Creating The Los Angeles of Our Dreams
Hey, do you wanna go on
a Sunday adventure?
The story unfolds in an elegantly rendered and optimistically evolved Los
Angeles_familiar enough to feel real but different enough to seem just slightly
out of reach.
Says Jonze, "It's never really defined, when it is. We decided pretty early
on that we weren't interested in predicting or presenting our view of what the
future should look like. What was important was creating a future that felt
right to this story."
What he envisioned was "a kind of utopian environment where the weather is
nice, the food is great, everything is beautiful and comfortable and made with
quality materials, fabrics are soft and rich, and it's just a good, warm place
to live. Technology has become more sophisticated and provides us with even more
services to make our lives easier and better.
"Where everything is clean and colorful," he adds, "seemed to me like an
interesting setting for loneliness and disconnection, which is the sort of world
we created for the movie and that's where we find Theodore when the story
Producer Vincent Landay started pre-production early. "While Spike was
writing, we had a team of researchers around the world pulling visual references
of modern architecture," he says. "By the time he completed the first draft, we
had compiled hundreds of images for him to review with K.K. Barrett, our
production designer. This gave them a visual tool grounded in reality, which
they could reference as they defined their vision of the future."
Helping to compose the look and mood, Barrett favored a series of subtle
adjustments toward what he calls "a future that is around the corner rather than
some distant time where the audience would marvel at all the changes. It often
takes just a couple of altered conceits to shed a different light on society. We
are in Los Angeles so I thought, 'Take away the cars. What would it be like if
there was no noticeable traffic? What if there was a subway to the beach? Get in
at Hollywood and step out on the sand. Take a weekend trip to a cabin in the
snow on a high-speed bullet train.'"
L.A. without cars? That required much creative license and images of a city
in a different stage of development-a fair portion of what the filmmakers
discovered in the relatively new Pudong District near Shanghai, where elevated
walkways keep the pedestrian eye-line well above the distant hum of unseen
"Much of Pudong was built in the last 12 years," says Jonze, who examined
other possible locations, including Dubai, Hong Kong, Beijing and cities in
Germany and Singapore
before finding what he was looking for. "It has skyscrapers, the streets are
straight and wide, the buildings are offset and everything is brand new. It was
a magical combination of elements that worked, with lots of recent construction.
And L.A. is all about 'new.' It just seemed that if the city did develop in that
way, this is what it would resemble."
Blending the Chinese and Southern California cityscapes involved some digital
artistry. However, Jonze states, "There aren't a lot of visual effects in the
film. We added buildings and removed signage from one skyline to another, and
there's a holographic video game that Theodore plays in his living room, but
overall it isn't an effects-heavy movie, especially for something set in the
Likewise, the filmmakers sought practical locations as much as possible. Says
Landay, "We make it a priority to create an environment actors can thrive in,
and that includes the atmosphere on set and the set itself. Having a real
apartment or office helps to ground the scene in reality and also better matches
Spike's aesthetic than a studio set with green screen. To fully take advantage
of this, we looked for interior locations that had lots of natural light. That
created a greater challenge to schedule filming around the sun and moon, and for
K.K., who would have to transform these existing spaces and structures."
Los Angelinos will spot many authentic reference points, among them the
landmark Santa Monica Pier where Theodore and Samantha enjoy a fun night out,
and the stylish Pacific Design Center, which serves as the entrance to
Theodore's apartment building.
Everywhere, art and comfort abound. Parks atop high-rises invite people to
linger and enjoy the view. In keeping with the film's overall tone, Barrett
says, even advertising is unobtrusive: "It's mainly big, slow-motion images with
a minimum of type or graphics, a soft sell for the viewer to be drawn in by the
mystery of the image and not bludgeoned with hype."
On a more personal level, he furnished Theodore's office and home for ease
and efficiency, with well-crafted simple items_especially in the devices that
Theodore uses to communicate with Samantha. "This is not a future of harshness
but of bespoke details," he outlines. "I like the way fountain pens and
cigarette cases were designed in the 1940s, small leather address books and the
feel of a Zippo lighter in your hand, things that are archaic in use but
timeless in design. So, take the detail of those beautiful objects and apply
them to something you use many times a day: your phone. Even in designing the
tech end, I stayed away from new materials, instead framing the computer
monitors as if they were photographs or art. These devices are meant to convey a
link for human contact. They needed to be simple so the voice is what holds the
Finally, he says, "I always have a single buzzword for each film that informs
a thread to the images. This time it was 'red.' We sprinkled a lot of red
Red similarly echoes through the wardrobe selections provided by costume
designer Casey Storm. "We felt there would be lots of color in the future and to
embrace it. Theodore's office was bananas with color, tinted glass and things
like that," he says.
Like Barrett, Storm sought a design scheme that suggested the future without
being futuristic. He and Jonze reviewed a span of styles, from photos and from
pieces Storm collected from thrift shops for early fittings. Acknowledging the
cyclical nature of fashion, he says, "We decided that going backwards made
sense, incorporating a range of elements from different decades and styles and
putting them together to create something new."
Outfitting the men in high-waisted trousers was a conscious nod towards the
evolution of women's fashion of the past hundred years and applying it to
menswear. "Looking at the 1920s, 30s and 40s, and realizing how women's styles
in particular have often gone towards a higher waist, I liked the idea of
pairing a high waist with a narrow tapered leg," Storm continues. "We tried it
on Spike and it looked good, then we tried it on Joaquin and it worked really
For Theodore, Storm chose a natural, comfortable look across a limited palette,
stating, "He wouldn't want his clothes to make him stand out. Plus, he's a
creature of habit, so he tends to wear the same kinds of things. Joaquin was in
wardrobe pretty early in the process and it was very collaborative. There were
times when he had an insight for his character I didn't have, and would suggest
a shirt or a pair of pants I hadn't thought of."
As with the production design, it all came down to details and distinctions.
"For example," Storm cites, "in the business world, men have worn suits and ties
as far back as you can remember so we couldn't depart too drastically from that.
Instead, we kept the suits but lost the ties or the lapels, or adjusted the
proportions-nothing groundbreaking or calling too much attention to itself, but
just enough to give the impression of being slightly off."
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