'Bates Motel's' Carlton Cuse, Kerry Ehrin on the 'Psycho' Appeal, Lessons From 'Lost,' 'FNL'
The showrunners talk with THR about bringing Alfred Hitchcock's characters back to life, having A&E's full support and the weekly cliffhangers featured in the freshman series.
For his return to television, Carlton Cuse is going from the mysterious island on ABC's Lost to telling the story of Norman Bates' formative years in A&E's take on Psycho, where he'll team with Friday Night Lights' Kerry Ehrin to explore the young boy's relationship with his famed mother, Norma.
In Cuse and Ehrin's take, Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) stars as Norma, who moves her son Norman (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory's Freddie Highmore) to a new town to start over and launch a new business: the Bates Motel. Despite a fresh start, trouble seems to follow them to their new home, where bodies mysterious turn up burned and town operates by a set of its own rules. Further complicating Norma's efforts, Norman attempts to create a life of his own with a new set of high school friends and his half-brother Dylan (Kit Kittredge's Max Thieriot)returns home, bringing with him his disdain for their mother.
The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Cuse and Ehrin to discuss the appeal of taking on such an iconic property, lessons learned from Lost and Friday Night Lights and their plans to pay homage to Hitchcock.
The Hollywood Reporter: What drew you to do Bates?
Carlton Cuse:As an artist, when an idea gets under my skin, they just do. When [producer] Universal approached me and said, 'Would you consider rebooting the Psycho franchise?' I started thinking about it and getting more and more ideas. This idea of doing it as a contemporary prequel was really was engaging. I kept thinking about it and that's usually my testament. I've been getting a ton of ideas since Lost; most of the time, I don't end up thinking about them. But this one, I did. I came up with a bunch of ideas and pitched them to Universal and A&E and everyone was really excited about moving forward with it. Then Universal put Kerry and I together, and we sat down and started from scratch. Our ideas lined up incredibly well. We have slightly different skill sets and different backgrounds as writers. This show has elements of Lost and Friday Night Lights in it; it meshes in a really interesting fashion with an element of Twin Peaks, which we're both inspired by.
THR: It has that family dynamic that is prevalent in FNL.
Kerry Ehrin: Yes. When I was first told about the idea, I started thinking about the mother-son relationship and what that was about. Was there anything that was beautiful? Was it good and functional? The idea of telling a tragedy took hold and became its own thing.
THR: You also gave Norman an older brother.
Cuse: Norman's half-brother a new character to the mythology who for us was a window into this intense, mother-son relationship. What better way to observe it than through the third party of this other brother who is kind of an outsider.
Ehrin: I wanted to tell more of his story and the functional history of this family, which is pretty interesting.
THR: Was there anything that was off limits to you both?
Cuse: The idea of doing an homage -- neither one of us wanted to feel like we had to lock into the cannon of the previous Psycho movies. We wanted to take these characters and come up with our own mythology about how they were connected to each other; what was going to make Norman the guy he was going to become. Immediately we both thought, We're not going to slavishly owe ourselves to the preexisting mythology. That was liberating. There's this expectation that: Norman was berated by his mother into becoming crazy and that wasn't interesting to us. What was much more interesting was creating this positive, loving, 1940s movie kind of relationship for these two.
Ehrin: We also did not want to do a body of the week show. There was something really good about Norma and Norman together, but it was too close; it was too inappropriate for a mother and a son. In another universe, they could have dated.
THR: You definitely sense a hint of incest in the promos. Was that something off-limits?
Ehrin: It's very subliminal. It goes back to the idea of why that became a famous branch of psychology, because it exists in everyone. I'm going back to that and playing it in subtle ways. It's much more interesting and, in a way, it's creepier. If it's over the top, it's gross. Who wants to look at that?
THR: Will you be paying homage to Hitchcock at all?
Cuse: There will definitely be some little Easter eggs.
Ehrin: They're probably more obscure things than big things. The rocking chair would be more of a big one. Finding ones that are smaller would be fun for people who really love the movie.
Cuse: What we don't want to do is have people get thrown out of the storytelling and go, "Oh, there's an homage to Hitchcock."
Ehrin: Then you're telling them that it's fake. You're like, "Oh, this existed in a movie, and is fake." It's really important to us for it to feel real.
THR: This isn't the first attempt at a Psycho prequel. Did you look at NBC's attempt?
