A&E's "Bates Motel," from executive producers Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin, premieres at 10 p.m. ET on March 18, and prospective viewers would be forgiven for wondering how anyone can pull off a present-day prequel to Alfred Hitchcock's seminal 1960 film, "Psycho." (Read HuffPost TV critic Maureen Ryan's review here.)
Cuse and Ehrin admitted that it was a daunting task, but the veteran producers of two of TV's most influential and critically acclaimed series ("Lost" and "Friday Night Lights, respectively) felt that they were up to the challenge, especially after securing stars Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore as Norma and Norman Bates respectively, the dysfunctional mother/son relationship at the heart of the show.
HuffPost TV sat down with Cuse and Ehrin in January to discuss the development of the high-profile prequel and the attraction of adapting one of cinema's most twisted relationships for the small screen.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the series is the fact that it's set in the present day. Why did you choose to avoid a period setting?
Cuse: I think essentially because it liberated us as storytellers in that, the moment you do a period, I think you feel the weight of the movie and you feel there's a much stronger necessity to have the show conform to all the specific canon of the original movie. The moment that we made it contemporary, I think all bets are off. We felt like that gave us the room, liberated us to take these characters wherever we wanted to take them. I mean, yes, on a path that's leading to a tragic end, but a path and on a journey that we were going to create as storytellers, not that was going to be dictated to us by any of the previous iterations of the "Psycho" franchise.
Through that process, did you discover anything that works better in the modern era than it perhaps would've in a period setting? Some aspect that you weren't expecting to be as evocative as it ended up being?
Ehrin: I would say the thing that works the best to me is putting Norman Bates in a modern society, because I think the morays of sex and everything in the movie were so different, and so much a part of that movie and a part of the character and who he was. And I feel like taking that character and putting him into a post-"Sex in the City" world is kind of fascinating.
I was surprised that, at least in the pilot, he was such a ladies' man.
Cuse: Well, I think we've all seen the nerdy, isolated outsider who the bitchy girls taunt. We've seen that endlessly, and we just felt, what's interesting about that? And Freddie was such a ladies' man as a person that we had to play into that as show creators.
Can you talk a little bit about the process of casting Freddie and Vera, since the show wholly hinges on the dynamic between them?
Cuse: Right from the very beginning, one of the things that I do as a writer is I put in my head the image of an actor that I think would be the prototype for the character, and right from the start for me, that was Vera Farmiga ... never expecting in a million years that I would actually get Vera Farmiga and lo and behold ... Kerry and I wrote the first three scripts, and I was like, “We should send them to Vera,” and there was very much this expectation that it was a necessary thing to do to have the door officially closed before we moved on. And instead, she completely responded. It was literally the greatest thing ever.
Ehrin: It was. It was just so nice that she connected with the material so much that she embraced it. That she loved it. That's just a nice thing.
Cuse: That she got what we were trying to do and wasn't afraid, which, we were both afraid of the consequences of taking on "Psycho." I mean, it's a high-degree of difficulty dive where you can easily belly flop. And I think she wasn't afraid of that. I think a lot of actresses just on the surface would just say "Bates Motel?" "Psycho?" "No thank you, I pass," but she really made her decision based on the material and sort of took the leap of faith with us and that was just a huge thing. And April Webster, our main casting director, right from the get-go suggested Freddie and put us on a Skype call with him in London, and Kerry and I were utterly charmed by him.
Ehrin: We talked to him for like 15 minutes.
Cuse: I was like, "Well, he'd be fantastic." But then we thought, "Well, it can't be that easy," and so we looked at literally hundreds of other actors, none of whom held a candle to him, and so it was really kind of remarkable that we got our first two choices.
Ehrin: And that it happened so quickly.
Cuse: And it's almost inconceivable to us how we could do the show without them.
The seeds of their dysfunctional, codependent relationship are already sown in the premiere, but can you describe how you see their bond evolving, in broad strokes?
Ehrin: I mean, like all dysfunctional relationships there's a lot of ... What's it called, thrust and parry? There's a lot of you do this and they do that in response.
Cuse: Not that much thrusting. [Laughs.]
Ehrin: It's just that dance. It's the evolution of him understanding who he is, which will take some time. That's not going to happen instantly. And it's the evolution of her understanding who her son is. And it's the evolution of understanding dark things about him.
It was also great to see Nestor Carbonell (Sheriff Romero), who you obviously had an existing relationship with thanks to "Lost," Carlton. Was he who you had in mind from the outset too?
Ehrin: Yeah, that was the same thing. We were in the room and we were just talking about this character, and he was like, "You know who'd be great for this?"
Cuse: "Nestor Carbonell."
Ehrin: And that's just who it was from that point on.
