Exclusive: Suzuki Ingerslev Interview Part 2!

August 14, 2009 by  

True Blood Sookie Stackhouse Front Porch Suzuki Ingersol

Suzuki Ingerslev is the production designer for HBO‘s True Blood. We interviewed her a while back [Editor’s Note: Part 1 can be read HERE] and she gave us so much material we had to break it into two articles! Since the original interview Suzuki and her team have been nominated for an Emmy for their work on True Blood.  We contacted Suzuki to congratulate her on their nomination and in an exclusive statement to Suzuki replied:

“Thank you, we are all very excited about the  nomination.  It is the last opportunity I will have to win an Emmy with my decorator, Rusty Lipsomb, with whom I have done the last 3 out of 4 shows.  She has retired and we all really miss her.  It would be a fabulous ending to her already amazing career.”

In a very telling aside to us Suzuki says:

I would love to add a THANK YOU to my entire crew, who work so hard and are so talented and dedicated.  They all have an amazing work ethic, and I could  never take on such a large scale show without their support and help.  I am really fortunate to have them all in my life as well as on the  show.

We now bring you part 2:  What is a typical day for a production designer?

Suzuki:  It depends. Usually, I am an episode ahead of the shooting crew. When they are shooting the current episode, I have to be out scouting and prepping with the new director, for the  following episode. Which means that I am constantly in a scouting van looking for prospective locations, working with the directors to bring them up to speed, and introducing our stage sets to them. It gets a little tricky because I am also still involved in the current episode that we are shooting, although my crew really helps me out with that. I also have to figure in time to design new sets that need to be built for the upcoming episode, and allow time for the working drawing to be completed, and then built. What is great about working with Alan Ball and his writers, is that they get the scripts out ahead of time, so that we can always stay ahead, and really focus on the design. I really appreciate that.

It is so difficult when one has to design something in less than a day, it doesn’t give them the time to work out the design and research it correctly. I have had to do that many times on other shows, and unfortunately, I think that is more the norm for our Industry. We are incredibly spoiled.  With you getting the sets built, does it play a part in the shooting schedule or is it the other way around, or is it give and take?

True Blood Merlott's Bar Suzuki IngersolSuzuki:  It is give and take. I usually work with the assistant directors, and ask them if they can arrange to have the new sets shoot towards the end of the schedule. Sometimes that works and sometimes we get an answers like: “ We can’t because this actor is out of town” or “this location is only available on this day.” Usually, I find that everyone tries to be accommodating, but there are many things that can’t be controlled. It is like a jigsaw puzzle putting together a shooting schedule. There are so many variables, and I am thankful that it is not part of my job description.  When there are changes made in the scheduling does that affect you?

Suzuki:  Yes, tremendously. They just changed our schedule the other day on short notice. There was a set  that we were not counting on shooting quite as soon in the schedule, that got moved up to play the next day. We had to scramble, pull our crew off of another location and make sure that the new set was ready to be shot. That entailed bringing many crew members back from a location that was an hour away. Yes, the situation is frustrating when that happens, but it is unavoidable. It doesn’t happen on True Blood too often, but in this business, you have to be flexible and think fast on your feet. Half of our job is problem solving.  If you are given notice at the last minute how are you able to prep the set or stage?

Suzuki:  We just have to do our best. We own a lot of the furniture in our basic sets, so when one of those gets moved up,  it is not as big a problem for us. It is just a matter of cleaning it up from when they shot it last, or making sure that they get what they need for that particular scene. It is hard on everybody. It is hard on the prop master. If someone is bringing in flowers that day, then the prop department  has to run out and get fresh flowers. Nobody really enjoys changes,  but usually it is doable and people are understanding if something falls short. (laughs). We are pretty organized actually. I have meetings with my department based on the episodes so that everyone knows what’s going on. I’m not the type of production designer that thinks information is power. Everybody knows what is going on, and they step up to the plate.  That leads to my next question. Season 1 you had to start from scratch but now for season 2 a lot of sets have already been built and have already been set up. So, how much work had to be done before the season began?  Or does each episode require a little bit of tweaking?

