Bates Motel‘s Kerry Ehrin talks about the passion and talent behind A&E’s critically acclaimed series
A&E’s Bates Motel wrapped up its fourth season a few weeks ago by finally committing that most dreaded/anticipated act. It’s the story catalyst at the heart of Bates Motel‘s source material, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1960 film Psycho. It’s a moment that seemed to register a 9.5 on the social media Richter scale. No matter how aware modern audiences were aware of ***SPOILER*** the death of Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga), it still felt like a massive surprise when it finally happened. Looking back on the season, the signs were all there, but still audiences were riveted as son Norman (Freddie Highmore) peacefully gassed his mother. That’s the beauty of Kerry Ehrin and the Bates Motel team’s writing. You don’t see the act coming even though you know its around the corner.
Kerry Ehrin’s writing and producing credits read like a list of great and eclectic American television. The Wonder Years. Newhart. Boston Public. Friday Night Lights. Moonlighting (pause to imagine what a remake with Nestor Carbonell and Vera Farmiga would look like…). Parenthood. And now Bates Motel. What threads those series together is Kerry Ehrin’s love for rich characters and stories that resonate. Don’t try to paint her into a horror corner – Bates Motel is more about mothers and sons than slashers and shower deaths – because Kerry Ehrin appreciates all types of genres and approaches them the same way. Characters first.
I spoke with Ehrin about That Moment and what drew her to the Bates Motel. What I discovered is Kerry Ehrin’s passion and deep connection to her material. It’s a connection that is reciprocated by her many fans and Bates Motel devotees on social media.
Now, why can’t the Television Academy feel that same connection?
AwardsDaily TV: Kerry Ehrin, you worked on [NBC’s] Friday Night Lights through its entire run. How does one make the shift mentally and creatively from a show that celebrates Americana… to a series [Bates Motel] that sort of takes everything Americana and just kind of stabs it in the back a few times?
Kerry Ehrin: Well, you know, it’s funny because I’ve written a lot of different genres, and people have asked me this before about how do you go from this to this to this. My answer is that I just write everything the same… To me, personally what grabbed me about the story [of Bates Motel] was the human character story in it. If you took out the serial killer aspect, Norma and Norman could be characters in Friday Night Lights. We always approached the story telling and characters to try and make them grounded and real with real problems so that the serial killer aspect of it didn’t really take the lead… We tried to make it a story about a woman – a single mother – trying to care for a son who had a problem. That could be a story, depending on what the problem is, on Friday Night Lights or Parenthood. So that’s my take on it. You take your sensibility with you no matter where you go. You just put it in different luggage. [Laughs]
ADTV: It’s certainly evident because Bates Motel spends a great deal of time with Norman interacting in a high school setting that is, in a way, similar to that of Friday Night Lights.
KE: Yeah, and if you’re telling the story of someone who is introverted and has a bad home life and has seen a lot of dysfunction… those things are super relatable… You’d be hard-pressed to do 50 hours of Psycho because what you’re seeing in Psycho is so much of what [Alfred Hitchcock] wants you to see at every step. You’re not seeing the reality of what Norman’s life is like when he wakes up in the morning and thinks he’s living with his mom when he isn’t. You’re seeing it all from the outside, and you’re being maneuvered around that story in a really fabulous way but that would be very hard to sustain for five years and keep people engaged. [Laughs] In a TV show, I think people show up because they want to experience the world that you’re providing. Our instinct was to make that world have some grounded reality to it that was also relatable. That people who were not serial killers could also relate to! [Laughs]
ADTV: So is that what drew you to the material at first. The chance to make Psycho relatable in a way?
KE: No, I wouldn’t say that I wanted to make it relatable. What drew me to it was telling a story about a dysfunctional mother and son where the dysfunction had bad things to it but also had a sort of larger than life bond that came out of the co-dependence. Some of that bond was beautiful even if it was a bad thing. I think initially that roped me in, and also one of my first novels that I loved was Wuthering Heights which was also very much about a bond between two people that was larger than both of them that they couldn’t quite figure out how to let go of it, and at the same time they couldn’t quite figure out how to live without it. How to let go or how to live with it. I think that sort of Gothic Romance of that book was appealing to me too in thinking about a co-dependent relationship between Norma and her son.
ADTV: That Gothic element is certainly there in all four seasons of Bates Motel.
KE: It’s a way to take a dark subject and infuse it with a little of a more Romantic quality. When I first heard about the project, I knew I couldn’t just live in a world that was relentlessly dark creatively. It’s too punishing. To do the story, I had to find something that was weirdly life-affirming to hang on to. And we did a lot of that on Friday Night Lights too. That show was full of people whose dreams were not going to come true, but the desire and the hope that it might come true was so poignant and relatable and engaging. It’s just really a part of life. To me, there’s a humanity in that which really appeals to me.
ADTV: One of the things I love most about the series and of Vera’s performance is the exploration of the role of the mother, particularly last season’s “Norma Louise” episode which you wrote. Where does that drive to explore motherhood come from?
