The A&E drama series Bates Motel is currently wrapping up its first season and has already been picked up for Season 2. To celebrate the show’s success, the Paley Center held a panel called Bates Motel: Reimagining a Cinema Icon, and Collider was there to cover and attend the event. From executive producers Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights), the show is a contemporary prequel that gives an intimate portrayal of how Norman Bates’ (unsettlingly portrayed by Freddie Highmore) psyche unravels through his teenage years and just how deeply intricate his relationship with his mother, Norma (in an awards worthy performance by Vera Farmiga), truly is.
During the panel, Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin, along with Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga, talked about the challenges of pulling this show off, what makes the relationship between Norman and Norma Bates so compelling to watch, what the actors bring to their characters, learning more about Norma’s backstory and what made her the way she is, how exhausting it is to write for crazy people, what they look for in directors, and the ideal plan for how long the show will run. Check out what they had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
Question: When this idea was brought to you, what made you think you could pull it off?
CARLTON CUSE: We were approached by Universal Television – Universal owns the rights to the Psycho franchise – and they said, “Would you guys be interested in doing this for television. They also helped put Kerry and I together. It was a fantastic, instant, love-at-first-sight marriage as writers. I had this one sub-set of ideas and Kerry had another sub-set of ideas, and we stuck them together. There was something really intriguing about it, even though it was a high degree of difficulty dive. Yes, there were many ways it could have gone wrong, but just the idea of these unanswered questions from the movie were really intriguing to us. Who was Norma Bates? Who was this woman that ended up stuffed in a fruit cellar in the movie, and what was her relationship like with her son? What if Norman had a brother? There was the idea of telling the tragedy and knowing that, in a general sense, things were not going to end well for these characters, but along the way, you hopefully fall in love with them. We want the audience to hope against hope that these characters will not meet their inevitable fate.
Norman Bates is one of the most famous cinematic characters in Hollywood history, and Norma Bates is one of the most famous cinematic corpses. What makes their relationship so compelling to watch, and how do you not play that future, as you play the characters?
VERA FARMIGA: I wasn’t feeling hassled by the term “iconic,” in the way that Freddie might have felt hassled, given that he’s stepping into some pretty extraordinary shoes. Iconic, for me, makes me think of icons, and religious paintings, like the Madonna and child. I approach her as the nurturing Madonna, the breast-feeding Madonna, the worried and stricken Madonna, and the bereft Madonna. So, I wasn’t feeling hassled by the term, but I’d be lying, if I didn’t admit that initially, I was a little off-put by the interdependence to Psycho. I felt like the purist in me was skeptical because there are a lot of things that could go wrong. But, they just got me on page 2 when, with the dialogue, in the same breath, Norma turns to Norman and says, “You’re such an asshole! I love you, Norman.” It’s the exhilaration of feeling the pendulum swing of contradiction that Norma is, simultaneously, perhaps interpreted as twisted and nurturing. When you encounter sophistication in the creation of a female character, you thank the writers and you claim it. We’ve got two lunatic composers who seem to know the secret, scary places of a mother’s heart. So, I wasn’t feeling hassled by the term icon, as far as my character being a spectral image of a corpse.
FREDDIE HIGHMORE: The nice thing is that, unless we completely re-jig Psycho, I won’t die. It would be a big shock, if Norman ended up dying. He’s got to be there, at the end. So, in that way, there’s a certain amount of confidence that I have about being around for awhile. Not that I would wish it upon anyone, but everyone else might be slightly more nervous. So, in that way, it was good to have Norman there, as the iconic character. It was also nice to set it in the contemporary setting because that gave us all a certain amount of freedom, to re-imagine that narrative.
CUSE: This has literally never happened before, in my career, and I’m sure it will never happen again, but we got everybody we wanted. It was unbelievable! Right from the get-go, when Kerry and I started talking about the character, and we were creating the character, we immediately said, “You know the perfect person for this would be Vera Farmiga. She’ll never do it, but let’s think of it for Vera.” And that helped us. And then, our genius casting director said, “You have to get on a Skype call with Freddie Highmore.” We met him on Skype first and were like, “Well, he’s great!” We auditioned other actors and realized that he was in his own category. There was no one else who even came close. Our casting director also said, “I love this guy, Max Thieriot.” We also Skyped with him, and he was fantastic. And we’ve heard so much from the audience , “I love Dylan!” He was the surprise in the story. When Nicola [Peltz] came in to audition, she was just perfect. She was just that vision of the role. And Nestor [Carbonell] and I had worked together on Lost, so when we started talking about the sheriff, we were like, “He should be like Nestor Carbonell.” With Olivia [Cooke], we got this murky homemade video, that came from Manchester, England, and you could barely see the actress, but she was really good. We liked her best, and A&E approved her. And then, she flew into Vancouver and was just luminous. As hard as you try to write a good script and you have great intentions, this alchemy has to occur. That’s the thing that you can’t predict, and that’s what happened when we assembled this troupe of actors. That’s really what blessed our show.
Vera, what do you like most about Norma?
FARMIGA: She is determined, in her love for this child. I have a sympathy for her. You can reduce the story down to this being a troubled woman who is trying to give her troubled son a life that is enhancing to him. And there’s no clear path as to how a mother who has a neurologically dysfunctional, atypical child makes him healthier or better, especially if she, herself, isn’t that healthy. I have no choice, but to make a case for her. That’s what’s so fascinating to me about psychological studies. The brain in love and the brain in mental illness has a certain cross-over. That brain scan is what I’m studying right now. I really do think that it’s not a case of whether she didn’t love him enough. She makes mistakes. She doesn’t always do the right thing. She’s still trying to determine when that umbilical chord should be released. But at the same time, she cannot free him into autonomy or independence yet because he is sick and unstable.
