Carlton Cuse on ‘Bates Motel’

One of the most heavily attended panels at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour was for A&E’s upcoming “Bates Motel” series. The title alone makes it a highly anticipated series.

We got to speak with "Bates Motel" executive producer and showrunner, Carlton Cuse about the series which follows Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) opening the Bates Motel.

Although these are the characters from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the series is set in present day. Even though you may know where this story ends, we have to respectfully issue a spoiler alert! Clips from the first season were screened for the press and many of the critics have seen the pilot episode. So if you need to know what’s going on in “Bates Motel” before it premieres in March, our interview with Cuse gets very specific.

This is your last chance to turn back before potential spoilers!

CraveOnline: Beyond the first season, do you have any future seasons mapped out?

Carlton Cuse: We have sort of a general road map of where we’re going to go but again, I think a lot of it will be a work in progress and it’ll be evolving as we move forward. Yeah, I definitely have a plan.

CraveOnline: Prequels can be somewhat dangerous dramatic territory. There might not always be drama in a story where we know where it ends up. What gave you the confidence that the backstory of Norman and Norma Bates was fertile dramatic ground?

Carlton Cuse: You know, I think for us the idea was that we wanted you know, Kerry [Ehrin] and I, when we started talking about the show I think, first of all, the idea of doing a contemporary prequel made it clear that what we were doing was something that was inspired by Psycho but not an homage to Psycho, and that was a big difference to us.

And it just seemed really interesting to us, this sort of fundamental idea of how does Norman Bates become the guy who’s in that movie? That was just really a fascinating idea for us. In a certain way, we thought, well, this is a tragedy and that’s a fantastic dramatic form but not one that you get to do a lot in television. We sort of want the audience to fall in love with these characters, particularly Norma and Norman, and yet we know sort of their inevitable fates. That tension of knowing what their fate is and sort of seeing how they get there was something that we, as storytellers, just thought was really compelling.

CraveOnline: The original Psycho might not have been able to overtly say it was about a sex crime because of the era, but it kind of was. Are you going to be suggesting that’s in Norman’s history from the beginning?

Carlton Cuse: Yeah, I think that obviously there is kind of a sexual dynamic that affects who he is as a person and that’s part of the storytelling for sure, that we wanted to establish what are the elements of his psychoses or his personality disorder, so we’re trying to take that apart a little bit or understand the components that lead to him being the person that he is. He has a weird kind of psychosexual dynamic for sure.

CraveOnline: How did you come to this project?

Carlton Cuse: Basically, Universal Television asked me if I would be interested in taking a shot at re-imagining the Psycho franchise. They had a script that had been written five years ago that I read and I just kind of thought about it. I just got a bunch of ideas, including the setting which is the sort of bucolic town but it turns out to be this sort of drug town where there are a lot of nefarious things going on.

I just thought the story of Norma and Norman as characters would be really engaging as a storyteller. The more I thought about it, I thought oh, it’d be cool if there’d be a brother, and he was our window of normalcy into this weird dynamic between these two people. So all of those things combine to spark a lot of thoughts about it, and then I pitched it back to Universal and ultimately to A&E and they loved the ideas and then we were off and rolling. It just happened.

CraveOnline: Were you in the midst of anything else when this caught fire?

Carlton Cuse: Yeah, I’d been developing this Civil War epic at ABC and that didn’t go forward. Then this sort of dropped out of the blue. I get pitched a lot of different ideas but I kind of go with whatever sticks in my brain, so this is the one that actually kept working around inside my skull and I kept thinking this would be an interesting story to tell.

CraveOnline: Did the movie sequels give you any backstory, or are those not canon anymore?

Carlton Cuse: No, we did not want to sort of we did not want to do an homage to Psycho. We just wanted to sort of take these characters and the setup as inspiration. So, no, we don’t really view any of that as canon.

And, in fact, the mythology that you think is what dictates the relationship between Norma and Norman is probably not what it’s going to turn out to be. That little scene at the very beginning of the pilot, we’ll see the rest of that scene in an episode downstream and it may surprise you what you actually learn about what the relationship is like between these two characters and what drives Norman Bates to be the guy that he becomes. And for us it was really a process of invention, not of trying to kind of stick to what had been done.

CraveOnline: Does that mean that the series finale won’t be Marion Crane checking into the motel?

Carlton Cuse: I don’t think so, no. In some general form, we are going to catch up with a version of the character from the movie, but we don’t feel literally bound to have Marion Crane come rolling into the Bates Motel. I think that we know that he is a tragic figure.

