The following interview completely spoils the unexpected events of the past two installments of Bates Motel. Read at your own risk.
When the Psycho prequel Bates Motel was first announced, most people, including us, made fun of it. But what began as a hollow-sounding exercise in brand extension became a strange and fascinating delight. And now, as the show begins its final arc, the timeline has caught up to its famous source material: The previous two episodes tackled the story of Marion Crane, the iconic role played by Janet Leigh in the first act of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (57-year-old spoiler: She’s stabbed to death in the shower by Norman Bates, whose dissociative identity disorder makes him believe he’s his own mother, Norma).
But Kerry Ehrin and Carlton Cuse, the showrunner and executive producer of Bates Motel, didn’t want or feel creatively inclined to just do a hollow retread of that legendary cinematic tale. So theirs turns out quite different: Marion, played on the show by guest star Rihanna (a contemporary nod to Hitchcock’s clever gambit of having Leigh, the most famous name on the bill for Psycho, killed off at the end of the first section), arrives at the motel. But rather than stabbing her, Norman resists his urges and sends her off into the night. Instead, the notorious shower stabbing death befalls Sam Loomis (Austin Nichols), Marion’s philandering boyfriend. Ehrin and Cuse spoke to The A.V. Club about their small but beloved series, the behind-the-scenes decisions involving this latest narrative twist, and how Cuse worried about literally running Rihanna off the road and destroying his career.
The A.V. Club: When did you first decide you needed to rewrite this famous story? Was it before the first season even aired?
Carlton Cuse: It was when we first met. When we sat down and committed to the idea of telling Psycho as a contemporary prequel. There was no joy for us in the idea of retelling Psycho and doing a worse job than the brilliant Hitchcock movie. [Laughs.]
Right from the get-go, the idea was to take elements of Hitchcock’s Psycho and use them to tell our own story, our own narrative. And that’s what we did. Along the way, we decided it would be fun to pay homage to the original movie in some ways, but we were very conscious the entire time—particularly in choosing to set it in a contemporary era—that this was its own thing, its own story. We weren’t doing a remake of someone else’s story.
Kerry Ehrin: It was also the polar opposite in a lot of ways, just from a style point of view, of storytelling, because Psycho is very much a story told from the outside, in a brilliant way. You’re told where to look and where to turn at every minute to get to that huge surprise ending. What’s been fun for us, in Bates Motel, is the premise that we’re telling the same story from the inside, where you get to look behind doors, and you get to look inside characters, and you get to see all the normal, human, sometimes-lame, sometimes-funny, but just regular people in these insane situations. And that’s what’s always driven us.
AVC: How did you determine Sam would be the victim instead of Marion, and what do you think this brings to your version of the story that wouldn’t have come from the original narrative?
Ehrin: Especially in these two episodes, we’re very much dealing with Norman’s burgeoning understanding of what’s going on inside of him, which is truly terrifying for him. And it leads him to have an awareness about his past and his childhood, which was violent and certainly started a lot of problems for him. And the idea that the shower scene would tie into his own past, in that the man in the shower was very much a stand-in for his own father, seemed rewarding.
AVC: There are so many shots in these two episodes that play with the assumption that the viewer is familiar with the original film. What was the balancing act of wanting to tease or toy with this shared collective knowledge most of us have about this story, while still making this very much stand on its own?
Cuse: It was a bunch of intuitive decisions. Starting with the writing, and then Nestor Carbonell and Phil Abraham, who directed these two episodes, each person had their own gut instinct of what connected to the original movie. But we also didn’t want people’s experience of these episodes to be just referential. That would be emotionally distancing. So we thought it would be fun to do some, but we didn’t want it to swamp our own original narrative.
Ehrin: It was great fun that way. It was like having an utterly brilliant piece of music that you got to do jazz riffs off of.
AVC: In some ways, if you don’t acknowledge it in these meta-textual ways, it would look like you’re pretending the film doesn’t exist, which would be silly.
Ehrin: Exactly. We always wanted to honor the film and acknowledge it.
AVC: It almost feels like you’re trying to construct this roller coaster ride that contains this fun surprise fake-out, where you’re showing people cues that lead them to expect it to go one way, and then it curves at the last second.
Ehrin: Yes. [Pauses. Laughs.] Can you just quote us with that?
Cuse: Seriously, I wish I was writing this down. [Laughs.] If you want to get meta for a second, I think audiences consume a tremendous amount of television, and there are certain commonalities to how a television story is told. I think what’s really fun and energizing for the audience is to lead them toward an expectation and then veer away from it. Especially with the movie… to some degree, we’ve lived in the shadow of the movie. We’re making a really cool show, and I feel like in some ways our show gets a little undervalued because people think it’s just a retelling of Psycho. It’s not. But at this time, introducing Marion Crane to the narrative, we had to both fully embrace those incredibly well-known elements of the original, but then take a sharp left turn. I can’t come up with a better metaphor than your roller coaster one. So, the roller coaster had to veer in an unexpected direction.
AVC: Could you talk a bit about what the conversation with the directors, Nestor and Phil, were like, in terms of wanting to pay homage without aping it? Because especially in scenes that are so familiar—Marion’s workplace, the conversation between Norman and her in the motel office—there are musical cues, dialogue cues, and shots that evoke the memory of it while avoiding some slavish recreation.
Ehrin: I feel it was built into the scripts a lot, the tone of what we were trying to do—which was bring in pieces of Psycho but also putting spins on it and fucking with it, basically. They totally got on board with that and ran with it in really great ways.
