The A&E drama series Bates Motel (which was recently renewed for a second season) gives viewers an intimate portrayal of how Norman Bates’ (Freddie Highmore) psyche unravels through his teenage years. This contemporary prequel to the genre-defining film Psycho reveals the dark, twisted backstory and shows first-hand just how deep the relationship with his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga), truly goes, as she helps forge the most famous serial killer of them all. The show also stars Max Thieriot, Nicola Peltz, Olivia Cooke, Nestor Carbonell and Mike Vogel.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, executive producers/writers Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin talked about how they each came to be involved with Bates Motel, how much they use Psycho as an inspiration, just how crucial the casting of Norman and Norma Bates was, the overall story they’re looking to tell this season, how far ahead they plan out the story, what it will add to the show when guests start checking in to the Bates Motel, and the importance of transmedia to make viewers more directly active with the show. Cuse also talked about how he’ll divide his time, if the adaptation of The Strain goes into production at FX. Check out what they had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
CARLTON CUSE: Universal basically approached me and said, “We want to do something with the Psycho franchise. Would you consider rebooting it?” I said, “Let me think about it.” And then, I started thinking about it and it actually stuck in my brain. It’s my simple litmus test. When I get pitched ideas, the question is, “Do they continue to churn in my brain or not?,” and this one did. Especially this idea of doing a contemporary prequel, it just seemed like there were so many wonderful story possibilities. And the more I thought about it, the more engaged I got. I told Universal that I was interested and I threw out some ideas to them, and they seemed excited. They had previously had some conversations with A&E, and A&E really thought the idea of doing a reboot of the Psycho franchise was great. That was all in place before I got involved. And then, Universal had a deal with Kerry [Ehrin] and they said, “Maybe you guys would like to meet?” So, I sat down with Kerry and we just instantly hit it off. I said, “These are some things I’m thinking about,” and Kerry said, “These are some things I’m thinking about,” and we were like, “Wow, that actually lines up really well!” It was like a marriage made in heaven. It really was. It was a fantastic creative collaboration. We each brought something from our pasts and put that together, and that really contributed a lot to making the show unexpected.
KERRY EHRIN: I did initially have that run for the hills instinct. But, it was ultimately the mother-son relationship and just realizing that everything we knew about Norma Bates was from the point of view of a guy who’d lost his mind, so who knows how real that was, or if it was his perception of her, at the time. So, that just became very interesting to me. I wondered, “What was that relationship about? Was there anything beautiful in it?” Dysfunctional relationships can be very intense and have a really beautiful aspect to them. There can be that co-dependence of people who only have each other. There’s something sort of lovely about that and terribly sad, too. That relationship just kept me going back to it, even though I was a little hesitant.
EHRIN: I watched the movie, but I don’t think we’ve thought about it since then.
CUSE: At the very, very beginning, we talked about a couple of things that I think Hitchcock does incredibly well, as a filmmaker, that were definitely influences on me, as a filmmaker, including his exquisite ability to sustain suspense and make it feel particularly real. That is something that was embedded in my brain and became a part of our conversations at the beginning, and particularly for the pilot with the whole sustained sequence of cleaning up for the body, getting rid of the body and hiding the body, and showing how hard, in reality, that is to do. That was definitely Hitchcock inspired, but the key is that we were inspired. One of the first things that we both latched onto was that we didn’t want to do an homage and we didn’t want to feel bound by the particular facts of what had come before us, and that was really liberating. The world did not need another Gus Van Sant version of redoing Psycho. That just allowed us to take these characters and this relationship and spin out our own story, which was really fun.
How crucial was the casting for this?
Was it more challenging to cast Norma or Norman?
CUSE: We were just incredibly lucky. As a writer, I always think about who my prototype actors are, in my brain. It’s helpful, as a writer, to think about that. And the person I always had in my brain (for Norma) was Vera [Farmiga]. I never, in a million years, thought that we would actually get very. We wrote three scripts and said, “We might as well try to get Vera. Why not?” So, we sent the first three scripts to her, and then we heard back that she was interested and wanted to do it. It was completely shocking, amazing and wonderful for us. We just never believed we would actually get her. She had gotten an Academy Award nomination for Up in the Air, so we didn’t think she’d do a television series, but she really responded to the character. The character was written for her and someone of her talents. There’s a tiny subset of actors that could have pulled it off, so we were really lucky. And then, Freddie [Highmore] came along and it was the same thing. We had a very early Skype conversation with Freddie.
