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A&E's 'Bates Motel' is prequel to 'Psycho'

Freddie Highmore plays the infamous Norman Bates as

Freddie Highmore plays the infamous Norman Bates as a teenager and Vera Farmiga plays his mother in the 10-part series, "Bates Motel," which serves as a prequel to the classic film, "Psycho." The show premieres on March 18. Credit: MCT HANDOUT

In the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock thriller, "Psycho," embezzling secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is on her way from Phoenix to her boyfriend's California home when a pounding rainstorm forces her to take shelter in the dilapidated Bates Motel, run by the apparently shy Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).

Unfortunately for Marion, Norman suffers from a split personality, one a browbeaten son and the other the domineering mother he killed, who comes to life in her son and goes on a murderous rampage.

So do we just blame Mom for Norman's crime -- or is there more to the story?

Monday night night at 10 A&E premieres the first season of "Bates Motel," a psychological thriller that delves into Norman's past while also updating the story to the present day.

Executive produced by Carlton Cuse ("Lost") and Kerry Ehrin ("Friday Night Lights"), it stars British actor Freddie Highmore ("Finding Neverland") as 17-year-old Norman Bates and Vera Farmiga ("Up in the Air") as his protective widowed mother, Norma.

On a cold, relentlessly rainy December day an hour outside of Vancouver, Canada, cast and crew are working in a replica of the Bates Motel -- iconic sign and all -- and the looming Bates home on the hill behind it, up a flight of "stone" steps covered in mud and wet leaves.

Wires and stakes hold up the spindly trees around the house. A crew member explains the site was a landfill, and the trees were planted to help stabilize the soil. And on a sunny day, as was the case when the scene of the Bates' arrival was shot, there is a whiff of refuse in the air.

While the motel is fairly complete, the house is a roofless shell (adding a roof would force building codes to kick in) with only a bit of the interior actually created. The home's vaguely Victorian interiors are on a soundstage back in Vancouver.

In one scene being shot, Norman is trying to coax a small dog out from under the porch. Unlike the cast and crew, Boomer the Wonder Dog seems perfectly happy to be running around in the wet and the mud.

In the next scene, Norman is having an argument with his mother on the porch.

The scene with the dog reveals Highmore's gift for facial expressions and physical comedy -- judging by the laughs under the tent in "video village," home to the director, writer and video monitors -- as he reacts to the dog's intransigence and then leaps out of the way as it suddenly bursts from its hiding place.

Later, in the confrontation scene, Farmiga ends by shouting Norman's name and then stomping into the house, slamming the door behind her. After a few takes, her voice takes on a hysterical edge that is ironically funny. This amuses British director SJ Clarkson, who by this time in the frigid late afternoon is so tightly packed into what looks like a snowmobile suit that she can barely move.

Highmore takes a break from filming in his blessedly warm and dry trailer to talk about playing a killer while he is still an innocent boy.

"Everybody knows who he's going to become," he says. "Even in these 10 episodes, you get to start seeing that change in him, from being someone who's not very different from everybody else.

"That's what I found, if you look at people who've gone slightly crazy, and you think at the start, wasn't there something that set them apart? People would look back and say, 'Oh, he was slightly different in this way or slightly quirky.' The nice thing about Norman, at the start, you wouldn't necessarily pick him out as the person who's going to be in 'Psycho' in however many years' time."

At the end of the shooting day, Farmiga huddles in a chilly room at the motel and defends Norma, saying, "She's a mom, ruled by her love for her child, and sometimes, that love is . . . it's difficult. She is leonine. She would fight wars for her child. Nothing means more to her than his happiness, and I see her as being valiant.

"First and foremost, it's what I admire about her. It's thwarted at times, because she loves him so much that it's almost suffocating. It's that very particular age that Norman's at, that push and pull, that opposite of needing distance from your mother but yearning for that closeness. That dynamic, that opposite, is what's so juicy."


Alfred Hitchcock's TV work

BY FRANK LOVECE. Special to Newsday

While we wait with Bated breath for "Bates Motel," why not Hitch up some of the master's own TV work?

The most famous is his namesake 1955-1965 CBS/ NBC anthology, "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" -- aka "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour," after it expanded from a half-hour beginning September 1962. Hitchcock himself directed 17 of the 268 half-hour episodes and one of the 93 hourlong shows. His humorously macabre appearances before and after episodes made the filmmaker as famous on-screen as off. The silhouette of his profile became an instantly recognizable TV icon, as did the theme music, Charles Gounod's 1873 "Funeral March of a Marionette." The first five seasons are on DVD.

A revival, consisting mostly of remakes, premiered with an NBC TV movie in May 1985 and became a series that September. In a ghostly twist, the late Hitchcock's old black-and-white bookends were colorized and reused. Canceled after a single season, it went into reruns on USA, which then shot 54 new episodes airing from 1987 to 1989.

Hitchcock also directed an episode each of two other anthologies. "Four O'Clock" ran Sept. 30, 1957, as part of the NBC suspense anthology "Suspicion." "Incident at a Corner" aired April 5, 1960, on NBC's "Startime" specials and starred Vera Miles just two months before her leading role in "Psycho," where she went, of course, to the Bates Motel.

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