Bates Motel: How to build the creepiest place on Earth
More daunting than bringing Psycho‘s infamous killer to life in his youth for A&E’s prequel Bates Motel, which debuted in 2013 and starred Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga, was the challenging task of painstakingly recreating one of the most iconic landmarks in film history. Co-creator Kerry Ehrin and production designer Mark Freeborn walk us through the creation of the Bates Motel and home.
The Origins of a Set
With the show aiming to pay homage to Psycho director Alfred Hitchcock, Universal graciously provided the blueprints from the 1960 movie, which was filmed on the backlot. However, the Bates team discovered that the drawings for the infamous house on the hill were under scale, so they were forced to start over. They’d end up building two versions — an interior on a soundstage in Vancouver and an exterior shell of the house and motel 45 minutes southeast from downtown — both of which went through some major changes.
The Innards of the House
For practical reasons, the interior was scaled significantly larger, from extending the rooms to give production more space to move cameras to adding a vestibule to the home’s entrance. “The house ended up being a little grander than the one in the film,” Freeborn says. Using the Hitchcock film as reference, the show’s original set decorator even found what Freeborn calls “the absolute twin to the lamp that sat on the master staircase,” which was one of the few antique flourishes. “We were very careful about adding contemporary touches whenever we could without them being overwhelming,” Freeborn says of their aim not to be a period piece. Bates bosses Ehrin and Carlton Cuse also didn’t want to completely recreate the interior, with Ehrin noting that the psychological lens viewers would look at the house through had to reflect both the darkness inside Norma, but also make you root for this modern woman starting a new life. “Norma was a different person than the mother in the film,” Ehrin says. “My fear was that if the house looked exactly like it did in the film, people would just think she was crazy. You want people to get on the ride with her and you have hope for her.”
An All-Too-Realistic Motel Exterior
The exterior locale was built on a decommissioned landfill, which led to some interesting rainy days — of which there are many in Vancouver. “When the rains came, occasionally the first few minutes on set were aromatic,” Freeborn says, noting that the motel itself sank roughly eight inches over the course of the five years they were filming there, forcing them to keep refilling the parking lot. In a bid to keep costs down, the house was initially built without its signature Victorian tower. “We couldn’t afford it,” Ehrin says with a laugh. “So we had to CGI the roof the first season.” Even so, the Bates Motel felt so distinctly real that it caused many passersby to seek out vacancy. “The motel was pretty faithful in a lot of ways,” Freeborn says. “It was surprising how many people believed it was a real motel. Even more surprising was the fact that the set was never vandalized, which Freeborn credits to their unofficial security guard: a cut-out of Hitchcock pinned to a window in the house. “When we weren’t shooting, he was watching the place,” Freeborn says.
A Fond (Fast) Farewell
All told, from the first germ of an idea to when the house was film-ready, it took roughly seven weeks — “It was fast and furious,” Ehrin notes — but it was demolished in the blink of an eye once production wrapped. “I wasn’t there for it because I would’ve cried and embarrassed myself,” Ehrin says. “Honestly, it’s still hard for me to accept that it’s not there. Freddie Highmore and I got on the phone in the middle of the night one night, and we were just crying because we couldn’t believe it was gone. It’s the price of admission for what we do — that it’s not forever, it’s temporary — and that’s what makes it special and magical at the same time. Of all the houses in the world, the Psycho house was lovely.”