In tackling “Bates Motel” for A&E Network, exec producers Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin faced a common creative dilemma at a moment when showbiz is obsessed with remakes, redos and reimaginings of established properties: how to make the work fresh enough to survive inevitable comparisons to the source material from auds and critics.
As Cuse wrestled with crafting a series rooted in the mythology of a beloved Alfred Hitchcock movie, 1960’s “Psycho,” he realized it would be impossible to pull it off as an 1960s period piece. Once he decided to set it in the present day, the possibilities for opening up the story abounded. From the start, Cuse was determined to avoid making the prequel story of Norman Bates and his mother too much of an homage to the Hitchcock classic toplined by Anthony Perkins.
“There’s baggage that comes with working with the Psycho’ franchise,” Cuse told journos at the TCA press tour on Friday. “Making the (setting) contemporary was a way to become liberated from the original movie.”
“Bates Motel,” which bows its 10-episode run on March 18, revolves around a high-school age Norman Bates (played by Freddie Highmore) as he and his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) move to a seemingly idyllic small town to run a motel after the death of his father.
Among the first original additions to the mythology was a half-brother for Norman to serve as a contrast to Norman’s increasingly twisted relations with their mother.
Another challenge for producers of redos like “Bates Motel” is dealing with the pre-existing storylines for the characters. Viewers know going in that Norman will eventually murder Norma. Cuse and Ehrin said they worked to leverage the inherent drama in the mother and son relationship without being beholden to every detail in “Psycho,” such as introducing the ill-fated motel guest played by Janet Leigh in the pic.
“In some general form we’ll catch up with a version of the characters from the movie, but we don’t feel bound to have Marion Crane come rolling in to the Bates Motel,” Cuse said. “The specific way (the characters’) fates play out will be something of our own invention.”
The real-life tragedy that played out last month in Newtown, Conn., in which a mentally disturbed young man killed his mother before shooting 26 others at a local elementary school, adds an eerie touch to the Oedipal story told in “Bates Motel.” Clips of the show indicate that it depicts a stormy and occasionally violent relationship between the two.
Cuse and Ehrin were asked if they had any second thoughts about the series in the wake of the Dec. 15 massacre.
“This show isn’t about violence. It’s about a mother and a son,” Ehrin said. “It’s not pandering to violence or taking advantage of violence. It’s about illuminating and trying to explain” how the Bates tragedy unfolded, she said.