EHRIN: And we were sold! No one ever seemed right after that. It was funny.
CUSE: I feel like we got our dream cast. You don’t think about it, at the time, but in the aftermath, you go, “God, we would have been totally fucked, if we hadn’t gotten Vera and Freddie!”
CUSE: I think we’re going to learn a lot more about who Norman Bates is and who Norma Bates is. Ultimately, the audience’s greatest curiosity is going to be about what makes these two characters tick. Also, there’s the mystery of the very first scene in the pilot. We’ll learn much more about what the full circumstances were and what happened there, and that, in itself, might up-end your preconceived notions of the mythology of this show and the history of these two characters. So, you’ll leave the end of the first season knowing a lot more about who Norman and Norma are.
Do you ever feel bad about the fact that high school is tough enough, as it is, without you adding this future serial killer to the mix?
EHRIN: Yeah, high school, at all, is difficult. I’m reliving it with my daughter, right now. I have to forget that Norman is going to be that guy. I have to write him in the moment of who he is. I can’t have that hanging over my shoulder. I don’t even like thinking about it sometimes.
How far ahead do you plan ahead, story wise?
CUSE: There is a general game plan, as to where we’re going to go. We’ve talked about certain seismic events that we want to have occur, at various times. But, it’s still a little early to know exactly what the time frame of the show is. It does have a beginning, middle and end, and we’re inevitably going to get to the end, and that’s what it should be.
EHRIN: That will be amazing to get to!
What made you decide to add a brother into the mix?
CUSE: We just thought Dylan (Max Thieriot) was a great window to look in on the relationship between Norma and Norman. The idea that there was a more normal brother was just a really compelling idea to us. He’s an outsider. He can never compete with the closeness of their relationship, but he’s still a really interesting character. Just in terms of the storytelling dynamics, that really added something interesting and compelling to the mix. He is also a really interesting interface with the town because he’s involved with the nefarious drug trade that fuels the economy of this town, and that’s a great avenue for storytelling, as well. There’s a beautiful veneer that’s covering up a very dark and disturbing underbelly.
EHRIN: Yes, it’s really fun. It has a powerful design, that house. Whoever designed that house is a genius. It’s fun to be able to have the space to get into the world of it. That’s just an exciting, fun thing. The first time that I walked inside the house set, it was amazing, and it was also weirdly charming. The way that the set designer did it, it’s both scary and beautiful. It’s a wonderful set.
Will people start staying at the Bates Motel soon?
CUSE: Oh, yeah! That’s actually a big part of the story. There’s actually quite a bit of humor downstream, in the show. The whole process of opening the motel is humorous and quirky. It’s fun to see who the first guests end up being, at this place.
How did the idea for the fan contest for the title sequence come about, and what was that experience like?
CUSE: From the beginning of Lost, one of the great things we got to do was really pioneer this whole idea of transmedia, and I just felt that Bates Motel was the next logical extension for that. So, it was just an idea that I had, that I felt would be a great way to get the fans involved in the show. I think that we live in a world now where people want to do more than just watch something passively. When people engage, they want to actually participate in the world of the show, and this was a way to hopefully inspire some creativity and engagement by the fans. I think there will also be other opportunities for stuff like that. We live in a world where you have the mothership, which is the show, but then there’s also all this opportunity and all these other media platforms to do other kinds of storytelling related to the mothership. That’s something that we’ll continue to explore as we move downstream.
Carlton, if The Strain (adapted from Guillermo del Toro’s novels) also goes into production at FX, how will you be dividing your time?
EHRIN: I will get on the phone and cry.
CUSE: Well, I’m not the first producer in Hollywood to have multiple projects. My workload is a minuscule fraction of Judd Apatow’s workload, so I think it will all be fine. I think it will all work out.
Do you like to stay busy and juggle projects, or would you prefer to focus on one thing at a time?
CUSE: I think everyone in Hollywood works on multiple things because you never know what’s going to happen with your projects. I happen to be lucky that a couple of different things are coming to fruition, at the same time. It will work out fine. The good news is that the cable world is about limited episodes and you work intensely for a few months. The shows will be off-set, to some degree.
Bates Motel airs on Monday nights on A&E.