We chat with the show’s production designer about everything from ‘The Leftovers’ to Andy Warhol.
Brian Yorkey’s 13 Reasons Why begins in a high school hallway but doesn’t stay there. Its branches can be felt in every inch of the Northern California suburban town. Adapting Jay Asher’s bestselling Thirteen Reasons Why into a 13-episode series that Netflix dropped last weekend, the series explores the world surrounding Hannah, a teenager (Katherine Langford) who kills herself, and Clay (Dylan Minnette), a friend whose relationship to the deceased is among the show’s central ambiguities.
To some, framing what feels like a Twin Peaks-esque murder-mystery around an issue like suicide comes off as dangerous. Hank Stuever, of the Washington Post, called it “an especially cruel experience.” But suicide, the third leading cause of death for young people aged 15 to 24, has long been a fixture in teen literature, from Sharon Draper’s award-winner Tears of a Tiger, long a middle school staple, to Asher’s own novel, itself owner of a pile of awards from institutions as diverse as the International Literacy Association to Kirkus Reviews. And, of course, there’s Heathers (1989), that ultimate satire of the teenage suicide movie. But 13 Reasons Why is genuinely interested in teenage grief, and Minnette’s performance is Emmy-worthy if they handed Emmys out for pure restraint, for doors shut on the typically voyeurous camera. Beyond Yorkey, a Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright, Netflix brought together a bevy of acclaimed talent behind the camera: from Academy-Award winners like Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) to low-budget indie artists like Gregg Araki (Kaboom).
Essential to any teenage drama, however, is the everydayness that it fills with its pain, wizardry or vampires. To be a teenager is to dwell in the ordinary, where anything that doesn’t occur between school bells, exams and driving in cars ricochets with strangeness. For most, it’s the last time that ordinary things can feel interesting, where time can be spent doing nothing. For that reason, I was excited to talk to Diane Lederman, the show’s production designer who was able to take me on a conversational tour of how Netflix was able to transform a few corners of Vallejo, California into a certain version of Everytown, USA.
Lederman has had an interesting career, one that has stretched from (re)-constructing Andy Warhol’s Factory for Mary Harron’s debut I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) to designing the weird suburbias of the first season of HBO’s The Leftovers and the last few seasons of FX’s The Americans. I was interested in what brought her to the world of working with young adult literature and I was also interested in just how she got Warhol’s foil right.
FSR: So, tell me, what brought you to 13 Reasons Why?
Diane Lederman: I felt like the story was important because it felt like the kind of thing that could happen to anyone. Even though we made the choice of setting it in California, I felt like it was something that we made that teenagers anywhere needed to see and something that I thought had a real chance to get out to an audience wider than everyone who had read the book.
How did you go about creating that everyday universe?
I remembered when I was driving through Vallejo, I thought this is going to solve the problem of how we create the world of our story. We had the empty space where we set Monet’s Coffee Shop, which is where all the kids hang out after school and a lot of the pivotal scenes happen. Giving it that identity was very important, obviously, and it was one of my favorite sets.
And so we took over, and we created a coffee shop. Then, an old furniture shop that was a jujitsu studio became our movie theatre [where Hannah and Clay work]. We designed the entire lobby to look like a vintage movie theater, which was really beneficial to shooting because a lot of movie theaters are now multiplexes and don’t have the grand lobbies that once populated these theaters. So in order to have a playing field for multiple scenes that happened there, we created something that allowed us a lot of freedom for shooting, it allowed the directors a lot different opportunities to explore that lobby atmosphere. And people thought I was crazy, but I had this idea to transform this other storefront into a marquee for the theater. It was great. Part of my job as a production designer is to make sure directors have the ability to put their camera in multiple places, so that we’re not seeing the same camera angles time and time again. So, that was a really important part of my job, to read a script and envision how one might shoot it and afford those opportunities to our director. And I was able to successfully achieve that and we’re really proud of what we did with the story.
How much of the town did production take up?
