Before mommy became mummy

Before mommy became mummy

A TV series reincarnates the ‘Bates Motel’ for a prequel to Psycho

Say what you will about Norma Bates’s notorious motel and her unusually vigilant child-rearing practices. The woman makes a darn good breakfast.

That conclusion is drawn not from speculation but from experience: I am the only person ever to survive a night at the most recent reincarnation of the Bates Motel. Oh,and a shower too.

The Bates,the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho,is a dreary motel that doesn’t see a lot of customers,and those who do stop,like Janet Leigh (Anne Heche in the 1998 remake),sometimes never check out. It has been reincarnated on a quiet road here,about an hour’s drive southeast of Vancouver,for the purposes of filming Bates Motel,a sly drama that begins on March 18. The gloomy Bates family house has also been reconstituted behind the motel,on a hill that was bulldozed into being expressly for that purpose.

It all looks startlingly like the original set,except that the house—really just a facade—has no roof. It has to conjure the Psycho version because Bates Motel is a prequel to that story. It’s about the lives of Norma Bates and her son Norman before mommy became mummy.


“There are so many ways for it to be done badly,” said Kerry Ehrin,who along with Carlton Cuse of Lost is the main executive producer of the series. “But at the end of the day the subject matter is just so seductive. I think that at a certain point we couldn’t not do it.”

The Bates Motel project picked up more steam when Vera Farmiga,a best-actress Oscar nominee for the 2009 film Up in the Air,signed on to play Norma. Farmiga,fragile looking but with pale blue eyes that bore a hole in whatever they’re focused on,brings a subtle,edge-of-sanity determination to the role. Norma is a character all moviegoers think they know—she’s a batty harridan,right? Yet Farmiga wasn’t interested in doing Norma Dearest.

“To me,like that court-appointed lawyer,I wanted to defend this character,” she said. “I saw it as defining who the woman was.” So,who is she? “She’s a magnet for disaster,but she’s so resilient.”

Freddie Highmore,best known for Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,plays Norman,the character made famous by Anthony Perkins. Norman is a teenager in the series,and “complicated” seems too mild to describe what is going on between him and his mother. “You might say there is this umbilical attachment,” Farmiga said. And yet,being a teenager,Norman is also trying to pull away. “I think that Freud would have had a field day with the psychology of their relationship.”

Farmiga and Highmore play it all with a barely discernible wink,which gives the series an undercurrent of humour. Their chemistry is vital to making the series work,but so are some pivotal choices by the show’s creators,including Cuse’s decision not to do Bates Motel as a period piece,but to set it in the present.

A prequel that takes place a half-century after the original and the real-life case of Ed Gein,which partly inspired it? But creatively,Cuse said,it was liberating. “If you make it period,the movie looms so large that you can’t attain any escape velocity,” he said. “We created our own mythology and,I think,subverted a lot of the expectations.”

The cinematography also frees itself from Hitchcockian restraints. “Certainly we’ve shot those classic down-shots on the stairwell,” said Tucker Gates,who directed many of the episodes. “But other than that,we haven’t tried to pay homage.”

Capturing the look of Psycho is one thing. Does this version of the Bates Motel feel like Psycho? I told the producers that I wanted to spend the night at the Bates. And shower in the morning.

They thought they’d misheard. You know,they said,that it’s not a real motel,just a plywood set with a few fake hotel rooms inside? Yeah,I said,but I’m spending the night there. OK,they said; we can make that happen—you have life insurance,right?

“This set is built on an old Indian graveyard,” a crew member mentioned in passing. Wayne Adamson,who would be the night security guard,warned me not to stroll the grounds after dark because of the coyotes and bears.


Even Farmiga wasn’t above messing with my head. “What room are they putting you in?” she asked. Four,I said. “Don’t give any thought to the Perkins ghost in 5.”