Based On A True Story is a low-key, mean-spirited delight of a dark comedy. The Peacock series, which was created by Craig Rosenberg, stars Kaley Cuoco and Chris Messina as a married couple in a financial and personal rut, just as they have a baby on the way. Their luck changes when they meet a serial killer, played by Tom Batemen.
Do the couple call the cops? No, they start a podcast with the killer instead.
Based On A True Story is very tongue-in-cheek, which costume designer Mari-An Ceo captures in her work. With episodes set in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, not to mention a standout episode set over dinner in the Pacific Palisades, Ceo got to work with a variety of characters. Similar to Leo’s work on The Flight Attendant, the costumes add a vibrancy as well an authenticity to the story.
Ceo, who mostly recently worked on Ti West’s MaXXXine, recently took the time to talk to us about Based On A True Story.
Below-the-Line: What kind of research was conducted on how to dress a serial killer?
Mari-An Ceo: Well, in terms of research, we aimed to blend a contemporary show with the ambiance of a Hollywood noir. We delved into books and articles on serial killers to glean any uncommon details. However, the character of Matt (Bateman), the serial killer, was designed to hide in plain sight. We focused primarily on playing with the color schemes of the landscapes surrounding Ava (Cuoco) and Nathan (Messina), as their psychological entanglement progressed throughout the show.
BTL: Throughout your research, did you ever wonder why serial killers often have terrible style?
Ceo: It’s interesting how the fashion sense of serial killers varies across different eras. During Ted Bundy’s time, even the eyeglasses they wore could be intriguing. Regarding Matt, the physicality of the character came to me relatively late in the process due to ongoing casting considerations. I didn’t really draw inspiration from modern-day serial killers in my research for his character. Although it would have been interesting to incorporate certain traits from past serial killers, we chose not to do so with Matt. As for their fashion sense, it’s true that many of them tend to have questionable style.
BTL: The Vegas episodes in the show are great. You had to dress all these extras and the true crime convention’s attendees. What did type of people did you imagine at the event?
Ceo: Not to upset my friends from the Midwest, but we talked about Midwestern attendees, although there were some people from the West Coast as well. At some point, it was decided, perhaps based on research, that they were from the Midwest. We included some T-shirts that we ordered from actual conventions like real CrimeCon. These conventions have their own following, and we had real people in the audience wearing their merchandise. It added a fun element to the show, and it introduced me to a whole world I never knew existed.
BTL: When you think of LA Noir, as you mentioned, films like The Long Goodbye come to mind. How did you want to embrace that sun-drenched noir aesthetic?
Ceo: We aimed to give it a timeless and placeless feel. Some elements worked, while others may have gotten lost during the shooting process. For instance, there are scenes where Ava’s character wears different modern versions of trench coats, inspired by films like Double Indemnity. We incorporated these elements throughout, borrowing from various older movies that had a noir vibe.
Ava wears a few pinstripe suits, and in one episode set in Vegas, she dons a yellow trench coat to make her stand out. We wanted to infuse color into her character. In the beginning, both Nathan and Ava were depicted in muted tones, for their monotonous routines. We intentionally kept them in basic colors like browns, with occasional pops of red or pink when significant events unfolded.
In the end, she is seen wearing an ocean blue trench coat, representing her aspiration for a dreamlike Malibu home. In the finale, she wears a trench coat again, her transformation into a super-sleuth detective who understands the psychology of the serial killer. We wanted to play with these elements in her character.
BTL: Since the tone is a bit heightened, did you also want to lean into that with the costumes? Does that also feel like a natural choice since the story is set in LA?
Ceo: It does because we live in a town that is a movie set everywhere you go. There are so many characters. We leaned into it a little bit, trying to capture some of that essence with some of the characters, but we also exist in this heightened reality of where we live. There’s the naturalness of, you know, the extra showing up that day too. I mean, that’s sort of the world we live in here.
For example, in the opening of the first episode, we have Nathan feeling good at work. He’s wearing this pinkish salmon color, his collar is popped, and he’s got matching shorts. The set dresser had this fish with an open mouth that matched the color of his shirt. He weirdly resembles the fish that’s on the table, just as he’s about to get skewered himself [and get demoted]. There are little things like that we chuckle to ourselves at.
