Spike Jonze’s beautiful and beguiling “Her,” the dark horse in the best picture Oscar race, offers a warm and inviting fusion of LA/Shanghai, with its intoxicating use of red. And the opening scene in the office — a high rise on Hope near Bunker Hill — wonderfully sets up the delicate mood and world inhabited by Joaquin Phoenix’s forlorn letter writer. Oscar-nominated production designer K.K. Barrett discusses his artistic choices and the impact.
“I think the best idea is to introduce something familiar when you’re introducing an unfamiliar twist,” Barrett suggests. “So Spike’s description to me was that it was one of these creative workplaces that are all the interior architectural rage now where people don’t feel like they’re chained to a desk. And he wanted it to feel open like everybody enjoyed coming to work and it was an atmosphere where you could be spontaneously creative in. And so we still have a computer monitor, a desk, the written word.”
Indeed, Barrett was spontaneously creative as well, seizing on the rental the moment he discovered it, even though it was a bit pricey for their budget. It offered good views out of windows, had great light, and was horizontally expansive allowing space to breathe above you. It was just off-kilter enough with its angled ceiling and light and penthouse views. Phoenix already lived in a high-rise and so they put him even higher. And they couldn’t put him in the dark because they were saving that for a different mood, which turned out to be the sex scenes.
Barrett also made use of an old idea — color transport panels — which made the office more breezy. And he found inspiration from that alarming and funny moment in “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” when Jacques Tati’s alter-ego peers down a maze of proto-cubicles.
“It’s the introduction to his world, it’s the atmosphere, whether it’s going to be heavy or light, it’s sleight of hand because it begins close-up and opens wider and we see more and more of what’s going on. It involves some of the major conceit of the film: that he’s working with an operating system that is intuitive and voice-activated, although we don’t know to what degree these operating systems could be intuitive.
“And so with the light we had very limited time to be in there. I couldn’t build graphically or paint, so I built a modular system of color plexiglass towels that would be on the windows and the skylights for shifting color throughout the day and they would also be in cubicles that would separate them from one another. You could see through them so it wouldn’t be like they were firmly separated, and it didn’t block the light from bouncing around the room, and it gave it a thematic look all the way through. And the color [predominantly red] livened up the atmosphere and made it more playful.”
Besides personalizing the different work areas with the tools of their trade, including individualized stationary, they also made blow-ups of hand-drawn outlines with people doing comfortable activities that were mounted on the walls.
“You don’t want to make him feel depressed by his world — this is your first chance. And you also can’t play the hand that it’s so light and fun that there’s no place to believe the weight that he carries later. And Spike wanted to start close-up on his face and get wider and wider. As he gets up from the desk, we pan around to see everybody else working and then later he gets up and walks toward the front where he engages with the receptionist in playful banter and then we see the sign that says, ‘Beautiful Hand-Written Letters.'”
As beginnings go, it’s pretty marvelous, and we’re easily hooked. “His character is going to be a slow reveal and you’re going to find the depth of this displacement from other people as you go on, and you can’t be hit over the head that he lives in this horrific, heavy environment. That’s for the story to tell later…”
And what a love story for our time about virtual comfort, emotional longing, and spiritual awakening.