If you think watching Lost was an intense experience, imagine what it was like to work on the show.
Carlton Cuse, the former executive producer and writer of the series, devoted five years of his life to what became an all-consuming passion. Born at the dawn of social media, Lost is one of those rare shows that went beyond the realm of television, becoming a huge pop culture phenomenon. When Cuse wasn’t doing the day-to-day work of running a show, which is in itself a back-breaking endeavor, he was busy orchestrating the first ever truly transmedia experience to accompany a television series as well as answering all of those questions from Lost fans desperate for clarity.
Not surprisingly, Cuse took a breather after Lost ended its run in 2010. "I didn’t do anything for six months after Lost. I put every ounce of my creative energies into that show, and I was completely drained, and I had to go out and re-experience the world and life and get my batteries recharged," says Cuse, whose latest project is worlds away from the fantasy that played out on the island.
"I’m really excited to have my next show on the air," says Cuse, who is now executive producing and writing the television series Bates Motel. "It’s a very different show from Lost, but it’s a very cool show. I think people are going to like it."
Debuting on A&E March 18, the 10-episode drama series is a contemporary prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, introducing viewers to Norman Bates as a teenager and portraying his twisted relationship with his mother Norma.
In the first episode, Norma and Norman move to a new town where Norma has purchased a rundown motel with the idea of fixing it up and creating a normal, stable life for her and her boy.
We know how that turns out.
Here, Cuse talks to Co.Create about everything from his creative partnership with Kerry Ehrin (a former Friday Night Lights writer) on Bates Motel and why we’re seeing a teenage Norman Bates in modern times to which Lost alum will appear on the show.
Co.Create: You had a close creative partnership with Damon Lindelof on Lost, and now you’re working with Kerry Ehrin. Had you known her before this project, and what has it been like to work with her on Bates Motel?
Carlton Cuse: I did not know her before this project. Universal Television put us together. They suggested her to me, and they asked, "Would you like to meet her?" I was looking for someone to collaborate with on the project, and we just instantly connected and found that our ideas lined up really well and that we had really complementary talents as writers, and it’s been a dream.
We each bring something unique to the project, and when you’ve seen a batch of episodes you’ll notice there is this weird cocktail that’s probably one-third Lost and one-third Friday Night Lights, with a few other influences. There is probably a dose of Twin Peaks in there, too, and that cocktail was only possible through our collaboration.
Can you work in TV as a writer these days and not be collaborative?
The best television shows are written collaboratively. I believe honestly that the shared vision and efforts of a group of writers is better than what any one individual writer can achieve, particularly in television where you have to produce many hours of shows in a short amount of time. Good collaboration is the essential alchemy that makes television shows work.
When I was watching the pilot for Bates Motel, I would sometimes forget that the show is set in the present. At times, it felt like Norman and his mom existed in their own timeless bubble. Is that something you did intentionally, or was it just me associating them with the past because Psycho was released more than 40 years ago?
It was intentionally done. We wanted to create this sense of timelessness to their relationship and the feeling that Norman and Norma exist in their own world and that their world was its own thing and was more important to them than anything else. One of the challenges for these two people is their ability to live in this little bubble in the modern world. How does that work? And it doesn’t work all that well.
Why did you bring Norman and his mom into a contemporary setting?
I didn’t want the audience to feel like this was a story they’ve seen before, and I was not interested in doing an homage to the original Hitchcock movie. I mean, it’s one of the greatest movies of all time and sort of walking in the shadow of that movie felt like a recipe for disaster. Fundamentally, that was the problem with a lot of the other attempts to make sequels. They carried the weight of the original movie in ways that just were too difficult to manage expectations, and I think that by making a contemporary prequel it liberated us to tell our own story in this world.
I was inspired by Chris Nolan who, in my opinion, took the Batman franchise and told three really great movies, but they were completely his own stories and his own take on the world, just using some of the iconography. I think that Kerry and I try to do the same here. We took these two central characters and then we invented our own world and story and journey to take them on.
So anyone who is watching Bates Motel and looking for—or even thinking they see—nods to Hitchcock is off base.
Certainly, there are some touchstones to Hitchcock, and occasionally, we will have small points of connection, but the most important thing is that we are telling a brand-new story but using these two characters. We know that they have a tragic end, and tragedy is a wonderful form of literature and not one that we get to do a lot in television. Go in and say to a network executive, "Hey I’ve got a great tragedy for you! Do you want to buy that as a television series?" It doesn’t really work usually, but making this story within the framework of the Psycho franchise gave us the liberty to tell that kind of a story.
