Today, we have the pleasure of chatting with the incredibly talented Sherri Chung, an award-winning composer whose music brings stories to life on screens big and small. Sherri has worked on a variety of projects, most recently scoring the Peacock original series Based on a True Story.

Her work spans from HBO Max/Amblin’s Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai to the Netflix feature film Happiness For Beginners.

Sherri’s music transcends genres, drawing inspiration from both traditional and contemporary sources. Beyond her composing talents, she is a skilled pianist, vocalist, and songwriter, with her voice featured in various films and TV series. An active member of the film music community, Sherri also serves as Governor of the Music Branch of the Television Academy.

In Based on a True Story, Ava and her husband Nathan are dealing with financial struggles, midlife marriage squabbles, and a new pregnancy when they discover their plumber-turned-family friend Matt is a serial killer. Seeing an opportunity, they blackmail him into creating a podcast about his crimes, only to find that working with a killer is far from easy.

Join us as Sherri dives into her creative process, shares her inspirations, and talks about the unique challenges she faced while scoring this darkly comedic thriller.

Based On A True Story | Official Trailer | Peacock

No Film School: What was the initial inspiration for the musical score of Based on a True Story, and how did you aim to capture the essence of the story or series through music?

Sherri Chung: The initial spark for the score was the show's log line, which hinted at a bizarre yet captivating narrative involving a former tennis player, a real estate agent, and a plumber intertwined with America's obsession with true crime. The log line was really interesting to me. It dives into true crime, America's obsession with it, and it was unlike any of the other projects I'd ever done before. I wanted to write something challenging for an audience to watch and, therefore, challenging for me as a composer to score.

How did you tailor your composition to align with the emotional arc and pacing of Based on a True Story?

At its core, Based on a True Story is a relatable tale of a couple navigating life's hardships. I sought to mirror this through the music, capturing the emotional highs and lows of Ava and Nathan's journey. The show is about a couple going through financial struggles, career troubles, and marital issues– the emotional arc of the music follows their journey from hardship to excitement, fear, and back again.

How did you work with the director and producers of Based on a True Story to ensure the music complemented their vision for the series?

I collaborated extensively with Craig Rosenberg, the creator, showrunner, and writer of the show. We had many conversations beyond spotting sessions, where we discussed where music should start and end and what each scene was about. Craig provided invaluable direction on when the music needed to be funny or more dark and suspenseful. This back-and-forth helped ensure that the music perfectly complemented the series' tone.

Sherri Chung Boats

Can you share any unique instruments or techniques you used in composing the score for Based on a True Story that helped set the tone for the show?

I used a lot of pizzicato, which is generally considered funny, but I tried to make it tense as well. I also included hand percussion with very pointed attacks. Additionally, I used a typewriter to evoke the feel of detective work and true crime, which has a very unique and poignant sound, especially since typewriters are not commonly used anymore.

How does the score for Based on a True Story differ from your previous work, and what new ground did you feel you broke with this project?

Unlike previous projects focused on clear-cut heroes and villains, Based on a True Story subverts traditional narratives, blurring moral lines. Most of the projects I've done are about justice being served, with clear heroes and villains. This show challenged my idea of who is the villain and who is the hero. The ambiguous nature of the characters, combined with the darkly comedic elements, presented a new and exciting challenge.

Was there a particular episode or moment within Based on a True Story that you found particularly inspiring or challenging to score?

There was a scene in an elevator with Ava, Nathan, Matt, and Dahlia that was particularly challenging. Dahlia is allegedly the sole survivor of the West Side Ripper attack, making it a very tense moment. Craig Rosenberg, the writer and creator, and I worked closely to figure out the right tone. The challenge was creating tension in a small space with no dialogue. Everything I tried initially was either too active or overstated. We finally landed on a slow-paced score with pulses that come in and out, staying with Ava and Nathan and their expressive, sometimes comedic looks.

What do you want viewers to feel or understand from the music you composed for Based on a True Story?

The goal was to make the audience connect with Ava and Nathan while being entertained by the outrageousness of their situation. I hope viewers can relate to the couple and be entertained by the delivery of how they're trying to solve their marital problems," she says. The music needed to balance moments of hilarity and excitement with the underlying tension and moral ambiguity of their actions.

Reflecting on the entire process of scoring Based on a True Story, how has this project impacted you as a composer and your career trajectory?

Scoring Based on a True Story has been a significant part of my journey as a composer. My background in classical training and the support from various mentors and collaborators have shaped my career. This project, in particular, allowed me to explore the nuances of blending comedy and thriller, further honing my skills and expanding my creative boundaries.