The premise of "Her" sounds like it could be a "Saturday Night Live" skit: A lonely, heartbroken man falls in love with his computer-operating system. But in the hands of director Spike Jonze, who also wrote the film, "Her" is being hailed as one of the best films of the year – an amusing commentary on our increasingly entangled relationship with technology as well as a touching, sentimental love story.
The romantic affair between Theo (Joaquin Phoenix) and the sexy Siri-on-steroids Samantha (voiced by a breathy Scarlett Johansson) plays against an ambitious, optimistic vision of a Los Angeles in the near future, brought to life in breathtaking scope.
"The movie is such an intimate movie. I like the idea of setting that against a bigger landscape," Spike Jonze said in a Q & A after a Washington, D.C., screening of the film. Helping him was "Her" production designer K.K. Barrett, who also worked with Jonze on "Where the Wild Things Are" and "Being John Malkovich."
"We wanted it utopian, or if not utopian, a comfort world so that it wasn't about Theo fighting the world," Barrett tells U.S. News. "It was about Theo dealing with the human dilemma of contact and connection."
Together, along with the rest of the film's crew ("With Spike's movies everyone is involved with everything," Barrett says), Jonze and Barrett created a world that is both entrancing and believable. Unlike other sci-fi films, the futuristic flourishes never distract from the film's focus. Rather, they enhance Theo's emotional journey.
"When you think of a movie in the future, you get to create a new world. Then slowly what happened was we both realized we didn't really want the future to be about a review of new designs and new technology. What we really wanted was a comfortable world that we liked everything in," Barrett says. "It became our future, not 'the' future."
The filmmakers avoided as much computer-generated imagery as possible, along with other "movie fantastic" elements, as Barrett puts it.
"Once you get into the CGI land, the audience starts thinking anything's possible and they quit believing the realities around them," he says.
Jonze wrote the film to be set in L.A., as a "sort of seemingly utopic place to live, which also has a lot of loneliness and longing and has a heightened version of how the world is now anyway," he said. But he also always planned to collage it with another location to bulk up L.A.'s skyline and create a denser version of the city.
While Theo's minimalist apartment was one the filmmakers found in downtown L.A., they ultimately shot much of the film in Shanghai.
"We'd take things from Shanghai and put them in the skyline of Los Angeles and then take signage from Los Angeles and put it in Shanghai, and it became fun to meld the two together," Barrett says.
The avoidance of CGI and the general restraint "Her" filmmakers practiced in creating a future affected almost all decisions about the setting's details. The L.A. of "Her" has fantastic public transportation because nobody drives (Imagine!). Very little of "Her" takes place at street-level, but rather on elevated walkways and in high-rise offices -- another decision made early on to eliminate the need to design cars on the film's not-large budget.
Over the course of making the film, Jonze and his crew decided to pull in vintage influences to inform their vision.
"The future went from us investigating technology and what we thought things would develop into, to looking to the past: other times – the '20s, '30s – where things were really designed very nicely and everything had individual, bespoke items," Barrett says.
The portable device that carries Samantha – a small, metal and leather-trimmed flip book that Theo carries in his shirt pocket propped up by a safety pin – was inspired by some carefully crafted cigarette cases, address books and fountain pens Jonze and Barrett found in a smoke shop while location scouting.
"This is when we knew we didn't want anything to be high-tech. We didn't want anything to be glass and steel, we wanted everything to be warm and comfortable," Barrett says.