A&E isn't doing a mere "Psycho" prequel but instead a contemporary take inspired by the Alfred Hitchcock horror classic, producers said Friday at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour in Pasadena.
"Bates Motel" explores the formative years of Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and the teenager's relationship with his overbearing mother Norma (Vera Farmiga).
"We did not want to do an homage to 'Psycho,' we wanted to take these characters and setup as inspiration," showrunner Carlton Cuse (Lost) told reporters. "The mythology that you think is what dictates the relationship between Norma and Norman is not what it's going to turn out to be."
The idea of the show, which A&E bypassed the pilot stage and picked up straight to series, will be how Norman becomes the guy depicted in the 1960 Hitchcock film. "This is a tragedy, it's a fantastic dramatic form," Cuse said. "We want the audience to fall in love with these characters, particularly Norman. That tension of knowing what their fate is and how they get there was something we thought was really telling."
The pilot unleashes two mysteries involving Norman and the titular hotel -- featuring an old notebook the teen stumbles upon that seems to tell a brutal story about a girl's torture as well as another woman chained up in what appears to be the basement of the building he and his mother buy -- will continue to be explored, but Cuse noted it won't be a "Lost"-type mythology.
"No polar bears, no smoke monsters -- just say no right off the top," Cuse said of the often frustrating mysteries on ABC's "Lost." "There's no supernatural elements in play. We view this as a psychological thriller."
As for what to expect in the 10-episode serialized story, he said, "The murder and coverup of Keith in the pilot, the book in the pilot, and there's some other things that come up that I don't want to spoil."
Cuse rejected the notion that the Marion Crane character played by Janet Leigh in the Hitchcock film eventually would make her way into Bates Motel, noting that he "didn't think" she'd appear down the line in the series -- which he noted he envisions as having a beginning, middle and end. "There is an endpoint to this narrative, absolutely," he said.
Cuse said setting the story in the present day -- complete with iPhones -- allowed the writers the creative freedom to become liberated from the original film and avoid the baggage that comes with setting the story in the 1960s.
"We know he's a tragic figure," Cuse said. "I love Titanic and the idea that you're rooting for Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet to survive despite the fact that you know they're not going to -- that's the feeling we're going for here. ... The specific way in which their tragic fate plays out will be of our own invention."
Oscar nominee Farmiga ("Up in the Air"), meanwhile, noted she perceives the character as an "absolute train wreck" and was drawn to the "beautiful" love letter between a mother and her son. "She's strong and tall as an oak and fragile as a butterfly," she said.
For his part, Highmore said the story will challenge the audience as they debate the how and why Norman became a serial killer. "We all know where he's going to end up -- but is that because of his upbringing? Is it nature vs. nurture? Or is it because they moved to this dodgy town?" he pondered. "Or is it because of intimate relationship between Norma and Norman? If I had had the upbringing Norman had, would I have been slightly different? We all go a little mad sometimes."
Bates Motel premieres at 10 p.m. Monday, March 18.
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