Cuse: Phil, before he became a very successful television director, he was [director of photography] on The Sopranos. And we gave him the freedom to both imitate and expand upon the shots that Hitchcock did in the shower sequence. He was really the perfect guy to do that, because of that experience as a cinematographer.
AVC: When you finally get that shower scene kill, it both builds up in this very interesting way paralleling Hitchcock, but then turns to this much more almost empathetic tone that really fits the nature of the show.
Ehrin: I think it’s because it’s from Norman’s point of view, and because even in these horrible circumstances, you’re feeling for Norman, and there’s pathos. And the music really illuminated that in a really nice way in that sequence. And Freddie [Highmore]’s performance in that scene is just so heartbreaking. What’s happening is terrifying, but the performance is heartbreaking. It was just beautiful execution by everyone all the way around.
AVC: What really sets your version apart is that, while this incredibly iconic American story is taking place, Norman is actually having one of the most important experiences of the entire series unfold entirely within the confines of the house. He’s realizing Norma doesn’t exist, and he’s fighting his own mind. It almost feels like a way of relieving the Marion Crane story from having to be this be-all, end-all moment for Bates Motel. Because something much more important is happening right next door.
Ehrin: God, I love you. [Laughs.] Will you just marry me? I feel so good.
Cuse: I have an internet Unitarian minister’s license. We could do it right now.
Ehrin: That was exactly the intention. It was fun in a way to have people think the Marion Crane thing was going to be the big emotional point, and while it certainly is integrated and weaves into it, it really does land on this arc of Norman’s that is the most meaningful of the entire series. And god bless you for noticing that.
AVC: Well, his realizations in these episodes, that he’s been going to the bar as Norma, that what he thought was her was him all along, it’s a kind of payoff for these five seasons of buildup. Even the end of season four, where he briefly confronts the realization of her death, and you think he’s getting ready to kill himself only to shift back to his delusion, this feels like the true dramatic end point of that, in a Greek tragedy sense, because he genuinely wants to free himself from his own curse but can’t. Was that how you both envisioned this sequence?
Ehrin: Yes. Quote that and put Carlton’s name on it.
Cuse: We should just take the questions and take the question marks off. I feel intimidated now. One of the things Kerry and I talked a lot about was, “How far could we go in the show and keep the audience invested in Norman?” We talked a lot about what the arc was going to be in terms of Norman’s culpability for his acts of violence. Obviously, there’s an external culpability, and then there’s Norman’s own internal acknowledgement of his culpability. And this was a seismic event in that arc. And it’s the event that catalyzes how we chose to end the show.
AVC: Coming into this final arc of the show, was there a sense of freedom in having shot these episodes and creating the realization that the back half of season five isn’t just going to be a retelling of the film? Did these creative decisions lead to a liberated sense of storytelling for you?
Ehrin: Yeah. And it was fun. It was truly a creative playground, to have these pieces of clay to shape into this cool arc and kind of an explosive ending to everything. It was great.
AVC: Was that sense of play one of the factors that led you to toying with the film’s own innovation and getting the biggest name possible to play Marion Crane? Rihanna is such an interesting choice, because she brings that cache of cultural awareness that makes people think, “Oh, Marion Crane is played by one of the most famous names out there, therefore we know what’s going to happen to her in this story.”
Cuse: You know, we couldn’t have predicted she was going to do our show. I was reading a profile of her in Vanity Fair, and she said Bates Motel was her favorite show. I had been talking to Kerry about how we were going to cast Marion Crane, and how were we going to cast someone that wouldn’t be a pale imitation of Janet Leigh. How we were going to solve that problem. I said, “How about Rihanna?” and Kerry said, “Oh, great.” Of course, it felt very pie-in-the-sky, but I made a couple calls—the worst thing that can happen is just someone says no to you—so we had low expectations that it would happen, but it did. And for those reasons you again articulated better than we could, she was the right choice. We wanted someone who was wildly different from Janet Leigh, but also could carry the expectations of this character. I mean, if you think back to 1960 when Hitchcock made the movie and he set up Janet Leigh, this famous actress, as the protagonist and then killed her at the end of the first act, it was just the craziest thing ever. It was this wildly subversive narrative act at a time when nobody had ever done that. So we felt like the bar was pretty high for Marion Crane, and we just fell into clover.
AVC: We’re almost out of time, but I have to ask: Carlton, did you end up playing the cop because you saw the opportunity to do something that unusual and didn’t want to let it pass you by? [Cuse has a brief cameo as the cop who pulls Marion over on the freeway. —Ed.]
Ehrin: No, I made him do it. [Laughs.] It was my idea, because that cop reminds me of Carlton.
Cuse: And it did seem like a fun thing, and ultimately a Hitchcock homage sort of situation. Kerry is a great writer, and with that, her powers of persuasion are mighty. And it was fun! I have to say, I really enjoyed it. It was kind of surreal. It’s funny to step into the world of the show as a character. And there I was, driving, and pulling Rihanna over. Made all the more exciting because I didn’t have my contacts in, and I had to wear the trooper glasses, and I didn’t want to crash into Rihanna’s car, because I thought that would not be good.
AVC: It would have made for an exciting ending, though.
Ehrin: That’s true!
Cuse: And by “ending,” you mean of my career? [Laughs.] Yes, it would’ve been dramatic. I’d be learning how to be a barista at Starbucks right now.