The tale of how a serial killer became one of the most notorious serial killers in cinematic history is not one that television viewers would normally latch onto. But due to the inherent charisma of the actors and the fascinating characters they have brought to life in A&E’s series BATES MOTEL, viewer cannot help but be entranced on the journey of Norman and Norma Bates and how their intense mother-son relationship molded the serial killer that would one day be terrifyingly brought to life in the film PSYCHO.
In a recent press call, star Freddie Highmore and executive producer Carlton Cuse talked about bringing the life of Norman Bates to television and how they have crafted a special story that audiences cannot help but be captivated by. They also preview where Season 2 will leave the tense story of Norman, his mother Norma and his brother Dylan as their lives intersect at a pivot moment for each.
Were you both fans of the movie PSYCHO? How much has that affected how the series compared to the movie?
CARLTON: I was a huge fan of the movie. I think it’s kind of in the pantheon of nearly perfect movies. So I was actually very afraid about making a show that would sort have fall too heavily in the shadow of that. So right from the get-go when Kerry Ehrin, my partner on the show, and I started working on it – the sort of first and most important decision that we made was to do the show as a contemporary sequel which I think put the show in a different place than the movie. I think if we had done it as a period show it would always be kind of in the oppressive shadow of this amazing master work that Hitchcock made. And for us what we really wanted to do is just take these characters take the idea of it’s like Tom Stoppard took Rosencrantz and Gildenstern and brought them to life from these two minor characters from Shakespeare and gave them their own existence. We took these two major characters from this Hitchcock movie and we sort of just placed them into a different time and gave them their own existence. I think one of the things that’s been really rewarding as the show has gone to a second season is I think people are really beginning to see that BATES MOTEL is really its own thing. It was inspired by the Hitchcock movie, but it’s really an original show taking some elements from the original Hitchcock movie. But our goal is to tell a wholly new story.
FREDDIE: I think I saw it for the first time when I was 14 and then saw it a couple more times before finally doing BATES MOTEL and starting the first season. I haven’t sort have returned to it since. Both Carlton and Kerry were great in making us all feel free to bring our own ideas so to not feel tied at all to this original material, which I think is so key really to the show. I guess there are certain aspects of kind of Anthony Perkins classic performance that people sort of see that or that you might have sort have in some instances sought to replicate, there was never a sense of mimicking him. It was more sort of seeing him in the original film as an inspiration and one of several forms of that.
How much has Alfred Hitchcock’s larger body of work influenced the tone of the show?
CARLTON: Hitchcock is one of my favorite filmmakers and his ability to kind of find suspense in very human moments and kind of connect them to characters. There’s just so many ways in which I’ve been influenced by him in terms of what he does as a filmmaker. I’m just kind of thinking in my mind of working on the show and just thinking about ROPE or VERTIGO or NORTH BY NORTHWEST. He’s just such an amazingly talented filmmaker in terms of his ability to tell these sort of stories that were sort of deeply suspenseful, but also deeply psychological at the same time. And he had this incredible ability to both really put characters in really tense and dynamic perilous situations. But also really get you inside their psyche’s and really get you make you feel just the way in which he connected his characters to the psychological and physical dilemmas of storytelling is something that was a huge influence on me.
Talking about the casting Freddie as Norman Bates, when did you have the idea of him in mind? What was it about Freddie that you knew would make this incredible performance.
CARLTON: I have to give great credit to April Webster, our casting director, who is really a genus at what she does. She put Kerry Ehrin and I on a Skype-call with Freddie very early on and we were just immediately charmed and captivated. We sort of went along with the network and studio and did our due diligence. We read a whole bunch of other actors and it was kind of one of those things where we were just spoiled right at the gate. I mean once we had talked to Freddie and kind of reviewed his work, it was just so clear that he was the guy and no one else even came close. So this is one of those things that I think is always what’s so interesting about television. Whatever your intentions are, however good a script you write, there’s this alchemy that has to occur. Like we had to get lucky enough to find Freddie, to get Freddie to do the show. I can’t imagine the show working or existing or being half as good as any without him. So it’s one of those things that it just happened. It was to our great fortune and I’ll take it.
Freddie, have you felt or come across any challenges in regards to the portrayal of Norman Bates – in making a younger Norman?
