Behind the Set Design of ‘Her’
Production designer K.K. Barrett actually took cues from the past when creating the sets for ‘Her,’ an Oscar-nominated film that takes place in a slightly futuristic version of Los Angeles.
Spend 24 hours in the mind of Oscar nominee K.K. Barrett, production designer of the film Her, and you never know what interesting idea you'll be privy to. It’s no wonder that Her director Spike Jonze (also Oscar nominated) is a longtime collaborator with Barrett. Together, the two have worked on three other acclaimed films together – Where the Wild Things Are, Adaptation and Being John Malkovich – as well as Jonze’s music videos.
As an expert in set decorating, you might think Barrett would love the idea of being an interior designer as a side business. “I find it much easier to satisfy directors,” he quipped. “With characters, you are figuring out who they really are, why would they own this or that. You have to imagine sometime in their lifetime, why they might accumulate these things. Which is fun to do, since it shapes their character. It’s more about understanding their logic, which is really interesting.”
If you haven’t seen Her, here’s a bit of the plotline: Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), is a complex, soulful guy who is still heartbroken after the end of a long relationship. He becomes intrigued with a new, advanced operating system, like Apple’s Siri but with more human responses. Upon initiating it via his computer at home, he meets “Samantha,” a bright, female voice (Scarlett Johansson) who propels him out of his sadness.
Barrett’s favorite room on set is, of course, the apartment, since much of Theo’s time is spent there. “The apartment is supposed to be very comfortable. It has great light coming in the afternoon, with these large windows wrapping around you. The furniture was pieces from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘70s, with a lot of wood tones," he says. "I think the overall sleek feeling comes from a lack of clutter. Here’s a guy who just came out of a divorce and moved into his own place – he shared a house before, and if you look carefully, some of the furniture and lamps come from his life in flashbacks. He’s not really setting up the home now to entertain in. He’s pretty much by himself, and when that happens, you don't really hang up all the pictures – you’re a little bit stuck. So that is what the apartment represented,” he explained.
In a way, Theo’s bedroom is like a haven.
“To counter all the glass in the living room, we found really nice bedspreads for the bedroom that were handmade and comfortable, to make it look not too stiff and cold," Barrett said. "We had a great team that has worked together before and I feel lucky for that, especially since we all know each other’s tastes in purchasing items. When you work on a film, you just never know where the items are going to come from. Sometimes you even bring stuff from your home.”
Barrett furnished Theodore’s office and home for ease and efficiency, with well-crafted simple items, especially in creating the hand-held device that Theodore uses to communicate with Samantha.
“This is not a future of harshness, but of bespoke details,” he noted. “I like the way fountain pens and cigarette cases were designed in the 1940s; small leather address books and the feel of a Zippo lighter in your hand – things that are archaic in use but timeless in design. So take the detail of those beautiful objects and apply them to something you use many times a day: your phone. Even in designing the tech end, I stayed away from new materials, instead framing the computer monitors as if they were photographs or art. These devices are meant to convey a link for human contact. They needed to be simple so the voice is what holds the viewer’s attention.”
For Amy Adams’ apartment, Barrett wanted a more homey look. “Since she had a long-time partner, we wanted the place to feel warm and comfortable. So her house had a more-lived in look, while Theo’s looked a bit bare, due to what was happening in his life, being single and alone.”
Barrett’s own living room has a lot of light and is a good place to read or listen to music. “If you have a party, you can shove all the furniture against the wall and it makes a great dance room. For my home, I tend to go into antique stores. Not old antiques, nothing past the 1940s. If you do this for a living, you are kind of always on the look out for something. There are a row of stores on Sunset and Silver Lake – I don’t know the names of the stores, I just go to all of them!”
Barrett still has items from his other films in his house too, including a desk he had made for I Heart Huckabees.
With the film set in the not-too-distant future, Barrett’s challenge was to find locations that could feel real and right for the story. He and Jonze looked through hundreds of images of visual references of modern architecture to support this.
To compose the look and mood, Barrett favored a series of subtle adjustments toward what he called “a future that is around the corner, rather than some distant time where the audience would marvel at all the changes. It often takes just a couple of altered conceits to shed a different light on society. We are in Los Angeles so I thought, ‘Take away the cars. What would it be like if there was no noticeable traffic? What if there was a subway to the beach? Get in at Hollywood and step out on the sand. Take a weekend trip to a cabin in the snow on a high-speed bullet train.’”
Noted producer Vincent Landay, “We make it a priority to create an environment actors can thrive in, and that includes the atmosphere on set and the set itself. Having a real apartment or office helps to ground the scene in reality and also better matches Spike’s aesthetic than a studio set with green screen. To fully take advantage of this, we looked for interior locations that had lots of natural light. That created a greater challenge to schedule filming around the sun and moon, and for K.K., who would have to transform these existing spaces and structures.”
Los Angelenos will spot many authentic reference points,
among them the landmark Santa Monica Pier where Theo and Samantha enjoy a night
out, and the stylish Pacific Design Center, which serves as the entrance to
Theodore’s apartment building.
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