In the movie Her, director Spike Jonze tells the story of an awkward loner (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his artificially intelligent operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). The film is set in the Los Angeles of the near-future—a city full of tall buildings and skybridges, where it is possible to take the train all the way to the beach. In doing press for the film, Jonze has repeatedly credited New York architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, AIA, founding principals of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, with helping him devise the feel of his settings. Diller took time to chat with ARCHITECT about the film, as well as the uncanny qualities of the near-future and why she generally prefers murder stories to sci-fi.
How did you end up becoming involved with Spike Jonze?
Diller: [Graphic designer] Stefan Sagmeister introduced me and Ric to Spike Jonze a couple of years ago. We had a really great brunch and decided that it’d be nice for him to come to our studio and learn a little bit about our work. So they came and what started off as a short meeting turned into a four-hour discussion. Spike talked about a project he was planning, this movie about the near future. I asked him, “Was it going to be a utopian future or dystopian future?” I think that’s when he really began to think about that. He was trying to find a place in between, that didn’t have to be labeled in that kind of dualistic way.
Jonze has said that you and Ricardo Scofidio helped him conceive the future depicted in Her. What sort of things did you do? That was all there was to it—that single meeting. We were really kind of shocked that he acknowledged us, because it was really a simple meeting. Afterwards, we kept up a correspondence over e-mail. Actually, by chance we are going to see each other tomorrow. And we saw him about two or three weeks ago when we saw the movie.We’d loved his films before. He thinks in a very idiosyncratic way and I think there was an alignment there.
What do you think of the way Jonze has envisioned the future?
What he’s done so incredibly well is that it’s a story that takes places in the near future, but he doesn’t make judgments about whether it’s horrible or not. Most fictions of the future are usually technophobic—technology is destroying the world—or they’re very utopian. I found a kind of beautiful realism in it. That’s why I think the film is interesting. It’s not futuristic. It’s set in the near future and it’s almost believable that that could happen. It’s so close to everyday normal life. It makes you slightly uncomfortable. When you go see sci-fi, you’re just prepared for fantasy and speculation about the future—and nothing ages faster than those kinds of notions. But this has so much nuance and it’s funny and strange.
The movie is set in Los Angeles—one with lots of skyscrapers and efficient public transport. To achieve this effect, Jonze used bits of Shanghai as stand-ins for Southern California. What do you think of his sense of urbanism?
He did a really good job on the urbanistic mélange of the film. It’s kind of like, “Where is this? I think I know this place. I think I know that skyline.” For most people, who probably weren’t paying that much attention, it probably felt contiguous enough. But I think it said a lot about a kind of monocultural, globalized future, where buildings all more or less look the same. It’s very generic space. In the end, though, it’s not so much about a particular locale. It’s about the way people interact with each other and watching this central character doing what we do every day: talk to our devices in public space.
You’ve done art and theater installations. Did you ever consider going into film?
In college I’d had a fantasy of being a filmmaker. I’d taken film courses at Cooper Union and then somehow detoured into architecture. But the film bug never really left. If I could leave my life for five years, I would love to construct a film from scratch. But I have too much respect for the craft, so I’ll spare the public that.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, you mentioned that you were working on an opera. Can you tell me a little bit about the project?
What I can say is that it’s a radical restructuring of the form of opera, a total re-spatialization of the stage in a very distributed setting—but linked together with a musical infrastructure. The librettos will be written by multiple writers. It’s something that we started over a year ago. One of our collaborators is the composer David Lang. We’re working on building the concepts and starting the music and working on all the logistical fronts. What I can tell you is that it’s about the post-industrial city. How interesting, right? These things seem to come full circle.
Speaking of which, do you typically think a lot about the sci-fi cities of the future?
Not really. Ric, much more. He reads every sci-fi book around. He always has. It’s a boy thing, I think. I like serial murderer stories. I’m very, very interested in when a mind snaps, someone very normal—usually the guy next door does something totally unexpected. It’s a bit David Lynch–ian in terms of the dark side of the benign. That’s kind of what the interest is.
Maybe you could start an architects’ book club devoted to serial killer books.
[Laughs.] That itself is a great idea for a movie.