FREDDIE: No, I guess in terms of the sort of narrative art, it’s something that Carlton will know more than me. But I’ve never see the sort of individual from my perspective being Norman arising exactly at sort of Anthony Perkins enrollment. So Carlton maybe sort of took from that, but it wasn’t a sort of end goal of mine to kind of end up in the motel actually. He’s actually like Anthony Perkins. But at the same time I guess being on a TV show, one of the sort of rare luxuries that I’ve got is knowing where Norman goes. I imagine because I guess this is my first TV show, but you sort of are slightly uncertain as to where your character is going to go and the terms he needs to make and so there’s that excitement. But from my perspective it’s this constant build towards ultimately Norman going psycho. Whether that’s necessarily there since of the original movie I don’t think so. But there’s certainly that build towards a climatic moment.
Can you talk about your relationship with Vera as an actor? Did you immediately know the chemistry was there when you first started working together?
FREDDIE: Yes, obviously it evolves over time. That’s sort of the joys of being on a TV show — that the relationship I have with the stars is obviously completely sort of different relationships that I have right now with Vera, having growing incredibly close to her and then and her husband and children and spent time at their house. I guess they’ve been sort of my family away from home and thankfully sort of spending evenings over there and sleeping over in their spare bedroom. They’ve just been absolutely wonderful and they’re certainly my very best friends. So I’m just incredibly lucky on a personal level to have met them. As a actress I think there’s just always something special going on — every single take she’s alive and trying something new and I think especially with the TV show because you spend so long hours with each other and you spend so much time shooting different scenes with each other that there could be a tendency to kind of think beforehand, “Oh we know how the scene will go because it’s another scene with Norma and Norman.” I think part of it is due to the quality of the writing in keeping everything different and there’s never been any moment that we thought to be kind of repetitious in any way. Also, Vera in every single tape has a fresh approach. I think you could shoot an entire scene just on Vera because she carries the motions, not only when she’s speaking but when she’s listening in the entire scene. It’s just a joy to work with her.
They just announced that there’s going to be a “Friday the 13th” TV series. What do you think of? Do you think there’s going to be a trend where people are taking older characters and going back to the origins to try to refresh the story for television?
CARLTON: I think it’s I think it’s already it’s happening in some sense. I mean obviously HANNIBAL is a sort of parallel example of another example where I think Bryan Fuller has done a really great job of sort of reinventing that character in a different context. Honestly, as writers, Kerry and I really don’t think too much about what other people are doing, we’re just kind of worried about our own show. I think what distinguishes our show is we’ve tried to make the show very kind of heart-felt and it has a lot of humor and emotion. I think it operates on kind of a level that you don’t expect from a show that’s extensively about a guy who’s a serial killer, and I think that’s one of the things that’s sort of surprising about it. So we just kind of focus on trying to make the best version of our show. Just to go back to your original question, I personally think that the season finale is better because I think it moves the overall narrative a big step forward and I don’t want to spoil that too much. But I think that it’s pretty evident as we’ve moved downstream here that there are these really significant looming questions. One is what is Norman’s ultimate culpability in the murder of Ms. Watson and secondly how aware is Norman of what it is that he’s done or is capable of doing. To us those are really important questions because the character’s self-knowledge is a huge factor in how he moves forward. And we’re going to jump right into the heart of those questions in the finale. It’s really satisfying as a writer to have a chance to take those kinds of questions on and Kerry and I sort of loved writing that stuff. It was just made all the better by how well Freddie executed it. I think the finale is my favorite episode of the season and a lot of that has to do with just how great the performances are by Freddie, Vera and also Max Thieriot.
Can we expect an answer by the end of this season about who killed Ms. Watson? And Freddie, what was the greatest challenge for you of making the audience constantly question back and forth whether Norman was the one to kill her?
FREDDIE: I guess there will be an ultimate answer on that question before the end of the season. It’s tricky in terms of not wanting to spoil too much but toying with the audience and just stretching in the relationship between Norma and Norman to this sense of an elastic band and it’s kind of stretched out, but then ultimately it returns to its original shape. you kind of stretch it and you think it’s going to break but it never quite does. And Norma and Norman always seem to get over whatever challenges they’ve had previously up until now. I think that with the tenth episode especially, it’s inconclusive as to whether that bond has been reset and whether Norma and Norman can kind of continue along the path that they were going before or whether they can’t ignore such key facts about each other any longer.
Norman and Norma are usually so close, but the secret that she’s been keeping about his blackouts is really driving a wedge between them. Will their relationship kind of continue down the strained path or is there reconciliation in the near future?
