Since its release at the end of March, Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why has become a wild success story. The series dealt with subjects including suicide, rape and the complexities of teenage life in a frank and refreshing way, and although it has attracted criticism, it has also been applauded by those viewers relieved to finally find a show which accurately reflects their lives.
Obviously, many elements go into making a successful show. For 13 Reasons Why, this involved adapting a book into a series, casting authentic and believable actors, and creating a world detailed enough for viewers to feel fully immersed in Hannah Baker's story. In charge of bringing that last element to life was production designer Diane Lederman, whose work you may be familiar with from series such as The Leftovers and The Americans. Speaking to Movie Pilot, Diane discussed a little about the process she and her team went through to bring Hannah and Clay's world to life.
With 13 Reasons Why being based on Jay Asher's 2007 novel of the same name —and also being a fan of the book herself — Lederman explained that everything in the series was created with the novel in mind. However this came with its own challenges:
"Each individual that reads the book will envision its world in their own way. Translating those words and bringing that world to life held a great responsibility to the many fans of the book and their expectations. As readers of the book, we too had our own vision and of course the sets are our own interpretation. Jay Asher loved our version of Monet’s and The Crestmont Theater, as well as the rest of the sets. I think we got it right."
While keeping true to the novel was an important factor in the production design process, Lederman's team also sought to create an environment which was recognizable to viewers, and therefore further helped to involve the viewers in Hannah's story:
"The idea and concept behind creating the home town of '13 Reasons Why' was to invoke a sense of familiarity. A small town, with a vibrant main street, which could be anywhere USA, and the sort of home town easily identified with. Any of us could be Hannah or Clay; any of us could need help at sometime, and any of us could be the one to extend a helping hand."
This detail in the production design echoes another important detail from the series, when they revealed toward the end of the season that many of the events had taken place in the future (the date on the interview recording shows that many of the events were taking place in November 2017). This small detail left the audience with the message that everyone is going through something in life, and perhaps if they reached out to someone they knew, they could prevent a potentially devastating decision from being made.
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But while the town was meant to feel familiar to all viewers, in reality Lederman says it was created from a mix of real locations in Northern California and locations built on a massive makeshift soundstage. Frequently used sets such as school hallways, classrooms and the character's bedrooms were all recreated in a massive warehouse on Mare Island near Vallejo, California. Meanwhile in Vallejo itself, the team took advantage of the vacant storefronts in the town's main street to bring sets to life:
"We took over several store fronts on [Vallejo's] now vacant but once grand main street to create our town. Monet’s, The Crestmont Movie Theater, and the Baker’s pharmacy all started as vacant store fronts, transformed into the versions seen in the show. The before and after photos are very telling as to the amount of work that went into bringing these locations to life."
One of the most important sets for the series was that of Liberty High School, and Lederman explains that this was her first challenge as production designer on the series. The search took her to over 30 different schools before finally finding Analy High School in Sebastopol, CA:
"My first task as designer was to find our Liberty High School location. A daunting task as the school is almost an important character in the story as any of the living breathing humans... We took advantage of all the Analy campus had to offer: a great main hallway, cafeteria, charming grounds, a newly laid athletic field, and so much more."
But of course, once school was back in session, access to the property was much more limited, hence the need to recreate sets on the soundstage. However, even Lederman admits she can barely tell the difference between which scenes were shot on location and which were done done on stage:
"We recreated the main hallways and classrooms on our soundstage. A convincing replica, I myself can barely tell the difference between the original and our stage set version while watching the series. The gym was born from a defunct rec facility on Mare Island. We completely renovated the structure: stripped, repainted and fished the floors; added the bleachers; painted the walls; added all the banners and dressing, which truly created a sense of history for our fictional school."
For those who have seen 13 Reasons Why, the production design team's hard work in choosing real locations, recreating sets and carefully bringing the pages of the original novel to life is evident. Every element involved in the series does its utmost to draw audiences in, and make you a part of the sad story of Hannah's short life. Not only does the TV adaptation of 13 Reasons Why do a service to its source material, but it's also yet another high quality production in Netflix's impressive catalogue of original series.
To see Diane Lederman's work in 13 Reasons Why you can stream Season 1 on Netflix now.
What was your favorite part of 13 Reasons Why?