BTL: I do want to ask about the Palisades party. I haven’t been to a party there, so I don’t know what it’s like, but what makes it accurate?
Ceo: Unfortunately, I’ve attended a few Palisades parties, but that’s probably one of my favorite episodes. We build up to it. But there are things you may not catch. First of all, it’s a party for runaway girls, so all the waitresses are wearing tight dresses that are see-through, but they have dollar signs and rhinestones on them. It’s that thing where you have to pay a lot of money to have this party, but you’re probably spending more for the party than you’ll get in donations. I kind of tried to capture that essence.
The party is also Simon’s (Aaron Stanton), and what he thinks is “rich” probably comes from his wealthy family; he’s a trust fund kid. He wears his little ascot, which we were kind of debating whether to include or not, but we had to do it. It just sets him apart from anyone else. It’s super trendy right now too, on top of it all. I see it around, and I kind of love it.
It’s the time when Nathan, Matt, and Ava think they’ve made it with their podcast. They’ve gone out, they’re dressing up for this party, and if you look closely, they’re subtly different colors, but Nathan and Matt look similar. They’re the ones wearing dark colors while there are vibrant colors everywhere else, so they stand out.
BTL: Are those parties ever that over-the-top?
Ceo: I’d say they’re usually more casual, but when you get into charity events, they can be pretty extravagant. People go all out, dressing up and showing off their jewelry, trying to outdo their neighbors. It’s a generalization, of course, because I’m sure there are many lovely and fashionable people who live there. But I love a good party because it’s a time when people can express their individuality more freely. I appreciate it because I think it brings out a lot of character. Especially charity events, they’re fun.
BTL: There was the Vegas convention, which screams challenges, but what are the unexpected challenges on a project like this?
Ceo: I’ll state the obvious: Kaley was pregnant, but she wasn’t when she was hired [laughs]. So, that was one of the challenges. But, I mean, whenever you’re shooting the Vegas episode in particular, you have big crowds, and you really want to control them. There are a lot of people that can be distracting. Especially since we had a muted tone for the actors, we hoped they wouldn’t disappear in the midst of it. Anytime you have big crowds like that, and we dressed almost every one of those people differently, it’s challenging to achieve a mix of different types that would be present.
BTL: How about the outfit for the major death in the Vegas episode?
Stunts always come with challenges too. For example, throwing that character off the roof of a building to land on an umbrella. That had a lot of challenges to it [laughs]. I know it sounds weird to say, it worked well with her white look because it blends nicely with the effects when that happens.
BTL: How’d you land on that white jacket?
Ceo: We had different options to choose from, but I don’t know what it was. I think it was just about the pleated skirt and the flow of it, and the impaling… You know, a lot of times we wouldn’t choose white because it’s almost too obvious that something is going to happen. But it worked nicely with that umbrella.
When I looked at it closely for the first time, I loved the blood getting caught in her little pleats as it flowed down [laughs]. It worked well for impaling someone with an umbrella. It was a good choice. I was proud of us. These are little things that I don’t know if I could tell my mom, but we were like, “Oh yes, it looks great.”
BTL: [Laughs] To conclude, I’m sure you receive requests for advice from aspiring costume designers. Do you have go-to advice for someone who wants to get into this line of work?
Ceo: I mean, there’s so much different advice. One thing, in particular, that I rely on is I’m a film geek. I watch a lot of old movies, and experimental films are really good too. I get so many ideas from so many different places that I can’t just Google, if that makes sense. I have a huge library at my house.
Again, you can’t Google every picture, and you need to look at books and read. Make sure you’re reading about what you’re doing. Earlier, you asked about researching serial killers, and I wasn’t just Googling it. I have a book about the top hundred serial killers from 1971. It’s just some random book. You gain so much more information about the subtleties of the dress of a serial killer. They may seem quirky, but if you start reading their biographies, you pick up so many other fascinating things that you wouldn’t know.
I always tell people when they’re studying design or whatever, especially if they want to do film and TV, to immerse themselves in different genres of filmmaking. You know, like De Palma or something, I’d watch for something like this. Learn who does interesting work before even designing a single thing.
Based On A True Story is now available to stream on Peacock.