As the writer/developer of A&E’s awesome new show, Bates Motel, Anthony Cipriano had some pretty big shoes to fill. For a writer working in the suspense medium, perhaps they are the biggest shoes of all–Hitchcock’s. When Bates Motel was announced, there was speculation from the media that the show might be treading on too-familiar territory. And for some, returning to one of the most terrifying and enigmatic characters in cinema was downright sacrilege. However, as Cipriano will tell you, there’s always more to the story, and now that Bates Motel has aired its first few episodes, we believe him. The show is successful not only at building a firm mythology on its own, but in never allowing itself to become tethered to its source material.
Staff writer Rachel Helie recently caught up with Mr. Cipriano and was able to speak with him about the show:
RACHEL HELIE (RH): Thanks so much for taking a moment to answer a few questions for me! I’ll try to make it as painless as possible…speaking of which, How has the writing you have done previously for family dramas informed the world of Bates Motel?
ANTHONY CIPRIANO (AC): I laugh when asked about writing family drama because it has always been my upbringing that influenced my writing. I grew up in a big, loud, passionate Italian family. Drama was all I knew. Strong women. Intense men. Lots of children. I learned quickly that nobody but blood can build you up or tear you down faster. Sometimes it’s all in a look. With family, you see the best and the worst, but at the end of the day, you can’t escape the connection. With strangers, you fight, you never see each other again, fine, whatever.
With family, even if you don’t speak for years, the fights or the forgiveness can be picked up right where you left off. Only in blood does that happen on such an intense level. I was taught that it is the ties that bind that matter most, but sometimes those knots can be wound too tight. Relationships specifically between parent and child are the most fun to examine because they define us for the rest of our lives, whether we embrace them or run for the hills screaming.
RH: 12 and Holding was a film you wrote that seemed to foreshadow the difficult scenarios the current characters you write for go through. Do you feel that that experience prepared you to deal with complex emotional characters like the Bates, Emma, and the town as a whole?
AC: 12 was pivotal in presenting the relationship between Norma and Norman. In many ways, the characters in Bates are going through the similar experience of pain, loss and revenge. But the killer in 12 was not mentally ill. He was seeking something far different in his crimes. I would say that the similarities end there.
In looking at Emma, I wanted a character who would serve as an anchor for Norman. His touchstone. I conceived [of] her as just a girl next door though. It was Carlton and Kerry who gave her the terminal illness. When I first read the pages, I was stunned, because of the disease she is living with, Cystic Fibrosis.
In high school, I had a relationship with a girl who was living with that horrid disease. It was difficult to be 17, feeling invincible, and with someone who was acutely aware of their mortality. I think it was the severity of her situation that gave me pause. She passed shortly after graduation, but our time together was priceless.
Seeing the similar relationship played out between Norman and Emma is sometimes difficult, bittersweet, and strangely familiar. (Although our town was not nearly as exciting.)
RH: Speaking of the sleepy town in Oregon, that serves as the backdrop to Bates Motel, it seems to have a character itself. For a writer, how do you go about forming that personality?
AC: If I recall, my logline was that Norman Bates should live in the town that Norman Rockwell painted over. Let’s take the iconic images of small town America, strip back the veneer, and see what’s crawling around underneath. When I first presented the pitch for this series, I felt it would only work if you had three worlds to choose from. Of course you have Norman and Norma’s story, but in addition [to that], the motel and the town had to carry equal weight. That personality of the town becomes colorized through the people that populate it.
RH: Was it intimidating, confronting the work of the “master of suspense” and his classic constructs, resurrecting them in the modern age for modern audiences? How important was it for you and the other writers to represent the Hitchcockian ideal?
AC: I can’t speak for the other writers, but I don’t think anyone can or should try to represent the Hitchcockian ideal. It’s important to remember that Psycho was the story of a serial killer. Bates Motel is the story of a young man who will one day become a serial killer. Those are two very different stories.
It’s freeing when looking at it in that context. And I don’t think you have to resurrect Hitchcock’s constructs; people haven’t stopped using them. That is, of course, a testament to him. But also, it’s important to me that Joseph Stefano be mentioned. He deserves a great deal of credit in the history of this franchise. His screenplay was extraordinary.
RH: Norma and Norman are very insulated from that modern world and the laws of the modern age. How do you decide to go about incorporating modern details without tumbling this illusion of being separate?
AC: You can’t keep them separate. It goes back to my previous comment. Bates is different than Psycho. Norman is different. In Psycho, he is insulated from the world. At 17, he has to exist in it. But something, or many things, send him into seclusion. My hope was that this series would take the viewer on that journey.
Be sure to check out new episodes of Bates Motel at 10/9c, only on A&E.