How Netflix's 13 Reasons Why Is the Most Important YA Adaptation Yet
13 Reasons Why has landed on Netflix, which means that you've probably already in love with the utterly charming, and utterly heartbreaking, Dylan Minnette and Katherine Langford. On top of fantastic writing by showrunner Brian Yorkey, much of the (inevitable) success of the 13-episode-long adaptation of Jay Asher's bestselling YA novel is owed to their stirring performances.
Minnette, who's appeared in movies like Don't Breathe and Goosebumps, plays teenager Clay Jensen, who receives a series of cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker (Langford), a classmate who recently committed suicide. How do you teach a lesson without becoming an after-school special? How do you avoid becoming a PSA instead of a TV show? Part of the challenge of a show about teen suicide is striking the right tone. By turning the subject into an authentic, haunting, binge-ready mystery, Netflix has not only achieved something great but also produced something that will no doubt start a lot of important conversations.
While Winter Storm Niko raged outside a hotel overlooking Madison Square Park in early Feb., we went right to the source and to one of those very conversations with the show's young stars. After Langford — a 20-year-old Hollywood newcomer by way of Perth, Australia — was done marveling at seeing snow for the first time, she and Minnette discussed everything from the stigma surrounding mental illness to the therapy puppies they had on set and what it's really like when Selena Gomez is your executive producer.
POPSUGAR: Hearing Selena Gomez speak about the project, it's clear that she's so passionate and was really dedicated to bringing it to life in the right way. What has it been like to work with her?
Katherine Langford: The actual network test I did over Skype, so I didn't get to see anyone or be super involved in the casting process, but I think Selena and everyone who chose to cast us was so elated. Particularly for me, I had never done anything before. I got a call saying they wanted me, but we only had 10 days to get an O-1 visa. Anyone who's ever tried to get an O-1 visa knows that is not something you can usually get in 10 days, so for me the support was there right away. I truly believe this project is in the right hands and has always been in the right hands, because it's in the hands of people who really care about what they're saying. Selena's lovely.
Dylan Minnette: She makes us feel very loved and welcome. We didn't get to meet her until the very end, and she made us so comfortable.
KL: She's incredibly busy. She flew out while she was on tour after the tragedy with Christina Grimmie. She took time to look after herself, went and won an award at the VMAs with an absolutely iconic speech, and then the next day she was with us in Northern California for a whole day. She stayed with us the whole day on set and talked to everyone. She took us out to dinner and saw a movie with us, and we hung out with her. I don't think I can emphasize how generous she is and how genuinely she cares. Time is something that you can't put a price on, and she just gives infinite time to everyone around her. It's joy.
PS: In a lot of shows set in high schools, the characters and dialogue can come off as a little unrealistic for kids that age, but there's something about the show that feels so authentic. Did you guys have any input on making sure the script stayed true to what an actual high school student might say?
KL: I think they took two things into consideration about that. The first thing is that one of the biggest goals of making this series was to keep it as truthful as possible, because we knew that the story we were telling was important. I think everyone was really on board with that. In terms of the language, Brian Yorkey . . . it should just be Brian Yorkey full-stop. I can't even begin to tell you about his writing. These characters are like four or five dimensional. They're so solid and so well-rounded. At the start, you're just getting used to saying the lines and your character, and what Brian would actually do is listen to us through filming. He would pick up on our rhythms, and the language that we used, and even the things that we did. As we went along through the scripts, it became smoother and smoother to read. Things popped up that we were like, "Wait, I said that!" or "Wait, I did that!"
DM: Exactly. That happened to me, too.
KL: It got to the point that it was so snappy.
DM: He had the language down, for sure. If there ever was a time that a line seemed unnatural, I would go to him and say, "This catches me." And it's gone. They trusted the actors, because it's primarily a young cast. We really tried to make it as real as possible.
PS: Did you film in a real high school, or was that all a set?
DM: For the first bit. We were in this school in this small town in Northern California, Sebastopol. It was Analy High School.
KL: The Analy Tigers.
DM: We started in Summer, but then the school year started, so they built the entire hallway you see in the school. The set is huge, and they replicated it. It was awesome, and the coolest set I've worked on. If we needed to film outside the school, we had to switch our work week to Thursday to Sunday, since we could only film when [the students] weren't in class.
PS: Katherine, you're from Australia, so what was it like to play an American teenager in an American high school? Was it jarring for you at all?
KL: This may just be me, but I feel like everyone's dream is to live as an American high school student. [laughs] There are so many teen films set in America that you live vicariously through them, anyway. But it was totally different. I got to experience Halloween, and prom, and cheerleaders . . .
DM: And the Fourth of July.
KL: And the Fourth of July! It was crazy. It was definitely different. For me, personally, it was so weird and bizarre because it actually felt really, really realistic. I think it was partly because we were shooting in an actual school and the extras we used are actual high school students.
