Warning: This interview for the “Dreams Die First” episode of Bates Motel contains storyline and character spoilers.
So, that’s a new level of awareness for Norman Bates: After a chance meetup with Dr. Edwards, the Pineview Institute doc who tried to help him in Season 4, and the shocking realization that “Mother” had been taking control of his psyche (and body) to enjoy frisky romps with a fella she met at the White Horse Bar, Norman now knows he and Mother are one, two halves of the same person. She was his mind’s concoction, a way for him to deal with the incredible physical and emotional pain he witnessed Norma suffer since he was a child, and the entity that dealt with those who caused her pain when Norman was too young and fragile to do it himself.
But now, again, the illusion is gone, and just as he’s forced to face that truth, Dylan and Emma come crashing back into his world after finding out about Norma’s death. There’s also the looming threat of his vengeance-minded stepfather, Romero, for him to worry about, and the end of his brief dalliance with Madeleine Loomis, and to add to this, on-the-lam beauty Marion Crane (guest star Rihanna) checks into Bates Motel to rock Norman’s world even further.
“Dreams Die First” is the third Bates episode directed by series star Nestor Carbonell, who talked to Yahoo TV about helming this pivotal final-season installment, working with Rihanna, finding the series’ trademark darkly funny moments in those bar scenes with Norman, and whether or not there’s anything but revenge possible for the heartbroken Alex Romero.
This is your third time directing Bates Motel, but what did you think when you found out you were going to be directing this episode, not just because of the Rihanna guest appearance and the Marion Crane arc, but also, this episode changes a lot, pushes Norman’s downward spiral forward a lot.
I was so moved and touched that I was given the opportunity yet again to direct any episode, and then to get to direct not only Rihanna, which was an extraordinary experience, but also to direct Freddie in this capacity and in this particular turn. It really is a pivotal moment in Norman’s psyche… in the change in his psyche, sort of realizing that not only is his mother dead, but she is essentially gone forever from him, even in his mind. She’s died twice, one at his hands and once because she has left his psyche. To get to go on that journey as a director with Freddie was really special, because we really got to plot all the emotional beats together and figure out, “OK, how much do you give away here, when does this dawn on you?” and that’s always the fun part, particularly in this show… the subtext. It’s all subtext and getting to play that without having to lean on it.
We talked to Max Thieriot last week about directing the previous episode, and he said directing his co-stars was particularly helpful when you’re playing out these kinds of delicate, emotional storylines, because you trust each other, you know each other ahead of time, you feel freer to go places and try new things. Was that true of you and Freddie with this episode?
Absolutely, Max was right, we absolutely have an advantage of being part of the cast and part of the show from the beginning, in that we step onto a set that knows us all very well, and actors that know us and trust us.
The other thing, the advantage we have, is that we also get to cut our own episodes, and often, just by virtue of schedule, a lot of directors aren’t able to sit in an editing bay and cut their episode in a way that they would necessarily want to. So, because we were able to do that with scheduling, there’s another level of trust in that you could ask one of the actors to try something and say, “Don’t worry, if it doesn’t work, I’m going to be in the editing bay, and I will not print that, I won’t use that take if it doesn’t make sense in any way or if it doesn’t track.” I remember talking to Rihanna about that and telling her, “I will make sure I edit every frame, and every moment will be earned. If nothing else, you’ll have that, so please feel free to take as many chances as you can, because I will absolutely protect you in every way I can in the edit,” and I hope I did. In the three times I’ve gotten to direct, that’s always been something that I love to do, try and protect the cast as much as I can, because we have the constraints of time, of 42 minutes. An actor’s process is often sacrificed to move story, and sometimes it will make a performance… it makes certain moments not feel earned, because the middle bits have been cut out, all that process has been cut out. That was something that I was able to say, “I will make sure that I protect your process as much as I can.”
This season, every episode seems to have its own theme, almost making each one like a little movie, with so many storylines to tackle and characters to get to a certain place. Do you think that’s true?
I absolutely think that’s true. Even though there is a trajectory and the plot is serialized, they are very much standalone episodes. Certainly this one is with respect to Norman and the arc he has in this particular episode and the epiphany he comes to, it could absolutely be a standalone episode. The introduction of Marion Crane… I think this season is a chance for the writers to pay off so much that has been set up. We haven’t had filler episodes… I mean, every season has been packed with a lot of story and character-driven story. This season we really pay it off so characters are coming and going, and when I say going, it’s not necessarily leaving, you know, alive.
Getting into the Norman of it all in this episode, we see how fractured his mind is in this new way and at a new level. Norman finds out that he, as Mother, has slept with someone he met at a bar… his other half has been involved in this very intimate act, but with his body, so, in a sense, has this very carefully constructed method of protecting himself betrayed him?
