Oklahoma native K.K Barrett is an Academy Award–nominated production designer known for his collaborations with Spike Jonze and Sofia Coppola. He has worked on movies such as Her, Lost in Translation and Where the Wild Things Are.
In Nov. 2014, I hosted a design conference in San Francisco, and one of our keynote speakers was K.K. Barrett, the production designer for the Spike Jonze movie Her. Deeply unsettling and yet so believable, the movie pointed to a compute-intensive future with an invisible interface. Her was a peek into a world where invisible computing machines and artificial intelligence act as surrogates for some of our human connections.
K.K. and I were hanging out backstage and started talking about a whole bunch of things, many of them too abstract to remember. Fortunately I recorded some of our conversation on my iPhone. Here we are talking about Her, design, dating and the business of modern life and why it isn’t that important. This is a quick read!
Om: When you are working on a movie and creating its environment, you are essentially creating a world. You have to imagine it, create it and bring it to life. Where does it start? How does it start?
K.K.: It starts with story. I was on a movie and we kept having story meetings and story meetings and story meetings. I said, “The problem is, there’s too much story.” They were trying to tell stories that didn’t relate to the main story.
Let’s say you’ve got a story in the ’60s. So many things happened in the ’60s that affected where we are now. If you’re telling a story about a single person, maybe the war doesn’t affect them. Maybe civil rights didn’t affect them. Maybe the death of the president didn’t affect them directly in this story that you’re telling for an hour and a half.
Those things affected the world. There’s no question about it. If you focus on what you’re trying to get across in this specific instance and it has to do with the emotions of people, make sure that the outside forces are affecting this first-person story. If they’re not, leave them for another story.
Om: Great point. There seems to be so much going on right now: tweets and Facebook and Instagram and this and that. I still wonder, What is storytelling in this day and age? Is it the same old fundamental story of one person, one thing or one idea?
K.K.: I think all of those things are a desire for human connection. Either pay attention to me, or look what I discovered and I would like to share. That is always the human story, when sharing is connecting with another person and sharing the connection you’ve had with excitement. And then you know something together, and you’re experiencing it together.
Om: In your movie Her, there was so little of this so-called social world, or what we call the “online social web.” Why?
K.K.: It didn’t matter. It wasn’t part of our story. We weren’t trying to tell the story of the future. We weren’t trying to tell the story of technology and apps and interconnectedness, except where they appeared.
That was Spike [Jonze]’s doing. He edited his story to say, Well, how can we keep reflecting back on his [the lead character’s] human condition? We can show that he attempts to hook up with somebody verbally online. Samantha was the surrogate of a physical presence. But you’re still dealing with the replacement of a human and the difficulty that it’s never the same.
Those connections happened through apps that we’re familiar with, but it wasn’t the story of those apps. It was the story of the attempt to be connected with another human.
Om: Does that attitude apply to online dating as well?
K.K.: There was a parallel between him safely trying to fulfill his need with meeting somebody else that he takes an online date. It doesn’t go so well, but I know lots of people that have, and it’s gone fine. It’s a funny thing that it exists, and some people take advantage of it and change the way we interact and how frequently we meet people, and other people don’t. I was talking about it as an example of the character’s experience in trying to go through these different options and still feeling like he was missing the human connection. And yet by Spike making his operating system humanized, he did feel connected to that, where he didn’t feel connected to some real humans.
Om: I was unsettled by the movie because it felt pretty real. At some moments I felt like we should have this now. It would save so much of the trauma that comes with online dating.
K.K.: I think I was joking that [online dating] is a surrogate to him, and it’s a surrogate for being with real people. It is real. People talk to people they’d never meet [in real life over] mail all the time.
Om: How does your creative process work? Because you’re not working with the familiar, and every new movie is different.
K.K.: It is always different, but it’s funny that I approached Marie Antoinette and Where the Wild Things Are and Her the same way. If you took the names of the locations and the eras and the problem-solving and the props away, I’m still trying to get to the simplest form of communication with every solution and yet still add some wonder and make it seem fresh to get your attention. And then also frame the human condition within the story.
Sometimes I think of it as sculptural. It’s like I’m painting in the background, but I’m never unaware of the story, which is the human element. It’s not just an abstract instrumental.
Om: The challenge right now for everybody, including me, is that all this noise in the ether has started to eat away at the ability to focus our attention. How do you stay focused and pay attention and listen?
K.K.: I’m not on Facebook. I’m not on Twitter. I have three email accounts: one for business, one for real letter writing for personal friends and another one for billing and the house. They get attention in different ways. I always respond and pay attention and keep clean my letter-writing to friends, and work has to be attended to in a different pace. You choose how often you engage.
Om: That’s a good way of living life. I took a two-month sabbatical from everything. It brought me back to normal a little bit. Unfortunately I can’t walk away from Twitter and Facebook. That’s part of my work life.
K.K.: Why, though?
Om: Because that’s how you engage with your readers now.
K.K.: You try to get them to pay attention.
Om: Right. Like, “I just wrote this, you should read this, let’s talk about it.”
K.K.: Do you feel insulted when they don’t want to read it, like you haven’t gotten their attention?
Om: I feel like I have failed to do my job.
K.K.: It’s more failing to do your job if you haven’t brought them attention on something that will enrich their life, rather than just information. TMZ is full for information and it gets attention, but it doesn’t enrich your life.
Om: What do you make of the comments about choosing Scarlett Johansson as a lead actress and also the fact that Her could be the road map for technology’s future?
K.K.: I think it’s an armchair quarterback’s game to play “what is the future?” You can ask yourself, “What would you like to have, and what would you like to change?” All of that is avoiding the question of what’s wrong with now.
Om: Are you paying attention to now?
K.K.: Why is everybody so hungry for the future, and why is everybody thinking that it’s going to be a dystopian future in storytelling? Why is it always so negative? It’s always going to be worse than now, or it’s always going to be so much easier than now. Why don’t we make it easier now, rather than wait for it? That’s a lazy disconnection.
Why don’t you live like you want the future to be right now? Tell yourself what it is, and then change your position now to be in that world.