‘Bates Motel’ Postmortem: Star Max Thieriot on Directing Those Pivotal Norman Moments

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Freddie Highmore, Isabelle McNally (Photo: Cate Cameron/A&E)
Freddie Highmore, Isabelle McNally (Photo: Cate Cameron/A&E)

SPOILER ALERT: This interview for the “Hidden” episode of Bates Motel contains storyline and character spoilers.

We’ve just seen the fourth of Bates Motel’s final 10 episodes, and, no surprise, the pace of Norman Bates’s downward spiral is quickening. He desperately wants to live a “normal” life — especially now that the Norma-like Madeleine Loomis has caught his eye — but he just can’t shake “Mother.”

Making this fourth episode, “Hidden,” even more impactful: It was directed by Bates star Max Thieriot, whose Dylan has always been the character most supportive of his little brother’s breaking free and living a life independent from their s’mother, Norma.

Thieriot talked to Yahoo TV about his directing debut, and why it’s particularly appropriate that he directed the episode that also included the death of Dylan’s daddy. He shares the inspiration for several of the episode’s most memorable scenes — like Norman and Chick’s delightfully odd exchange about being roommates — and gives a good hint about the major event on the horizon for Dylan.

Yahoo TV: Congratulations, Max. Is directing something you had wanted to do for a while, or did the desire to direct come about specifically on Bates Motel?
Max Thieriot: It’s definitely something that I’ve wanted to do for a really long time. I mean, since I was basically a kid on set, I was always kind of fascinated with the other side of the camera. So, I have secretly just been taking notes and paying attention for the last 10 years. At one point I even thought about pausing my acting to go to film school, but after talking to multiple directors … like, Doug Liman, he said, “You’ll learn far more being on the set, honestly, than you’ll learn in film school.” So, I took that and thought, “I’m going to really pay attention to what goes on and learn as much as I can all the time.” It’s something I’m superpassionate about.

Was it less stressful to be working with people you know, or did that make it more stressful, more pressure-filled, for your first directing effort?
I think, for sure, less stressful. I think for any television director especially, it’s difficult coming onto the set for your first time, where everybody’s so close and knows each other for so long, and it’s such a tight-knit family. You’re a little bit of an outsider. But [here], I sort of knew everybody’s strengths and weaknesses, or what little weaknesses our main actors have. I think they are so amazingly talented that it makes it sort of really easy, because I obviously trust them fully, and the nice thing is that they trust me, because we’re all so close. They know if I have an idea about a scene or a way to try something different … they trust me that if it’s ridiculous or it doesn’t work, I am not saying I’m going to use it.

That was something that was really helpful specifically with Freddie’s performance in [“Hidden”] … he shows a full range of Norman in the episode, which we don’t really get to see normally. I think a lot of that is the trust that he and I have for each other. So that was really cool. Also, knowing that [all the cast] is going to bring it every day anyway and knowing what they always bring to the table, it made it sort of easy for me too, because beyond kind of just exploring little nuances in their performances, I really had a lot of time to focus on what I wanted to do as director.

Freddie Highmore (Photo: Cate Cameron/A&E)
Freddie Highmore (Photo: Cate Cameron/A&E)

It feels especially appropriate that you directed this episode, with several of the storylines. First, we officially say goodbye to Caleb (Kenny Johnson) in this episode, and Caleb has been such a weight on Dylan’s shoulders.
Totally, yeah. Kenny is such a giving actor, and he’s so connected with anything he does and so passionate. So he and I talked a lot, and it was really important to him that [Caleb] was sent off with as much respect as possible and in a way that was a beautiful ending for the character. And that was important to me, too, because I wanted to do right by him, which was the focus of making that funeral scene really about him, about that.

It’s appropriate that Chick is the one who performed that ceremony, too, because who else but Chick would do something so unique?
Totally. Chick [Ryan Hurst] is obviously this bizarre character, and I think Chick is an artist … deep down, that’s what he is at his core. Chick can find beauty in a lot of maybe morbid, dark situations. He sort of finds it in Norman’s life, but one of the things I wanted to show [with the funeral] was this sort of niche spirituality, and also that it was sort of peaceful and beautiful all at the same time.

Ryan Hurst (Photo: Cate Cameron/A&E)
Ryan Hurst (Photo: Cate Cameron/A&E)

It’s also an example of one of the things that people love most about Bates Motel, that, obviously, Caleb had very complicated relationships with everyone. But that character was so pivotal in all of these lives, so he did deserve a sendoff that acknowledged his importance to everyone.
Totally, yeah, I mean, there were ups and downs for this character throughout the show, but I was really hoping it would still be perceived as being as respectful as possible.

