'Bates Motel' Director Talks Reinventing Hitchcock's Famous 'Psycho' Shower Scene

Phil Abraham discusses working with 'Bates Motel' superfan Rihanna and his high-wire inversion of Hitchcock's most famous scene.
Cate Cameron/A&E Networks LLC
Freddie Highmore of 'Bates Motel'

[This interview/article contains spoilers for the Monday's episode of Bates Motel, "Marion."]

These are the moments that fans of A&E's Bates Motel have been waiting more than four seasons for. 

Last week's episode culminated in Marion Crane (Rihanna) reaching the Bates Motel in need of refuge from the rain. That was a pretty good start. 

In Monday's episode, she checked in at Bates Motel, introduced herself to one Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and, having spent a rough afternoon on the road, she decided to take a shower. 

Expect fans of the show to go a little Psycho, because not everything in the episode went exactly according to the Hitchcock blueprint, as viewers were treated to two shower scenes, the other featuring Austin Nichols' Sam Loomis. 

The man in charge of flipping the script and teasing audience expectations was director Phil Abraham, once an Emmy-winning cinematographer, and now the helmer responsible for the epic one-shot Daredevil hallway fight, classic Mad Men episodes including "The Other Woman" and two previous Bates Motel installments.

On the eve of production on the NatGeo military miniseries The Long Road Home, which he's executive producing and directing five of eight installments, Abraham spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the high-wire act of reproducing Hitchcock, the enthusiasm of Bates Motel superfan Rihanna and the detail this critic thought was a cliff-hanger, but really isn't. (Read THR's interview with co-showrunners Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin about the episode here.)

The full Q&A...

It's a pretty fun, high-wire act that you're performing in this episode. Does an experience like this gave you new appreciation for Gus Van Sant's Psycho experiment?

Sure. To sort of break down what Hitchcock did by-the-numbers is really a very interesting exercise, especially as you're executing them. You're right about the high-wire act, because you're dealing with a piece of cinema history here and that shower scene is a scene that is ingrained in almost any filmgoer's psyche, so playing with it and copying it and referencing it is a high-wire act. It's very tricky. Of course we had our own twist on it, which I think wasn't a real shock, but we played with it a little. I grabbed frames and stills from Hitchcock from that scene that I thought I would use and then there are other things that we did our own version of, but it was a lot of fun, actually. It was an endless amount of fun.

You'd worked on Bates before, so you knew the drill, but what's your reaction when you're given this opportunity and you see you're directing not one, but two Psycho shower scenes?

I loved it! Are you kidding? It was the plum assignment of the year for me. It really was and I was very grateful to Carlton and Kerry for even having me on this episode. It was great fun and it's also nerve-wracking, because you're thinking, "How am I going to do this and what am I going to do?" I didn't want to just copy it, but yet it's such a specific piece of celluloid history that you've got to be very careful with it. You've got to honor it and you've got to deviate from it and it's got to be specific. People are priming themselves. The minute they see and hear about a character named Marion Crane and she's checking into the hotel and everyone is saying, "OK, here we go!" It's really a very purposeful thing for Bates to lean as heavily into that storyline as they did, it being a prequel of sorts. We finally are catching up to where the movie was and then to deviate from it again, beyond it, so it's an interesting thing that the show did in terms of having its identity with Psycho and yet a separate identity as well.

And that, of course, makes it a total inversion of the original Psycho shower scene, which was designed so that the audience had absolutely no way of anticipating it.

Absolutely. It's completely the inversion of it, because you just know. The minute she checks into the room, we're using similar set-ups and you know what's coming. I think the "surprise" is that it's not Marion who meets her end, but nonetheless, you're building up to that.

Instead, that first shower scene plays almost as a joke. You're building to a laugh line or a punchline, rather than to horror and a murder. How does that factor into the construction?

I think to have murdered her would have been, "Then, this pallid imitation of Hitchcock," which I don't think anyone wanted to do. To re-create that with her? That seemed like the wrong idea. So we're playing with expectations and then we're twisting it. While the show intersects with the movie, we're also our own show and we're not the movie and we're playing with those expectations of what the movie was and how the movie went forward. It's much better to do it that way, for me. If they were just saying, "OK, and now Norman comes in and brutally murders Marion in the shower," then I'd be in a quandary like, "Gee, now what do I do?" Because then we're actually re-creating the scene. Instead, we're just re-creating the build-up and we're playing with expectations.