I love Titanic and the idea that you’re kind of rooting for Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet to survive despite the fact that you know that they’re not going to. I think in some general way that’s the feeling we want the audience to have here, that you’re going to be rooting for these characters to somehow survive despite the fact that you sort of know that their fate ultimately is tragic. But the specific way in which their tragic fate plays out, again, is going to be something that will be of our own invention.

CraveOnline: Is this firmly psychological thriller territory or could there be paranormal horror at some point?

Carlton Cuse: No polar bears, no smoke monsters for sure. Okay? Just saying that right off the top. Time travel, I don’t know. No. [There are] no supernatural elements in play. We view this as a psychological thriller, as a very character based thriller type of story.

CraveOnline: Did the success of “American Horror Story” help get this made?

Carlton Cuse: I don’t think it had an influence. I mean, I think this was its own thing. A&E was very interested in this idea of “Bates Motel,” and I think it sort of was pursued and existed independent of that as an influence.

CraveOnline: Talk about rebuilding the motel.

Carlton Cuse: It’s kind of awesome because we rebuilt the motel and the house in Vancouver, and it’s on this road that goes to, like, one of the public dumps. And people come down the road and all of a sudden the brakes come on. It’s like what?

You know, the big Bates Motel sign there and the house is on the hill. Yeah. It’s pretty fun. I mean, I think the Bates Motel is so iconic that for us we wanted to that was an element that we wanted to preserve from the original movie. So even if the storytelling was contemporary and, you know, pretty much wholly original, we wanted to maintain the kind of iconographic quality of the motel and the house.

Mark Freeborn, was our production designer and also does “Breaking Bad,” went back and got the original plans from Universal that Hitchcock himself used for the construction of the motel and the staircase and the house and we sort of reconstituted all of that, and that was a really fun part of the process to kind of go back into the archives and in the history of the property. And I think in that way it was probably the most direct connection to the original Psycho.

CraveOnline: Are there any standalone episodes of “Bates Motel,” a murder of the week?

Carlton Cuse: It’s very serialized. The show, like I think all best serialized shows, whether it “Breaking Bad” or “Homeland,” it’s a kind of a story that takes ten episodes to unfold. And obviously there’s some hooks that will hopefully carry us into a second season but there are a number of different dramatic things that happen.

We’re not just solving one particular crime. There’s a number of mysteries. Initially, obviously, the murder and cover-up in the pilot. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding the Manga book that gets found in the pilot. And there’s some other things that I don’t really want to spoil that come up that are part of the storytelling.

CraveOnline: Was there any consideration taking this back to the ’60s and doing it in the period of the original?

Carlton Cuse: No. I mean, that was not interesting to me. Again, I think the idea of an homage is just not there’s nothing that’s that’s just not engaging to me. So it felt like making that fundamental decision to make the story contemporary gave us the freedom to really, again, take these characters wherever we wanted to.

I think there is both a certain amount of baggage that comes from working within the Psycho franchise but also, to us it ultimately seemed like far more opportunity, but again that’s sort of the setup of this and it just gave us the license as storytellers to tell a really interesting, character driven psychological thriller. I think making it contemporary was a way to really become liberated from the original movie.

CraveOnline: Were you inspired by any Hitchcock films that inspired you to produce and become a filmmaker?

Carlton Cuse: I just think his ability to generate tension in these movies are just still, I think, incredibly watchable. Certainly as a filmmaker, he inspired me. I mean, I think North by Northwest and Rope and Rear Window and Psycho are on my list of favorite all time movies. I just think his kind of command as a director was almost unparalleled and I feel like in certain ways the sort of character based thriller owes more to Hitchcock than anyone. I feel like in that sense I feel like, yes, we do owe a debt to him and I do as a filmmaker. He always is an inspiration on that level for sure.

CraveOnline: With all the Hitchcock projects being made today, what do you think is the appeal today for what Hitchcock did?

Carlton Cuse: I think there’s just a timelessness to his filmmaking that’s like listening to a Beatles song now. It still sounds great and I think his movies still play great. The intensity and the well rendered quality of his psychological thrillers, I don’t think anybody’s done it as well since.

It’s hard to say why certain things fall into the zeitgeist but for some reason I guess this has and I was caught up in it like everyone else, but I didn’t think about it contextually. I was just engaged in the story.

CraveOnline: How would you feel if a generation or two from now somebody wanted to redo “Lost?”

Carlton Cuse: Oh yeah, no, look, I imagine that there will be another story told in the world of “Lost.” I can’t imagine that Disney won’t want to exploit the franchise. It’s a hugely valuable franchise to them and I’m totally fine with that.

I think movie and television companies are in the business of making money and if you have a franchise, eventually you’ll want to exploit that franchise and revisit it. So I assume at some point someone will do another story in the “Lost” world.