Cuse: I didn't; I looked at the original, at the second Psycho and a few minutes of Psycho III. At a certain point, I thought it wasn't that relevant to what we were doing; we didn't want it to affect our storytelling. We took a lot inspiration from the original movie. For instance, the lengthy sequence of cleaning up and disposing of the body -- the almost, real-time quality of that -- was very Hitchcock-inspired. The general movements of our show parallel the original Psycho. There's a murder, a cover up of a murder and people investigating the murder. Those are beats that exist in the original movie and in our story. Beyond those big touchstone moments, we felt that working under the title of Bates Motel with these characters gave us this opportunity to tell the story of these two tragic and flawed characters. If you went in and pitched it as its own original thing, I don't think anyone would ever buy it.
THR: Bates is the established franchise (NBC's Hannibal, ABC's Once Upon a Time to a certain extent) to get the TV treatment. What's so appealing about revisiting these franchises?
Ehrin: It's a trend to dissect fairytales and tell different versions of them, like Wicked. When you have a fabulous, iconic story, it's fun to take it apart and look at it from different points of view. It has a built-in interest because people know this subject is interesting. I don't know why more of them are happening. Bates is like our version of Wicked -- because it's telling the story of Norma Bates who didn't exist in Psycho.
THR: And there's been a Wicked feature film in the works for some time. Would you tackle that?
Ehrin: It's very personal to me. When I was growing up, I wanted to write a novel told from the point of view of the wicked stepsisters and now I wonder why I didn't do that. It's a good story; it's fun to take it apart and play with it.
THR: We've screened the first few episodes and each with a big cliffhanger. Intentional?
Cuse: We want the audience to be hooked at the end, to be aching to come back and see next week's episode. We want this to be like the serialized shows that we like to watch. It's always incredibly frustrating when you get to the end of an episode of Mad Men or Homeland or Breaking Bad, and you're like, "That's it? I have to wait until next week to find out what happens?" We want to create that feel for the audience. We want some really exciting cliffhangers and twists and turns along the way. I believe we deliver on that promise.
THR: There's the story of mother and son as well as a season-long mystery. Are you afraid of overwhelming the audience in any way?
Cuse: I don't think so because they're all intertwined. Ultimately, when you watch the show, they're all part of the same larger story: Norman's journey to become the guy we know from the movie. All these instances happen along the way but they're all a part of that story. There's a story that is told in season one that comes to a close and there are things that will hopefully compel you to want to see a season second of the show, too.
THR: Have you mapped out season two?
Cuse: We have a general idea of where we want to go, but it's too early for us to say how many seasons the show can last.
Ehrin: You have to feel that out a little bit.
THR: We're in an era of accelerated story telling -- The Walking Dead, Homeland, American Horror Story, etc. -- as well as more slow-moving dramas like Breaking Bad. Where do you guys live?
Cuse: We're between Breaking Bad and Homeland. It's not as sensationalistic as American Horror Story. American Horror Story is much more narratively driven than our show. Bates unfolds in a nuanced-character-oriented way. There are big moments at the end of the episodes that will be surprising and compelling viewers.
THR: What boundaries has A&E given you? Is there anything you can't do?
Ehrin: I think our show could have worked on broadcast; our natural sensibility, anyway. We're not really interested in seeing frontal nudity.
Cuse: Speak for yourself! (Laughs.)
Ehrin: For this particular show, it behooved us to not be too explicit; there's almost a refinement to it.
Cuse: It was the first time either of us had done a cable show. It does feel like it has a broader appeal than some cable shows. It could have worked on broadcast. We've been given an enormous amount of latitude from A&E, and have gotten very few notes. They've really allowed us to do pretty much everything we've wanted. They haven't placed any content restrictions on us. We're making the version of the show that we want to make. But obviously you can't drop F-bombs on basic cable.
Ehrin: That's the only thing I'd like to do, that we can't.
Cuse: There are certain language restrictions on basic cable but other than that, there's nothing else that would exist in the show that would be different.
THR: Carlton, what lessons from Lost did you bring into Bates?
Cuse: The type of storytelling in Lost -- you think things are going one way and then realize something else is happening -- it's a really good amalgam of our specific talents. Kerry writes beautifully nuanced characters, and I have experience twisting things up and creating surprises in the narrative.
Ehrin: When he throws stuff out in the room that's crazy -- I can't say what it is because it's all stuff I can't give away -- but it's really fun for me because it becomes like puzzle of trying to make it work.
THR: Kerry, what did you take from Friday Night Lights?
Ehrin: Telling the truth about real people: Try to stick with the story that's about the truth and don't fake it into something else.
Bates Motel premieres Monday, March 18 at 10 p.m. on A&E. Will you watch? Hit the comments below with your thoughts.