With two shower scenes to work with, was there any math for which shots or moments from the Psycho scene were going to be in the first scene and which you needed to save for the second?

In a way, I kind of wanted to do them the same. When Sam is in the shower at the end, I don't think anyone has any doubt what's going to happen. It's one of those things, again, where we're playing with audience expectations. You toy with them in the first shower. She says, "Screw this," and there's a punchline, but then when Sam gets in the shower and Norman and Norma are having their scene at the reception desk, you know what's coming. It's building to that inevitability. I felt like I didn't really have to tease it anymore. And yet you still want to build some tension and some suspense to it. Having deceived the audience the first time, are we going to toy with them a second time? You are dealing with hot coals a little bit. It's truly a high-wire act. 

Hitchcock was such a master of leading the audience to believe they saw something that they didn't quite see. I felt like, in this day and age, I didn't want to play with that. I actually wanted to see that and for there to be blood splattering on the walls and on the floor and have it be a little bit more gruesome, especially having denied the audience that the first time.

The assumption has always been that Hitchcock was only able to get away with what he got away with there because it was black-and-white, so the blood wasn't as lurid as it would have been in color. What was your approach to the blood spatter, particularly to how you wanted Norman covered in it?

I wanted to splatter it all over everywhere. If Norman has reached a frenzy and a fever pitch with Sam and had a knife the size that he had, which was similar to the knife that Norman had in the movie, there would be blood everywhere, so why shy away from it? Why pretend it's not happening? Honestly, splattering Freddie like that was not something I had initially planned on, but while I was doing it and while I was seeing how much he had worked himself up for this moment, I thought it would be so much stronger to be on him and splatter him with blood in his close-up. That was a lot of fun for me, because I had the paintbrush and the bucket of blood and I was right by the camera going to town on Freddie as he was going to town on Sam. 

We also had this great lens that our camera assistant, Dean [Friss], had procured or had made for him by Panavision, which was a 40mm T1 lens, so it had the most shallow depth of field that's conceivable. Those shots on Freddie have such a narrow plane of focus that it created a little bit of an abstraction even in the photographing of it, which I really loved.

And that then is another inversion. It changes the complicity. In the original, it's the faceless figure stabbing at Marion and we're seeing it mostly from Mother's POV. It's putting us in that position. But here, you're on Freddie's face as much as possible...

That's what the scene is about, completely. In the Hitchcock movie, you're led down the road of believing that the murderer is Norman's mother. We can't do that. Or, in a sense, we could have done that, but I think it was an important thing for the show and for the story that it's Norman-as-Norman murdering, which is a very big moment in the show, for the show. It was really the first time that he had done that. He had always done it in his blackouts as "Norma" and this time there was no blackout.

So instead of "Mother, what have you done?" in the movie, it's "Mother, what have I done?"

Exactly. That's why also it was very important to be right up with him, to splatter him with the blood and make it more visceral and make it more real in that moment, because this is a very complicit moment for Norman.

Speaking of Freddie, did he do his own pupil-acting when he was peeping on Marion in the build-up to the first shower scene?

Absolutely! Freddie's in there all the way. There would be no reason ever to use anyone else but Freddie. Freddie's game for anything, will always be there at any moment for whatever piece you need and wants to be there for everything. Every insert! And we didn't really do that as an insert. We shot that whole hole-in-the-wall set as a little separate set piece and there are parts where you really see all of Freddie's face and then you get in closer to his eye-in-profile and then his eye through the hole and it's great. Freddie's great that way.

Hitchcock famously shot the shower scene over seven days. How long did you get?

(Laughs.) Oh, I hate to tell you. That's the way it goes. First of all, we're a TV show, but then we had Rihanna, for both episodes, only for five days. We had over 38 pages of work to do with her. It was a masterful feat of planning, from [fifth episode director Nestor Carbonell] and myself on how to use and maximize her and all of her scenes and then I think literally the day after she left we finished with Sam in the shower. Truthfully, it was a few hours. It was a few hours with her and few hours with Sam. That's the way it works. Then again, in truth, it was all planned out in advance and also there was the template of the shower scene that we had going for us. There's a benefit to saying, "Well, I'm not creating this from whole cloth, so we kind of know how to do it." That aspect of it was a very solid guideline for it, though there were deviations in shots, but in the spirit of what was done and certain shots we tried to duplicate as best we could.

