Five days of ‘Her:’ How Spike Jonze created the future
For those who’ve seen the buzziest of buzzy holiday movies, Spike Jonze’s “Her,” you probably left the theater with much to think about. One of the biggest questions, at least from a filmmaking standpoint: How did Jonze and his team arrive at the future we see on the screen?
Infinitely relatable though gently different, the Los Angeles of Jonze’s unspecified future occupies a new and exciting place in cinematic history--and the history, as it where, of futurism itself. “Her’s” L.A.” is a million miles from “Blade Runner,” but it also not entirely a utopia. What looks bright and cheery can also conceal a dark undertow.
Perhaps the best evidence of this world’s complexity are the words being used to describe it, which according to a quick survey of articles on the film include the not-exactly-compatible phrases of “utopian,” dystopian,” “near-dystopian,” “gentrified dystopia,” “both utopian and dystopian” and--why not--“neither dystopian nor utopian.”
With this in mind, The Times set out to discover how, and why, the world was created. We conducted interviews with the five key people who helped Jonze shape the movie’s look and feel. It is a team that in most instances have worked with Jonze for years, going back to his 1990s wunderkind days, even as what its members do here is astonishingly forward looking. Over the next five days we will run a separate conversation with each of these players, exploring the rich psychological and philosophical reasons for their choices and the challenges they had to overcome after making them.
Today, costume designer Casey Storm.
Movies Now: One of the things that stands out right away in the film—besides those much-discussed high-waisted pants—is how basic clothes looks in the future, how simple, how unfuturistic. Was that very much a part of your discussion?
Casey Storm: When we first started talking about how to depict the future we immediately disliked anything you usually see in movies about the future. We wanted to use updated elements of things we know rather than project things we didn’t. We didn’t want to guess.
MN: Because so many of those movies do just that—the clothes and the whole movie has this sheen to it, black-and-silver uniforms, latex, lots of boots—almost as though there’s some unofficial rule in a costume-designer handbook that mandates that.
CS: I think with a lot of other movies the logic is that with technology taking over our lives that it creates distance. And when there’s distance you lose warmth and end up with coldness. And the way you depict coldness is you use clothes and colors that suggest coldness—blacks and silvers and whites and blues. Or I guess that’s the thought progression. We thought what really made more sense, what could very likely be happening, is access. You can choose from everything in the world, so clothes become more individual. The word “bespoke” kept coming up. If you had all the things in the world, what would you gravitate to? For a lot of people it would be something warm and comfortable. So that’s what we tried to create.
MN: It’s also striking how certain things are absent, almost as though you wanted to say that we were going to shed many of the conventions we take for granted.
CS: What usually happens in future movies is that filmmakers start adding things. And we thought, “Wouldn’t it make more sense, instead of making that stuff up, to take away things that do exist?” Because that’s how these thing go – what’s really popular fades away. So in our vocabulary we took away collars, and denim, and lapels, and even belts and ties. The absence of things felt unique. When you’re watching you can’t put your finger on it, but you know something’s not like it is now. Especially denim. When something you see every day you don’t see anywhere in the movie, you start to get the sense you’re in a different world.
MN: The lack of suits and ties did that for me. Part of it is just the workplace casual that seems to be in place at the office of Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix’s main character), but then you realize you don’t see it anywhere.
CS: The suit and tie is fascinating, historically speaking. It goes back hundreds of years. The length of the jacket might change and the width of tie might change. But it’s always around. Businesspeople have worn suits and ties for hundreds of years. And it’s really interesting when you take what’s been standard and you remove it. The tie is a restraining accessory. Why would you still have it if you didn’t need to?
MN: You also removed the color blue almost entirely. How did that happen?
CS: It’s avoiding what’s traditionally in the future. Hoyte [van Hoytema, the cinematographer] did that. He became excited about the absence of blue as a visual reference. He wanted other colors. The red shirt that Theodore wears in the poster is actually a shirt of mine that I had been wearing to early meetings, and Spike was like, “It’s such a great color; what if we put it in the movie?” So we ended up with a lot of reds or these primary yellows. The colors are vibrant. We wanted the happiness and warmth that comes with those colors, because it makes clear that the future is not an unhappy place. Or it helps define the character. For Theodore especially, he wears these brown wool pants. It’s warm but it’s also a little sloppy, a bit like the character himself.
MN: Speaking of a look-back with some of these colors, you and Spike have said you wanted to channel a bit of the 1930s. How did you arrive at that?
CS: The 1930s--I don’t know why this happened—but it’s a lost decade as a reference point. In all my years of costuming, no one ever says, “We want to have a 1930s feel.” People will say the ‘20s, or the ‘40s, or ‘50s or ‘60s or ‘70s or ‘80s. But never the ‘30s. It’s almost like, because it’s coming out of the Depression but before the war, that no one understands it. It’s become identity-less. And that makes it a really interesting time to draw from for the future. There’s a lot of that in the movie: I mean, the main character is named Theodore, which gives you a feel of an early America.
MN: OK, so I gotta get to the elephant in the room—the high-waisted pants. How did you come up with it? And are you tired of talking about it?
CS [laughs]: I’m so sick of the high-waisted pants. I really didn’t intend for it to be such a topic of discussion. When [Theodore friend] Charles walks in with his high-waisted pants it gets a laugh at every screening. The first time I watched it with an audience I felt like I screwed up so badly. I had to watch it with an audience a few more times to place the laugh. And I think what it’s about is that early on the in film you’re trying to grasp and ingest new information,. And when Charles walk in with an outfit that’s so obviously not our world, he looks nerdy and you can laugh, like “OK, I can accept the world that’s been created.”
MN: It’s funny that people always seem to come out of the movie making some crack to the effect of “I like the future but I sure hope we don’t have high-waisted pants.”
CS: It is funny. Everybody wants to know what year the movie takes place in it, and in the grand scheme of things, you can say any number you want. People will say, “this style, or that style, how far in the future?” And I always think: “How can I answer what year this fashion happened in? We invented it!” But you know, we’re doing a fashion line with [L.A. boutique] Opening Ceremony in conjunction with the film. And they’re a big trendsetter in the fashion world. So we may be seeing high-waisted pants in the future.
MN: Dare I ask how far in the future...
CS: It could happen sooner than anyone thinks.
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