How 13 Reasons Why Created an Authentic Teenage Experience

Screen Rant talks to 13 Reasons Why Production Designer, Diane Lederman, on how she enhanced the characters on the show through her design

13 Reasons Why has become one of the biggest shows of 2017 already, before the year is even halfway done. Just three weeks after the show arrived on Netflix, it had become the most tweeted about show of the year, and the discussion hasn’t just been limited to social media, either. Across the globe, discussions (or arguments) have raged over the emotive subjects that 13 Reasons Why has tackled.

Arguably, the show only brings issues to light that we should be discussing anyway; what drives people to suicide? How does one person decide that to end their life is the only way out of their current predicament? Why is sexual assault and rape so prevalent in high schools, and who are these young men who grow up to think it’s okay?

13 Reasons Why has captivated audiences, from its cast to the writing to the direction. The production as a whole was a massive achievement; portraying a realistic everyday existence for these characters. That is, perhaps, a major part of why the show has had such an impact; these events really could happen to any kids, any family, in any given time and place. Screen Rant spoke to production designer Diane Lederman about what goes into bringing a show like 13 Reasons Why to life, and how she went about creating an authentic teenage lifestyle for the characters to be placed in.

“Partly research,” Lederman explains. “But we also spoke a lot to the actors. Brian (Yorkey, showrunner) has a lot to do with Clay’s bedroom; that was a very personal journey for him. We worked closely with Dylan (Minette) to choose all of the music posters on his walls. It had to feel right for the character. Brian wanted Clay’s character to be more into older music rather than the contemporary stuff the other kids were listening to. He wanted the character to have that individuality.”

A production designer's job can be considered well done if an audience doesn’t notice it. That is to say, we take for granted that Clay’s bedroom is his own personal space, since nothing seems out of character; everything in that space is something that character would realistically have. Some eagle-eyed viewers might have noticed, though, that the teenager’s bedrooms were color specific, and Lederman made a conscious choice on that to better reflect their individual personalities.

“It was a lot of work, and everyone had a part in it. Colors were chosen based on the palate of the show. I wanted Hannah to be defined by the color purple, I felt it was the right choice for her. It’s a very teenage girl color, but it’s more mature than pink. Whereas with Jessica, she was the pink girl, more adolescent in her attitude. Hannah had a deep-seated soulfulness that I thought was important to express in that room. That’s why all the hand-drawn art and ethnic touches are there; she had an intelligence and an inner life that was very rich.”

Lederman also went to great lengths to make sure every touch of each bedroom was personal to its owner, and that included childhood artifacts that most teenagers still have in their rooms.

“With Clay, he loves his robots, he’s a little bit of a science geek, into astronomy. In the second episode, when they did the animation of the astrological poster he has on his wall, that poster was my idea since it was the perfect thing for Clay’s walls, and then they used it to make the animation at the start of the second episode.

"All of the kid’s bedrooms had touches of childhood, because nobody is dropped out of the sky, into the moment that our story starts. These characters all have a life and a history, and I try to remember that when I’m dressing a set. It’s so important to create a sense of history. Nobody gets rid of things from their past completely. Things come and things go, but we all have things that we carry with us throughout our life. I wanted people to feel that sense of history. In the kid’s bedrooms, that’s shown through their childhood belongings that they held on to. With Jessica, it was the stuffed animals and the little dolls she had around, with Clay it was the robots.”

These little touches, showing the audience the child they were and the adult they are becoming, perhaps made what was happening to them all the more harrowing to watch. Jessica had to sit down with her dad, in her childhood bedroom, and tell him she’d been raped. Clay listened to thirteen sides of cassette tapes, detailing why Hannah Baker took her own life; a hard enough concept to deal with as an adult, let alone when you’re still a teenager. As for Hannah, we know the tragic way in which her story ended, but we also saw the heart-breaking moment that her mom discovered her. As a parent, to then return to Hannah’s bedroom, seeing it filled with trinkets, pictures, toys, and furnishings, that tell the story of her life, must be truly devastating.

13 Reasons Why is renewed for a second season at Netflix, and Hannah and Clay will be returning. While we’ve seen how Hannah told her story, we don’t yet know how others perceived it all to be (apart from Clay, to an extent). As the characters continue to grow, both in terms of personality and age, it will be interesting to see how life’s events change them, and, in turn, how this is reflected in the production design on the show.

13 Reasons Why season one is available for streaming now on Netflix. Season 2 will air in 2018.

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