K.K. Barrett on creating the world of ‘Her’ with Spike Jonze

If there is one unsung hero of Spike Jonze’s “Her” its production designer K.K. Barrett. Well, as unsung as an Academy Award nominee can be. Barrett has collaborated on everyone of Jonze’s films and his work on “Her” may be his best. From a futuristic Los Angeles to the intricate work to get Samantha’s operating system just right, “Her” takes place in a world that is far more intricate than it may seem.  And much of that is due to the work of Barrett and his co-nominee, set decorator Gene Serdena.

Barrett took some time recently to discuss his creative process with Jonze, the difficulties of finding the right look for the handheld operating system and much, much more.


HitFix: I know you’ve worked with Spike a number of times before, and I’m curious in terms of the other projects you’ve worked on, how different was the process for “Her?”

K.K. Barrett: It’s different each film. Maybe depending on how difficult it is to track, or how much time we’re spending together outside film just lying around. He told me about the film and kind of described the script to me before I had read it. We worked on it for a couple weeks just bouncing ideas around and then we didn’t start the film for four months. So it’s the same way it’s always been. The tricky thing about films is when you read a script, you can’t really stop working on it. You start solving the problems. You start thinking about what it’s going to be or what you can do with this or that or what the best solution is. And so as soon as you’ve read the material it’s kind of tough to do. It’s a very tricky thing, and this one more so than the others because the catalyst was a bit more open-ended.

“Wild Things” was the last thing we did together, based on a very famous book, and so that was an intimidation that had to be dealt with so you didn’t disappoint anybody. But this was a piece of whole cloth from Spike’s brain, so we could really do whatever we wanted to as long as it serviced the story and supported the characters. It was a bit more fun and there was a lot more playful idealism in the beginning on what we could do, because we can do anything, and at the end what we shouldn’t do. It was probably a month and a half of just talking ideas, where nothing concrete was ever sat down. A lot of things were rejected. A lot of things were brought in. We looked at a lot of photo books just for emotional feelings, inspiration. Not concrete structure or anything like that. We studied the future a bit and kind of didn’t really get excited about what we saw. So, every process is different but this one was a little bit more touchy-feely as we went just finding our way.

Did you both make “rules” about what the future would be, so that everything would work together? Did that eventually sort of happen?

Well, yeah. He started the game by writing the script and describing that it was a denser world, and that [the main character] travels by subway, and it was in Los Angeles, and he took high-speed transportation or convenient transportation from almost his doorstep to his office. It was a short walk outside. And that everything was nice and comfortable and the world was good for him. You could pretty much have what you want and choose what you wanted. It wasn’t a struggle to live. So, those were the parameters that he set, and then, because it was set slightly in the future – only because we have an operating system that we haven’t quite gotten to yet, and the Los Angeles that we know is more built up than the current one – I started thinking of things that could separate it from the world that we know now.

So there was familiar, yet slightly unfamiliar. And some of those rules were what happened if we didn’t have any cars – if you don’t show cars. We don’t say that we don’t have them, we just don’t show them. What if he is never on the sidewalk level of the city? What happens if there’s no denim or sport shoes? What happens if there’s no graphics in the advertising? Advertising [in this world] is very subtle, just fixed slow motion movie images. You play with all these ideas and then the costume designer said, “What if there’s no belt? What if there’s no neckties?” And then the DP said, “Well, what if we avoid blue completely?” And these are all just gamesmanship things where we’re trying to look at the world differently. As soon as you make those rules and you walk around and look at things, then you do see things quite differently. By subtracting things you present a world that you don’t know why it’s slightly separated from ours; the experience is something fresh. And so we started with some of those things and they were really just playful ways of getting into the film, but some of them stuck. And we probably broke all of the rules that we made. They weren’t really rules but they were investigations into what we could do and couldn’t do to freshen things up.

So wait, when you say that some of these rules were broken – did someone wear a belt and I missed it in a shot or something?

I don’t think there’s a tie or a belt. [Laughs.]