Suzuki:  The start of Season 2 was exceptional because we had to change studios. We had to take down all the sets from Hollywood Center Studios and bring them to a new location. All those huge sets like Merlotte’s, Sookie‘s House, and Bill’s House had to be packed and moved. We started 8 weeks before everyone else. We set them back up, and then we had to re-paint them because they needed touch up after they had been sitting on a truck and in storage. They did hold up relatively well, thanks to the efforts of my construction coordinator, Mike Wells. He definitely builds things to last and believes in quality.  We also had some new sets that we had design and build as well. With Alan Ball, you can pretty much count on there being new sets every season. (laughs)  New sets and many, many new locations. We are even busier than we were the first season in many aspects because there are so many new twists and turns going on story wise, with many new sets and locations. We are also constantly re-vamping things. [Editor’s note: we all had a good laugh at the re-vamping comment].  Which set would you say is your favorite and why?

Rusty Lipscomb and Laura True Blood Set DecoratorsSuzuki:  My favorite set would be Sookie’s house. I just feel that it encompasses so much of who Gran was, and her sensibilities. Our decorator, Rusty Lipscomb, really captured the time period in which Grandma lived and also the feel of the South. Also, the crew ended up donating a lot of their personal family heirlooms and photos which added to it being special. Even Alan Ball included several family photos of his parents, uncle and he and his brother. Our construction coordinator’s mother-in-law had passed away right before we started the pilot, and she had such an assortment of items that indicated a bygone era. He and his wife donated a lot of these items to the show, like beautifully crocheted doilies, pill bottle caps and needle point wall hangings. She is a definite part of that set and it feels like her memory is still alive.  There is something about those items, and the love that Rusty put into the decorating of Grans that makes it very comfortable, and homey. It was interesting, we had a lady visiting from Louisiana who walked into that set, and she started crying because it reminded her of her Grandmother’s house. There is no bigger compliment than that.  In regards to Bill’s house, what type of mood or theme are you trying to convey with the decor?

Suzuki: With Bill’s house we took the direction that he had just inherited that house, and that it was not maintained for years before his arrival. He had just moved back in at the beginning of our story, and we learn that he has no electricity. We start with lanterns in there and then Sookie arranges for him to get an electrician. Now we have electricity and beautiful light fixtures in there, but not much else has changed yet. Our show takes place within maybe 2 months so far. So no time has really passed, and he has apparently been very busy. (laughs)  It’s not like he is spending time fixing up the house. So, we decided to leave it in a kind of “faded glory”. That also represents who Bill is. I think it gives  the set a magical feeling, and it’s also different from our other sets. We weren’t trying to go for the old, scary vampire house but instead a more romantic feel. We  also figured vampires do not have too many personal artifacts, and they are not as emotionally attached to objects as humans are. So, he really doesn’t have a lot of furniture or objects in the house.  Plus he has the books we notice. And the only personal item is that in one episode he has a photograph.
Suzuki:  Yes, and that is something that we got from episode five. That is when we learn about Bill‘s past life during the Civil War, and the mayor of Bon Temps hands Bill the photograph of his past family. We figured that It was a great detail to include that photo into our set from that moment forward.  How are you going to re-create the outside of Bill’s house since you cannot use the property anymore?

Suzuki:  We are looking to shoot a plantation called The Oakley on the outskirts of Baton Rouge. It is currently a museum and it has a very similar look to Bill’s house. We would try to play it off as the back of his house from now on, and I think it could evoke the same feeling. Or, if worse comes to worse, and we have to shoot a lot of the exterior, we will end up building it somewhere in Los Angeles. Just like we ended up building  the exterior of Sookie’s house on an empty dirt lot. We couldn’t find the look we wanted and it ended up being much easier to just build it.  So just rebuild it based on the photographs and the film?

Suzuki:  Exactly.   We have measurements and we can just fill in the rest with our imaginations. It is costly, and it takes time, but it is worthwhile if we see a lot of it. It took us 5 weeks to build Sookie‘s.  That’s amazing because it looks like a fully functional house when we looked at the photographs that you showed us from the side and front.

