A&E's Bates Motel Season 4 has featured a lot of hope for its often tormented characters thus far, but there have been moments of unsettling horror, and if the latest episode—expertly directed by Nestor Carbonell (who plays Sheriff Romero)—is any indication, there will be many more conflicts to come. Daily Dead recently had the opportunity to participate in a conference call with Carbonell and executive producer Carlton Cuse to discuss the relationships in season four, the show's five-year plan, how much fans can expect the end of the series to match what exists in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, and much more.
Carlton Cuse on the romantic relationship between Norma and Romero and how it's a part of the show's five-season plan:
Carlton Cuse: Kerry [Kerry Ehrin] and I had put together, fairly early on, a five-year plan for the show. And Season 4 is something we’ve been looking forward to for a long time because we’re activating these major elements of the show's narrative. One of which is, Norman, [who] is really sort of descending into being kind of pathologically the character that is similar to the one in Psycho.
And secondly, really finally getting to sort of let Norma and Romero’s relationship blossom. And so it’s really, really fun. It was really, really fun for us to see the audience embrace both of these events which are, you know, really huge advancements in our storytelling. We’ve always envisioned the show being five seasons. So we’re really entering the critical phase of the show now as these two story events unfold.
Cuse on how the ending of the TV series may not lead to the exactly same situations in Psycho:
Carlton Cuse: Kerry and I, we certainly don’t think it would be rewarding to deliver up to the audience the exact same ending of our show that you saw in the movie. However, the tension of all great tragedies is sort of this idea of you’re hoping against hope that characters don’t meet their inevitable fate. That’s the essential tension of tragedies.
So if you watch Titanic, you know the ship is going to sink. But you’re hoping, “Oh man, did Kate and Leo make it, you know?” And we want our audience to feel that same tension. Are Norma and Norman going to make it? Is Norma going to make it? What’s going to happen? So we like to think of the idea that we’re sort of crisscrossing with the mythology of the original movie.
But it is certainly not our desire or obligation to exactly align our storytelling with what goes on in the movie. And, you know, the tension of what you should or shouldn’t expect is something that we’re very aware of. And we want you to feel that tension.
Cuse also discussed how Dylan and Emma becoming a couple was not initially planned, and he went on to mention the amazing chemistry between Farmiga and Carbonell:
Carlton Cuse: We discovered, for instance, that there was a really nice chemistry between Dylan and Emma’s characters. And that really pushed us towards engaging those two romantically, which was something that wasn’t planned from the very beginning.
And in terms of Norma and Romero, that was something we really thought about from the very beginning. But what we didn’t anticipate was the incredible chemistry that existed between Nestor and Vera. And so that storyline kind of was amplified. And really it became so much more heated up by the fact that the two actor are so amazing and so connected. It just feels so real and believable. It just kind of is a level of combustion that we didn’t expect.
On why Norma and Romero have such a strong bond:
Nestor Carbonell: My take on it is that he feels a certain kinship with her and feels somewhat that they both have a sordid history. They’ve had a tough upbringing. Both of them have had a dark, not equally dark, but there were both very dark pasts that they’ve had to battle. And so they have that in common but more than that.
And then the way they’ve dealt with it. They’re both strong and assertive personalities that have had to fight for everything. And I think Romero sees his counterpart in Norma in that respect. And she’s a woman who’s come to this town and completely bucked conventionality in town and gone against all of the things that you’re supposed to [do], the council—the typical ways you’re meant to go about doing things in this kooky town of White Pine Bay. And I think Romero loves that in her and has certainly warmed to her.
Carlton Cuse: There’s a kind of deep level of empathy in Sheriff Romero. And I think he feels that he has a grasp of understanding people, and as a result, it has kind of given him license to set his own morality and draw his own line in the sand. His deep level of empathy for Norma is one which he really understands—how important Norman is to her.
And so therefore, because he really deeply loves this woman, he wants to help support Norman as well. So I think it’s everything that Nestor said. And then I would just add that it’s really sort of a deep reading of Norma that also motivates him to be her ally here.
Both Carbonell and Cuse also talked about working on the show's practical set and how it compares to the set from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho:
Nestor Carbonell: It’s extraordinary. We have an amazing set that was built by Mark Freeborn and his crew who—correct me if I’m wrong, Carlton—built the entire exterior of the set in five weeks in Aldergrove which is a border town, a US-Canadian border town, in Canada. And it’s much larger than the original set in Universal.
