AUSTIN - Carlton Cuse is crafting a slightly different twist on Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and its lodging setting.
But fans of the classic thriller and Cuse's own iconic creation Lost should certainly check in when the series Bates Motel premieres March 18 (A&E, 10 p.m. ET/PT).
Attendees at the South By Southwest Festival here got the first public viewing of the pilot for the series, which serves as a prequel to the film. In the first episode, we see Norman (Freddie Highmore) find his dying father, fatally injured in an apparent accident at home. He and his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) subsequently depart for a Pacific Northwest seaside town.
She has purchased the rundown, foreclosed Seafarer Motel and plans to reopen it. "This is crazy, Mom," Norman says.
And early signs of co-dependence emerge when Norma projects guilt on Norman for wanting to join the track team. "I'm not going to be the mother who tells her son he can't be on track team," she says, before leaving in a huff. Such inside jokes and wordplay help cement connections to the story and build a sense of dread toward the inevitable outcome.
Then Norma nixes some teen-girl classmates' request for Norman to come study with them. He sneaks out of the house to join the girls and returns to find the former hotel owner brutally assaulting his mother. He stops the attack and together their deeds cement their relationship in a bloody new way.
Reimagined in 2013, Bates Motel is "a modern day tragedy," said Cuse after the screening. Sitting on the stage below the big screen, Cuse answered questions from A&E executive Guy Slattery about the development of the series before fielding some from the audience.
"If you take these iconic characters of Norman Bates and his mother … you sort of chart 'What would be an interesting journey to that place?' What were the factors that made Norman the guy that he becomes?' "
The answers that Cuse and co-producer/co-writer Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights) are concocting may surprise viewers. "If you asked somebody, based on Psycho, 'How did Norman Bates become Norman Bates?' (that person) would probably say, 'Well, he had a mother who berated him and drove him crazy and eventually drove him into some form of psychoses'," Cuse said.
Instead, Cuse and Ehrin have created their own take on the psychological horror tale. "How Norman becomes who he is gets answered in the first 10 episodes," Cuse said. "But the mythology of that is probably not what you think it is."
The Emmy-winning Lost writer and executive producer revealed that his new creation has some of Lost's amenities. "I think the show is this sort of amalgam, one part Friday Night Lights, one part Lost and one part Twin Peaks. But a lot of the twists and turns you might have liked on Lost you will see on this show as well."
There might even be some online and transmedia offshoots a la Lost's Dharma Initiative."My metaphor (for) when you create a story for television and film as well, it's like building an iceberg. Seventy or 80 percent of it's underwater, but you have to know what the whole iceberg looks like in order to get to that part that is above water," Cuse said. "Transmedia gives you the opportunity to show other parts of the iceberg … stories and ideas that are engaging to us but might not be worthy of being on the broadcast show. We'll be seeing some of those things downstream."
For instance, in one episode Norman finds a sketchbook hidden underneath some carpeting he's ripping out - of course, there's a horrific reason behind that chore. Inside are Japanese writing and manga sketches of bondage. "That book seems pretty mysterious," Cuse said. "I'd like to learn more about that."