ALDERGROVE, British Columbia — The Bates, the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic, “Psycho," is a dreary motel that doesn’t see a lot of customers, and those who do stop, like Janet Leigh (Anne Heche in the 1998 remake), sometimes never check out, at least in the drop-the-key-at-the-front-desk sense. It has been reincarnated on a quiet road here, about an hour’s drive southeast of Vancouver, for the purposes of filming “Bates Motel," a sly drama that begins March 18 on A&E and is among the season’s most widely anticipated shows. The gloomy Bates family house has also been reconstituted behind the motel, on a hill that was bulldozed into being expressly for that purpose.
It all looks startlingly like the original set, except that the house — really just a facade — has no roof. (That is added digitally for the show.) It has to conjure the “Psycho" version because “Bates Motel" is a prequel to that story. It’s about the lives of Norma Bates and her son Norman before mommy became mummy.
This is treacherous territory of course. Mucking with a classic always risks offending someone, or everyone.
“There are so many ways for it to be done badly," said Kerry Ehrin, who along with Carlton Cuse of “Lost" is the main executive producer of the series. “But at the end of the day the subject matter is just so seductive. I think that at a certain point we couldn’t not do it."
A&E apparently thought so, too; it skipped the pilot phase and went directly to a 10-episode order, at a time when Hitchcock seems to be having a cultural moment. There was the movie called “Hitchcock" last year starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, about the making of “Psycho." And there was “The Girl," on HBO, about Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren.
The “Bates Motel" project picked up more steam when Vera Farmiga, a best-actress Oscar nominee for the 2009 film “Up in the Air," signed on to play Norma. Farmiga, fragile looking but with pale blue eyes that bore a hole in whatever they’re focused on, brings a subtle, edge-of-sanity determination to a role that easily could have been a cartoon. Norma is a character all moviegoers think they know — she’s a batty harridan, right? — though, discounting the various “Psycho" sequels, none have ever seen her alive. Yet Farmiga wasn’t interested in doing Norma Dearest.
“To me, like that court-appointed lawyer, I wanted to defend this character," she said during a break from shooting in the freezing rain. “I saw it as defining who the woman was." So who is she? “She’s a magnet for disaster, but she’s so resilient, and that’s what I love about her."
Freddie Highmore, best known for “Finding Neverland" and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," plays Norman, the character made famous by Anthony Perkins. Norman is a teenager in the series, and “complicated" seems too mild to describe what is going on between him and his mother.
“They are so close you might say there is this umbilical attachment," Farmiga said. And yet, being a teenager, Norman is also trying to pull away. “I think that Freud would have had a field day with the psychology of their relationship and their friendship."
Farmiga and Highmore play it all with a barely discernible wink, which gives the series an undercurrent of humor despite the sometimes brutal goings-on (including, in the premiere, a scene that Farmiga said left her with a bruise “the size of Antarctica"). Their chemistry is vital to making the series work, but so are some pivotal choices by the show’s creators, including Cuse’s decision not to do “Bates Motel" as a period piece, but to set it in the present.
This defies logic. A prequel that takes place a half-century after the original and the real-life case of Ed Gein, which partly inspired it? But creatively, Cuse said, it was liberating.
“If you make it period, the movie looms so large that you can’t attain any escape velocity," he said. “We created our own mythology and, I think, subverted a lot of the expectations."