At what point did you decide “O.K., the only way we can pull this off is if we mix in footage from another city like Shanghai to make this work with Los Angeles.” Was it just too expensive to come up with these shots in L.A. itself?

This was always the plan that Spike had talked about. He wanted to shoot the whole thing in another city and call it Los Angeles and yet have taco trucks and things that we know that are familiar with Los Angeles, because we’d have these cues. In the end we didn’t get as heavy-handed as that, we just said it’s Los Angeles and mixed and matched. And we went to Shanghai. We scouted like four or five different cities by looking at pictures, but the one country that we actually visited was China and we never made it to Hong Kong. We went to Beijing, Guangzhou and then landed in Shanghai. Shanghai really had what we were looking for so we didn’t look any further. We only shot there for a week but we needed this kind of unfamiliarity to mix with our familiarity. It had these concourses when you never walk on the sidewalk at street level; the cars were below. And it had this density of buildings all built within the same era of the last 20 years. [It] gave it a freshness. And then you mix that in with Los Angeles and things are familiar, like going to the beach and going to the mountains, and it kind of adds up to our world.

I’m assuming you live in LA, do you?

I do live in L.A. I lived here since ’87.

One of the things that I find is for people who live in L.A. and see the movie, it becomes this huge debate about whether this type of landscape could actually come to pass. I’ve already heard, “Oh, there would never be that many buildings between downtown and Wilshire.” And I’m like “No, look, it’s coming. You can see it. Look what they’re doing in Hollywood.” I’m curious if any of the inspiration for this came from the  renewed building that’s going on in the city itself today.

I try to go into movies with as little research as possible but what will really be, unless the script calls for it. I really try to feel what’s correct for the movie or what’s correct for this world to make it distinct and support the characters of course. I wasn’t consulting about urban planning and looking around. We’re not trying to tell anybody this is what’s going to happen. The same way we dealt with technology – we [purposely] avoided talking about technology. Technology is a piece in the film only in that it’s a very advanced operating system. But other then that we don’t talk about anything technologically advanced. This world is certainly different and it’s almost like this Los Angeles grew up on a different course than ours did and it embraced mass transit a little earlier than we did and embraced the population boom or maybe downtown. So, there’s logic in it and then there’s playfulness in it. I wonder why people wanted to live in the high-rises in Los Angeles when you could have a backyard? But there is something really appealing about that view that he has and all the light that he gets in his apartment. It’s a bit of give-and-take.

Let’s talk about Theodore’s apartment. It’s such an important part of the film’s overall design. Did you have specific requirements before you found the space?

We definitely wanted a view. We wanted nice light. We wanted the reminder that the city is always there. We wanted elevation. And you go out and start looking and you start thinking “Will we find this? Where are we going to find this in Los Angeles? It’s a very limited set of choices. Are we going to be in an office building and turn an office building into his apartment? Are we going to build it on a rooftop from scratch just to have the view? And which view? Because it’s not nearly as dense as what we wanted to be.” But, we found the building near Staples Center where they’re starting to develop [and] his view looks north into Los Angeles. It’s probably the densest look towards the mountains and we just got lucky. But the windows had a huge play in choosing that location. I definitely wanted the outside inside as much as possible, especially when you’re with him. It’s both a wonderful space and a lonely space at the same time.

The smallest thing that had to be designed for the whole film but was probably most important things is the actual handheld operating system item itself. I’m assuming you had a big say in what this was. How many different versions were there? How long did it take to actually land on the right design?

It was the hardest thing to design. It was the first thing we set out to do because we knew it would tell how techie, however refined we were. And we’re competing against some pretty nice devices that we already carry around with us and how much more advanced could we get from that? So rather than compete we kind of like made our own genre and went backwards and said, “O.K., what’s going to happen when people are just tired of this beautiful glass and steel appendage?” And already we’ve got different covers to personalize them, so we just went a step further and kind of personalized the whole thing and made it like a little address book you open and close with aluminum binding and some leather texture and other features that are familiar to us, like the touch screen and camera eye. It was the most difficult thing to land on. We shot scenes before we could decide – we were already shooting before we could decide what it was. It was that bad. It was very, very hard.