Cuse: And this was really at the conception, we wanted to have this sort of mysterious, enigmatic sheriff. Right from the get-go [we decided] the town would be a character in the show. This place that she lives was very different than what she thought. That it seemed beautiful and eucholic on the surface, but it was this actually, this very dark place full of a lot of secrets, and that town needed a central character and that was going to be the sheriff character. And instantly, right from that conception moment, I was like, "Oh, it should be Nestor Carbonell." And we got him. I mean, it was just fantastic.
Ehrin: He's so good and so much fun and so much fun to write for.
Do you have the endgame already planned out, or are you leaving room for yourselves to figure it out down the line?
Cuse: Not fully planned out. I mean, I think we know inevitably that there is a tragic ending to the story and we have some general ideas, but the specifics of how it actually goes down will continue to evolve as we write episodes and as we create more of the world of the show, and that's as it should be. But kind of like "Hamlet" -- not going to end well, but still powerful. I mean, I think that's what's really interesting is that you're kind of hoping against hope that these characters aren't going to meet their inevitable fate, but that fate is inevitable.
Some fairly dark, disturbing things happen in the premiere. Is that indicative of the show's tone going forward?
Ehrin: I think there're elements of darkness in every episode, but it’s different. It's not like where you have to hit that level every episode or go darker.
Cuse: There's a lot of humor in some of the upcoming episodes. Actually, there're some really funny things that happen ... There's probably moments that are as dark as the pilot, but there are also humorous moments to balance that out.
Ehrin: And actually kind of sweet. I mean, their relationship, although it is dark and creepy, it's also very sweet. They genuinely love each other. And the brother relationship is very poignant. When you see him enter their life and what he is longing to have from his family. There's a lot of that in it.
Right -- I was curious about Norman's brother, Dylan (Max Thieriot) and what his role will be in the series after the first episode.
Cuse: I felt bad for poor Max because you hear his voice for like four lines in the pilot. He's got a great role. I mean, we saw the brother character as this window into the Norma/Norman relationship, that he was the more normal brother, but also the outsider. Never going to crack the bond of those two characters. But he's also kind of a badass and he gets himself involved with some nefarious characters in this town, and so the combination of all that really added a lot to the cocktail of the show for us.
Ehrin: And also the point of view of someone who's more of a regular guy.
Norman is this very dark, very iconic chracter, who is also very tragic in many ways. Obviously you don't want to lose the audience's sympathy by making him too dark too soon, so how are you finding that balancing act of foreshadowing what's to come while still making him a relatable focal point?
Ehrin: I mean, the thing I loved about the movie that [convinced me] I wanted to do this instead of running away from it is that he is so likeable in the movie and he doesn't know what he's doing. He's not consciously going out and going “I'm going to torture people.” He's so much a victim of his own brain. Of course it's horrible. The crime is horrible, but at the same time, you can't help but to have sympathy for someone who doesn't know they're doing it. So telling that story was so heartbreaking, but fascinating.
And Norma is a very emotionally manipulative character ...
Ehrin: Yes. And she doesn't know she's doing it either, which I also love. That's the thing; I mean, I grew up in a house like that: No one knows what they're doing, they just do it. You can go to therapy later and figure out what everyone was doing.
Is Vera enjoying that aspect of it? She has a lot of layers but it seems like she's also not afraid to make Norma unlikable.
Ehrin: Oh my God, yeah. She describes the show as like a playground. She's has such a great attitude and work ethic.
Cuse: Yeah, her unpredictability is a really compelling element ... It seems like a weird analogy, but I think like Tony Soprano in "The Sopranos," you're never quite sure what Tony was going to do in a given situation, and that was what made him so watchable. I feel like Vera brings that same energy to Norma Bates. She's in these situations and you never can be quite sure how she's going to react and where she's going to go and that's really compelling. And all of her choices are so authentic. I mean, she's so talented. She's just amazing.
Ehrin: And this stuff that you honestly would be terrified to give to a lot of people, she just always makes it great. She always makes it so real.
Norman is very much defined by the women in his life, and not just Norma -- in the premiere, we're introduced to popular girl Bradley (Nicola Peltz) and Emma (Olivia Cooke) who has cystic fibrosis, so can you expand on how his relationships with those two girls will shape him in addition to his bond with his mother?
Cuse: Well, I think that part of what we're seeing unfold is, we're trying to get this picture of Norman's pathology and it's informed by ... He's a 17-year-old kid who's having his first encounters with sexuality. Obviously, he and Bradley get a little bit more involved and I think there is kind of a triangle between him and Bradley and Emma and it grows in intensity as the season progresses. Obsessiveness is one of his personality traits and I think it's going to be very compelling for us to see ... We'll both be intrigued and also, I think, a little bit uncomfortable about where his relationship is going to go with these two girls. But they're both phenomenal actors.
"Bates Motel" premieres Monday, March 18 at 10 p.m. ET on A&E.
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