Peacock’s new comedy series Based on a True Story has officially premiered, bringing a satirical look at the true crime phenomenon. The series follows Ava (Kaley Cuoco) and Nathan Bartlett (Chris Messina), a realtor and a former tennis player who have hit some financial struggles. When a serial killer known as the Westside Ripper terrorizes the city, they take advantage of the opportunity, starting up a podcast about the Ripper, hoping it will solve their money problems.
Recently, we had the chance to talk with the show’s production designer Suzuki Ingerslev, who was integral in helping create the true crime feel of the show. Ingerslev previously worked on tonally similar shows, gaining Emmy nods for her work on series including True Blood and Yearly Departed. She also designed for Max’s new true crime series Love & Death and worked on Six Feet Under early in her career. During our conversation, Ingerslev talked about using Los Angeles to her advantage, grounding the series in reality, and more.
Note: This interview was edited for clarity and contains mild spoilers.
Nerds & Beyond: First of all, I want to congratulate you on the series! It’s really good, it looks great. What drew you to this to project? How did you become involved?
Suzuki Ingerslev: My agents had reached out to me that they had reached out to [the show], and I was a big fan of The Boys, actually. I love that show. It’s a crazy show, and I love it. So, when I heard that Craig [Rosenberg] was involved in [Based on a True Story], I was like, “Oh. This would be really fun to interview for.” And I like Kaley Cuoco. I always thought she was funny and had this great presence to her. So I thought, you know what? I’ll interview for it. I put together a presentation that they seemed to really like, and I got the job.
Nerds & Beyond: With any television show or movie, the setting is just as important as anything else, and especially for this show, Los Angeles really becomes a character of its own. How did you go about ensuring that the city and the various locations were integral to the story?
Suzuki Ingerslev: I always feel that that’s such a great basis for a show. I feel like our background really does tell about the characters as much as the written word, and it was a struggle. It’s hard to — I knew this was going to be a harder project because they were middle class. Middle class is probably one of the hardest things to depict because in LA, what’s middle class, right? To the rest of the country, it looks beautiful. You could do poverty easily. You could do uber wealth pretty easily, but middle class — So, we struggled in the beginning to find a house that depicted [Ava and Nathan]. We looked at all different types, California ranch and mid-century. We settled on a Spanish style, which is like a Spanish revival bungalow in LA.
From there, we had to figure out, like, okay. It looks like a cute house. How do we sell that they’re not doing well and they need to get more money to do well and to keep up with the Joneses, basically. It was kind of a compare and contrast situation that made it great. So, we took the smaller house. It felt a little bit more cramped than some of those big mansions we shot. We subtly had cracking on the tile. The old-style kitchen, it wasn’t remodeled. The bathrooms weren’t remodeled. That’s kind of how we sold the characters. [Then] you go to Ruby’s house, and it’s this uber mansion that has the most beautiful furnishings and everything anybody could want. So, it was more of a compare and contrast situation. I think that sold the story of the characters.
And then, as far as LA, it was fun to go to like lesser than areas and then really show it with the kind of, “Oh, we have money,” like going to the clothing store and going to a juice bar in Brentwood, and just having some fun with these big mansions that you find throughout LA.
Nerds & Beyond: So, this is a show that centers on a typically heavy subject matter, but I thought the production design was very bright in most situations but still has that sort of feeling of unease. How did you maintain that tonal balance as you were designing for the series?
Suzuki Ingerslev: I’m always of the mind that environments should feel real, so I wasn’t going to make a comic or a scary background for the people. It should feel real, and that’s what grounds people in a story. And I think it’s kind of in their actions and the dialogue that makes you feel uneasy or not uneasy. So, I feel like their house is a normal house like it’s what most people live in in LA. We’re not trying to make it comical, and so for the house, I feel like our blend of the world’s — we didn’t really try to make it funny or scary if that makes any sense. I felt it was really grounded and real. I think it’s in Craig’s writing and in the way they shot things that it made it feel either on edge or [have] funny moments. And the bottom line, it’s a dark comedy, so you can have so much fun with all that stuff.
Nerds & Beyond: Something else I noticed is that red is used pretty sparingly in the design, but when it is used prominently, it really pops — whether it’s in a place like the diner, for instance, or elsewhere. Can you talk a little about how you chose when and where red would be a dominant color?
Suzuki Ingerslev: Yeah, so we had a color palette for the show. The aspirational rich people had a lot of blues and greens and nature in their background settings. Then for the middle class of it all, it was the monochromatic and desaturated colors, like their house is all kind of desaturated. In order to really make the red pop, you had to make the other backgrounds step back a little bit. So, you wanted to use it sparingly where there’s a little bit of danger. So, whenever Matt’s around, or if there’s a blood scene, then the reds would really pop and make it kind of interesting. But I’m glad you noticed that. That’s cool. And same with the bar they go to. There’s reds in there.
Nerds & Beyond: A little later in the season, we spend a few episodes at Crime Con, which I think has so many great levels to it. Generally speaking, what were some of the main aspects you wanted to include in bringing that convention to screen? What did you enjoy the most about designing Crime Con?
