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Carlton Cuse on Ten Years of Lost, the Humor of Bates Motel, and The Strain’s Awesome Vampires

This month, when the Paley Center in Beverly Hills hosts a tenth anniversary reunion for Lost, executive producer Carlton Cuse will be there, crossing his fingers that it will be a celebration of the convoluted 2004–2010 drama’s legacy and not another chance for haters to nitpick the series finale. But Cuse isn’t sweating the Q&A too much, mainly because he’s busy working on two other shows, namely his weird and wonderful A&E drama Bates Motel and FX’s upcoming vampire drama The Strain (which launches in July). With Bates Motel returning for its second season tonight at 9 p.m., Vulture used the opportunity to sit down with Cuse for a long conversation about his projects, past and present. And yes, we go all the way back to The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.

Does it feel like ten years have passed since Lost premiered?
It’s kind of almost incomprehensible to me that that much time has gone by. We spent six years making the show so, I guess, but even so, it just doesn’t seem like it’s even been four years since the end. It’s nice that it still is kind of in the vernacular and I still get a lot of people on my Twitter feed talking about how much they liked the show or how they’ve just discovered the show. They’ll say, “I loved the ending of the show.”

You should send those tweets to Damon Lindelof.
Like in a lot of things, a few negative voices can make a lot of noise, and I think there were a lot of people who really did like the ending of the show. I was very well aware when we were doing it that there was no version that was going to please everybody. We did the version that we wanted to. Damon and I still stand by it. There was no answering-a-million-questions version of the end that wouldn’t have been didactic and awful. 

A year prior to your finale, Battlestar Galactica also opted for an emotionally driven ending, which also sort of split its fan base in the end. 
Yeah, and I think it comes down to what type of person you are. I think that some people have a greater acceptance for the mysteries of life and our existence. Other people are much more practical and didactic. There are some people who are very happy with a more emotional ending. For us, the show was really about these people who were sort of lost in their lives and searching for some form of redemption, meaning, and understanding, and our ending did nothing less than try to grapple with what the solution was to those larger issues. We tried in an ambitious way to address almost the spiritual conclusion of these characters’ journey and that was what we felt was right. 

When did you decide to go in that direction?
We knew from very early on that the symmetry of the show, well, it had started with Jack’s eye opening, so we knew that the end would be with his eye closing and therefore his death. It led very naturally into a conversation about the life and death and fates of the other characters. 

Lindelof broke up with Twitter in a very public way, citing angry Lost fans as a big motivator. Have you talked to him since then?
Damon seems like he’s in a really good place. I think it’s really great for him to finally be doing something that’s really his with The Leftovers. I think that when you work on a Star Trek movie, that’s mainly J.J.’s project. When you work on Prometheus, that’s innately Ridley Scott’s movie. This show is really his babym and from what I’ve heard, it’s going to be super cool. 

I read that while you worked on Lost, you used to have someone give you gist of what was being said online to avoid reading the comments yourself. 
Reading that stuff affects my creative psyche in a bad way. I tried to find the right balance of getting feedback in order to sometimes do course correction. Sometimes things don’t land the way you expect them to and you do want to have some sense of audience feedback but it has to be modulated in a way that it doesn’t become destructive to your own creative process. It’s different for everybody, but for me it works better if some of the comments and feedback is filtered because it just doesn’t get stuck in my head in a bad way.

Are you studying up for all the fan questions you’ll get at the Paley panel?
I don’t think I’m going to study up. I have what I call the five-year rule, which basically [means] I really don’t rewatch any of my stuff until five years has gone by. After five years, then I can actually watch it and just sort of enjoy the storytelling. Sooner than that and I find myself thinking through all of the logistical issues that went into breaking the story, shooting the episode, casting it, editing it. Also, I don’t believe in explaining things after the fact. I don’t really want to do that and I feel like the show stands by itself and should stand by itself. In a way, it takes away from the show to sort of stand up and issue some dictum and say, “No. This is what we meant and this is what it’s supposed to be,” particularly when there was an intentional ambiguity to some of the storytelling. And I think, like a good book can be read in different ways, my hope is that Lost is subject to interpretation and I don’t want to step on anyone thinking that this interpretation is less valid than another. 

What was the most difficult story to break?
Oh, the most difficult story that I’ve ever been involved in breaking on any of my shows was “The Constant” episode of Lost, which was when Desmond was consciousness-traveling. Damon and I and the writers spent five weeks on that one episode. 