Norman is really cracking under the weight of his situation. He’s trying harder than he ever has, he’s fighting with Norma, he almost “kills” her in the woods. He goes to Chick and asks him for help. This really does feel like his last-ditch attempt to break free of her and maybe forge a life for himself. Dylan has always been the one who most encouraged him, who wanted him to have a chance to go live a life separate from Norma, so again, it felt very appropriate that you were directing this episode.
A lot of things that I wanted to visually show throughout the episode [were] really that, that Norman, it was him trying to live multiple lives. You get to see him act like himself and live as a normal guy around Madeleine. We see all of his relationships, like with Chick, but really it’s kind of the battle of him trying to break himself from himself, you know? From this thing, this world that he’s built in his mind. And it’s him trying to basically, to kill [Mother], and ultimately what he’s really trying to do is kill a piece of himself.

So, throughout I kind of tried to use as many shots as possible to sort of portray that. I kind of did things where, to just sort of make him feel like he was a little more isolated, that it was really everything going on inside of him … like, I would never really shoot over Norma, I would shoot over Norman, onto Norma, trying to center-frame Norman and then sometimes put her out of the center of the frame, even though it’s on her coverage. Sort of create this idea of, if you were to remove her from the picture it would still just be a guy having a conversation with himself. Going back to the trust Freddie and I have for each other, just because we’ve become such great friends. One of my favorite scenes is the office scene, where Sheriff Greene questions Norman about Jim Blackwell. It was one of those situations where we wanted to sort of bring out some of those elements of Psycho. And whether it was in the shot that kind of goes up underneath him or in the stuttering that he does, I’m really happy with how all of that stuff turned out.

As has been true of the whole season so far, there is much humor in this episode, too. I really love the scene where Chick comes back to the house with his stuff and asks if he can stay. He and Norman have this great back-and-forth.
Yeah, the great thing about Ryan is, he’s willing to try anything as an actor, and his range is so broad he can do anything. So, that was a fun scene to play, and we talked about it for a little bit, and we decided it should be like two good buddies, picture them like young guys, who get to have a slumber party. For Chick, it’s like they are going to camp for the summer, and they get to sleep in bunk beds. So I wanted it to be that that high also brings it that much lower when you’ve got to tell him he can’t go, so we see Chick be a little more devastated.

Another key moment in this episode is Norman’s make-out session with Madeleine, which is all kinds of weird as it’s basically Madeleine being his surrogate for Norma. How did you approach that delicate scene?
Yes, I think Norman catches sort of a glimmer of Norma inside Madeleine in many ways, in her personality and also just the way that she walks and carries herself, so we really played with a lot of little things in the scene to make it feel like he’s really thinking about Norma. There’s a moment when he lifts Madeleine up on to the counter, and she’s wearing one of Norma’s dresses, and we purposely did certain things, like Norman, when he reaches around behind her and he starts grabbing on to the dress, he’s really trying to feel the fabric of the dress. It might look like he’s just undressing her, but there was a deeper meaning behind that, and that’s that he’s really envisioning his mother and this is her dress and that’s kind of bringing him to her, the feel of the dress.

Vera Farmiga (Photo: Cate Cameron/A&E)
Vera Farmiga (Photo: Cate Cameron/A&E)

And then we cut back to a shot that looks through the hallway, over the banister onto them, in sort of a voyeur way, being watched. Also, she’s dealing with her husband, and at the end of the date, there’s a shot where we can kind of see, it’s a little blurry, but all of her pictures on the wall of her and her husband. It was just a really fun scene to shoot. And you know when Norman starts engaging with women that there’s a good chance that something is going to happen one way or another, but I wanted that to be as much of a surprise as possible, when Mother appears.

You’re not onscreen in this episode, but fans got some great updates on Dylan and Emma and their baby, and his job that he loves, in the premiere. That’s all Dylan ever really wanted, a family of his own, and now he has it. Have you been surprised by how Dylan has evolved throughout the series?
I have, yeah. It’s kind of funny, because I think a lot of the things that happen are what fans wanted to happen, but I think there’s some sort of mixed opinions on what the fans wanted. I think some sort of liked the bad boy Dylan that showed up, but now he’s at home with the baby, and he’s a family man. It was really cool, to be honest, that they purposely didn’t write me in [Episodes 3 and 4] just so I could purely focus on directing.

Can you offer up any little hint about Dylan, what the rest of his journey is for the series?
We haven’t seen yet … obviously we know that at some point, Dylan is going to find out about his mom. And I think that’s something that’s really … for me as an actor, before I even knew how the show would end, I was excited about that, because I knew there were a million ways we could play it and there’s a million things that could happen from him finding out. So that’s something I’m very excited for everybody to see. There’s a lot of really powerful stuff that happens after that.

Bates Motel airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on A&E.

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