Suzuki Ingerslev: Crime Con for us was a lot of fun. It was really hard because it was such a quick turnover that we had to get it set up and strike it. But we found the InterContinental Hotel, which was downtown LA since we couldn’t really afford to go to Vegas, and I felt like it had all the bones to it. They were so helpful. They gave us everything that we needed there, and we were able to spend some time and create these really fun booths. There’s not really a lot of research out there on Crime Con. We kept trying to look for things, and there wasn’t. So, we invented some of the booths, and Craig had his idea for some of the booths that he needed to tell the story. Between all of us, we just got together and created these really fun moments. For me, when I design sets — and you’ll notice it in the houses — I really like depth. I want it to feel real. I don’t want to look like we’re shooting one row of booths and we didn’t have the money to do the rest, or it’s like a COVID show where we didn’t have money to have the extras. So, using that hotel and strategically placing everything, I could have [Ava and Nathan] meander through booths. Then it would dead end on other booths, and it looked like it just kept going on and on and on. I think that was really important to us in designing it.
And obviously, just having some fun. We found some rubber, plastic parts with blood on them for one of the booths. We did an alibi board, which was really fun, where we had the entire crew be involved. Everybody had to write what they did on that day and come up with some of the funniest things up on that board. Something you probably couldn’t feature, but it was very funny.
Nerds & Beyond: Also at Crime Con, one sequence I keep thinking about is that club massacre fantasy sequence. There was so much happening, but I think it was really well done. Can you talk a little about how you brought that sequence to life from a design standpoint?
Suzuki Ingerslev: We got lucky on that one. We found this great club in West Hollywood, and it had all the basic bones that we needed, and it had that kind of fantasy style to it already. It was harder on the director and all those people doing it. They had to come up with a quick way to have the blood and the massacre be there and then not be there. And the bathroom where the whole other thing takes place is built on the stage, on the sound stage somewhere. So, again, we gave them a little bit of alleviation to their day by building some of it on stage. Then they had to make all those scenes happen in that great club. But, yeah, I thought that was a really great looking club. Same with the Vegas hotel room. We ended up building that, and I feel like we brought in the real Vegas of it all with the backdrop and a great mural over the bed that made you feel like you were in Vegas.
Nerds & Beyond: As we did already mention, this show hits on some hefty subject matter, but to me, I thought it was quite funny in how it generally discusses true crime. What did you enjoy the most about designing for a world that does find the comedy in America’s obsession with serial killers?
Suzuki Ingerslev: Again, grounding it in reality, but then letting Kaley and Chris Messina go to town. I feel like it’s because of their chemistry. They’re so adorable together. They’re so funny, and that’s what brings the levity to that world. It’s like, you can only design so much, and with them playing the part — I thought they just knocked it out of the park with what their chemistry is together and having fun with it. It is a spoof on the crime world. I feel like everything is about true crime now. So, it’s kind of funny to have them spoof it, and you couldn’t get two better people together to do that.
Nerds & Beyond: Pivoting a little bit, in your past work, you have worked on other kind of similar shows. Like you recently did Love & Death for Max, True Blood, shows like Six Feet Under. So, [shows] that all have that sort of dark undertone to them. Is there anything specific that draws you to this genre and shows like that?
Suzuki Ingerslev: It’s so funny you say that. I’m like the queen of death. [laughs] I don’t know why. I just end up with these crazy shows. I am the expert on funerals and on blood baths, like everybody comes to me like, “How do we do all this blood? How do we clean it up afterwards?” It’s very funny. Nothing really draws [me], but they find me, these shows, somehow or another. Same with like Love & Death, too. And Six Feet Under. They’re all dark comedies. They’re not just heavy serial killer, murder things. I feel like the people I’ve been working with always find the levity in a situation. A long time ago, I took a folklore class, and they said that that’s how we as humans get past all the dark, heavy grieving of things. Levity has to eventually creep in. Sometimes it’s too soon, but eventually, you can find the levity in things. I feel like all those shows kind of explore that.
Nerds & Beyond: What are you most proud of with Based on a True Story and the work that you’ve done for it?
Suzuki Ingerslev: I think I’m most proud of … probably the Crime Con. I really think we pulled that off, and it looked so amazing. When you have the crew and the hotel [staff], and everybody coming up to you, and saying, “Oh, my God. This looks real. This looks more real than some of the real conventions we’ve had here,” you know you’ve done something. And working on the Bartlett house, too. We had like a month to get it ready because we kind of dragged our feet a little bit. So, we had to draw the set. We had to build it. We had to plaster it. Then we had to light it, and then we had to decorate it. We had one month for that, so it was pretty much 24/7 trying to get that ready. And I have such an amazing crew that they pulled it off, but that quality of set, I don’t think that was an easy endeavor for anybody.
Nerds & Beyond: Yeah, and [Crime Con] looked great. I think those episodes are some of my favorite from the show. You did a great job on them.
Suzuki Ingerslev: Thank you. And you notice in the house, too, I have all my depth in every which direction. You really see things and get cameras into — a lot of thought was placed into it in a very short period of time. So, I’m proud of that.
Nerds & Beyond: My last question for you today, since Nerds & Beyond is a nerdy website, we always like to ask our interviewees, what is something that you like to get nerdy about?
Suzuki Ingerslev: I am a nerdy collector. I am a hoarder of beautiful objects, [laughs] if that makes any sense. I have to blame it on my occupational hazard here. But I’m such a nerd on collecting weird things, like tin cans from England. You know those old cake tin cans? I have all this like weird stuff. My friends come over, and I have some rooms with like taxidermy and weird stuff, and they’re just like, “Okay … that is such an odd room.” But I am a total nerd on that kind of stuff. I love stuff, and I love beautiful stuff.
Based on a True Story is streaming now on Peacock. Watch the trailer below: