By Natalie Abrams
February 26, 2015 at 12:00 PM EST
Mireya Acierto/Getty Images

Polar bears, vampires, and nascent psychos dominate Carlton Cuse’s life today, but almost four decades ago, the Lost and Bates Motel writer and producer found inspiration scraping barnacles off yachts in Newport Beach, Calif. The 55-year-old showrunner, whose new series The Returned debuts on A&E on March 9, tells EW how his past odd jobs shaped his (somewhat odd) future.

EW: What do you recall being your first job?

CARLTON CUSE: When I was in my teenage years, I worked for a yacht broker in Newport Beach, Calif., cleaning boats. I was basically a barnacle scraper, which meant that I would wear a scuba tank, and I would go down underneath the hulls of these boats, and I would scrape barnacles off of these big, fancy boats. It was a very meditative job, because you’re sort of in the semi-dark, underwater, upside down, scraping barnacles—kind of like a giant deprivation chamber. It was very meditative, and I spent a lot of time thinking up story. I think that job was very immediately connected to what I do now.

I hear you attended the Putney Boarding School, which is on a dairy farm. The school’s publication says students wake up at 5 a.m. to shovel manure. Did you do that?

Oh yeah. The very first semester I showed up at age 14, I had barn duty. You literally got up at 5:30 in the morning and had to go out and shovel manure out of all the stalls for all the dairy cows in the school. It was mandatory. It wasn’t a matter of, “Oh, I really want to go do this.” You had to do barn duty one semester, usually early in your career at the school. That was my greeting to the Putney School was barn duty.

What did shoveling manure teach you?

I actually had a lot of jobs. I had to really earn money to do stuff. I did not come from a wealthy background, so if I wanted money, I had to earn it. I had a lot jobs. It sounds so trite, but it was definitely one of those things where I really learned the value of hard work. I believe that, particularly in television, because of the massive amount of work it takes to make a television show, I see some really creative people who just do not thrive in the television world—particularly people who come from film, because they just are not prepared for the insane workload that it takes to make eight or 10 hours, let alone 22 hours of a television series in a year.

Let’s get into college. You set up a screening of Airplane! at Harvard. Do you feel like that was your entry into Hollywood?

Very much so. Prior to that, I was a pre-med student and not a very good one. Because I went to Putney, assignments at Putney consisted of learning the difference between a Staghorn Sumac and a Black Birch in biology. I was very ill prepared for the kind of rigorous assignments at Harvard that most of my classmates had taken in high school, let alone the advancement of that in college. I just wasn’t that into it. It just happened that I met this recent Harvard graduate who came back to Harvard to screen the movie Airplane!, and I helped organize the screening at the science center at Harvard. I had never actually met anybody who wrote a movie or directed a movie for a living; a light bulb went off. I was always a pretty good writer and could get by school based on my ability to write my way out of papers or exams and stuff like that. I loved movies, and here I was, face-to-face with the three guys—the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams—who had made this amazing movie, and I decided, “Well, that’s what I want to do—or at least try to do that.”

Besides not being prepared to attend med school, I heard you were pretty squeamish, too.

My uncle was a surgeon, and my mom, trying to reinvigorate my desire to go to medical school—realizing my interest was waning—she had me scrub in with my uncle while he was doing surgery. It happened to be an intestinal bypass on a very obese person. He was digging around there, cauterizing all these capillaries, and there was this acrid smell of human flesh. I didn’t really realize you could actually pull somebody’s internal organs out of their body and put them up on the abdomen and show them off, which he was doing to me, giving me like an impromptu anatomy lesson. I just got tunnel vision, and boom, I fainted. That pretty much ended my attempt to be a doctor.

Tell me about joining crew at Harvard. You made a documentary?

I was basically plucked out of freshman registration by the crew based on my size. I went to an introductory meeting and really kind of fell in love with it. I spent my first three years in college rowing. So I met this executive producer from Paramount who was the Harvard graduate who brought Airplane! to Harvard to screen it. Afterwards, I said, “How do I get into Hollywood?” He sort of facetiously said, “Make a movie.” I just took that literally.

I kind of believe in the adage “write what you know.” I spent all this time rowing, and people who don’t row really have no idea about why anyone would work 10 months or 11 months a year for five, six minute races in the spring, just the workload versus the amount of competition. The obsessiveness that people have who row is something that’s very hard to understand if you don’t do it. So, I’ll make a documentary about why people row and why it’s so obsessive and engaging and compelling for those who do it; so that’s what I did.

I took my documentary, and I showed up and I said to the guy, “Well, here it is. Here’s my film. I took your advice.” And I got a job working as the assistant to one of the film studios who basically wanted the Harvard guy buying organic dog food for his Japanese Akita, getting the windows tinted in his car, picking up papayas at Gelson’s. That was my first Hollywood job. But while I ran a lot of errands, he was a former agent, so I also trained the way agents do, which is the assistant places the calls, but they listen to most of the calls as well. In the afternoon, I would roll calls with him, and I got to listen in while he talked to various directors, actors, producers, and other executives—that was really illuminating. That was sort of the beginning of my Hollywood education.

After that, you became a script reader. What was that like?

I worked for two producers named Edgar Scherick and Scott Rudin as a reader. I sat in an office and read, like, 300 scripts in a course of a year and wrote coverage of them. That was like film school for me. When you write coverage, you basically have to write a log line—very briefly, succinctly summarizing what the script’s about—and then you have to write a summary of the narrative, and then you have to render an opinion about it.

It was really great. I learned a lot about what made good scripts good and bad scripts bad and actually emboldened me to believe that I could succeed as a writer, because there were scripts that I didn’t think were very good that were being written by people who were working, and I was like, “I can do this.” It gave me the confidence that I could write. I was doing that, and then I started writing at night and on the weekends while I had these jobs. I heard this thing about Larry Kasdan, that he had written seven unproduced screenplays before he went on this incredible roll, which was Body Heat, The Big Chill, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, Grand Canyon, etc. Before Malcolm Gladwell brought up the 10,000-hour rule, I guess I was getting my 10,000 hours in.

What was it like working on the film Sweet Dreams, which starred Jessica Lange and Ed Harris?

That was really a fantastic experience, because I got to work on this movie from beginning to end. I was assistant to the producer, and we were left alone to make this movie—the producer, Bernard Schwartz; the director, Karel Reisz; the screenwriter; Bob Getchell. I had immense access to all three of those guys. We were shooting in West Virginia into Nashville. In West Virginia, I would go running in the mornings and these coal trains would be lumbering along, and you could just run and catch coal trains. I would catch the coal train down the track, and I would run back, or vice versa. That was very, sort of romantic.

Ed Harris was a great guy, and part of my job was to drive him around, and that was a lot of fun. He was really super engaging. It was an incredible learning experience. I can still remember, pretty vividly, individual shooting days on that movie, because it was imprinting so formatively on my brain. I can really sit here, and I’m thinking about just the various days and various locations we were shooting—I can just remember it all so well.

Next came Crime Story, which was your first writing job, right?

That was my first writing job. That was really interesting experience, because I wrote these scripts, and after I wrote them, they sort of disappeared and were rewritten by the people higher up, as it happens in television, and they were shipped off to Chicago and shot. After turning in the script, I didn’t see anything until I saw the finished episode. I recognized bits and pieces of stuff I’d written, although they were rewritten. I recognized I was on the bottom of the food chain, but I was on the food chain, so that was important.

Tell me about the creation of The Adventures of Brisco County.

Brisco was fantastic. It was something that I’d been approached by Bob Greenblatt, who was an executive at FOX at the time, and I had been working with a feature writer named Jeffrey Boam, helping to develop Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Bob Greenblatt said, “I would love to do Indiana Jones for television.” I literally concocted the idea for Brisco on a Southwest [Airlines] cocktail napkin, flying from New Mexico to Los Angeles—New Mexico was where my wife lived, and my wife’s family lived.

It was a really, really fun show. Bruce Campbell was amazing and the hardest-working guy I’ve ever seen. It seems impossible what we did, which was make 27 episodes of that show in the first season on a seven-day schedule. We got an order for 12, we got a back order for nine, and then we got back-back five.  When we got the back-back five, one of the writers, who was so exhausted, just freaked out and quit. [Laughs] It was just a massive workload, but the show was really, really fun to do. It was such a charmed and fantastic experience. It was my first show, so I didn’t realize and appreciate how great it was at the time.

Nash Bridges came next.

Basically what happened was Les Moonves had been the head of Warner Bros. Television line, [and he] had done Brisco. Then he moved to CBS, and he inherited a commitment that a prior regime had made to Don Johnson to do his first series after Miami Vice. They had tried and failed a few times. So Les Moonves called me up and said, “Hey, would you be willing to meet with Don Johnson?” I was playing tennis with my friend Gary Ross, the director of the Hunger Games movie and Pleasantville. He was like, “You gotta go meet with Don Johnson—that’ll be a catch!” I went to meet with Don.

I loved Miami Vice, but Miami Vice was very dark. When I met with Don, I found him to be charming and funny, and a light bulb went off, which was I can do something with this guy while showing off his humor and his charm, which will be very different than Miami Vice, but I can still make him a kickass cop. It was the idea that I formulated. I went off to San Francisco and rode around with a bunch of cops for a while, then I wrote the script, turned it in and Don loved it, said he was in, then Les Moonves greenlit 14 episodes off my script, straight to series. And that led to six seasons and 121 episodes. So that’s how it happened. [Laughs]

Your next project, Martial Law, seems very different from the projects you had already done. What attracted you to doing it?

There was interest in CBS in doing a Jackie Chan-style martial arts show. They had made a deal with a Hong Kong director Stanley Tong, who had directed Jackie Chan’s three biggest Chinese movies—this was before Rush Hour. Les came to me and said, “Would you be interested in doing a Jackie Chan sort of show for CBS?”

Just as a cinema fan in general, I was a fan of martial arts movies. The thing about martial arts, it developed—particularly in Hong Kong—as a way to do action both that was contained on a cost level and also could be done without massive scope, which were requirements of Hong Kong cinema. It felt like that was a very transferrable thing to television, that there was a way to take the shooting style and approach of Hong Kong martial arts films and do that for a series.

It was the first series—I think the first network series—that had a Chinese lead, Sammo Hong, and he was paired with Arsenio Hall. I was working with this seven-man stunt crew from Hong Kong. Only a couple of them spoke English, and along with this director Stanley Tong, who was also from Hong Kong, I was kind of immersed in this whole world of Chinese martial arts filmmaking.

It was a fun experience to see how they did it and how they constructed these action sequences and how they worked and what their process was. My job was to take that thing that they do so well and grasp it to a network television show. Martial Law ran for two years and 44 episodes, and it was pretty successful. It was really an opportunity that came at me, and those were some of the challenges that I thought were interesting, to see whether it was transferrable, whether you could take that and do it in the context of a network show. So that is why I did it.

Was your work on Martial Law why you were attracted to another martial arts-centric series, Black Sash?

Black Sash was a show someone else had created, and it was a gig that I did. Sometimes you do things for passion and art, and sometimes you do things for money, and sometimes you make good choices, and sometimes you make bad choices. Black Sash wasn’t really a high point for me, and it was something where it was neither something I created nor was there really any money to do anything particularly engaging with the project. It was not a great experience. But what came out of it was I met two writers named Eddy Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, who became [my] lifelong friends and the first writers I hired on Lost. Sometimes even out of the bad experiences in your career come great things, and that was the great thing that came out of the Black Sash.

You joined Lost after the pilot was shot. Do you have any fond memories from your first day on the job that would lead you to believe it would become a big piece of television history?

Absolutely not. Lost was something that I did purely out of passion. A lot of people told me I was crazy. I had a comfortable, overall deal at a studio, which I got out of to go take this job. Pretty much everyone expected it to be 12 and out. But I felt incredibly liberated, because I thought, “We’re just going to make 12 incredibly cool episodes of television, and even if it doesn’t succeed, we’ll have this DVD that people will pass around like The Prisoner or 30 episodes of Twin Peaks.” The failure option, which was that Lost would be 12 and out, seemed actually really positive. It seemed like that would be a totally acceptable solution, that we would make this little cool, culty show. I think that approach really liberated us, Damon [Lindelof] and I, to be just very fearless about what we did, storytelling-wise. We just did the show that we, ourselves, most wanted to see. I think it was an utter surprise that it became this gargantuan hit.

When it comes to Bates Motel, fellow executive producer Kerry Ehrin says she’s like Norma Bates in a lot of ways. Does that make you Norman Bates?

On Bates, Kerry Ehrin is very much the voice of Norma Bates. She writes Norma, and she writes Norma incredibly well. I think Kerry’s this beautiful, wonderful, nuanced character writer, and I’m very engaged by the plotting, the story mechanics, the fusion of nuanced character writing with pulpy storytelling. I’m probably more the voice of Romero. Kerry really is the central writing voice on the show, but together, the show is a combination of our joint creative and aesthetic sensibilities, and it’s like this really interesting mix of chocolate and peanut butter: It comes out tasting pretty good.

What was the catalyst in wanting to do a Psycho prequel of sorts?

One of the things that has been a hallmark of my career is that I do a pretty good job of taking ideas that other people are actually interested in making and putting them on the air and figuring how to make them work. Before I ever got involved, Universal Television had sold the idea of doing a remake of Psycho to A&E. They approached me and said, “Would you be interested in doing this?” My normal MO is if I get pitched something, and I find myself thinking about it consistently, then that’s something that I’ll pursue. I hear a lot of ideas, and they quickly fade away in my brain, so those things I don’t pursue. I kept thinking about this, and I just thought there were some really interesting possibilities in reimagining the franchise and just taking some of the characters from the show and putting them in a whole different setting and context. I invented the idea that Norman would have a brother, which would create this really interesting triangle relationship.

I pitched a bunch of ideas to A&E, they were really responsive, they really wanted to pursue the project, then I said to Universal, “I really would like to find someone to work with on this,” and then they put me together with Kerry. Kerry came in, and Kerry had whole bunch of really wonderful ideas and was particularly interested in redefining the Norma and Norman dynamic. As we talked, our subset of ideas really fit together incredibly well. It was this magical collaboration—and still is. I love Kerry to death, and we have such a great time working on the show together. There was this fusion of sensibilities. We’re different as writers, but we found this common aesthetic for Bates that I think really works. I love the show, and I think that the third season of the show is really good. I’m super proud of it.

To me, the thing that I really enjoy is—and I did this with Damon, I did this early in my career with Jeffrey Boam—the creative process of talking out an idea with a really talented collaborator. That’s the thing I just enjoy the most, which is working out stories with someone who is likeminded. That’s the thing that fuels me, that’s the thing that gets me out of bed every day. I love that collaborative exchange, and that’s how I work best. I’m much less happy when I’m sitting and chasing the blinking cursor by myself. There’s a really interesting book by this guy Joshua Shenk called Powers of Two that came out in the last few months, in which he argues that a lot of the greatest creative accomplishments have not actually been singular, but they’ve been out of duos. We tend to embrace this idea that creativity is this singular thing, that one person has to be anointed, but I really do believe there is tremendous creativity to come out of a duo working together to problem solve. Having someone to dialogue with while you problem solve, to me, is really the essence of the creative process.

What was it about The Strain that attracted you to adapting it for television?

There were two things that attracted me. One was collaborating with Guillermo Del Toro, who I think is incredibly talented and really one of the great visualists of all time. If you’re going to make a monster show, then you have to have really great monsters. I love Guillermo’s aesthetic and ability to create unique, compelling creatures. I also thought he’s a guy who’s done horror, but he does it with heart and with character dimension, and that’s something which, you look at a movie like Pan’s Labyrinth, it’s such a beautiful film.

