on the search.
Pacho Velez: Yeah, and I think it’s also part of the culture. I mean, I’m forty, so I’m old enough to remember when it was embarrassing. I met my previous girlfriend, who I was with for, like, five years, back in 2010. We met on OK Cupid, but we would never say that. It was always, “We met through friends.”
7R: It’s definitely a lot more common now, or even the norm.
Pacho Velez: And it’s just totally changed the landscape. It’s the default. It seems like it’s even that way for people who are seventy.
7R: I think I’m maybe more surprised now when I hear that someone just happened to meet the person they’re dating, like I did, than if they met online.
Pacho Velez: Sure, I mean, I would be very suspicious. I would wonder if it was a front story.
7R: Like, “Oh you didn’t spend six months trying to find the perfect person? You must have just settled.”
Pacho Velez: (laughs)
7R: How did you find the people who are in the documentary? I found them all interesting and enjoyable to listen to. I got the impression that some of them were people you know, and some weren’t?
Pacho Velez: Yeah, and that’s the case. It really was a hodge podge. Some people were friends of mine who I knew were on apps, or friends of friends. Some were former students. One or two were not, at that point, students, but are now my students, which is a whole other confusing thing. One of the Sugar Babies [who appears in the film] enrolled in my class this semester… so that’s happening.
Milo also did a lot of outreach through the apps themselves. He created a match.com account. He used his real photo, and in the description, he described our project and asked if people wanted to talk to him. He also set his age to seventy-five so that older people would see the profile.
At some point, it became clearer that we needed certain kinds of philosophies [about dating to be represented]. We started reaching out in more of a targeted way. Like Amber, the person who knows me who I tell a story to at the end of the film, she was one of the last people we filmed with. She’s a friend from college, so I’ve known her for twenty years. She’s someone I’ll see every couple months. I knew I needed somebody to be able to tell that story to, so it was a matter of finding someone I would feel comfortable telling it to, who would also have some kind of response to it — someone in my world.
7R: You said you were looking for certain philosophies. What were they?
Pacho Velez: It always felt really good when someone said something you didn’t expect them to say. So, with Helene and Jan, the eighty-eight-year-old and the eighty-three-year-old, Jan starts bemoaning “all the divorced men who want the twenty-five-year-olds.” I was like, “OK, that’s an expected response. I’ve heard that before.” But then Helene says, “I’m the same way! I want the young ones, too.” (laughs) I was like, “Oh! Great. Perfect.” It wasn’t at all the rote, expected response. I was like, “That’s making it into the film.”
There were other moments like that. There’s Lily, who is twenty-eight and looking for connections on Lex, which is a text app. I met her through a friend, Sam, who was like, “Lily’s really interesting, you should go talk to her.” She’s some kind of photographer. I was like, “OK!” We went to her studio, and she looked very conserative. She was wearing a sort of cashmere sweater, and I thought I knew what I was going to get. And then, she starts talking about how she really wants to like sex parties but she just can’t, because she feels like a conservative woman clutching her pearls in the corner. I was like, “Oh, I did not expect that to come out of her mouth. Perfect.”
At the end, Jon, the older gay man, talks about how his ex-partner made him feel beautiful. When the word beautiful came out of Jon’s mouth, I was like, “Oh…” Especially because a lot of the gay men that we’d been talking to up to that point were on Grindr, and it was a lot more about hooking up for the night. Then, here Jon was talking about someone who looked at him in a way that made him feel beautiful, and it just wasn’t expected.
7R: That is a really beautiful scene.
Pacho Velez: Yeah, he’s… this is very sad, but unfortunately, we tried to contact him in November to let him know that the film was coming to Sundance, and it turned out that he had died of a heart attack a week beforehand.
7R: Oh no, that’s awful!
Pacho Velez: He never got to hear about the movie.
7R: How many people did you shoot for the film?
Pacho Velez: I think we shot with about seventy people, including the double shots, so probably fifty interviews. At first, it was just a really wide net of whoever would talk to us. But then, at some point, we realised we needed to fill in certain outlooks. We wanted it to feel diverse in the same way that being in New York feels diverse, so people looking for different kinds of partners and different kinds of experiences.