Carlton Cuse: The one that’s on the Universal lot is actually a scale model. It’s not full-size. But our set was built using the original blueprints that were taken from the Universal archives. It is a full-scale replica built to the specifications that were from the Hitchcock movie. When you actually go there, this special relationship and connectivity makes it—gives you a sense of realness that’s really great.
I’ll let Nestor speak to that from a performing aspect. It really grounds that. It just makes it feel real even though those sets are so iconic and kind of from the world of cinema. There’s also the sense of reality when you actually have them built. And this big special relationship exists. So much move-making is trickery. We actually have these things. You can walk into a motel room downstairs. There’s the office. You go up the stairs, you go into the house. It’s kind of wonderful other than the fact that it’s built on a landfill of a garbage dump. Other than that, it’s fantastic.
Nestor Carbonell: The other thing I would add is that we have to drive an hour and a half from downtown Vancouver every time we shoot at the motel. So there’s something to be said for that drive as opposed to driving to a lot. When you’re driving to a place pretty far away, pretty remote, on a border town, that, as an actor, certainly gets you in the mood. So there’s something about that. And then add the—we shoot predominately during the winter and the fall, so you add the gray skies of Vancouver to the mix. And that only adds to the impending thrill and doom element to it.
Cuse reflected on developing the series with Kerry and the appeal of telling Norma's story in the Psycho universe, and he also discussed how he would put this season up against anything else on television in terms of quality:
Carlton Cuse: Obviously there was some trepidation about taking on this very storied franchise. Psycho to me is in that category of a perfect movie. It’s one of my favorite all-time movies. It’s just impeccable. And the sequels and other projects that had fallen kind of behind it, not so much. I mean, they weren’t so great. So, you know, obviously there’s this little fear about trying to kind of walk in the footsteps of that movie in a way that will be entertaining and hopefully original.
So that spurred this idea to embrace the idea of really changing it up to not make it period, to make it a contemporary prequel. To just take a couple of these iconic characters and iconic graphic images of the house and motel and tell mostly a brand new story. Kerry Ehrin and I sat down and we started talking about it. The thing that really interested us was really subverting the audience’s expectations and that, if you watch that movie, [Norma Bates] is one of the great characters of cinema who we actually really know nothing about.
But I think from the movie your expectation is that she is this horrible shrew who berated her son into becoming crazy. We thought, "What if we actually flipped that completely around and then she’s this incredible, loving woman whose son has sort of this fatal flaw in his DNA and she sort of smothers him with love and affection?" And then maybe that actually has the opposite effect in that it helps catalyze this flaw in his DNA. What if we told the story not as a typical serial killer story but as an incredible tragedy love story.
And so those ideas seem to counterweigh the dangers of taking on the Psycho franchise, but we just got so excited about them. And we thought that they had so much potential. And that really allowed us to go and make it. I think for a while and I think even honestly to some degree now, I don’t [think] the show gets its just due because it’s under the Psycho moniker. I mean, honestly I will put this season of Bates Motel up against anything on television this season on a quality level. Hands down, I think it’s as good as anything on television.
There’s some people who ignore the show because it’s some sort of Psycho remake in their brains. But they haven’t watched it and seen that really it’s an original show that borrows from the mythology of the movie. But we’re not retelling the same story. We’re telling our own brand new, original, unique story. And I think we’re doing an incredibly good job.
And I’m so proud of Kerry and my other fellow writers and the actors on the show. And I really get frustrated a little bit because I don’t think the show is as recognized as it should be on a quality level.
Carbonell talked about directing his second episode on the series, "There's No Place Like Home" and what he learned from directing "The Deal" episode from season three:
Nestor Carbonell: Due to Carlton, I got this incredible opportunity. This is something that Vera had suggested I do. In the middle of season two, she said, “You should try directing. You really should.” And when I broached the subject with Carlton, he said, “Yes, absolutely. I think that would be a great idea.” And I suggested maybe shadowing and then low and behold, he said, "Well, if someone falls out would you be willing to step in?” I said, “Sure.” And sure enough, someone had to fall out last year and then I had the daunting prospect of actually having to do it.
And having not gone to film school, the great advantage I have is, you know, outside of amazing scripts to work with, is a phenomenal cast, an extraordinary crew that helped me a lot last year. And I learned so much from that particular episode from Tucker Gates, our Producing Director, who really established the look of the show. The dolly tracks, nothing longer than a 40 millimeter lens so that pretty much it’s a single camera show. So that the whole world is mostly in focus as you’re shooting it. I wanted to certainly pay respect to what Tucker was doing.