How aware of that is she?
FARMIGA: This is what we argue about. I approach any of the sensuality in a very innocent way. Norma probably thinks that the anxiety-induced emotional conflict has something to do with bonding, as is evident from her first failed attempt at maternity. That’s the grip that she has on Norman. She’s going to love him through his madness. But, the thing about Norma is that she, herself, is troubled. She keeps sand-packing the dam because, if she leaves that fissure, she opens herself up. She’s a real roll-up-your-sleeves, chin up woman.
Freddie, what do you like about Norman Bates?
What’s the best thing about Vera Farmiga, as an actress?
HIGHMORE: It’s a great thing, but I’m also slightly jealous that Vera makes it look so effortless and natural. I’m sure it takes a lot of effort to get there, but it doesn’t seem that way. When you’re in a scene with her, you know that she’s completely there, giving it everything, in every single moment. It also gives you the chance to play with stuff in the scene itself, instead of having a preconceived idea of how you want the scene to go. Even in the middle of the scene, Vera is capable of changing stuff up and finding a new range of emotion. She’s constantly working, but at the same time, seems like she’s not.
Vera, what’s the best thing about Freddie Highmore, as an actor?
FARMIGA: His willingness and his openness. Like any dance partner, he’s not afraid of being led or leading, and he’s willing to switch. And he’s great at improvising. There’s a candid honesty that we have with each other, when something is not working or when we need help. We rely on each other, a lot. I really admire his intellect and his awareness and his humor, above all. You’re not going to have a lukewarm attitude about each other, playing these characters. You’re either going to love each other or hate each other, and I just have such a deep affection for him. I admire him. He makes me a better actor.
How did the character of Emma (Olivia Cooke) come about?
EHRIN: I found it really intriguing to put in this world of life and death, with someone who was actually, in a very real way, dealing with life and death on a daily basis. It just seemed like a really interesting combination. And I have a very good friend who has Cystic Fibrosis, so I knew a lot about it and about living with it. The thing I always admired is that it didn’t define him. He was just like, “Yeah, well, there’s that,” but he still had all his goals and he wanted to do stuff. There was the idea of a teenage girl who would have a connection with Norman because, instinctively, she could feel that he understood sadness or pain or isolation. Even though they never say that out loud, they sense that in each other. It’s like a secret club for the damaged. If Norman Bates could be saved, I think Emma could have done it. I think she’s hugely important to him, and that will develop more.
What’s up with Norman’s teacher? Is she a little bit attracted to him?
CUSE: There’s something odd about the teacher, isn’t there? It’s very interesting. That’s a very good observation. I want to know more!
What made you decide to include taxidermy, in this modern update?
EHRIN: There’s a really high-end boutique in Paris that has the most expensive, beautiful taxidermy, if you think taxidermy is beautiful. It’s an incredible store, and it’s filled with taxidermy. I think it’s esoteric. I don’t think everyone likes it. But, it is alive and well.
Will viewers get to learn about Norma’s backstory and what has made her the way she is?
EHRIN: Yeah, that’s part of the storytelling, definitely. What makes a woman like Norma Bates? How does that happen? You’ll find out, in bits and pieces.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing this show?
EHRIN: Everybody is crazy. They’re exhausting! Sometimes at the end of writing one of them, because you live through it while you’re writing it, I’m so exhausted. I remember when we were doing the last few episodes, I kept texting Carlton going, “These people are all crazy!”
CUSE: But when you’re in it, they don’t really feel crazy. You have to be able to get inside the heads of the characters and completely sympathize and understand them, on their journeys. We so wanted to write the scripts and be with the characters. We didn’t want the audience to be looking down at the characters pathologically and saying, “Oh, that person is damaged.” You wanted to write the scripts, so that the audience was always with the characters.
EHRIN: That’s why it’s exhausting!
CUSE: It’s hard to write these kinds of stories and, hopefully, make the audience feel like they’re fully engaged with the characters.
EHRIN: When I say that they’re crazy, I don’t mean that in a judgmental way. I really don’t. They feel things big. They’re passionate. It’s intense. There’s major awesome dysfunction.
What were you looking for, in directors for this show?
CUSE: A filmic quality. We really wanted the show to feel cinematic. That was a hallmark of Hitchcock’s movies. That was another element that we really were consciously borrowing from the movie. Hitchcock was a great storyteller. Tucker Gates, who is our producing director, is fabulously talented. He directed five of the 10 hours, and when he wasn’t directing, he was helping to guide the other directors that came in. When you watch the show, it feels more cinematic than a lot of television shows, and that was an element that we definitely wanted.
EHRIN: Also, because the subject is so dark and sad, we really wanted it to actually look gorgeous and have a beauty to it, so that it wasn’t just relentlessly dark.
CUSE: There’s also a humor, too. There are other serial killer shows that are really straight. The Following and Hannibal are really well made, but the tone is very consistently dark. We don’t ever really think that we’re writing a show about a serial killer. We’re writing a show about a family.
What is your ideal plan for how long this show will run?
CUSE: It is not an infinite length show. It is definitely a show with a beginning, middle and end. This season will answer that question for us. We need to get a little deeper into our storytelling to figure out exactly how long we need to tell our whole story, so I’m dodging the question.
Bates Motel airs on Monday nights on A&E.