Sunday, July 29, 2012

Interview: Suzuki Ingerslev Set Designer Extraordinaire

As originally published on The Vault -

Two weeks ago, at Comic Con, I met with True Blood's incredible set designer, Suzuki Ingerslev and Art Director, Cat Smith, who was with Suzuki, to discuss some of the sets on True Blood.  

I first met Suzuki and Cat at their colleague Audrey Fisher's Costume Design Panel on Friday night at Comic Con. I went up to her in the audience before the panel began and we agreed to meet that night for an interview in her hotel room. I found both ladies incredibly interesting and just like all the other True Blood people, extremely generous and friendly.

Below is my interview:

What do you think of Comic Con?  Have you ever been here before?
Suzuki: Actually, this is my second time here; we came when True Blood wasn't even out yet. We knew there was going to be a panel, so Cat (Catharine Smith) dragged me down saying “It’s going to be amazing.”

Were you working on True Blood then?
Suzuki: We were, but nobody had seen it yet, it hadn't aired. We thought, let’s go to the panel, but when we got there the line was around the ballroom and we thought, there’s no way we are going to get into this panel and so Cat panicked and went to the security and said, this is the production designer of the show, you have to let her in. And, with that, they let us in.

It was an interesting experience and we loved seeing all the costumes. And like today, when we stood in line for the Costume Designer’s panel (colleague Audrey Fisher was in it) and there was a woman wearing a Sookie Stackhouse outfit.

But you have tickets for tomorrow’s True Blood Panel, right?
Cat: No.  Suzuki does, but not me.  I’ll try to get in. [Update: I saw Cat on Sunday morning and she did get into the panel. So for those of you who had trouble getting into panels, know that it's no easier for members of the crew].

The Authority headquarters - what kind of instructions did you get to make that set?
Suzuki: Over the summer, I heard that we were building vampire headquarters. At the time, I was told that we would be building something with ancient walls and it was supposed to have a big conference room and jails and there was also to be some sort of a shrine to Lilith. Alan Ball was on vacation at that time, so Greg Feinberg and I were trying to muddle through it and figure out what to do. Eight years ago, I was in Turkey and Istanbul and there was a cistern across from Haggai Sophia that I thought was amazing. There’s this underground space that is all water and columns and I thought I’d really like to film something like this, that would be really cool.

Authority Headquarters

Salome's bedroom

Do you have a thing with water in your designs because I remember at Queen Sophie Anne’s house in Season 2 when Bill walked across that walkway with water under it; a similar use?
Suzuki: That was already at that house and was just a fluke, so that was nothing I designed.

Bridge to Sophie Anne's home in Season 2

However in the last episode we see Salome walk across the same sort of walkway?
Suzuki: It’s a nice tie in for sure. What I know is that the water table is really high in Louisiana and New Orleans, so I thought, why not have water in the set, because there really would be a natural run-off somewhere. So, in order to shoot it that way, I had to to get permission from the producers to let me have water on the stage, which I thought was never going to fly, but when Greg saw it he got really excited and said, that’s really cool. And then, we pitched it to Alan and Alan was on board to make this sort of “homage” to vampires. I felt like the scale of the structure had to be huge because you wanted them to feel powerful, but at the same time I wanted to give Alan his ancient walls.

Bridge to enter Authority Rooms in Season 5

It’s underground, too, right?
Suzuki: Yes, that’s what it’s supposed to be like, cavernous, underground, the cells and the jails are all underground. And, you get the reflective qualities of it [the water effect]. And the furniture, I felt needed to be very powerful and modern and it broke it up so it didn't feel like a period piece or a dungeon. So by adding the modern furniture and the pops of color I feel it just sort of warmed it up and actually gave them some kind of sophistication.

What difficulties did you encounter?
Suzuki: The water was the hardest part, we really had to figure that out. I wanted the lighting to be spectacular so we worked with the lighting department closely and built in a lot of our own lighting by just finding certain kinds of lights that looked good and would up-light the columns that we could afford to build and buy so many of them and the same with the water elements. Our lighting department designed a certain light that actually goes into that water that can be taken in and out but looks built in. Money is an issue on the show still, even with a big set like that.

Has the budget gotten higher as the years have gone by?
Suzuki: This past season they gave us a decent amount of money for sure, but i dont’ think it’s based on whether the shows a hit, I think it’s based on what we’re building. I think they believed in those two spaces, the faery club and also the vampire headquarters, so that was why we were given the money, they really liked the designs.