Suzuki:  We just finished the fourth side [of Sookie‘s house] because the fourth side was never finished. We are very happy that it is a completed house now, at least from the outside. It just makes it more flexible for directors to shoot, as well as providing variety for them. The inside of the house only has the completed foyer down stairs, so that we can have actors enter the set. Sookie‘s bedroom is actually designed into the upstairs there as well, because we ran out of stage space.

Lafayette Livingroom True Blood Suzuki  One of the more lavish sets is Lafayette’s. How did you decide to create the interior of his home that way?

Suzuki:  We just thought that we could have fun with his flamboyant character. We did some research, and found some great books on crazy interiors. We started with a country style guest house for a location, and turned it into a wild space, complete with 1970’s foiled wallpapers, leopard carpeting and a panther coffee table. To further create Lafayette‘s space we thought it would be fun to have these wild lighting in there that lit up the space as well as the main focus of his home, his shrine. Lafayette‘s religion is not just one type of religion, but instead encompasses many branches of religion. His shrine has Jesus, Buddha and many other religious icons, I think our set dressing crew had fun with that. The actual location is a very small, tight space, but we feel like we were able to bring Lafayette‘s eccentricities into it, and capture who he is.  What energizes you the most when you are creating a set?  Do you like it to be challenging?

Suzuki:  I do like challenges. I like  projects interesting and creative. Last season our challenge was how to create Louisiana in an arid climate, which I had never done before. I really had to learn the ins and outs of creating the feel of older houses, lush vegetation, and at the same time incorporating the dampness that exists in a humid climate. Again, the ultimate compliment that we have received is that a lot of the audience, and Industry people, think that we shoot the entire series down in Louisiana.Lafayette Livingroom True Blood Suzuki Ingersol When I had the opportunity to do the tour of the True Blood set I noticed that there was extra furniture in the dining room at Sookie’s house. Do you do that to make room for lights and cameras in a different room?

Suzuki:  Yes, we move stuff out of the way of the shooting crew, and then restore it as need be. They will store items in different rooms to get them out of the way, and then they will have quick access if they need to restore it. For instance, If they are not shooting in the dining room and the camera does not see into it, they will probably move the furniture out, so that the crew can move around with equipment a lot easier. We have a position on set called an “on set dresser” who is in charge of moving all of the furniture and keeping track of it.  How do you keep track of where everything should have been?

Suzuki:  Lots and lots of good pictures. (laughs)  We have our little bible, or what we call our set  reference books. Also, when the on set dresser moves something, he will take a picture of how it was set, and document it. Then, when we go back into that room, we will know exactly where everything was. It is particularly difficult on episodes where we are shooting a scene that is not completed until the following episode, he has to remember how everything was set. The script supervisor and the prop department will also help out with continuity.  So every time they finish a scene they take a new set of pictures?

Suzuki:  Absolutely, it is the best way to keep track of things.  There is an incredible amount of detail that goes into the décor. Do you have a check list of things to go over?

Suzuki:  No, every space is different. I work with the decorator to try and create a feel and look for every character. It is fun to try and incorporate details that may not be obvious to the audience, but help the actors get into character. My art director found a door knob online that has a dog’s head on it, and we incorporated it into Sam’s office. Also the picture in Sam’s office of a little girl and a dog was a great omen. It was fortuitous that my decorator found the print in an antique store. We also went on eBay and found a lot of those old beer coasters, and we laminated them into the bar top. Details like that are fun and give the sets character.

Bill Compton Livingroom True Blood Suzuki  It is interesting that in Bill’s house the bathroom, bedroom and hidey-hole aren’t really there.

Suzuki:  Well the hidey-hole is kind of in there. (laughs)  You can open the door and you can go down into it a little because since our set is raised up on platforms. But yes, when we do the shots inside there, the set is on a different stage. We would never be able  to get cameras underneath our house. Also, bringing cameras up stairs is less than desirable, and so on two-story sets, we create the rooms somewhere else on stage. We just pretend to have the actors go upstairs and then we cut and pick them up somewhere else. That applies to Bill‘s bedroom and bathroom.  Are they setup in another soundstage?

