He convinced people that a tropical island populated by polar bears and smoke monsters was worth visiting; he found a way to make an endlessly repeated numerical sequence seem interesting; he convinced millions of TV viewers that six seasons spent with a bunch of characters who turned out to be dead wasn't a complete waste of time.
Surely, former Lost executive producer Carlton Cuse could figure out how to make a prequel to a 50-year-old horror classic without being told he's living in the past.
As it turns out, he could. And has. In partnership with writer/producer Kerry Ehrin, Cuse has produced Bates Motel, a spooky new A&E drama series that takes the people and places made famous in the Alfred Hitchcock thriller and places them in a pre-Psycho storyline that's set in the present.
"The idea of doing a 'contemporary prequel' made it clear that what we were doing was something that was inspired by Psycho but is not an homage to Psycho," Cuse explained recently during A&E's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles. "So we don't view any of that (Hitchcock film) as canon. In fact, the mythology that you think is what dictates the relationship between Norman (played by rising Brit star Freddie Highmore) and (his mother) Norma (Vera Farmiga) is probably not what it's going to turn out to be.... For us, it really was a process of invention, not of trying to stick to what had been done."
In Bates Motel, the Norma and Norman we meet are a mother and son trying to restart their lives after the tragic death of her husband/his father (a presumably still-unsolved murder which, eerily, didn't seem to upset Norma all that much).
After a few false starts in different locales, the Bateses arrive in an idyllic coastal town, where Norma reveals to her son that she has purchased a motel -- yes, the iconic flat-roofed fleabag with the towering steeple-topped house behind it -- and intends for them to put down roots and become part of the community.
Norman, 17, enrolls in the local school and actually makes a few friends -- girls, even -- but it quickly becomes clear that his domineering mother isn't prepared to let the boy find his own way in the world. He tries to rebel, but a shocking turn of events back at the motel makes him regret having disobeyed Norma and forces mother and son to become closer than ever as they deal with the evil that has invaded their new space.
According to Cuse, one of the biggest challenges in creating Bates Motel was trying to write characters that TV viewers will consider worthy of an investment of time and emotion, despite the well-known outcome of their story.
"In a certain way, this is a tragedy, and that's a fantastic dramatic form, but not one that you get to do a lot in television," said Cuse. "We want the audience to fall in love with these characters ... and yet we know their inevitable fates. And that tension, of knowing what their fate is and seeing how they get there, was something that we, as storytellers, thought was really compelling.
"You know, 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 they're not going to. And 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 know that their fate, ultimately, is tragic."
For Farmiga, playing Norma Bates represents a blank-slate opportunity -- in the 1960 movie, her character was a mummified matron perched in a window-view rocking chair. But Highmore has the imposing task of following in, or trying to completely avoid, the footsteps of the original Norman, Anthony Perkins.
"Of course, Anthony Perkins has done an iconic take," Highmore says, "but the character of Norman Bates is also iconic, so I guess I just want to do him justice and make sure we get the best Norman that we can."
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