KE: Well, we do have a writer’s room, and we break all the stories together just to be totally honest. Yes, I did write that episode, but we all talked through the episodes and arcs and break down that beat together. A lot of that aspect of Norma certainly comes from my own history, and my own feelings about relationships and children and having a job when you have children and the guilt you feel when you’re not present and when you are present it isn’t always what you want it to be. It’s such a loaded subject. Plus, just the magic of Vera who from day one has brought such an amazing illumination to the character, and the way that she can just turn on a dime. She’s filled with contradictions. She can be going down one road emotionally and then just turn on a dime and be this other thing. That’s because, in the character, there’s all of these unfinished businesses that lives inside of her, dysfunctional relationships she’s never dealt with. So, in a way, [Norma’s] at the mercy of her own psychology all the time, and she doesn’t know how to reign it in so she acts impulsively. That was something that I’ve always had a little bit of, obviously I control it better. But, if you’re an emotional person, that can run your life a little bit.
ADTV: Absolutely. So, one of the things that people on Twitter and other social media love about the show is how tight-knit the cast and creative team appear to be. Tell me a little about what it’s like working with the creative team and working with these actors.
KE: Well, Carlton Cuse [producer/writer] and I from the very first lunch we had together just… we have a very special creative chemistry even though we come from a very different place in what we like to write but it still fits together very well and they compliment each other. So, working with Carlton has been really great and super fun. Then, also, we have such a wonderful production. The crew we have is amazing. Our line producer is amazing. The artistic team we have – Mark Freeborn [set design] and Monique Prudhomme [costume designer] and the people in Canada that are designing the sets and costumes. It really is the best of the best. Not only are they incredibly talented, but they’re all nice people… fun people. And the you add into this Vera and Freddie and Max and Nestor who are just so professional, so talented, so passionate about the work… They’re just really wonderful role models… It’s really about getting the work done so that it’s the best it can be. Everybody has so much respect and really just reveres the cast and Vera… Everybody there just wants to facilitate excellence, and that’s created just this amazing environment. It’s like a bullshit free environment of really cool, creative people!
ADTV: Which is rare, I hear…
KE: I don’t know. I can only speak for this. But I do feel when I’m on the set that it’s special.
A lot of that aspect of Norma certainly comes from my own history, and my own feelings about relationships and children and having a job when you have children and the guilt you feel when you’re not present and when you are present it isn’t always what you want it to be. It’s such a loaded subject.
ADTV: That’s fantastic. So, now that the season finale has ended, how has the Twitter/fan reaction to [Norma’s death] been?
KE: Well, obviously, there’s a lot of people who were really shocked. There’s some people who were really sad and upset about losing Norma as I was. And then there’s other people who are more of a pure Hitchcock’s Psycho person who find that turn exciting for the storytelling. I feel like critically we’ve gotten great press, people really understand the choice, and people are really on board with it.
ADTV: Yes, definitely. I think it took people a while to come down from it because there was such a strong tie to the character of Norma. When you and other writers were creating those two episodes – “Forever” and “Norman” – what was it like in the writer’s room. What was the process of finally putting that to paper?
KE: I think everyone always felt it when we talked about Norma dying. I mean, everyone always felt that it was incredibly sad, and none of us actually wanted to do it but it was the story we were telling and we had to do it. And then I think the way we did it was a really specific choice to not be a violent death, which I think a lot of people were expecting, but to have it come out of this warped version of him trying to take care of her and to be able to stay together with her forever and try to shut the world out to stop it from hurting them. That made it more bearable, I think, to us.
ADTV: For this viewer as well. I have to tell you that I was so relieved [Norman] didn’t shoot her or stab her. I didn’t want to see him stab her in the chest.
KE: Well, he wouldn’t do that because he loves her. That’s the thing. Yes, he’s insane. Yes, he’s dangerous, but he’s never wished her harm. That would have been a betrayal of her character if he’d said “I’m jealous, and I’m going to stab you.” And it would have been horrible for the character for that to be the last thing she saw in her life was the son who she loved more than anything killing her. It became important, too, because… I do love Norma so much.. that it’s almost like he wanted to put her down as peacefully as possible so that the last thing she remembered was something happy and that she could go to sleep with some hope. The thing about the Oahu scene [where Norma and Norman fantasize about escaping White Pine Bay and moving to Hawaii] is that I don’t think she for a second actually thought they were moving to Oahu. They both know they’re in a lot of pain, and they both know they’re kind of playing at that in the moment to try and lighten themselves up a bit. The acting in that scene is so moving because that’s so clear that they’re both so broken underneath, but, on the top, they still can make each other feel better. That seems such a moving thing to play right before the end.
ADTV: Yes, and then having him sing her to sleep was poignant as well. The one thing that I also loved about season four was giving Norma the opportunity to be happy during the scene with Romeo.
