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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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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