Speaking of the Faery Club, what was your inspiration and what were you told to do with that?
Suzuki: That was a more complicated set because lots of people had various different opinions on what it would look like. We had to come to an opinion on, first of all, what the faeries were doing in there, so we worked with Alan with that. Originally, we went with a more modern direction for sort of like a restaurant feel and then we heard it was going to be more like a cabaret show and so we did some research on several cabaret shows in town like "Cirque de Freak," and "Cirque to Berserk." So, I thought it would be kind of fun to create an atmosphere that is like a circus and also Moroccan as opposed to one or the other. And, the big faces you see on the set are supposed to be the faeries when they turn ugly. So, you have these beautiful faeries dancing on stage and then, in the background are those faces of what they can turn into, which we saw in the fourth season.

Faery Club in Season 5
photo source:

Today in the Costume panel, the illustrator talked about how they had a hard time coming up with the costumes for the faeries?
Suzuki:.They had a tough time with that. They were trying to decide what they looked like and there were so many that it’s expensive so they were trying to figure out how to do the faery club and what they were wearing, more like lingerie vs. no lingerie.

Were you involved with the location from last year for the flashback scene to London 1980’s with Bill Compton and Nan Flanagan?
Suzuki: Yes. On the outside of the club we did a little bit, but not much, but on the inside of the club, we pretty much gutted what was there and brought in sort of an 80’s sensibility with some punk rock stuff. It had those great walls and everything to begin with including that great bar. We put up wallpaper and the mirrors to hide things to make it kind of dated. Our painter, that I’ve worked with for years, he has a band, and they were actually performing in the background and he wrote a song that is playing during the scene.

The one when Bill walks into the bar?
Suzuki: Yes, that’s him on the stage there and he wrote the song. But it is hard efinitely, finding historic things, like the Viking house when we did that, we had to build that because there’s not going to be a big Viking house here in California.

Exterior of 1980's London pub in Season 4

I know that the exterior of the Compton house is a house in Louisiana, right?
Suzuki: Yes, but the interior has nothing to do with the exterior and the exterior facade is now built in Malibu. [They no longer use the house in Louisiana].

Compton house exterior in Malibu

Interior Compton  House Fireplace Season 1 and after renovation Season 4

Interior Compton  House Foyer Season 1 and after renovation Season 4

This year you had San Francisco sets to do with Pam. I imagine that historic sets are more difficult to do, is that true?
Suzuki: They are tough, there’s not many areas that look like old San Francisco here in LA, so we were lucky to find an historic district near Alvera Street by Union Station. The exterior is always harder than the interior. The interior was filmed at Castle Green in Pasadena. You can always find rooms that feel dated, or you can make them feel dated, but finding an entire street that could pass as San Francisco is hard. For the exterior scenes we had to make due here in LA by putting dirt down to cover a lot of the concrete and asphalt, hide signs, and emergency escape signals.

Was it difficult to find the right places and ambiance for the brothel scenes in Season 5?
Suzuki: No, that one wasn't, the interior wasn't so bad. Castle Green was a great choice because it’s one of these structures where they haven’t modernized it, so you don’t have the recessed lights and we just had to cover a couple of smoke detectors, etc. The wallpaper was already there, the colors and then, our decorator brought in some furniture.

Interior used for brothel scenes at Castle Green

Audrey Fisher said today that she uses a lot of black, and doesn't use red on the humans because she uses so much red on other things, and also there's the blood. Do you have the same kind of restrictions?
Suzuki: No, I don’t, but I try to mix up the colors and make it interesting because it is easy to fall to using red in this kind of a show. 

Well, some of the sets are just so amazing with the attention to detail, like in Lafayette’s House, and Jason’s house, etc. I loved the touch of seeing one TV on top of another, for example. Do you enjoy these sets, too?
Suzuki: Yes, those are fun, I like those character driven sets. The vampire authority is a great set but you look at Gran’s house and all the details that we put into that; it makes it somebody’s home and it shows you who that character is.

Lafayette's mantle in Season 4

Sookie's House Foyer in Season 1

True Blood is finished filming for the year and yet there is another season to come. Are you working on anything else now?
Suzuki: I think i’m going to try to take some time off; I've been busy the last two years and haven’t had a vacation.

Do you have the 80 hours work weeks that the costume designers have?
Suzuki: No, they have it tougher than we do. We come in early in the morning, but we leave around 6 or 7pm. 

Russell Edgington’s house was in Mississippi, but did you build the interiors on set?
Suzuki: Yes. We couldn't believe that we got to shoot in Mississippi. Cat and I found that on a little boondoggle that we went on. We like going and visiting the places. We couldn’t believe that we were able to film in Mississippi because it was never slated, but that building was so gorgeous that when we showed it to the producers and we said this is where the King has to live and it’s never been shown on another television or feature. It was the first time Longwood was ever on anything.

Longwood in Natchez, MS

Special reporter for The Vault Lisafemmeacadienne drove up to Natchez, MS to the Longwood House and did a full report on the set location in Mississippi.  To read her story about Longwood, click here

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