CARLTON: Norma and Norman’s relationship is at the very heart of the show and so that I don’t think ever will change. That’s what makes the show I think wonderful – it is this incredible dynamic that exists between these two characters as portrayed by these two actors. I mean that’s the very heart and center of the show. The nature of that relationship however will evolve over time and I think what’s really interesting is that Norman is going from being sort of a boy to being a man. That’s part of his journey over the course of the show. And I think as he becomes more of a man that has cumulative consequences in terms of how he and his mother relate to each other. So Kerry and I certainly don’t see that relationship as being static, but we definitely see it as always being very close and very intense.
The last we saw, Norman was just abducted in the house, how was it filming that scene? Were you generally scared like “someone’s about to attack me”?
FREDDIE: You’re sort of aware really that someone’s going to take you. So I guess it’s not the same shock as Norman’s real one. But at the time, I try and put myself in Norman’s shoes or socks as he’s coming down the stairs And then try to make that reaction and genuine as possible and, by gosh, you are hopefully as shocked as Norman was. I think it just sets up for tonight really just fantastic episode for Norman where having been kidnapped, he spends the entire episode in sort of solitary confinement, completely alone and that just further kind of increases the pressure and build towards the tenth episode.
The relationship between Norma and Sheriff Romero has developed. Do you have any other LOST actors that you would like to have an appearance on the show?
CARLTON: Oh gosh, there are so many wonderful actors on LOST. I don’t think there’s anyone on LOST I wouldn’t want to work with again; I mean they’re all so great. It just so happened that when we were creating Sheriff Romero’s character, Nestor popped into my mind and he so vividly encapsulated everything that we wanted in the character. But I really actually kind of never think about that. I don’t sort of think about intentionally taking someone from one show and using them in another. Hopefully, it will happen that a character that that we create might lend itself to being cast by someone else from LOT that would soon be opened up but I don’t have any plans immediately to add anyone else from LOST.
What’s happening with George? Is he too good to be true or is there going to be a look at his backstory?
CARLTON: I think that’s part of the story arc this season has really been about seeing how kind of close to the sun Norma can fly. I mean she’s always had this vision of kind of moving to this idyllic small town and being in with the right people and having the right relationships — and George sort of personifies kind of acceptance and admission into the society of this town. In the finale we will sort of definitely see where that leads and where that leaves Norma at the end of the season and so it will pay off.
If Norman were to suddenly be well, which woman on the show do you think he would end up with and be happy?
FREDDIE: I guess his mother really isn’t it. I mean that’s the ultimate sense that they would just be great together or awful. I don’t know. And I think there’s this still kind of unexplored relationship with Emma. They’ve got tension there that’s constantly been and has never quite gone as far as it could have at different moments — and that’s another pair off that comes in the last episode. We see Norman’s relationship with Emma take a twist and perhaps the one that we expected.
Can you could talk about what you enjoyed most perhaps about Norman’s relationship with Cody and also working with Paloma Kwiatkowski?
FREDDIE: Paloma’s fantastic and has such a different synergy that she brought to the show. It not only kind of serves to revitalize Norman in many way, to come up to this whole other world, but also in terms of the audience in keeping things kind of constantly changing in Norman’s world outside of the home. She’s been great to work with, with loads of energy and always comes incredibly well prepared. I guess for now Cody has left the world of White Pine Bay, but certainly not without going incredibly noticed and leaving her mark upon Norman.
What were perhaps some of the biggest writing and production challenges you guys faced in Season 2?
CARLTON: I think that from a writing challenge, it was just how we most effectively could expand our knowledge of the world in which these characters inhabited, both sort of interpersonally and also externally with the community at large. So we really wanted to show the characters in White Pine Bay and to get to know more about that community too, and to really sort of deepen the audience’s connection with Norma, Norman and Dylan throughout the season. So I guess to kind of summarize, we’re making a show that is extensively about a serial killer but the goal on a writing standpoint was to make the audience really care deeply about Norman and about Norma — to like them, to root for them and so you have these sort of two things that are kind of in opposition. One, you sort of know this character is sort of in descent towards being this pathological killer, but at the same time we want the audience to really relate to him and connect to him. What we didn’t want was the audience kind of looking in at him from the outside. Kerry and I, our goal always in the writing is to have the audience be really deeply connected on an emotional level to Norma and Norman and be right there with them as they go on this fun but also perilous journey. I think that’s the challenge is to be able to take a genre like a serial killer a show that’s extensively about a serial killer, but to make it heartfelt and emotional and funny and humanistic. And I think that’s what we work really hard at as writers.
What is it about the Bates family that they kind of came into White Pine Bay and seemed cast a spell over the entire town. Did you write it so that they could do that?
