In the not too distant future, the skyline of Los Angeles will be full of 80-story high-rise towers. The air will be clean, the traffic nonexistent. Parks will thrive on rooftops. It will be a simple bullet train ride to the sea or the mountains. At least that's the LA writer/director Spike Jonze envisions in his new film Her, a Twenty-First Century love story about a man named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls into a romantic relationship with his computer operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).
"The future LA is convenient, comfortable, and bespoke," says production designer KK Barrett, who has collaborated with Jonze on four films. "We cleaned up the city—we took away things that weren't of interest—and celebrated buildings and architecture that were of interest to us. In Her it's a new city with curvaceous buildings and things that amuse us rather than things that felt brute."
Their Los Angeles is a clever amalgam of locations in the real LA and in the Pudong business district of Shanghai, famous for its futuristic skyscrapers and raised walkways. If you look closely, you can see Chinese signage throughout the film. "We didn't hide it," says Barrett. "It's part of what LA is and what LA will become. We embrace the signage."
Barrett says he had a lot of questions when he first read Jonze's script because it lacked "visual exactness. So we collaged buildings together—we found buildings we liked—Pudong had the best visuals we could find—and it didn't matter that it was China. We selectively edited our collection of buildings into our film to make our new world—and we took out things we didn't want to show. And it becomes a new whole."
Barrett and Jonze's vision of Downtown Los Angeles is filled with curves and fabrics, beautiful lighting, and soft textures. It is a look, weirdly enough, inspired by Jamba Juice: "It's convenient, comfortable, healthy, and available. That's the world we wanted to make," says Barrett.
Joaquin Phoenix's character lives in a high-rise (location: the WaterMarke at Ninth and Flower) that perhaps appropriately overlooks One Wilshire—considered the most wired telecommunications building in the world.
But Barrett wanted the skyscraper-filled future LA to have open space too—"even in [Theodore's] apartment with the big windows we wanted to give the illusion he was floating—surrounded by the density of the big city but not claustrophobic."
Her is not only a movie about how we might find love in the future, but also how we might live there. "Hopefully the look of the movie shows things that can't be heard through dialogue," says Barett. "It gives more information about the characters and the world around them without being intrusive. The production design is wrapped around him and becomes part of his character—and the bubble he lives in."
Her will have a limited release starting today, December 18, and a wide release beginning January 10. --Andrew Epstein