It was always really important to be interviewing people who really wanted to talk to us. It is such an intimate topic. The way we were working, we showed up, we shook hands, we chatted for five minutes, and then we just started filming. So it’s not like the sort of long process of getting to know the characters. You have to pick people who are really excited to share. It makes me feel a bit more comfortable, ethically, as I’m not sitting there trying to pull things out of them that they’re not eager to share with me.
7R: It does surprise me that you had so little time to talk to the subjects beforehand, because they all seem so open and comfortable. Was it just a case of finding the right people, or did you do something specific to create a safe atmosphere?
Pacho Velez: Sometimes, I would have a phone call with them beforehand, if that was possible. But a lot of it was picking people who were really searching, so that they really were talking about something they were actively trying to do at the time. That helps a lot, because it really is preoccupying them.
I was going through my own experiences with [online dating], so I was able to connect on that level. It’s not like you’re the specimen, and we’re the scientists investigating you. I’m in this, too. So filming you is also about me sorting through my own issues, and I can go, “I totally get it.” They feel that, by sharing, they’re also helping me, which is a nice position to be in.
I made another film a couple years ago called Manakamana, which was set on a cable car with these ten-minute shots of people riding to and from a temple. A lot of the critical response was, “It feels painfully intimate! These people are sharing so much of themselves.” I’m happy it feels that way, but I filmed with these people for ten minutes. That was it.
With most documentaries, you’re filming for months or even years. [My way of shooting is] such a minor imposition on their lives. Honestly, that’s a place where I feel more comfortable, as a documentary filmmaker. The kinds of films where the filmmaker inserts themselves in the character’s life for however long just feel so invasive. It’s a kind of filmmaking that I try to avoid.
7R: Was wanting to be on the same level as your subjects why you put yourself in the film?
Pacho Velez: Yeah. It was a later addition. Sometime in the middle of the summer, the editor [Hannah Buck] was like, “Pacho, you need to get in there, too.” And I was like (sighs), “OK.” I understood it because it helped to explain the ‘why’ of the film. As the director, you’re always a little bit the puppetmaster, but I’m exposing myself a little bit by putting myself out there and putting myself through the same thing that I’m putting the characters through.
It’s actually been a funny response so far. Not many people have seen it, but I’ve already gotten two people trying to set me up with their friends. (laughs) So I think there’s going to be a lot of that in the future, which is totally unexpected. I swear I did not make this movie in order to meet people!
7R: You’re going to be set up with people all across the country when the film screens nationwide at Sundance.
Pacho Velez: (laughs) I know, right.
7R: How did your mother get involved?
Pacho Velez: It came from that scene with Mark, where his mom interrupts the interview. I love the scene; I thought it was so funny. But when we put it in the movie alone, it felt like it was making too much fun of him. Everyone else gets to be cool in their fantasy space, and he’s interrupted by his mom. It didn’t sit right. We thought, is there some other way to bring mothers into the film? Is there some way, Pacho, that you can put yourself in the same situation to create a little more comfort with Mark’s situation?
My mom definitely is interested in my romantic life, so it was natural. Of course, we did it, and I was like, “Oh, this is useless. It has no place in the film.” And the editor was like, “What are you talking about? This is gold!” (laughs). I have no sense of how good or bad I am on camera. I can’t judge my performance at all. I’m just like, “There’s my fat face on the camera.” So there was a lot of trusting my friends and the editor, Hannah, and then the other editor who came on, Scott Cummings.
7R: How did you and your crew work together to figure out what you wanted the interviews to look like? All the interviews are shot the same way, in a single take, closeup, and with shallow focus. I suppose it must have been important to settle on the right visual style early on.
Pacho Velez: We watched a bunch of films that were shot with devices that let characters look directly into the lens. It just gives a different kind of access to the characters when someone’s really looking you in the face. I think it’s happening on a sort of unconscious level. You aren’t aware of it, but it makes you link into the human energy or the human rhythms that a person’s sending off. So we knew we wanted to do that.
We knew we had to use a teleprompter to put the dating apps [in front of the camera] so people could see them. We needed to figure out a distance from the teleprompter that was possible. It was a pretty small, lightweight, portable device, because we had to go all over the city.
A constraint I hadn’t expected at all was that older people start to lose their up close vision. So we actually couldn’t put the screen too far away from certain characters. There’s a moment when the two older men, Robert and Arthur, are chatting on the couch, leaning back, and then Robert leans forward to look into the eye direct. All of that started to dictate what was possible and how close the framing had to be.
