For K.K. Barrett, the Academy Award-nominated production designer of Warner Bros’ Her, one of the most important aspects of the film was developing the device that would deliver the voice of Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the computer operating system. “It was the first design we went after because we knew it would set the tone of how sleek or not we were,” said Barrett. “We had a very forward-thinking version in our head and then abandoned it within about two weeks because we didn’t want it to be about technology or him fighting technology, so we had to take the attention away from that and put it back onto him.” The ‘him’ of Her is Joaquin Phoenix, who portrays Theodore Twombly, a lonely writer whose job it is to write beautifully crafted, intimate letters for other people. He buys an operating system to help him organize his world and is seduced by its intuitive software that ends up offering him the intimacy missing from his own life. Her just won the WGA Award for best original screenplay for Jonze, and Barrett this past weekend won the award for production design from the Art Directors Guild.
Barrett used the color red throughout the film in the production design. “We wanted the world to be warm and comfortable, and we weren’t afraid of reds and oranges and golden sunlight,” said Barrett. “The use of red in the movie is so strong and gives you a focus. It was our way of uncluttering.” Even though the film was futuristic, there was a conscious effort not to create such an ultra-modern environment. “We were anti-dystopian. So many of the films about the future have that. It becomes such a hard battle if you do that because then you have your characters fighting that world rather than dealing with their own internal character problems.” The film, clearly worked in the way the production was designed as the audience does focus on the relationships, not the technology. “Her is about when to love, the damage that it does and how to trust. You’re always beholden to the story and trying to set a tone for the characters to be believable. You don’t want to disconnect the design from the story that the actors have to carry. We were very careful not to overplay anything to distract from the timing and temperance of that story.” The hardest point of the design is coming up with the ideas and what to do and how to express it to be unique to the film. It’s a very common challenge, but it helped that the collaborative effort with Jonze and his team was completely in sync. “It’s not departmentalized by title, so we have everyone to bounce ideas off of. It was a very organic process. It was a team effort.”
Barrett was a painter, sculptor and musician who started working in production design back in the 1980s and was in and out of it for years. He had a similar path to Jonze in that he learned a lot of his craft on his own. “Back then, we didn’t have money for special effects, so we made it up as we went along. You learn to do it yourself,” said Barrett. “After that, I did animation and motion graphics and worked in a darkroom and learned all the elements that now have given me an understanding of how things work together.” He met Jonze during commercials and music video shoots. Her is their fourth collaboration. Barrett said one of the unsung heroes of Her was Sonny Gerasimowicz, who helped Barrett and Jonze with the design of the device. Gerasimowicz also designed the captivating poster for Her — a close-up of Phoenix wearing a red shirt and set against a lush pinkish-red background. Simply one of the best one sheets I’ve ever seen. He also worked with Jonze and Barrett on designs for the creatures in Where the Wild Things Are (the guy is apparently so accommodating and humble that he even played a goat in the movie when it was needed). Said Barrett: “We all work well together. So when this project came up, we weren’t intimated. We just took it” … and the end result? Five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. Gene Serdena is the set decorator, who’s also nominated with Barrett.