What made it tough?
Normally you’d spend two weeks on an episode in the middle of the television season. We burned up all our lead time. We threw ourselves out of kilter. It took long to figure out the story with the kind of time-travel, consciousness-traveling elements but also to find a way to do that so that all of the science-fiction mechanics were servicing the emotional story. Storytelling and making television is like problem solving. Sometimes you just can’t solve the problem, and we just kept going and going and pounding and pounding. Finally we got there, and it was really rewarding because we worked so fucking hard on it. It was definitely the hardest one to do, for sure. 

How did Bates Motel become your first post-Lost project?
What intrigued me was doing something that was small and intimate. Bates just felt different from Lost in a good way, the idea of following these two characters. Norma Bates is one of the great characters of cinema and yet ultimately we know nothing about her, so to be able to sort of create and invent a character for her was something that was super appealing. 

I have a hard time explaining to my friends who aren’t watching how funny it is. 
Vera Farmiga has a screwball quality, which I think is something we’ve really written to. She’s funny and quirky, and so when, in episode nine of last year, all the stoners are getting high on her porch and she’s yelling at Rauf, it’s funny. 

It’s funny but understandable. She’s trying to run a business!
Right. She’s genuinely in anguish about the fact that this is not her vision of running a motel, having a bunch of “trimmers” who basically work in the weed industry sitting on the porch of her motel getting high. But when she tells the guy off, it’s funny. The other thing about Vera Farmiga is that she has this innate well of sympathy that allows us to push Norma in ways where she can be doing something that’s kind of extreme, but you still like her. Even the whole thing in episode two this season of this season where she convinces Norman to go do a musical with her, it’s endearing, but in the hands of another actor it could be grating and crazy. She kind of finds a way as an actor to make us like and believe in the character’s choices, even when those choices are maybe a little suspect or nutty. 

Do you think it’s been difficult for people to wrap their heads around that mix? Our critic once described the show, positively, as "a perverse modern cousin of Mildred Pierce or Stella Dallas." 
I think the show is this weird kind of combination of what I do as a writer and what [Friday Night Lights writer and Bates executive producer] Kerry Ehrin does as a writer, and so if you kind of mix Lost and Friday Night Lights, it’s like chocolate and peanut butter. They’re very disparate but they actually go together pretty well. Some people kind of criticize Bates for the pulpy and sort of excessive storytelling. But the very pulpy, over-the-top, drug-crazed culture in this town is a deliberate thing, as is having this larger-than-life storytelling for these very nuanced characters. That is the intentional cocktail of the show. There was just nothing to be gained in some sort of reverential tribute to the original film. 

Why peg it to Psycho at all?
The idea was to tell a tragedy. But it’s super hard to go out and pitch that as an original concept to a network and say, “Hey, I have a great mother-son tragedy for you,” but if you put it in the framework of the Psycho franchise it becomes something that’s marketable. When you watch Bates Motel you kind of know that, well, Norma Bates ends up sort of stuffed in the fruit cellar and Norman becomes this crazed serial killer, but in our version, you kind of love these characters. If you watched the movie you’d think, Okay, Norman Bates became Norman Bates because he was berated by [his] mother and she drove him into insanity — but what if, in fact, she just loved him? What if she was this wonderful, smothering, slightly crazy, over-the-top mother who just had the misfortune of having a son who had a flawed piece of DNA? And what if somehow because of her behavior she sort of catalyzes something that is inevitably going to happen, and because she loves him so much she kind of enables him to become the character he becomes? So we subvert all those expectations you’d have walking in.

The “Mr. Sandman” promos really get at that.
That was actually my idea. When I watched the footage of Norma and Norman singing together I thought, Wow. This would make for a fantastic promo, cutting the other darker stuff from Norman’s life with wonderful, fun, chippy little song that they’re singing. It does capture the duality of the show, which is there is kind of darkness and mayhem but also a weird loveliness. When you put the serial killer label on something there’s an innate belief that it’s going to be super serious because a lot of those shows are. What really differentiates Bates is that it’s warm and heartfelt. And funny. I think True Detective is fantastic, but it is dark. 

Whose idea was it to have Vera sing in episode two? I won’t further spoil the moment by revealing what the song is, but it’s altogether a perfect moment.
That was Vera’s idea. She said to Kerry and me, “Hey, I’d love to do something where I’m singing,” and it also happens that Kerry is a huge fan of musical theater and so it was this sort of kind of perfect thing. Again, I really love subverting the expectations people have for a show in the genre, and I don’t think that you’re expecting to see a musical number in a show about Norma and Norman Bates.

