LAFF: Production Designers Offer Their Takes on Reimaging L.A.

The designers behind "Her" and "L.A. Confidential" reveal their secrets for making their films familiar but different.
Warner Bros. Pictures

“Reimaging L.A.” was the theme of a master class on production design held Saturday at the Los Angeles Film Festival and supported by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The session featured two Oscar-nominated production designers who talked about their work on Los Angeles-set films: K.K. Barrett, who discussed Spike Jonze’s Her, set in 2025; and Jeannine Oppewall, whose design of Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential was set in the 1950s.

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Oppewall emphasized that the process centers on story. Barrett added that in the case of both Her and L.A.. Confidential, the director was also the writer. “You have to hear their vision before you put in your own input, you want to find out what they see and how much they see,” he said. “[In Her] there were really no rules and we kept moving the date that the film took place. We allowed ourselves to think freely about what we’d like to see in our city. But there were no anchors.”

They both faced similar but different challenges. As Barrett explained, “I was avoiding what was built before, and in L.A. Confidential, Jeannine was avoiding what was built since.”

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Barrett said he started by collected locations in Los Angeles “but ran out pretty quickly because I didn’t want to show things before 1990.” That led to location scouting in various cities in China.

He also didn’t want to show cars, “so I had to get off the street. To do that I found an elevated walkway in Shanghai where you didn’t see the traffic. It was very important to us not to celebrate a design advancement with things that would date the film.” He showed one clip that moved from locations on downtown L.A.'s Figueroa Street, to Shanghai to West Hollywood's Pacific Design Center.

Oppewall discussed the creation of L.A. Confidential’s Victory Motel, which she said the story described as a motel that had been abandoned due to the construction of the freeways. “I ended up going back to my first images of L.A. when I got off the plane, and drove by the oil fields.”

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The team ended up building the motel there, where there was flat space to build as well as bushes to surround the set. Of the design, Oppewall said didn’t want a ’40s or ’50s style. “I wanted a motel that spoke about the first days of motels, the 1920s.”

Mary Sweeney, producer and editor of another L.A.-set film, Mulholland Drive, moderated the conversation.

Twitter: @CGinLA