We had three or four blocks that we took over and we really wanted it to feel idyllic, so we added hundreds of trees and bushes and plants to the blocks that we took over. I was challenging but we wanted it to feel and have that idyllic feel and a lot of California is kind of barren. So, we added all our own greenery. And just doing the different storefronts really changed the look of the town. It was really fun to do and, to me, really one of the most satisfying parts of it was how the town reacted, all of its inhabitants were so grateful for our presence and they kept the murals we created for the show, and we all signed it they kept them all and they’ll be there forever.
One of the main murals that we did took the little French town in [Van Gogh’s] Starry Night and turned it into the main street of the town we created, with the theater marque right at the center. And they loved it.
13 Reasons Why, like a lot of the work you’ve done, is a TV show that maps the psyche of characters who are forced to look at a place through different lenses as the story progress. How do you approach that task as a production designer?
For 13 Reasons Why, we wanted to start from a place of neutrality and then build from there because, as we learn about Hannah’s story, we learn that her world has crumbled and has fallen apart and it definitely got darker as the story progressed and I tried to support that as much as I could.
How did it compare to work you’ve done on, say, the first season of The Leftovers? That’s also something of a suburban story.
The kind of everyday story that we needed to do in creating The Leftovers was a really different kind of everyday. We wanted to sort of lull the audience into this unsuspecting mood of not understating what was really happening in the story. [laugh]
We wanted to start it in a place of where the audience would feel like everything was completely normal and, move on from there as the season progressed. We tried to empathize, then, that this was a world that was falling apart. But at first glance, everything wanted to feel completely normal. Which was largely why we opted for a suburban landscape that, like in 13 Reasons Why, was a place that people identified with and felt comfortable with and, when they see it, they know what it was and they understood where they were at and who the people in that kind of place were. And, as the story progressed in The Leftovers, we really wanted them to feel that decay and feel the world around them crumbing.
What kind of things did you use from your own life to access that kind of ordinary aesthetic?
Everything in my design draws somewhere from some experience of my life. Production design, for me, is just another form of storytelling. So, absolutely. Things that I remembered from my childhood growing up in parts of Queens. It was a sorta fairy-tale little town, with a very prominent main street and lots of little shops and I drew from that when I was thinking about what shops should look like in something like 13 Reasons Why.
What were some of the first sets you worked on, as a production designer?
One of my favorite first films that I ever worked on was I Shot Andy Warhol. I was working with a friend of mine who was doing production design and we worked together to create the world of Andy Warhol which was really very challenging but it was just so much fun and satisfying. We had the help and support of the The Andy Warhol Foundation [for the Visual Arts] who lent us a lot of Warhol’s original slides to recreate all of his art work. We had to catalog everything created, photographically, and then, afterward, provide proof of destruction of all pieces because, in essence, we were recreating real Warhols. Since almost all of his works were created by assistants, anyway, if you’re using his files and recreating his sculptures, you’re basically making more Warhols and we can’t have that.
So, we had to destroy them all after the film was finished shooting. Of course, we also had spent two twenty-four-hour periods putting aluminum foil on the walls of an old warehouse in order to create the Factory. It was a monumental task and the film only had a thirty thousand dollar budget, so it was difficult, but it was very fun.
What was it like working with someone like Brian Yorkey or Tom McCarthy?
Brian Yorkey was constant inspiration and definitely one of my favorite people I’ve ever worked with. Tom was also really inspirational. I’ve learned so much working with him and his process and how he breaks down a script and brings that world to life. He, really, is a great storyteller. I’ve learned a lot working with him. Both Tom and Brian were uncompromising in their vision and I think that, oftentimes, you have to comprise as part of the process, but we really didn’t.
As a woman, I’ve found that women tend to want to please more and learning to not give in goes against the grain a little bit. Which is why think it’s really important, when you’re trying to make something special, that you have a team that doesn’t demand those compromises.
The first season of 13 Reasons Why is streaming on Netflix now.