I saw it less about him and him feeling that he had been exploited in any way, and more that he absolutely was culpable in his Mother’s death and that he absolutely, fully, has now conceded her in his mind, and that there’s no equivocating. This is absolutely what has happened. I think that the dawning of that is what’s so impactful to him at the very end… this realization that she’s gone forever, and that he had a part in doing that, both her dying as a human being and her soul evaporating from his mind. I think it’s maybe the first time where there’s real, true culpability, complete culpability, and we’ll see how long that lasts. Certainly at least in this contained episode, we feel his level of guilt and grief.
Is it also a realization of just how alone he is?
Absolutely. Very well put. Yeah, that is it. He realizes that she was everything to him… they were almost one and the same person, and now he feels as alone as he could ever feel. It’s strange, what Freddie has done, and Kerry [Ehrin] and Carlton [Cuse] and the writers… I mean, everything he’s done has somehow managed to allow us to sympathize with him, because of the way that it’s written that he’s not cognizant of everything he’s doing… a lot of it happens in blackouts. Certainly that conceit, but also, the charm, some of it’s on the page, and some of it’s just what Freddie would add to it. When you revel in mischief, as evil as it is… it’s like Iago, who doesn’t root for him in Othello? A lot of it is credit to the way Freddie has played it and obviously the way it’s been conceived and written by Kerry and Carlton, and the writers.
Those scenes in the bar, especially as Norman starts to put more of the story together, and he really doesn’t understand why the bartender seems to be confused about his appearance… it’s just a great game, the mystery unfolding in that way. What did you and Freddie talk about overall for those scenes, how you would approach them, the dark humor of them, what kinds of things you would focus on in them?
You know, every scene was different. As you said, every one obviously led to the other, but, specifically, we would talk about never playing the end of the scene at the beginning… being moment to moment with the actor. With the bartender, we talked about how in that scene in particular, the bartender is the one who’s [crazy], you know? [Laughs.] He’s not making any sense, why is he assuming these things, that he knows Norman, thinking Norman’s been here… like, who is this guy, is he playing a game with Norman, why is he being so weird? It’s almost as if the world around Norman is being weird to him, that’s the notion. It’s the old adage, “the person who’s insane is probably the last one to know”… it’s the world around him that is insane. It’s playing that, certainly never playing the maniacal Psycho side… it’s playing the truth and playing as normal as possible and assuming that everyone around you has just lost the plot.
Was it funny filming some of those moments, even during these very serious, intense scenes?
Yeah, absolutely. There were moments — and that’s the fun of the show, that it’s filled with dark humor. And much of that is on tape and much of it is the cast trying to find humor where we can, where it makes sense, not just winking at the camera. Freddie with the book matches and just playing with the bartender the way he did was one particular thing. He always loves to throw in an “Okie dokie”… he loves to throw in sort of a Mid-Atlantic kind of phrase whenever he can. It’s just little things, subtle things. He finds the underwear, the women’s underwear, in the back of his car… I had him tone it down a little there, because it was a little too comical. There was a fine line there where you’re looking for something that’s funny and also shocking.
Another key moment: the return of Dr. Edwards. That’s what really allowed Norman to acknowledge this dual personality he’s been using as his coping mechanism all these years.
Absolutely. That’s where the epiphany came from, that meeting with Edwards. I can’t give away too much about that, but the meeting with Dr. Edwards was absolutely… that’s the epiphany coming to him.
Dylan finally told Emma the truth about pretty much everything, and by the end, she finds out that Norma is dead. What did you talk to Max [Thieriot] and Olivia [Cooke] about in terms of how far you wanted to go with them really delving into that mystery, that devastating discovery, in this episode?
Yeah, it was a really good chance for both of them to sort of deal with some very heavy conflict. They’re both such amazing actors, and they work so well off each other. You see this guilt when she discovers the earring, you see that in his face, and you sort of plant the germ there. We played with the levels of when she confronts him and wants him to open up to her because she clearly sees that he’s closed off. In the kitchen with the baby, we played with different levels of anger and frustration on his side and ended up going with something in between, because I didn’t wholly want him to dismiss that. Obviously, there’s a lot of love there, and she’s coming with intentions and then ultimately… I love what [the writers] wrote, how it was up to Dylan, he came to terms with the fact that he had to come clean, which was a brutally hard thing to do knowing that in coming clean, he’s essentially implicating his brother as the murderer of his wife’s mom. Without saying as much, he opened up what he had to, pretty such said that’s what he felt probably happened, even though he can’t prove it. The stakes were really, really high.
You also directed [co-showrunner] Carlton Cuse, who was playing the cop who stops Marion Crane. What was that like?
