During the course of a reflective and riveting conversation Max shared with us his memories of first discovering Psycho and the privilege of stepping into this world, his thoughts on what makes Hitchcock an enduring filmmaker, the challenges of stepping into the shoes of iconic and new characters alike, and the advantages of television to tell the back story of one of cinema’s iconic relationships.
What are your first memories of Psycho?
The first time that I came across Psycho I was very frightened. I first watched it at a young age, and it was the shower scene and the line “Wouldn’t hurt a fly” that resonated with me more so than the other scenes. Psycho is and will always be an iconic piece of cinema. It’s a part of what I do, and so when I heard they were doing a television show I thought it was interesting. Vera [Farmiga] had already signed on and when I got a phone call I Initially thought it was for Norman Bates. I hadn’t known of any other character but of course he hadn’t been created yet.
It was overwhelming at first and then when I heard it was for Norman’s brother Dylan, it intrigued me. It was something different, somebody I had never heard of. Freddie and I signed on at about the same time. The writing was great, and it became clear that we weren’t trying to mimic Psycho or remake it. We were creating our own rendition of it, and so it took a lot of the pressure off the table and gave us a lot more freedom. But of course it was exciting because Hitchcock is so important within the film industry.
Talking of the Master of Suspense, what makes Hitchcock such an influential and enduring presence?
By frightening and scaring people he figured out how to tap into an emotion that is important to us. As much as people don’t like to be scared the truth is that they also like to be scared. It makes you feel differently to feeling happy or sad, which are different emotions. He didn’t just figure out how to make people respond that way, he mastered it at a time when other filmmakers hadn’t really done so. That is a huge element in film today, and he paved the way for all these other movies, these thrillers so that the genre could develop and become what has become. But in saying that he also figured out that it is something we are entertained by.
Hitchcock was a student of human nature and in particular he was interested in what made people tick. Within his films he’s more interested in the exposition, what drives the characters and their actions.
Exactly, and it’s true for all his movies. It does not only pertain to Psycho. Rear Window is one of my favourite movies and it is such a simple idea. He takes that and he leaves a lot of it up to the viewer’s psyche to scare themselves, because not a lot is happening for the majority of that movie; he’s not showing demons or monsters, but he’s letting us go into our own mind. He figured out how to manipulate people into scaring themselves, and you give the audience more credit that way.
Freddie and Vera are playing two iconic characters, whereas you are playing a character for which you have a clean slate. How would you compare and contrast the challenges of playing your character to the challenge for Freddie and Vera?
The challenge first of all is obviously for Freddie who is stepping into a character that Anthony Perkins mastered. He’s such an iconic character and it’s tough because you don’t want people to compare you but they are going to anyway. So it is a fine line for Freddie to keep some sort of authenticity to the original character that Anthony Perkins played, whilst coming up with new stuff, but in a way that it is not offensive or doesn’t totally change the character in such a way that people are going to get upset. Norman is after all a character that audience members and film buffs have grown to know and to like, and so it is like walking a tight rope or walking a fine line.
For me it is different. I definitely have more flexibility because Dylan is a new character and like you said we have this clean slate to mould Dylan’s character. But at the same time it can also get a little nerve wracking because you know how much people care about the other characters, and here you are coming up with a new one. It is sort of the same thing – you don’t want to insult the audience and Psycho fanatics who aren’t used to the idea of him having a brother. It really is a fine line because you want them to accept this character and to like him. Luckily I do have the freedom to try and mould the character but you are still constantly hoping that he is going to be accepted.
There was the initial concern that Norman Bates’ childhood may be best left to the audience’s imagination, which can as Ridley Scott first cited as a reason for being hesitant about undertaking an Alien prequel can create something more compelling than what the filmmaker can. When you first read the script what was it that made you confident that this wouldn’t be a concern, and that it was the right decision to explore Norman’s younger years onscreen?
The characters in the show are written so well that each character has a lot going on inside them emotionally that the audience doesn’t know about. It is interesting because you can constantly tell that these people have more to say than what they are actually saying – Norma’s past, the relationship between Norma and Norman as well as Norma and Dylan’s past and what happened there. Whilst we do show quite a few things, the show also leaves a lot up to the audience to interpret for themselves. Norma and Norman’s relationship is obviously a strange relationship, but is it as strange as some people think, or is it just that they are reading too much into it? So we do leave a fair amount up to the audience to decide, which I think is cool because it’s not all on the table for everybody to see. I think we continue to do that in season two, and we actually see the progression of Norma, Norman and Dylan. Everybody has a lot of baggage and there’s a lot going on, though whilst there’s a lot going on that the viewer sees, there is a lot going on that is left to their imagination.
What are the advantages of doing this as a television series as opposed to a film?
The interesting point about television is the constant growth and the evolution of these characters. Opposed to a movie which is an hour and a half or two hours long in which you’ve got to get through it; you’ve got to speed up and you’re going to miss a lot, television gives us the freedom to take our time to explore the progression of these characters and their lives. At the same time we are able to expand the world that they live in and reach out and show what’s going on around them. We can go a lot further into the story because we have so much more time. Obviously there have been times in television where it hurts a show, where it can seem that there is too much time, and they’ve gotten carried away. Fortunately we’ve got a really great writing team who have a good grasp and understanding of what it is that they are doing, of the end result and how they are going to get there. I think they are going to play it out just right.