KE: Yes, that’s another thing, Norma’s life on the show has been about her growth. When she first came out of this bad marriage that was scary to her in season one, she was very guarded. Then, over the course of the seasons by having to interact with people and having to deal with all these problems and constantly muster up her own intelligence and handle this shit, whether or not she chose the right way to handle it in any given instance, she just kept trying. That helped her grow a lot, and also slowly facing the truth about things that were in her past helped her grow a lot. We wanted to give her, before she left the world, real happiness and let her know what it was like to have a real and true interconnected relationship that was actually healthy as opposed to a codependent one or an abusive one – a good solid loving relationship which she achieved in the end. That’s why the sixth episode of the season was one of my favorites because that was really the point where Norma kind of grew up where she chose to tell Romero about her past even though it could make him not see her in sort of this idealistic way anymore. It could have cost her his love, but she did it anyway. That was such a big moment.
ADTV: Oh, it was a surprise for me, almost as much a surprise as her death, because she was open and honest when her modus operandi has always been to bury everything and cover it all up as much as possible.
KE: And to hide. It was as if she chose not to hide for the first time. And also Vera just completely nailed that scene. She was so good! And Nestor too. He’s been amazing this season.
ADTV: Yes, he’s kind of the unsung hero of the show. He’s the third part of that triangle between Vera and Freddie [Highmore].
KE: Yes, they’re great together, and they really enjoy working together too. You can tell that.
ADTV: You absolutely can. The chemistry between the three of them really works. You guys hit gold with this cast, I have to say. So, to me, Bates Motel was never a sprint. It’s always been a marathon of a show. As such, the critical reaction and fandom has dramatically increased year over year – season four is the most critically acclaimed season yet, which is rare for aging series. Why do you think then that they Emmys can’t seem to recognize that?
KE: I honestly don’t know. I’ve worked in this business a long, long time. I’ve written many things, and I’ve worked with a lot of great writers in television. I know this show is good. I know Vera and Freddie and Nestor – the whole cast – there’s an amazing cast. I don’t know. I can’t answer that. In a landscape of over 400 shows, there’s that… Maybe people who are voting haven’t seen it. There are so many great shows and performances out there. It’s not to say that any show these days is a shoo-in, but it is hard for me to understand how some of the work on this has not been recognized to some extent. And also there are a lot of people who have not watched the show who think it is something it isn’t. Who think it’s a horror film every week. I’ve had people say to me that haven’t watched it, “Oh don’t they just kill people in the motel every week?” They really have no idea what the show is or how carefully it’s constructed or what it’s really about. That it’s telling stories of human beings in extreme circumstances. I don’t really have an answer. I hope this year is different, and I would beg anyone who has not seen the show to please watch the last three episodes of the season just to see what the show is. It’s just such a labor of love… I’ve told people I would wear a sandwich board and stand on a freeway exit if I could get people to acknowledge Vera and Freddie. I think their work is so phenomenal.
ADTV: Looking forward, where are you with season five right now?
KE: We just started! We’ve been in the room for maybe four weeks. We’re just kind of mapping it out at this point, figuring out arcs and then breaking it down into smaller pieces. It’s going to be a really balls-out, off the chain season. I think we’re going out with a bang. We’re really excited about it.
ADTV: That sounds amazing. I did read that Marion Crane was going to check into Bates Motel.
KE: We are definitely taking a drive through Psycho and its events. It isn’t the whole season, but it weaves in with the story we are telling. What’s fun about it is that you get to look at events in Psycho that you didn’t get to see in the film. A lot of the stuff that happens in Psycho some of it will happen off-screen, and you’ll see different things that you didn’t see in the movie. Of course, we’re going to do our own version of it. It’s not going to be verbatim, but we are having a lot of fun with that. It’s going to be super cool.
I’ve had people say to me that haven’t watched it, “Oh don’t they just kill people in the motel every week?” They really have no idea what the show is or how carefully it’s constructed or what it’s really about.
ADTV: You have to have Marion eating like a bird.
KE: [Laughs] Everybody has their favorite little things. It is a weirdly beloved film for being such a dark film. People really have a lot of sentiment about that film. It’s kind of amazing… It’s so simple, and it is actually very character driven which I love. There’s one violent incident halfway through, and it’s incredibly suspenseful. Visually, too, it’s in a class by itself. And then after that scene you forget about Marion and worry about Norman, living with his crazy mother. That’s such a testament to Anthony Perkins’ fantastic performance. It’s amazing that they got away with that.
ADTV: I have just one more question for you. What’s on the horizon for you professionally after the final season of Bates Motel?
KE: I’m developing another show… I can’t talk about it because we haven’t taken it out yet. Bates has been kind of a full-time gig for me. There hasn’t been much time to do anything else. What is front of me right now is a little development and mostly Bates 24×7 until we put it to bed.
ADTV: And then hopefully a very long vacation.
KE: Yeah, but it won’t be. That’s not how it works. [Laughs]
Episodes of Bates Motel season four are available at A&E.com. Kerry Ehrin, Vera Farmiga, Freddie Highmore, and Nestor Carbonell will return to Bates Motel for its final season in 2017.