The Urban Magic of “Her”: How Great Production Design Created the Los Angeles of the (Near) Future

March 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) at Home in "Her"/Courtesy  Annapurna Pictures and Warner Bros

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) at Home in “Her”/Courtesy Annapurna Pictures and Warner Bros

Regardless of one’s opinion about a romance between a man and his OS (let alone whether such a romance can be considered futuristic), “Her” is undeniably gorgeous to watch. It’s also the only film in recent memory to be set in a future that is livable, much less desirable. Instead of the dark, dystopian city of “Blade Runner,” we are dropped into a bright, orderly Los Angeles of tall buildings and excellent mass transit. Though single-family homes still exist, Theodore Twombly prefers a high-rise apartment, and is so well served by public transportation that he neither owns nor needs a car. Why would he, when trains and subways take him everywhere, including the beach and the mountains?

In the near future of “Her,” Los Angeles has grown better as well as bigger. Shots of the Basin show a recognizable skyline, except that there are many more highrises in the areas between Downtown, Hollywood, Century City and Westwood, as there undoubtably will be in the years to come. These new buildings are CGI creations, but the jarringly smoggy scenes featuring elevated plazas and walkways were filmed in Shanghai. In them, one catches glimpses of the Bund, Shanghai’s riverfront commercial district, where old colonial buildings co-exist with new skyscrapers. And though Los Angeles will never have a navigable waterway, the broad curves of Huangpu offer a tantalizing suggestion of the future LA River.

Shanghai Stands In for Los Angeles

Shanghai Stands In for Los Angeles

But many aspects of “Her” didn’t have to be imagined at all, since they already exist. Theodore makes extensive use the Metro, even if it doesn’t yet go all the way to the beach. And he lives in a real place: the South Park district of Downtown, on the 35th floor of the Watermarke Tower (705 W. 9th Street). The buildings seen from his windows are all real buildings, shown to maximum advantage by the production designer K.K. Barrett, who covered the upper window panels and switched the glass from tinted to clear.

Says Barrett, the “focus was to bring the outside city in, and push light towards [Theodore].” The resulting message is unmistakable: Theodore lives in the heart of a dynamic and desirable city. Though he is shy and lovelorn, his location confers an enviable status. In the photo above, Theodore is framed against a view of nine notable towers: (l-r) 777 Figueroa, Ernst + Young Plaza, PWC Plaza, Union Bank Plaza, HSBC, City National Plaza, Bank of America Plaza, AON and Verizon (MCI Plaza).

Arguably, the real love story in “Her” is not between Theodore and his OS but the director Spike Jonze and Los Angeles. Having escaped both the dull suburban sprawl of its past and the ruins of its previously imagined future, Los Angeles appears a beautiful, modern and sustainable place. It’s obvious why Theodore, a dreamer of the first order, would want to live there, and why others would as well.


Thanks to Ian McFarren Anderson for identifying the buildings seen from Theodore’s apartment.

The 3rd Annual Big Parade, May 21-22

May 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

Laurel and Hardy at the Music Box Stairs in Silverlake, one of the stops on the Big Parade/

The Big Parade, a 2-day walking tour that begins downtown at Angels Flight and ends at the Hollywood Sign, will be held next weekend. For details and registration, go to

“500 Days of Summer,” and Its Real Star–Downtown Los Angeles

July 27, 2009 § 4 Comments

The Eastern Columbia and United Artists Buildings by Night/Courtesy Ian McFarren Anderson

The Eastern Columbia and United Artists Buildings by Night/Courtesy Ian McFarren Anderson

Over the weekend I went to this summer’s best-reviewed romantic comedy, “500 Days of Summer,” expecting to be amused and charmed.  But I didn’t expect to be electrified, which I was, by the film’s use of downtown Los Angeles as a romantic setting. It’s probably the first time since the Silent Era (e.g., Buster Keaton’s “The Navigator”) that downtown has looked desirable on film.

Although downtown Los Angeles figures prominently in many period films–“Chinatown” and its sequel, “The Two Jakes,” and “LA Confidential”  instantly come to mind–it’s usually a place of mystery and danger.  Whatever beauty shows through in its grand avenues and architectural masterpieces  is usually negated by sinister goings-on. And films about contemporary Los Angeles–“Heat,” and “Collateral,” for example–merely use downtown as a glittering backdrop for car chases and shoot-outs.

“500 Days of Summer” is a complete departure from these films, yet the district’s importance isn’t immediately apparent. When Zooey Deschanel, as Summer, says, “We live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world,” it’s not yet clear what city she’s talking about.

Summer’s love interest Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)  is a true urbanite, living and working in dark old buildings and going almost everywhere on foot. It’s not until the two start spending time together–in Angels Flight Park and on First Street, Pershing Square and Broadway–that we appreciate their location. It’s not LA but downtown, a planet away from the bland Westside millieu of countless films set in Los Angeles, movies so suburban they could take place anywhere.

Tom and Summer see a movie not at a multiplex but at a Broadway movie palace. Their world has no suburban houses with big lawns, no time spent on freeways. In fact, the movie’s only driving shot shows Tom’s car entering the Second Street Tunnel, a quintessential downtown experience. The one time they go out of town–to a wedding at the beach–they actually take the train.

Tom is an architect with a keen appreciation for the City’s surviving 19th and 20th century buildings. He points out the Eastern Columbia Building and the Continental to Summer and –at her insistence–draws a temporary tattoo of historic buildings on her forearm. And at the film’s end, he goes for a job interview at LA’s greatest architectural landmark: George Herbert Wyman’s iconic 1893 Bradbury Building, whose previous appearances in “Blade Runner” and “Wolf” placed it in some other time (the future) or city (New York). Here, fittingly, it appears in its actual downtown location in the present day.

This is important: Los Angeles is the only city where an obscure draftsman from Dayton, Ohio could have seen his plans for a utopian skylighted building come to life. The very fact that Tom has lucked into an interview with a firm headquartered there–amid the open staircases, corridors and cage elevators–foreshadows his own bright future as an architect. Joseph Gordin-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel make an appealing pair of lovers in “500 Days of Summer.” But the Bradbury Building and downtown Los Angeles are the movie’s true stars.

I am indebted to Gloria Koenig’s Iconic LA (Glendale, CA: Balcony Press, 2000) for information on George Herbert Wyman.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with downtown Los Angeles at Under the Hollywood Sign.