But no, I got enormous help from the crew. And that particular episode last year was fairly stunt-heavy, so I learned a whole other thing on top of just getting behind the camera. I took as much of that as I could to this episode which was, as you’ll see without giving anything away, totally a very different episode than the one I got to direct last year. Which is another bonus for me, getting to do something completely different as a director.
But the Head Operator [Mike Rensch] is enormously creative and while I might suggest something, he’ll come up with something on the day, too. So quite often we will freestyle. But no, I learned and continue to learn so much from working behind the camera. And Carlton in this particular episode suggested that I take a look at one movie, in particular an incredible film, Son of Saul, as a way to potentially shoot a certain sequence. And that was enormously helpful, you know, borrowing from someone’s style and someone’s point of view. And I learned a tremendous amount just from that whole sequence alone.
Carbonell on how Bates Motel is as special to him as his experiences on Lost:
Nestor Carbonell: Again, yes, I completely agree and I’ve told you this too, Carlton, that I hold this up in the same way as I held Lost. This has been one of the most special experiences I’ve ever had creatively and then personally, too.
I mean, like you said, the people are extraordinary. Working again obviously with you and Kerry and the incredible crew and the cast. You know, it’s the old cliché which is true, it’s like a family. [Green], our Line Producer, put together and amassed the most incredibly talented and sweetest crew that you could imagine. And we spent many hours together. And so it’s going be extraordinary hard to see the show end. For some of us, we don’t know when it ends. So you’ll have to find out as a viewer for some, when that end comes. But so far it’s been and has been, like I said, one of the best experiences that I have ever had professionally.
On Freddie Highmore writing the script for the eighth episode of season four, "Unfaithful":
Carlton Cuse: Freddie is a multi-talented guy who is different than a lot of actors in many respects. He has a degree from Cambridge University. In languages, he’s fluent in Spanish and Arabic. I honestly think he’s with MI6. But that’s something he will neither confirm nor deny.
And he, like Nestor, has the potential to be a significant artist in an area behind acting. I think for Freddie it was a great experience to come and sit in the writers' room and work with our incredibly talented group of writers on the construction of the story. And, you know, what was really interesting—and it was a first for me—is to see a script come together from the perspective of someone who inhabits one of the main characters in the show.
So his perspective on Norman and then writing of the script was something that Kerry and I were really taken with, because we’re the progenitors of that character. But he’s the person who’s playing that character and inhabiting it. And it was just interesting to see the ways in which, he, Norman, would react in a certain circumstance versus, you know, what we would imagine the character would do.
And, you know, kind of in a collaborative way we found our way towards using the best of both. Using our ideas about how the character would be in combination with insights that I think Freddie brings to the table playing Norman day in and day out. So it was a real learning experience for Freddie.
And he did a great job. I believe when you are engaged in a process like making the show, particularly you look for opportunities to really nurture the talent in the people you work with and see the ways in which that talent extends the job that they’re currently doing.
And I think that Nestor has turned out to be a phenomenal director. And I think he’ll have a healthy career as a director alongside his acting career. And I think Freddie has definitely shown the ability to do more than act himself.
Nestor Carbonell: Thank you, Carlton. That’s very kind. And again, I would not be in this position if it were not for you. You literally made this happen and I can’t thank you enough for that. It’s been extraordinary. And I love that you’ve fostered that and you’ve helped Freddie through this process, too, as a writer. And I know he will have a chance to go beyond that. And, you know, direct next year. And he was extraordinary. It was great to work with him and great to see him even in pre-production.
I would sort of bump into him when he was prepping for the episode. He would ride on the bus, you know, with scouts and everything. And he really wanted to learn every aspect of the process. So I love that. And I loved just giving him a hard time when we were doing scenes. I mean, you brought this up, Carlton, that at one point we’re doing a scene and I said, “These words are just not sayable. I mean, you just don’t say these things." So that went over really well.[Laughs.]I said, "Who wrote this, man?" No, but it was a lot of fun.
And just to see his level of excitement and how invested he was in every aspect of it was great. He’s an unusually gifted individual and an incredible warm person. So it was just amazing to see him succeed on this level as well.
Written by Freddie Highmore and titled "Unfaithful", the next episode of Bates Motel airs on Monday, May 2nd at 9:00pm EST.