Was it the most stressful part of the production?

It’s a silly thing but in a way it was because [that device was important in how] her voice is going to come through. And it’s not like the camera is going to go to it every time we hear voice, but you know that we’re going to introduce it as a way of communication and a way for her to see, so it is a pivotal set piece in a way. So it was hard. We knew we had to get the tone just right. We had to be able to see it and throw it away, be intrigued by it but not so much that we thought about it; when the voice came on, that”s all we thought about was the voice. We didn’t want to dwell on technology. And so it had to be something that you saw and then saw right through and dismissed or excepted it at the same time. And eventually we just landed on something that was more handcrafted than technological, where we thought it would be more handcrafted like everybody has their own brand, everybody has their own design, their little bespoke piece. And funny enough, when we went to Shanghai, they were still selling business card holders and business cards are a very big thing there in business. So I went to stationary stores. You’d go in and you’d see things that looked just like our device, because these people have handcrafted business card holders, things that people would communicate through. You’re having a conversation with somebody you know, you bring out your business card holder and give them a card. It’s something very present between the two of you and it also represents your style in a way. So I think we were kind of on the right track.

Did you keep one or are they all like in a box somewhere sort of hidden away in Spike’s house somewhere?

I wish I kept one. I think there was three or four of them that are serving different purposes, with ones that have lights in them, ones that I don’t have lights in them, ones that are heavier and lighter. I’m sure they’re quite protected.

Is there anything that you have been surprised in terms of the reaction? Like people fixating on the high-waisted pants or people sort of questioning if this was L.A.?

We always get a kick out of the fact that when Amy’s husband shows up they always laugh at his pants. They’re like, “He’s the goofiest looking guy,” I guess. That gets a laugh. We’re watching and his pants get a laugh. Anybody can challenge it if they wish. I’m surprised when people get upset about, like, “Is it right that he falls in love with [an OS device]? She’s not a real person.” But all those issues are dealt with in the film as well; they’re questioned. No, I don’t think anybody’s busting our chops on is it correct for Los Angeles or – I just talked to someone who is surprised that they hadn’t noticed there were no cars. I think the real puzzle is going through and figuring out what we’ve taken away that’s pervasive around us right now. Because we took a lot of things away just to skew the world slightly, rather than add a bunch of things to be noticed.

I actually think you’ve made a pitch reel for what the future of the city could be. I’m surprised that they won’t have it playing on loop down there because I think so many people want to see a city like this. So when I asked that question, I didn’t mean it in a negative way. Because as someone who has lived here for a long time, I think you guys have done a remarkable service in many ways to the city by showing that this sort of world could be so successful.

I was at a meeting and I talked to someone that is involved in city planning and they loved the [movie]. I guess now that I’m thinking, it’s too bad, because we can put something like this together in a couple years and I think architecture and especially city planning takes so long from initial planning stage to approval, funding, execution, that it may seem like the past by the time their future is actually enacted. So it’s tricky. I hope that our future Los Angeles doesn’t have the smog in the sky that we showed in Shanghai. It was kind a like going back in time for Los Angeles a little bit.

How much of a head start does Spike usually give you that he’s planning on working on a new film? Or is it usually sort of out of the blue?

Neither of us are very prolific. You know, I usually do a film in between the films that I do with Spike. He’s only done four so that doesn’t give me very many. He’ll say he’s got something that he’s thinking about, but sometimes that never happens or sometimes it’s another thing by the time it actually does happen. I think that given that most of the players on the film are the same players each time, that he could give us a little bit of warning just to see if our calendars open. So I’d say we probably know maybe nine months before something is going to start, if it’s going to happen. You never know.

Do you know what your next project is or have you wrapped anything since? 

No, I haven’t worked on anything since. We shot this film and then came back to it a year later after editing for a long time, last August, just before it was released. And in between I hadn’t done a film and I don’t have anything on the horizon. It takes a long time for me to find something that I think is right.

Well again, congratulations on the Oscar nomination and I hope you enjoy the show.

Okay. Thanks. It will be fun.

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