That was so much fun. We had a blast. We didn’t have a lot of time, that was the only restraint, but he did a great job. And we had to do this without (his) glasses, too, and no contacts, so, God bless him, he did do it blind. He tried it a bunch of different ways, and he may have another career … he was great, and it was another nod to [Alfred] Hitchcock as well. Hitchcock managed to find himself in just about every film, not always saying something, but it was another nod and it was great to do with Carlton.
Rihanna said Bates Motel is one of her favorite shows, so she must have been incredibly excited to be there. Was she nervous about any part of her role, her performance?
It was extraordinary working with her, and getting to know her through this process. She’s an unbelievable talent, naturally, and really a natural in front of the camera. She came in, and I think what her objective was, was to always to be… she didn’t want to be Rihanna on Bates Motel. It was very clear that she wanted very much to be Marion Crane and do a version of Marion Crane that was very much far away from who her persona as a singer is. If there were any nerves, it was about that. I know that she had to spend a lot of time for the tattoo covering and on the physical side, really transforming, but above and beyond that, it was more about tapping into, emotionally, who this woman is. [Marion] is a muted woman with nothing, nothing to her name, and the hope of maybe getting together with this guy that she loved, who saw something in her above and beyond her looks. Really tapping into this simple woman who, all she truly wanted was love. She stole the money, but it was a means to the end… it was all about simplifying Marion Crane’s life, which was a modest and simple one. Tapping into that, and she was amazing. We had limited time because of her schedule and also our schedule, in terms of getting all of her work in for two episodes. She had so much material to do, and she didn’t skip a beat. She was seamless, and really emotionally honest, and very concerned about being there moment to moment. That scene in the office where she asks for the raise… it was heartbreaking. We worked on that. Her stillness said so much, and the way she took in the jabs from her boss. She deeply felt them.
Though you’re not on screen in the episode, Romero is talked about. Was it a little weird to be directing that as they’re talking about your character?
It was pretty funny. The hardest thing was shooting Sheriff Greene in my office. I was like, “This is just wrong. This doesn’t feel right,” you know? She’s amazing, Brooke Smith is fantastic, and while I’m absolutely rooting for her as an actress, you know, the actor in me is going, “Hold on a second, man, she’s taking up my office. This is just not right.” [Laughs.] That was a lot of fun shooting that scene with the chess match between her and Norman. Her opinion reminded me of the earlier stuff that I, as Romero, got to do, and I love that. I love that it sort of comes around full circle, that it doesn’t matter which sheriff it is, he’s going to get pinned against a wall, and he’s going to get found out eventually.
Romero is so singularly focused on revenge. Is there anything else for him?
It’s a really great question, and I think he may be at that point of no return now, now that he’s broken out of jail, and he’s got a gun, and he doesn’t seem to be stopping. I don’t know if he’s intellectually thinking that there’s anything beyond killing Norman, is there an escape route potentially… I don’t want to give anything away, but I think you’re absolutely right. He’s singularly dead set on killing Norman, and I think for him, everything else is secondary, including his own safety, his own life. The last time we saw the character, he was with Maggie Summers, and we’ll see what develops there… if there is a change of heart, who knows? Who knows where that goes, but right now, he’s definitely dead set on getting his hands on Norman.
Why do you think Norman decides to finally tell Madeleine about Sam? Is it because of this new clarity about his own life? He just has no patience for the kind of bulls–t, in his life or anybody else’s?
I think you’ve absolutely hit it on the head. I think he doesn’t have time for her mind games. He feels that he’s been playing his own mind games for far too long, and the last thing he needs to do is indulge Madeleine. Norman’s BS meter is not allowing him to indulge anybody else’s BS.
It’s mind blowing how much Isabelle McNally looks like Vera [Farmiga]. How has that been for all of you in the cast and crew?
It’s pretty funny. It was phenomenal casting, not just in terms of the look, but obviously casting her and her energy. Especially when I saw her in the previous episode, in [Norma’s] dress. I was like, “Wait a minute!” No wonder it became as uncomfortable, as dark as it did. Physically, it was extraordinary to see almost Norma incarnate in her old dress. She was great, and it was really great working with Isabelle, seeing her find Madeleine’s pain, as well. All these characters are so well written, because they all have some level of darkness, they all have some level of pain, and it’s nuanced and layered. Hers is one where she’s in a marriage — we talked about their history, about how they’re high school sweethearts and obviously they emotionally went different ways. She was completely in love with him and devoted to him, and while she had a moment with Norman, it was her first moment, but it was a moment. That is another great thing I love about the writing of this show… she’s no saint herself. She’s had sort of an emotional affair, and slightly physical. Not as much as Sam, but I love that nothing is clean and no one is free of guilt or sin in the show. Sometimes the characters tilt on the darker side and sometimes on the lighter side. I love how the pendulum swings for every character.
Bates Motel airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on A&E.