'Bates Motel' producers Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin on bringing 'Psycho' into the present
How will the A&E drama about young Norman Bates work on a weekly basis?
Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin both have experiencing handling material created by others. Cuse became co-showrunner on “Lost” midway through the series’ first season after it had been created by J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof, and Ehrin was one of the original staff writers on “Friday Night Lights,” which had been adapted from the movie (and before that from the non-fiction book). But neither has been given control of a property quite as famous as the one they have in “Bates Motel,” the new A&E drama that debuts on Monday night at 10.
Though Cuse has stressed that “Bates Motel” is not a direct prequel to “Psycho” — it takes place in the present, and the writers aren’t married to the idea of taking the characters down the same path we see in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic — it still involves the teenage years of Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and his disturbingly close relationship with his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga).
At press tour in January, I spoke with Cuse and Ehrin about the challenges of working with one of the most notorious killers in screen history, how they see the Bates family’s story working as a weekly series, and more.
How did you get attached to this?
Carlton Cuse: Yeah, what happened was is that Universal came to me and said, “Hey would you be interested in rebooting the ‘Psycho’ franchise?” And they had already set it up at A&E. And so Universal came to me and I was both sort of terrified and intrigued by the idea of doing this. Because obviously, there’s a lot of ways you can go wrong. It was like transporting dynamite. What’s that the movie in South America where they’re transporting…
Carlton Cuse: “Sorcerer,” yeah. Which was a remake of some other older movie but it was like that’s how I kind of felt like oh my God this thing could blow up at any minute. But on the other hand I kept thinking about it and I just, and particularly this idea of like doing it as a contemporary prequel just really kind of got inside my brain. It was like oh that kind of liberates us from the constraints of having to be super, have a super fidelity to the genre and to the movie and like that didn’t seem as interesting. I mean certain things that ran through my brain like, “Oh Quentin Tarantino killed Hitler in a movie theater.” Like that shows you how you can ignore mythology. Actually not even mythology, facts. You can ignore fact. So if you can ignore fact, we can ignore certain elements of the Hitchcock mythology.
Anyway so I came up with some ideas. I pitched them to Universal and to A&E. They really like them. They basically said, “Let's go forward with this.” And then Universal introduced me to Kerry. And then we sat down I said, “Well here’s kind of what I’m thinking” and then Kerry said, “Well here’s some ideas I have.“ And I’m like, “Oh those are all really cool.” And it just kind of completely meshed like we had, we just found that we had a really similar aesthetic. And it was really based on trying to find a way to take these characters but tell our own story. And like it was kind of a backdoor way sneakily doing a tragedy. Like if you went out and tried to pitch, oh there’s this mom and her son and they have this really close relationship that’s almost insestual and eventually he’s gonna become a serial killer and she’s gonna end up dead and stuffed. We wouldn’t sell that. That wouldn’t sale.
So the idea was well if we do this under the moniker of the Psycho franchise we can tell that story. And that that’s a really interesting arch as writers to explore.
What are each of your memories of the first time you saw “Psycho”?
Kerry Ehrin: The first time I saw it? I honestly don’t remember. I don’t remember when the first time I saw it was. But the last time I saw it was right before I agreed, you know, to kind of like put my toe in this water. And I was actually was really impressed by the script.And I read the script too. And, you know, it definitely holds up. I was moved by Norman Bates’ character. By how likeable he was. By how much I wanted to protect him. By how bad I felt for him that he didn’t know that he was doing these things, you know. That he thought he was under the power of his mother. And I thought the ending of the movie where the doctor comes out and explains everything was a little silly. And that what’s like my major disappointment. I was like, “Really?”
Carlton Cuse: I remember just the shock of the main character getting killed at the end of the first act of the movie. You think that this is a movie about Marion Crane and she freaking dies at the end of the first act, and she’s stabbed and it was like literally horrifying to me. And I was like, “Wow that is incredible.”
Kerry Ehrin: And you transferred your sympathies like that, which is so weird.
Carlton Cuse: And when we sat down and we started talking about it, there were a couple of things. I feel like I under answered the question in the panel about Hitchcockian influences. Because there definitely were some. One of which was the idea of the sympathy thing that Kerry just mentioned: you kind of fall in love with Norman. And then when Arbogast shows up in the movie, you’re going, “Oh don’t blow it, don’t fuck it up. Don’t say the wrong thing.”
Kerry Ehrin: Yeah, you totally feel bad for him.
When I watched the pilot, it’s not until the scene at the bus stop where I said, “Oh, this is present-day” because the wardrobe and the furnishings and the old home and everything are very ‘50s, ‘60s and he’s even watching a Cary Grant movie in the first scene. Was that by design? You wanted to rope people into the idea that this was the “Psycho” period?
Kerry Ehrin: It sort of was. I mean, yes.
Carlton Cuse: I think what happened was that there was this idea of timelessness that we thought of that conceptually as storytellers. And then when we wrote the script, Tucker Gates, who came on board as director, really responded to that. And he’s like, “Let’s play with that at the beginning of the show. Let’s really do that.” And we just embraced this idea and Tucker was really locked into it on script that we would make the house and motel feel timeless. So when our characters are in that world, it’s almost like it could exist in…
Kerry Ehrin: It’s classical.
Carlton Cuse: …in any kind of period. And then juxtaposed to that would be this town where there would be this sort of stark modernity, both of the place but also of the characters, the attitudes, the morals. So you take these two people who are sort of out of time and then periodically they enter this very modern world. And it was something that we instinctually latched onto.