CARLTON: That’s what this season arc was about was sort of Norma came here with this dream and this idea that she was finally going to find a place where they would fit in, where she would be socially accepted where she would be someone important, where she would be hanging out with the right people. So we wanted to explore whether that was possible and I think what’s really interesting about Norma as a character is that there’s this gap between her perception of what she should be and the reality of what she’s actually able to pull off. She is sort of she sort of dragged everyone in her slip-string to White Pine Bay and we really wanted to the thematic question of Season 2 to be: “Who am I?” And I think for Norma it’s all about that: can she be the person that she wants to be, is that possible? For Norman that question is really about if his growing awareness of the fact that he has these blackouts and what he’s capable of doing and what happens when he’s blacked out? “Who am I?” goes right to the fold of Norman’s character. And for Dylan, the question is also about: “Who am I? Am I really a drug dealer? I mean I started out, I just took a job, I needed to make some money. I was guarding some pot fields and now I’m in the middle of a frickin drug war between these two families in this town.” So that was kind of a thematic drive for the second season of the show and our goal was to try to give them a version of a life that they wanted and see what the consequences of getting that was going to be for our characters.
Dylan’s always been the third wheel. Then we saw them kind of come together. But once Dylan found out who his father was he kind of pulled off again. So as the season continues will we get to see that brotherly relationship between Norman and Dylan anymore, or will it always be like Dylan’s the odd man out?
FREDDIE: In the last episode of this season so many different things are kind of brought together and how many new directions are suggested, and one of them certainly is that to what extent Dylan is needed by Norman in Episode 10, when his brother needs him most. Will Dylan kind of flip to one side whatever issues he has with Norma or with the family in general and be there to save his brother. So that’s again another kind of linking of the finale. Everything just converges. It’s wonderful. I remember when Carlton and Kerry were sort of pitching it to me and this final idea of how it was all going to end up. It was just fantastic. I was really excited to do it. So everything just kind of makes sense as it’s really great episode with little things that have occurred earlier on. They did a fantastic job.
Were the incestual undertones between both Dylan and Norma and then Norman and Norma intentional? Or is it that Norma has this kind of lack of awareness that or inability to realize what’s inappropriate and how that factors into her relationships with her sons?
CARLTON: It’s inappropriate. Obviously, there’s a sexual tension that is a part of Norma and Norman’s dynamic. I think with Dylan it’s really much more incidental. I don’t think that it’s really intentional. I think that Norma and Norman have this very close relationship that borders on being inappropriate. But I hope that as writers Kerry and I have tried to make you kind of understand why it exists. I don’t think that they think that it’s inappropriate. It’s just I think that’s just part of the tension of the show is that the closest relationship is sort of between mother and son. It makes sense at a certain age. I’m not sure it makes sense a young man moves into adulthood. So that just creates part of the tension that’s very much at the center of the show. So we’re intentionally playing into that, but I think we’re at the same time there’s certain lines that we as writers don’t feel comfortable crossing.
Do you and Kerry ever think that maybe too much is — that you’ve pushed it too far?
CARLTON: Well we certainly haven’t crossed the line and had Norman and Norma having sex. That field crosses the line, so we haven’t done that. I think the show is this very intentional cocktail of very pulpy storytelling and very nuance of character work. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish week to week as writers. One of the great things in terms of the kind of the feedback from the audience is when you start out and you’re making something that’s under the cycle monitor and everybody’s got their expectations and thinking about the original moving and stuff. I think now that we’re in the second season and we’re a long way from that origin, I think people are beginning to understand sort of what we are trying to do as storytellers. So we try to make the stories very kind of pulpy and larger than life. But the characters journey, that story it’s very nuanced and measured.
Freddie, what would you like to see portrayed in the following season that maybe hasn’t been explored completely these past two seasons?
FREDDIE: I guess again something that’s sort of hinted out in the finale of this year is I guess the continuation of blowing the boundaries — the kind of definitive boundaries between this is Norman and this is Norma. We’ve already seen earlier in the season Norman at times assuming his own identity and there’s this kind of continuation I guess of somewhat merging between them at time and an ability to distinguish that. We’re seeing that further pushed out in an incredibly dramatic way in the last episode. I’m excited to continue on exploring that, if Carlton and Kerry decide to.
Do you continue pick up their relationship and how do you sort of tap into that strange yet unique connection between the two?