What is season two about?
Each of the characters in their own way will wrestle with the question of, “Who am I?” For Norman, it’s realizing that he has these blackouts and, by the end of the season, having a better understanding of what the consequences of those blackouts are. For Norma, it’s this dream of moving to White Pine Bay and starting her life over — am I the person who can run a business, be a member of the community, be socially accepted, be in the swirl of things? She’s going to kind of be like Icarus flying toward the sun, which is enjoyable, but there’s also this sense of, can this really work? You know that the Bates Motel is probably not going to ultimately be successful so our point of departure is “Let’s see the best version of their lives to start.”

This isn’t a show that can run forever. How long do you want to go?
There is a shelf life to the show and it’s not a super-long one. It’s a story that has an inevitable end. Kerry and I have a rough map for what happens between now and the very end of the show and the ending of this show is a lot more distinct and predictable than Lost. That’s one great thing about Bates — there is no big struggle with how to land the end, not that we’re literally going to enact the movie. It’ll be our own version of something tragic. We kind of know what that is, so that’s good. So it’s not going to be a super-long journey, but it’s going to be a really intense one. 

As you’re wrapping this season of Bates, you’ve also started up on FX’s The Strain, a drama about vampires. But these are vampires a la Guillermo del Toro, who co-wrote the original novels on which the series is based.
They bear no resemblance to vampires on Vampire Diaries or True Blood or Twilight. They are scary. That’s the thing about working with Guillermo. He is one of the most visually imaginative people that I’ve ever collaborated with. Sometimes you get disappointed when you’re watching these monster movies like, “Well, that monster looks like four other monsters,” but our creatures are really cool.

They go to the bathroom and eat at the same time, for one thing! 
It’s an elaborate biology. They work in very different ways from other vampires we’ve seen.

For those unfamiliar with the book series, what’s the premise? It’s similar to The Walking Dead in that it’s an outbreak that results in the dead becoming undead. 
Well, but it feels very different than The Walking Dead. That show follows one group of survivors who are under assault from zombies who are scary but who essentially do one thing. There’s a very elaborate mythology toward out vampires. There are different types of vampires. There is a hierarchy and a master vampire and lots of levels with regard to the forces of antagonism. We follow a whole group of characters in New York City from various stratas of society as they’re exposed to this strain of vampirism and we’re watching how their worlds are upended. It’s a little bit like the biblical phrase, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” Your status kind of radically changes as this disease spreads. The first season is really the first book, and really the first half of the first book is the pilot. There’s a lot of storytelling that isn’t in the book. Even if you read it, you can’t watch first season of the show and go, “Oh, well, I know everything that’s going to happen here.”

I read that FX committed half a million dollars to getting the creature development alone. 
We prepped this series like a movie. One of the things that’s I think hard in television is that there’s a certain sameness to a lot of television because you’re working in a very constricted box and the box is defined by the amount of money you have to spend and the amount of time you have to get ready. FX busted out of the box on both fronts. They gave us a bunch of money up front to do research and development on the creatures, on visual effects, on world creation. There’s prosthetics, puppetry, CG work, makeup effects, stuntmen. We hired conceptual artists. You can’t do these things on a normal television schedule. We’ve been working on this for a year and a half, which is an incredibly long lead time for a television show. 

Your past shows, going all the way back to The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. and also to Nash Bridges, have had a sense of humor. Will it be the same way with The Strain?
This has less of a sense of humor than most of my other shows, but I do believe that what it does have is it has the same heart and humanity. You care about these characters in ways that’s beyond just will they escape from the creatures. It’s not just guys fighting scary vampires. People obsessed [over] the mythology of Lost, but we spent most of the time in the writers’ room talking about the characters and what their interactions were like and what their journeys were. I feel like the same is true with The Strain

You tweeted about this the other day, but I never put together on my own: The Olympics uses the Brisco theme music!
Isn’t it great? See my Brisco poster over there? Brisco was the first show I created, and of course at the time I had no idea what a special experience it was because I didn’t have a frame of reference. After it was over I was like, “Damn. Shoot. That was something special.” I’m still upset that it got cancelled. I think that had Fox given it a second season, it could have really run and been a kind of an iconic show very much in the style of a lot of their other iconic shows. It had this kind of quirky, offbeat sensibility that I think is part of what makes those Fox shows Fox shows. Sadly, they thought the NFL was going to let them get bigger ratings for other things and they didn’t try our show in another time slot. I’m sad that it had a short life but it was super fun to do. And Bruce Campbell was fantastic. 

Are you still in touch with Bruce Campbell?
I usually see him at Comic-Con. He’s Mr. Comic-Con. I wish I saw him more but also he lives in Oregon. That makes it a little hard. Yeah. 

I feel like he’d easily fit into the Bates Motel world. Norma and Bruce!
He would, actually. That’s a good thought. I’ll have to ruminate about that. Really, I will.

Photo: Araya Diaz/Getty