Also, the thing that really attracted me about the story was that it had a really complex, layered set of antagonists. The Walking Dead is a great show, but you have one kind of antagonist, basically—you have human antagonists, but in terms of creatures, you have these zombies who can do one thing. But in The Strain, there’s a multitude of forces of evil. I thought there was a way to make a show out of the books that would be both serious and fun at the same time. There’s a kind of pulpy outrageousness to it. I love blending genre, so to me it was kind of like an adventure-thriller with horror elements. There’s just so many homages to the entire history of genre filmmaking embedded in the source material, and I was really excited about the challenge of taking those to the point of departure and doing this sort of crazy, “everything including the kitchen sink” type of storytelling, just making it crazy, totally out there, monster show, basically.

When you were plotting out your new USA drama Colony, did you write it with star Josh Holloway in mind?

Ryan [Condal] and I didn’t write it with him in mind, per se, but I have actually been talking to Josh since Lost ended about doing something together. We became fast friends during the making of that show, and I love him as a person and as an actor. When Ryan and I finished the script, he was the first person who popped to mind. Literally the moment I finished it, I called him up and said, “Look, I just finished this thing with this wonderful writer Ryan Condal, and I would love to send it to you.” Josh read it and really liked it. It’s just fantastic. It’s really, to me, just super thrilling we get to work together again. You sometimes want those things to happen, but Josh is a very in-demand guy. I think he’s been offered a kajillion shows since Lost. I feared some other show would snap him up, and I just got lucky that I happened to send him the script when there was a window in his availability in his career.

The pilot came out really well. Juan José Campanella, who directed it, did a fantastic job, and Sarah Wayne Callies is really, really good. They have incredible chemistry; they had done a movie together, actually after the first season of Lost. I remember Josh coming in: “I got a feature!” and he went off and did this movie called Whispers, and it turned out that Sarah Wayne Callies was the female lead in the movie. So they actually worked together 10 year ago, so they know each other, and they have a wonderful friendship. They had this completely natural chemistry with each other because they have a 10-year friendship.

Set in the near future, the story of Colony takes place in Los Angeles, which is being occupied by a force of outside intruders. It’s totally aliens, right?

[Laughs] That’s a full-on Lost spoiler question! I’m not going to answer that. It was very intentional that the idea of irising out from these characters and not sort of explaining the whole world and the rules and what’s going was something we set out very intentionally to do. The idea for this show is: Ryan and I were both really fascinated with Nazi-occupied Paris. You see these images of people in fur coats, sitting in sidewalk cafes, drinking coffees with Nazi stormtroopers marching by in the streets—this incongruity of people trying to live life the way it had been in a world, which was completely upended. It was really fascinating. The idea was to take that same concept and put them in a contemporary setting. I think also it kind of completely subverts everyone’s expectation. You might put a label on the show if it’s about an alien invasion in Los Angeles, but it’s not really about that at all: You don’t see any aliens. It subverts all the expectations one has for this kind of a show. That was something we very intentionally set out to do.

For The Returned, is it daunting to take a foreign show and try to adapt it during a time where there’s a lack of reception for similar projects?

It’s a little daunting. I fully expect that we’ll get some slams for taking on this venerated French show, but the truth is: There are only eight episodes of the French show. After episode six, we go very much our own direction. After six episodes, our show is wholly original; it’s heading off into its own territory. I think it’s a fantastic premise, and it’s really hard to find great premises for shows. I think I saw the premise as a point for departure. At the same time, it made no sense to blow up all the stuff that was great about the French show. So while they shows chart a parallel course at the beginning, they very quickly—because six episodes is not very many—diverge, and our version of the show becomes its own thing, and I think it’s good. I hope that the audience will embrace the idea. First of all, I think there’s a large audience out there that won’t have watched the French show with subtitles, so the story at the beginning will be new for them, but very quickly, it’ll be new for everybody.

For more on your favorite TV shows, pick up this week’s issue of EW, on stands Friday. 

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