Audiences will get their chance to check into A&E’s “Bates Motel” when the “Psycho”-prequel series debuts March 18, but the network unveiled a sneak preview at the TCA Winter Press Tour. And a clear recurring theme emerged from a panel discussion with the cast and crew: forget (most of) what you think you know.
“We did not want to do a homage to ‘Psycho,'” executive producer Carlton Cuse (“Lost”) explains. “We wanted to take the characters and setting as inspiration. The mythology that you think dictates the relationship between Norma and Norman is not neccessairly what will [happen]. You’ll be surprised.”
In fact, even though “Bates Motel” is a prequel exploring the younger days of “Psycho” killer Norman Bates and his beloved mother Norma, it’s actually set in contemporary times and not in the decade before 1960’s classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller.
“The idea of doing a contemporary prequel made it clear we were doing something inspired by ‘Psycho,'” Cuse says. “How does Norman become the guy that he was in that movie? That’s a fascinating idea to us. We want the audience to fall in love with these characters. The tension of knowing what their fate is and seeing how they get there is something that was very compelling.”
For Oscar nominated star Vera Farmiga, who plays Norma, that meant getting the opportunity to flesh out a classic character with very little baggage attached. “We don’t know much about Norma Bates,” Farmiga says. “We only know her through Norman’s psyche. I got into this wanting to defend who that woman was. I was sent [scripts for] the first three episodes. She was such a beautiful portrait of valiant maternity to me — a real head-turner. The story read to me and still reads to me as a beautiful love letter between a mother and her son.”
And for Freddie Highmore, who takes on the iconic role of Norman memorably played by Anthony Perkins in Hitchcock’s film, the excitement came from imagining the origins of one of cinema’s greatest bad guys. “For me the interesting idea was people being able to identify with Norman from the start,” Highmore says. “We all know where he’s going to end up, but is that because of his upbringing? Was he always going to become the person he’d become or was it because they moved to this weird dodgy town? If I was brought up like Norman, would I be different?” Then, in a nod to Hitch, Highmore deadpans: “You know, we all go a little mad sometimes.”
With “Bates” taking some cues from “Psycho” but forging an identity of its own, are there any plans to add an otherworldly element to the history of Norman Bates? Especially with Cuse’s background on the sci-fi leaning “Lost”?
“[There will be] no polar bears, no smoke monsters, for sure,” Cuse clarifies. “Time travel? We’ll see…,” he jokes. But seriously: “There’s no supernatural elements in play. We view this as a psychological thriller, a very character-based type of story.”
“Bates” will have one thing in common with “Lost,” however. “It’s very serialized,” Cuse says of the show’s approach to storytelling. “It’s a story that takes ten episodes to unfold and hopefully carries us into next season.”
And before you ask: No, they don’t “know” the ending in advance, but there are no plans to introduce mysteries that won’t be solved. “I think there’s a story here that has a beginning, middle and end,” Cuse says. “I can’t tell you how long our story’s gonna last. That’s part of the discovery process of the show.”