Suzuki: Sometimes, they can either be on the same stage if there is enough room for them or another stage with more space. Currently, we do not have Bill‘s bedroom and bathroom set up because they were not in the story lines and we needed the space for other  sets. If we don’t need the set, but we need the stage space, we have to strike the unnecessary ones and store them. The really big sets like Merlotte’s, and Sookie‘s always remain standing because they are too large and complicated to take apart. It would not be cost effective. Do you store them in large pieces?

Suzuki:   We do. They all break apart somewhat easily, again depending how well they are built. They always need to be retouched when they come out of storage, and usually we need to redo the flooring.  Besides your team, who do you work with most close on the set?

Suzuki:  I would say the executive producer, Greg Feinberg, this season. I work pretty closely with him, as well as Alan Ball. Also, the obvious being my department.  You said Greg Feinberg this year. Was there someone different last year?

Suzuki:  Last year we had different producers.  Did the writers and producers ever consult with you for your input on how they are writing or thinking about the script?

Suzuki:  Yes, they actually do. We will work together to make a scene work based on the limitations of our sets or how complicated a particular scene is. Once in a while, we will get a script where the writers and director have trouble making a scene work, and we will brain storm together to find a compromise. Which will either result in the changing of an action, or part of the dialogue, or we will add something onto our sets. There is always a way to make things work and usually with a little give and take we can correct the situation. Our writers are all amazing and they really understand our sets.

Sookie Stackhouse Livingroom True Blood Suzuki  Are there any unusual aspects to working on True Blood compared to the other projects you have worked on and what are they?

Suzuki:  I think the craziest thing is all the destruction. (laughs). You have all these beautiful sets, and one of kind pieces from antique stores, and you have to be aware that at some point they may get destroyed. Chances are pretty great that some fate will come to the furniture pieces in our sets, like blood spilling onto them, or an explosion. We end up fixing quite a few pieces or replacing them. When we did the pilot, we didn’t realize that there was going to be this much destruction. Had we realized it, we probably would have purchased easier items to replace. (Although then we would have lost a lot of the character)  Do some of the producers and directors give you some more input. If so how much leeway does Alan Ball give you?

SuzukiAlan Ball, since we have worked together before, gives me quite a bit of leeway. On major sets I like to share our design ideas with him and get his feedback. I try to get everyone on the same page, which includes the director and all the producers, and writers. We have an art department meeting for every episode where we go over all the new sets and location. The meeting is open to everyone and that way everyone can be informed.  Are these meeting once every 10 days?

Suzuki:  Yes, for every episode we meet. Our episodes are approximately 10 days long.  Is that challenging?

Suzuki:  I find it more liberating than challenging. I feel better once we have covered every topic and I feel like we know what direction we are headed.  Do you ever get frustrated and why?

True Blood Merlotte's kitchen Suzuki Ingersol

Suzuki:  The only thing that frustrates me, and luckily it is not bad on True Blood, is lack of communication. I just don’t like surprises, and I don’t think there is any excuse for leaving people out of the loop. I find that the more everyone knows, and the more people I tell something to, the easier it is to accomplish.  What other productions have you worked on?

Suzuki:  As a production designer I did “In Treatment”, “Six Feet Under”, and “Shark.”  What was your favorite production that you worked on so far and why?

Suzuki:  I think it is “Six Feet Under” because it was five years of my life and it felt like a family. There were a lot of talented people on that show and it was well run. The show itself was also something to be proud of, especially the final episode. True Blood is second, definitely (laughs). It may even be up there with Six Feet by the time I am done with it.  If you could be a character on the show, who or what would you be and why?

Suzuki:  I think I would be closest to a vampire. My crew seems to think I would be a better fairy, (laughs, as her crew is yelling “no” to a vampire for her in the background). The fairies come out later in the book series but, I still think I would prefer being a vampire. It would be great to be a vampire and enjoy the power. (laughs)  I think it would be pretty great not to deal with the mundane parts of life. Thank you so much for your time.

Suzuki:  Thank you.

(Photo credit: HBO, Suzuki Ingerslev and Kasandra Rose)