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.]