It's funny, because when I watched it the first time, my first reaction was that it was very, very, very close to the original and then when I was rewatching it, after having watched the Psycho scene, and I was more struck by the ways it was different.

That's the fun of it. You kind of want it to be the same, but it's not quite the same. You know what? It can't be the same. Gus Van Sant would tell you that with his exercise. It can't be the same. We look at things through different lenses. No matter what, you're a product of your time. Even though you might think we're re-creating it to be exactly the same, it's trickier to. It's a psychological, historical thing. You just can't do it. You look at the film and then you try to gauge what lens they were using and then you look at it and the distance from the camera to the subject and all these things and then you see, in fact, that Hitchcock used a much, much, much wider shower for parts of it. She's in the water. She's not in the water. If you really study it closely, there's great width to that space that Janet Leigh's occupying that in a real shower — we shot ours in a real shower — you don't quite have that. You only realize it when you get in the real shower and you go, "This isn't matching up. Why is that? Oh, I get it. I understand." There are things like that that happen.

You had most of Rihanna's meatier moments in your episode. What were your impressions of her and the pleasure she was taking of stepping into the Marion Crane shoes?

First of all, I can tell you that she was such a pro. I loved working with her. Truthfully. She was great. And she's such an undying fan of the show. That was most fun to watch. Walking her through our main set, she was like, "Oh my God!" She was beside herself. Then when she got out to our location and saw the Bates Motel sign and the house on the hill, she was like a superfan. It was a thrill for her. She really, really enjoyed herself. And it was a thrill for me. She was so great. She really was. She delivered. She did a lot of heavy-lifting on the show. Going between the two episodes and doing 38 or 42 pages over five days, that's a big ask for anybody. She was amazing.

The two shower scenes will get all of the hype, of course, but the kitchen scene with Norman and Norma, ending in Norman hugging thin air, is the heart of the episode. How hard was it to get Freddie's haunting lean in that shot just right?

That's the thing about Freddie! He has this instinct for those things. He really does. It was a very deliberate moment, but it didn't take a lot of finesse for Freddie. He kind of fell right into it and just found it. We were aware of what we were going to do, obviously, in the embrace with Vera [Farmiga], so he could get himself into that position. You'll notice that he had his arms to his side and she held him and then, boom, she was gone and he was just in that position. It was a very natural thing for Freddie. The two of them together is obviously at the heart and soul of the show and they never disappoint. It's a joy, as a director, to work with those two. Freddie, he fell into that with as little direction as one could give. Once I decided how I wanted to do it and hit the shots, he knew exactly what we were doing and what we were aiming for and just did it effortless. 

One last question and this will bother me if I don't ask. You say you only had those five days with Rihanna, so this is it for her, presumably. She's off and safe. But after destroying Sam's car she drops her tire iron on the ground and she also discards her phone. Are we not supposed to think these things are going to come back to haunt her somewhere down the road, literally and metaphorically, I guess? 

(Laughs.) So she has no phone and she couldn't change her tire if she gets a flat. 

Right. I'm just saying that in a hypothetical situation, this could cause a problem.

No, in a hypothetical situation you're absolutely right. I hate to disappoint, but it wasn't a premeditated thing. But I'm glad. That's why critics and audiences are so great. You'll find something like that and audiences might latch onto that going, "Hmmm.... What's going to happen to her?"

I heard the tire iron hit the asphalt and I immediately thought, "That's gonna be a problem."

You know what? That was actually production sound. It really was. I totally know what you're saying and I wish I could tell you that I planned that all along. I planned her dropping it, because I wanted her to get out of there quickly and I didn't want her futzing with the tire iron and I didn't want her having to go back to the trunk after she did it. She took the tire iron and she closed the trunk. So she could have either tossed it back into her car when she got in or she could have dropped it and I thought dropping it just felt more badass.

What is also true is that as you immerse yourself as a director, you immerse yourself into the story. You immerse yourself in really deeply. Then you end up making little, uncalculated decisions, just instinctual decisions, that somehow play into the storyline. You really rely on those instincts. So while I say that it wasn't a scripted moment or a deliberate moment to make you think that, nonetheless, I am very involved in the story and instinctually it felt right, even though intellectually I hadn't fleshed it out fully. I love that you have and that's the dance that the audience plays and shares with the filmmaker.

Bates Motel airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on A&E.

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