It was pretty early on that we arrived on the look. To shoot a film this way, you have to commit to certain things. So certainly, with the single head in the middle of the frame, we [decided on] early. Some of the other stuff, like filming with two people or doing some of it outdoors, those innovations came later into the process.
7R: What about the visual representation of the apps on screen?
Pacho Velez: That was all being projected onto a teleprompter in front of the characters, and the camera was behind that, so we were just making a screen recording of the images off the teleprompter. At some point early on, Dan Claridge, one of the cinematographers, said, “You know what would be really cool, if you project that on the screen in front of the people [in the edit].” I was like, “Oh, would that work?” He was like, “Yeah, no problem.” So we brought it into Premiere Pro [the editing software] and tested it out. It looked like that Tom Cruise film Minority Report. We were like, “Oh my God, it looks like a twenty-million dollar film! Let’s do it!”
Because it is a separate layer, we could do all kinds of design work on it. We were able to knock faces out of focus and move things slightly off screen to preserve people’s anonymity. We were able to lightly tweak the text to maintain the privacy of the people in the profiles. We had so much unusual control for a documentary.
Dan Claridge also has a background in computer graphics, so he was like, “I can do all this work.” He’d done it all for a film last year called The Great Hack, so he had all this experience. Basically, he did what probably would have been 80,000 dollars worth of graphics work himself, in his living room, for a much reduced rate.
7R: Very early on in the film, you invite the viewer behind the scenes by showing your sound crew holding the boom. Later, you include clips of you explaining the filming process to your subjects. Why was that important for you to do?
Pacho Velez: For me, it’s this question of reflexivity in documentaries. Documentaries are always a record not of the person in front of the camera, but the relationship between the director and the subject. What’s being captured on camera is that relationship: both what the director is willing to ask about and also what the subject is willing to share. You’re always encoding this relationship.
Some films play that down. Usually, when films are very choppy, and you don’t hear the director, they’re trying to minimise the amount of time you’re thinking about that relationship, so you can think about something else. And sometimes, those films are very noble. They want you to think about climate change, not about director-subject relations. But at the end of the day, for me, it’s where my interest is. The thing that motors documentaries and keeps my eyes on the screen are human relationships: the friction between one person and another person. Whether that’s the director and subject or two people on screen chatting. When people don’t quite see eye to eye, I’m totally hooked.
7R: Could you tell me about capturing those little bits of footage in between the interviews, where we see New York couples wandering the streets and interacting?
Pacho Velez: That was actually some of the very last stuff we shot, in September and October. We had been shooting more standard B-roll, like New York beauty shots.
When I’m working on films, I’m always showing them to friends. A lot of times, I feel like my friends see things I don’t see. Sometimes, they’re quite a bit smarter than me. (laughs) When you’re inside of something, you don’t always see the obvious. I was showing these cuts to people, and they were like, “The characters are really great and engaging, but then the B-roll just looks like tourist B-roll. Why is that in the movie? What is that telling us?”
I started to think about what the B-roll really had to do. It had to evoke the chorus. It has to evoke the larger world. The interviews are very one-to-one and individual. Something needs to create a sense of community. The film’s not about the buildings; it’s about the people in the city. How do I create a larger sense of what romance in New York city looks like right now?
That led to going out to the parks and the Brooklyn bridge, these iconic romantic sites in the city. Because it is COVID, that’s just where everyone’s gone. People are making out in public; people are getting married in public. It made sense that that was the larger backdrop that these interviews had to happen against.
7R: How did you approach the editing process? It must have been a mammoth task to work through all those interviews and figure out an order for them.
Pacho Velez: Working on a film like this, where there isn’t a strong central narrative, it’s always a little tricky. It’s easier, because you can always just go out and shoot more stuff, but it’s also harder, because it isn’t as self evident what the order of the scenes should be.
We basically just started by sorting it down to the pieces we liked the most. We shot maybe fifty or sixty hours in total, and then we had an edit that was about four hours long. Then we just started feeling things out. We knew that Jon’s story, which he tells at the end, was the most emotional story that we captured, and the most emotional moment of the movie should probably come at the end.