FREDDIE: You kind of completely disengage from the relationship that you have with Vera. I mean being comfortable with the more intimate or more sort of borderline moment thoughts and never feel awkward. I guess you both sort of commit to whatever it is on the page. So exploring that relationship has been wonderful and certainly one of the best things about the show. Building it and sort of taking various care in the sense of having so many supple ties and building up the characters and this relationship with not only events, but moments or shared connections between each character than then can return in different episodes and in different seasons. Having never done a TV show before I’m kind of really enjoying the chance to get into the great introduction of Norman, into the sort of character and the relationship in general than when you only have two hours . . I think one of the great things about the show is that it’s never overly conclusive. You’ll never have the conclusion shove down your throat saying, “Oh this is how you must think Norma and Norman’s relationship.” So I imagine and I hope that various people will see the end differently and come out of it with a different opinion from the person sitting next to them. That’s what makes the show great. So it’s not overly conclusive. It’s suggested and sort of sparks debating in that way. Even amongst everyone on the show, there’s this since of constant dialog and constant discussion as certain boundaries been crossed or what stage is any certain relationship. It’s nothing kind of definitive or easily distinguished; it’s just more a sense of reality than fiction I guess.
Given that we know the source material, how wedded to that are you in terms of what we know of where these characters are going?
CARLTON: I think that’s the key to a great tragedy and tragedy is a great storytelling form. It worked extremely well for Shakespeare. It worked extremely well for Jim Cameron. TITANIC as a tragedy and in that movie you kind of hope that Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet don’t meet their inevitable fate. I think that that tension between sort of your expectations as to what’s going to happen to these characters and what’s actually occurring now on their journey is that dramatic tension. I think is the essence of what we are trying to accomplish as writers. And I think that Freddie and Vera, no one could do a better job than the two of them executing that. We do foresee that there are some bad things that loom ahead for Norma and Norman, but I think it would actually rob the audience of the enjoyment of the journey to be too specific about how we’re going to play that out. Certainly we think that a literal recitation of the events of the movie would not be fully satisfying.
With the second season finale coming up, how do you think that it compares to the first season finale?
FREDDIE: I think the whole arc of the second season has been fantastic for Norman and the sort of time that you need in terms of establishing a character and seeing them as they are before they start off on this journey. I think towards the end of this season we will certainly see Norman — I mean I guess I said a couple minutes earlier that Norman was a lovely guy — but I think in the tenth episode especially and perhaps number eight that we’ve already see, we start to see this small manipulative side to Norman that starts to question whether or not question our allegiance to him and sort of support and backing of it, which has been great fun as an actor to play because you play against the sense of what people thing Norman should be like. But then there comes a point where, to what extent can you continue to support his actions? And with Norman’s kind of growing realization of who he is and who he might become and what he’s capable of comes this sense of power for him. What I think is great about the tenth episode is to what extent would that power Norman take as sort of self-decision or a selfish decision. And by the end of the episode, are we still with him or not?
Season 2 has covered so much ground and it’s been such a great season with an arc for the entire family. Do you have a sense yet of what the shape of Season 3 will be?
CARLTON: Our goal is to continue to write the show on a high level and make Season 3 hopefully even better than Season 2. I mean our expectations are that high. Kerry Ehrin and I have actually spent a fair amount of time talking about it and we do have a preliminary game plan that we’re very excited about. It’s tough to say too much about it because a lot of it is driven by events that are in the finale that I don’t want to spoil it. But I feel very confident that we can make a really engaging Season 3. We do have a plan and in fact we’re already kind of now that we’ve been picked up. So we’re hard at work in terms of just sort of kind of laying out the architecture of the new season. I think it’s going to be great, I’m really excited about it.
You talked about a blueprint for the third season but do you have an overall plan for however many season BATES MOTEL goes? Do you know how you want to end it, however many seasons it goes?
CARLTON: Yes, Kerry and I have a plan. We’re having discussions with A&E and Universal Studios about just how many episodes we’re going to do to finish the show. I mean it’s definitely a show that has a beginning, middle and end and I think we’re kind of getting to the point where we need to sort of define that with the studio and the network and kind of figure out exactly how many more total episodes we’re going to do and I hoping that we’ll be able to work that out. Because we do know where we’re going to end. In terms of just that, we’re planning to start that some time later this fall. So Season 3 we’ve got also sort of up in the air.
To find out who killed Ms. Watson and whether Norman will begin to see the truth about his blackouts and his dark-side hidden inside him, be sure to tune in for the Season 2 finale of BATES MOTEL on Monday, May 5th at 10:00 p.m. on A&E.