Kerry Ehrin: But it’s also really interesting that the timelessness exists when you’re with Norman and Norma.It’s almost like that’s an altered reality when those two are together, you know? When we first started trying to figure out who they are, we knew what the stories were, but on paper what do they sound like? What’s their interaction like? And we talked about doing banter, almost like William Powell and Myrna Loy (in “The Thin Man”). And I don’t know why it felt right for them, but it just did. So there was just something about the story that felt right.
Carlton Cuse: We thought, “Well, what’s the most predictable explanation for Norma and Norman’s relationship?” Because you don’t know her in the movie, and she just seems like a shrew. She just berates him into becoming crazy. And we’re like, “That’s not interesting.” What’s really interesting is the opposite. That she loves him into being crazy. Her obsessive connectiveness to him is actually…
Kerry Ehrin: Her inability to let him leave.
Carlton Cuse: Yeah, it’s kind of like she think she’s doing the right thing, but in fact weirdly she’s catalyzing a series of events that are gonna have a tragic ending.
But how does the setting – it’s taking place in a modern world with modern popular culture and modern technology and Googling and serial killer movies and all that —affect, if at all, what's going on with Norman or what's going on with the kids around him as all the violence is happening in this town?
Kerry Ehrin: I think he’s in a way even more of an outsider. Because I think that the stuff that we used to keep hidden in the ‘50s is so much more out there now. And I think that he is sort of the innocent in the world now. You know what I mean? Because the world is so much harsher than him, in a way. Because his point of view of himself — he doesn’t know that he’s bad, you know what I mean?
Carlton Cuse: And also, the world is very fast and promiscuous, and he’s not. There’s this weirdly old-fashioned quality to his relationship with his mother that’s out of time. So when he’s finds himself in this world, it’s a little bit overwhelming. It’s like when he goes to that party, he’s never seen anything like that before. And he’s intrigued by it because it all sort of novel. It's a little bit like somebody coming from an Amish community and going to New York. He’s lived a very cloistered and isolated life because almost all of his time and attention has been focused on his relationship with his mom.
Kerry Ehrin: And it’s weirdly satisfying. It’s like there’s something about the two of them that is really good together — which is also messed up for a teenage boy, you know? None of that’s gonna be good.
Freddie definitely has an Anthony Perkins kind of quality and physicality. Were you specifically looking for somebody who would invoke Perkins?
Kerry Ehrin: No, not at all.
Okay, so how did you wind up with him?
Carlton Cuse: He was just a lucky stroke of fate. April Webster, our casting director, almost instantly said, “I think Freddie Highmore will be perfect.” And we got on a Skype call with him. And we chatted for 20 minutes with him in London. And we’re like, “Wow he’s fantastic.” But we thought, ‘Well, it can’t really be this easy.’ And so then we looked at a million actors, none of whom held a candle to him. And that, he became our guy. I mean it was actually difficult because he was in school. He's going to Cambridge University. We had to agree to a contract, which let him out for a window of time to finish his college education. And all those things were enormously difficult to accomplish. But it was because he was so that guy — couldn’t find anybody who was even close to him.
Now, “Briscoe County” had a structure to its episodes. “Nash Bridges” had a structure to its episode. Even by the time you came to “Lost,” Damon (Lindelof) had set up a structure: “This is how an episode of ‘Lost’ works.”
How did you figure that out for “Bates”?
Carlton Cuse: My experience in television is that in the case of all the shows, it’s a process of discovery. You start working on it and then you figure it out. I think that there is a structure to these episodes. It’s serialized storytelling like “Breaking Bad” or “Homeland.” And there are some ongoing mysteries, but there are specific stories in each episode. It really revolved around this central relationship of Norma/Norman. And that became for us the narrative starting point, and then it becomes a triangle when (Norman’s half-brother) Dylan comes back. He shows up in their town, and it upends this nice dynamic between Norma and Norman. And he's this great window for us as an audience into that relationship. That triangle relationship became kind of the cornerstone of our narrative storytelling.
Kerry Ehrin: It is at its heart a family story. It really is. Which is a weird thing but it’s a little similar to the type of storytelling that we did on “Friday Night Lights,” you know? Where you literally, it’s like you are just making a story out of character stuff.
True but on “Friday Night Lights,” you at least had the shape of the football team.
Kerry Ehrin: Yeah, but it’s not like we did a game a week. Believe me, I remember being in the writers room, and we’re like, “What the fuck are we doing on the show?” I was like, “We can’t have a football game every week ‘cause it’s gonna get really boring.” But it really is just like crafting these character stories out of it. And then you have the wonderful framework of the suspense, you know? But I wouldn’t say it’s dictated by the suspense. The through-line was the character stories.
You said something before about how when you re-watched “Psycho,” you were surprised by how sympathetic you felt towards Norman. Here you have this show. It’s based on a 53-year-old movie, but one of the most famous movies ever made. So you have to assume people are gonna come into it knowing something of what Norman becomes, even if all they really know is the image of him in the shower. And you have Norma behaving the way she does. And at this point Norman is sweet and innocent. How do you expect the audience to react to that relationship in the way she treats him with whatever knowledge they have coming in of adult Norman?
Kerry Ehrin: I would hope they would react by fascination. By going, “How does this become that? What is the road where you get from this woman showing her son this motel, to her being stuffed in the window?”
Carlton Cuse: Yeah, I mean that’s exactly it.
Kerry Ehrin: That to me is fascinating, you know. I want to know how that happened.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com