PS: Instead of shying away from darker themes like depression and suicide, which so many teenagers deal with on a daily basis, the show tackles them head-on. What do you hope viewers who are struggling with those issues will take away from it?
KL: I think that because of the issues that we cover, it's going to impact people differently depending on who you are. The issues are so personal that people are going to take away what resonates with them most. What I hope for the show is that it will inspire people to talk about these things and to continue conversations that need to be had instead of shying away from it. Things like mental illness and consent are things we should be talking about. It's not something people should be embarrassed by. Mental illness is very normal. Growing up in an age where we're starting to acknowledge just how prevalent it is, we need to be matching the rate at which it affects people. There needs to be a proper conversation, and people need to be informed and educated about it.
PS: Were there any times on set where things got emotional to the point where you had to take a step back and catch your breath?
DM: I know there was one scene, I wasn't around, but they had therapy dogs on set. There was a puppy per hour. They really tried to help out. The puppies helped. She had the brunt of the emotional stuff. I mean, we all have very emotional parts, but this is about her character.
KL: We always read a new script at a table read, and once we hit episode nine, there was silence. That's when we realized what we were doing was important. That's the moment that's kind of ingrained in my head as, "This is really important." We cover so many intense issues. I also want to reiterate how much support was there for me. When I was shooting with Justin Prentice, who plays Bryce, there's a scene we do in episode 12 which is physically hard to do, just as a human being. I feel like so much of Hannah's life, especially the last five episodes, is so tragic that you just have to put that shock aside and get through it. It's only been after the show and after wrapping that I've gone, wow, we really did handle some really heavy stuff. I'm really proud of how we handle it, because as you said we don't shy away from them.
PS: The music in every scene, especially when Clay and Hannah are at the dance together, is so haunting. Were there any particular bands or artists, or even books, that you read or listened to to get into the right head space for your character?
DM: Music was a huge part of it for me.
DM: I had a dialogue with Brian from the get-go about what songs should be on the soundtrack. I love that he was so open and it was very much a collaboration. There are so many artists on the soundtrack that I'm so proud of. And Clay's room is filled with posters of my favorite bands. There are other artists that I would love to have in there, but they aren't artists that I feel Clay would listen to. You'll see there are a couple Arcade Fire posters, Bon Iver, The Cure, The Shins, and some other cool things. I wanted to make sure it all felt very real, and I wanted the vibe to be appropriate. There's also a sense of timelessness to the show, because it feels so modern and it's in a modern-day high school, but I think it can connect to adults, too. There's something that feels very vintage about it. Maybe it's Tony in his car, in the Mustang. Maybe it's the music, because Joy Division plays a huge part in the first episode. So there are things that keep it timeless and make it feel like it could happen anytime, even though it's happening right now. Everyone can connect to it, either by sight or by sound. They connect to it somehow, and feel involved.
KL: The music vibes on set were A-plus. There is this kind of timeless thing, these kind of sensory triggers people will pick up on. It's funny Dylan mentioned posters, because in set design, we decided Hannah and Clay both have the same Arcade Fire poster in their bedrooms, which is kind of cute. In terms of getting into Hannah's character, she goes through a time where she really wants to write, so whether this was a by-choice thing or just because I felt like it, I asked props if I could have some of her journals. I started writing some poetry in between takes — I would just be scribbling in the corner. I really hope no one read them, because they're terrible. [laughs]
DM: They were really, really thick journals. She was prepared.
PS: With so many YA adaptations out there right now, what do you think is going to set 13 Reasons Why apart?
KL: Reality. The reality hits so close . . . that's the first thing that comes to mind. I know that there are a lot of incredible series and novels written for young audiences, but I think what's really interesting and unique about this is that it's not a piece of fiction. This really is a story that happens to numerous people every day. That's probably the coolest and also the most shocking thing. It really hits home that this is a harsh reality. This is happening.
DM: If this had been on another network, this easily could have fallen into melodrama, or not get the message across, or not tell the story to the lengths that it should. On Netflix, there's no boundaries, and we're able to tell the story as if it's real life. It's been a while since we've seen a show centered around teens that does that. Conceivably it's an adult show centered around teens. Yeah, you'll get a young audience and teens will get attached to this, which is appropriate and what should happen. But really it's an adult show. It's real. The pedigree of the people they hired to do this, from a film-making standpoint, sets us apart as well. Who won best picture last year? Tom McCarthy. Well, he's directing this. And Brian Yorkey, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is the showrunner. The cast is so amazing. They didn't worry about getting superstars. It's a lot of peoples' first real jobs, and you'd never guess. They focused on keeping it real and grounded and did a great job.
Watch 13 Reasons Why when it hits Netflix on Mar. 31.