British actor Freddie Highmore plays the young Norman Bates. Beyond Freddie’s resemblance to Anthony Perkins and a good American accent, what do you think he brings to the role? I have to say that I really empathized with him.
I think that’s one of the critical components. We want you to like Norman and care about him, and I think when you’re watching the show you should sort of be hoping against hope that he doesn’t sort of suffer his inevitable fate that turns him into the guy in the movie.
And why did Vera Farmiga win in the role of Norma Bates?
I just always have imagined Vera in the role. When I write things, I pick my imaginary ideal, and in this case it was Vera, never thinking that we would actually get Vera, and then when Kerry and I had the first three scripts done we said, "Hey let’s just send them to Vera. Let’s see what happens. What have we got to lose?" And lo and behold she read them and really responded positively and said she was interested in doing it, and so it was just this incredible stroke of good fortune because you know you never get your first choice. Or not often. She was always, to me, the perfect person to play Mrs. Bates because she just has this combination of intelligence, sex appeal, and tremendous range as an actress to be able to do everything that’s required, which is really hard. It’s hard to be genuinely loving, caring, and concerned but also capable of getting a little crazy.
Other characters on the show include a schoolmate of Norman’s named Emma who has cystic fibrosis. Why did you write a character with that particular disease?
It was Kerry’s idea, and I thought it was a fascinating one. We were searching for a way to create some teen characters that weren’t the complete stereotypical teen characters that we so often see in movies and TV, and Kerry with her work on Friday Night Lights really does as good a job as anyone of writing really complicated, believable teen characters, and she just had this idea that one of our characters should have cystic fibrosis. She has a friend with cystic fibrosis, in fact, and he ended up coming in and writing an episode of the show for us. One of the interesting things that he talked about was how he just never thought about his future because he fully expected—and was told—that he had a short life expectancy and that kind of changed his outlook on the world and that seemed like an incredibly interesting perspective for one of our characters, particularly in this world.
It was fun to see Nestor Carbonell in the role of a local cop. Are we going to see anyone else from Lost on Bates Motel?
He is the only person from Lost cast so far in this project. I would love to work with some of the actors that I worked with on Lost. I loved that cast, and I think it’s just really a question—you know, to me it’s never about being stunty—it’s about finding the right actor for the right role, and when we were imagining this sort of Gary Cooper sheriff character, Nestor just popped into my brain. I called him up, and he was game, and so that was just fantastic, and as the show goes on he just gets better and better. Even though he’s not on the show a lot now, he increasingly becomes a really important part of the world of the show.
In what episode does the polar bear show up?
No polar bears and no smoke monsters.
I was hopeful the polar bear might make an appearance.
The polar bear has been lobbying me for a part in Bates Motel.
I notice your Twitter photo is an image of you and the polar bear. Is that a painting?
It’s not just a painting. It is a velvet painting. A fan did that during Lost, and it’s one of my favorite possessions.
So we know the polar bear won’t show up. But can you give me a sense of where Bates Motel goes in season one?
It gets pretty dramatic. It probably goes further than one might expect, but it’s just a really twisty, turny ride that takes us deeper into this town and puts Norman and his family in some very compromising situations. The expectation that Norma has when she moves there is that it’s this beautiful, bucolic town, and she’ll have a picture-postcard existence, but that’s not really the case, and she has to adjust her expectations in a major way. Learning more about what this town really is, is a big part of the first season of the show and also really getting to understand a little bit more about what makes Norma and Norman tick.
You have been actively engaging with potential fans by tweeting about the show for months now. For Lost, you are famous for creating the ARG [alternate reality game] that was tied to the storyline, and you broke new ground in using different media to complement the story that we were seeing played out on the show. Is that something that you’re going to have a chance to do with Bates Motel in season one?
I don’t think to the same extent right away. I’m very interested in transmedia, but I think you have to get the audience invested in the mothership show first. So while we have plans, a lot of these things will commence once the audience is a little bit more invested in the actual show itself.
I’m not so sure other shows have necessarily done the best job of picking up kind of where you left off with Lost in terms of making the show a true transmedia experience. Have you personally seen examples of other shows doing what Lost did?
Well, I think the person who’s really doing a good job of that, and it’s just started so it’s early, is Greg Yaitanes who runs the show Banshee on Cinemax. He is extremely interested in transmedia content, and he is someone who is always looking at ways to push the envelope of what is possible beyond the mothership of the show, and I think he’s got some really cool ideas that are going to be coming to fruition.
I can’t claim that Damon and I designed it this way, but with Lost we just fell into the good fortune of having the perfect show that was set up for that kind of transmedia storytelling.