You start to feel out who is the most immediately gripping, and those people probably go at the beginning, the ones who are fun and quick and very engaging. We knew pretty quickly that Ruddy, who’s the gay man in the third position — who’s like, “Ooh no, his forehead’s huge, no thanks” — he was just so funny, so he was going to be early. And also, Cathleen who talks about the old men wanting sex.
7R: Oh yeah, that was great.
Pacho Velez: Yeah, it just had the early energy. It was high energy. It was fast; it was witty. It would grab an audience.
For a while, the younger people were later in the movie. But the younger people were mostly looking for more of a hookup or a Sugar Daddy, and we realised that you couldn’t have the more serious people browsing before the less serious people. It just created an imbalance in the film. You’d also be like, “Oh, these people were looking for love, so why are we now looking at people who just want to hook up with someone?” So those shifted.
You kind of watch and watch and watch, and it reveals itself. This is kind of a corny metaphor, but when it’s working, it feels like a flower unfolding. Each person is a petal. They have to relate to each other, but each one goes deeper. If something is repetitive, it needs to be cut out. Each one should be distinct, and each one should bring you closer to the heart of the matter.
7R: I noticed you were holding the boom in a shot at the end of the film. What was your approach to capturing sound and then creating a soundscape for the film in the edit?
Pacho Velez: I like recording my own sound as much as possible. It’s not always possible. I think it comes actually from a lot of time spent making very low-budget documentaries. Usually, you can get someone to shoot for you, but it’s hard to get a good sound recordist for free. I developed the skill myself.
With this project, everybody [was recorded with two mics], so we were using a boom and also lav mics as much as possible. I also did a lot of the wild sound recording, which I then sent to the sound designer, Jermiah [Moore], as a sort of library of sounds of the city that he could pick and choose from.
The two places we really spent money on this film was hiring a top-rate editor and a top-rate sound designer. At the end of the day, those are the two most important positions on a film. A lot of it was trusting Jeremiah’s instincts. His background is more in sound art than in traditional film mixing, which is just what I wanted. I wanted it to feel a bit elevated, strange, surprising, and musical. The whole thing should feel like a piece of music.
Being sure that he had enough time to do that [sound] work was important. Jeremiah was the first person I got in touch with after I knew the film was going to Sundance. It was also strange, because we couldn’t meet at all. He’s in San Francisco, so it was just impossible to visit. He would send me cuts, and I have a decent sound system here [at home], so I would just be listening on my home stereo, and then sending notes back and forth, which slows it down. I still don’t have a full theatrical understanding of what [the film is] going to sound like, and I won’t for a couple of months.
7R: What were you and Jeremiah focusing on in the sound mix?
Pacho Velez: The ratio of the voice to the world is really key to the film. I do, on some level, think it’s a film about New York City. You have to always be thinking about the city, but if you hear the city too much, you lose the voices. We did a lot of recording apartment sounds, for instance. My upstairs neighbours are very noisy on the floor; they do a lot of banging around, so I made a lot of recordings of that.
7R: Has making the film changed the way you think about and approach dating?
Pacho Velez: (laughs) I don’t know yet. Check with me in a couple months. It’s such a funny moment. Once the pandemic starts to die down again, I think people are going to be really, really randy. I think people will be in the mood to really go out and have a good time. It’ll be exciting. Maybe we’ll have to make a sequel.
7R: Do you teach mostly nonfiction?
Pacho Velez: Yeah, mostly. It’s a liberal arts college, and the film programme is pretty small, so I do end up teaching some of the screenwriting classes. But most of my classes are nonfiction. I like it. It creates a level of stability that a lot of my friends in film don’t have.
7R: What label would you use to describe your film? How do you feel about the label creative nonfiction?
Pacho Velez: I usually refer to what I do as nonfiction filmmaking. That’s how I label the classes, rather than documentary, because I do feel that documentary invites more journalistic minded students that I have less to offer.
It’s not a perfect word. I guess I don’t super mind creative nonfiction either. I’ve also heard avant-doc thrown around, which is not my favourite term. (laughs) I guess I’m also just happy with movie, too. Unscripted movie.
7R: What are you working on next?
Pacho Velez: I’ve been thinking of trying to do something that’s about UFOs in upstate New York. There are a lot of sightings in the Hudson Valley. A lot of people have abduction stories. I think that movie would be something like Errol Morris meets X Files.
Also, at some point, I need to make a sequel to this movie that’s about couples.
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