Producer Mandy Teefey discusses how her Netflix series 13 Reasons Why opens a dialogue on such serious topics as teenage suicide and bullying.
Mandy Teefey co-produced the brand new Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why with daughter Selena Gomez. The two harbored a long-standing passion for the project and held close to their hearts since 2008 when Gomez was a teenager.
“We need to stop losing young lives to this and pay more attention to this.”
The wait and continued effort to get Jay Asher’s book gave the producing team the opportunity to explore everyday teenage issues such as bullying, first-love, and crime in more detail than originally intended. Once they had nixed the idea of a feature, Teefey and Gomez were allowed to explore the backstories of the bullies and, more importantly, Hannah. In the first episode, we see Hannah committed suicide, leaving behind 13 cassette tapes to the people she considered responsible for her decision.
Teefey talks about what she hopes the series will do not just for teenagers and kids but also for parents by creating a strong dialogue. A dialogue between parents and children as well as children themselves. Read what she had to say when we caught up recently in LA.
What was it about the book and story that spoke to you that said, “I have to do this?”
I think it was because Selena at that point was going into the teenage years. When I was growing up, I lost a lot of friends not particularly to suicide even though there were two or three. When I read the book, it’s a very quick read with such a powerful message that I felt that Selena had the fan base and the platform. We have the relationship where I get to hear all the stories because I have to be with her all the time and she was a minor back then.
We thought it would be a great way to use the platform but it was just challenging to get done the way that it was finally executed in the way we envisioned it because the topic was so head on. It was honest and at the time had a “Disney girl” attached to it.
They weren’t sure if they wanted Disney, suicide and said they didn’t think it was what kids wanted to talk about. It was really frustrating to hear people say that and then try to make it an after school special. I said we wouldn’t reach the kids that we wanted to if we made it an after-school special and that it needs to be effective long term. So, it took a very long time to find people who weren’t afraid to go there. We took a break from making it a feature because it was difficult to do and get all that backstory.
House of Cards changed TV and then we saw how it was delivered, and so we tried that. We had just transferred over to William Morris and Sarah Self introduced us to Brian Yorkey. He got it, and he was the first one to really get it, and we were so thankful and loved his adaptation. Then Anonymous came on board because that’s where he was, and they wanted to support the project.
It happened the way it was meant to, and it happened at the time it was supposed to. It’s even more relevant now that it was back then with these Facebook suicides. It’s just heart-wrenching because it’s such an unnecessary option and a sad way to go. That’s such a sad way to lose a beautiful life, and that’s what really inspired us.
She got bullying on a huge scale but through the internet. For people who have to go to school and face those people every day, it’s just a whole different world. I was a teen mom and I was judged and bullied by my old school counselor, and it was just something that really needed to be talked about. We need to stop losing young lives to this and pay more attention to this.
Sometimes we find authors are protective of their work, so what conversations did you have with Jay about conveying his message accurately?
That was interesting because he was about to close with another company when I found the book. I begged him on the phone to have dinner with us and that if he didn’t like what we had to say, we would leave him alone. I think it was just that we were so honest about our history and we had a major passion for it. He seemed really hesitant to give it to anyone, but after we had dinner, I think he felt confident in our passion and our experience as well as Selena’s platform to really get the story out. I think that’s what really gave us a leg up. We cornered him at a sushi place and wouldn’t leave until he agreed.
We practically begged for it. After that point, he was so supportive and trusting and at one point, he eventually said, “If you weren’t a part of this, I don’t think I would do it now that I see how much of a fight you put in it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that through other friend’s experiences.”
He’s a great and wonderful guy, and he really clicked with Brian. I’m just so happy that he’s happy because it started becoming that I had to protect Jay, his legacy, and everything that he’s been able to do with this book and to show it in another medium to kids who might not read books. It was us being completely honest and begging. [laughs] It was so awesome that he trusted us.
How many years did it take from you finding it to getting it off the ground?
From 2008. My husband put together this really amazing plaque, he put together all my ideas from 2008, all the way up to the cover for the first draft and put it in this huge frame. That’s when I realized it had been since 2008. I knew it had been a long time, but I didn’t know it was that long. It has been a long haul and we did a few different deals, but we’d get that sense that it wasn’t going to go where we’d want so we’d pull out. Universal was very supportive with the depart, but we did take a minute. Jay had other books that he was getting done and completed, but it was well worth the wait to get everyone on board.
On that note, how did you find Katherine Langford and Dylan Minnette?
They are incredible and flawless. Our entire cast was so committed to the issue. They went to therapy and they did their research. With the search, it was a worldwide search. We couldn’t find anybody here and my husband would laugh at me and say how mean I was because I would sit there and just say, “Next. Next. Next.” He said that I wasn’t letting them do anything and I told him that I would know when I see Clay and Hannah. Goosebumps had just been released and Dylan had never really been into this territory and I knew he was Clay.
With Katherine, we finally found her a few weeks before filming. Tom McCarthy spent a week working with her over Skype, and he came back and agreed that was Hannah. The casting was taken very seriously. Dylan had everything that Clay had in just the same way that Katherine did with Hannah. We were blessed to find them. We were getting calls from agents, and I think that’s what really helped was that we had these actors who weren’t over trained but were working off of emotions. They didn’t get the script until the table read. They were so extremely focused and we were so blessed. Tom worked so hard with them and they delivered. It was a long search, it was around six months and I knew that was how I envisioned these characters.
13 Reasons Why deals with so many issues. What’s it like being a mother talking about and dealing with these issues that no one wants to talk about, especially with having a teenager daughter exposed to some of them on social media?
It was helpful, to be honest. I had someone who was going through it, I don’t like that she went through it but that’s a part of the show, that as a parent, you can’t be in denial as a parent that your kids haven’t witnessed this, or know someone who’s been through it. I’m a very protective person in general. I felt if we executed this in the most honest way possible, it would visually stay with other kids and you can protect other kids. I can’t handle watching anybody being spoken to in an inappropriate way no matter if they’re adults or teens, so I get protective of that and it might be my Texas roots and being a mother. Being a mother really helped relate to the material and be able to contribute some emotion behind it of how you would want to protect a child. Even after seeing it so many times, I still cry because I know that’s what’s happening and I want to grab them all and tell them that it’s going to be OK.
I hated high school, but you survive, but it’s not the end of the world. I know rape isn’t something to say that it’s not the end of the world, but the strength that a person can build and overcome, you’re right, kids don’t know how to communicate with issues like that because they’re afraid they’re going to make it bigger or worse. They think their parents are going to judge them and that was also a conversation that I was able to have with Selena. She’d say, “Yeah, I didn’t want to tell you because I didn’t want you to think because I thought you were going to think I was bad.” I told her, “You aren’t bad for something put on you or for something that is done to you.” It was very helpful to work together. I also hope it was helpful to show teens that if you are fortunate to have a parent or parents around, that she and I worked on a hard topic together, and being able to talk about it would inspire other kids that are her fans, and who do look up to her, that it is OK and it helps them know they can reach out.
Once you realized 13 Reasons Why would be a series over a two-hour show, how much freedom did that give you to take it deeper than a feature would have limited you to?
It helped us to incorporate more adults so we could spread that message, but also to be able to do the background of the kids who were the bullies. That helped show that their lives might not be as great as you might think it is behind closed doors as well. It helped explain why they made a decision good or bad and gave us more freedom to explore the honesty that goes around all kids so the kids could say, “I can relate to that character.”
I think that exploration was one of the perks in doing a series. You also get to spend more time with Hannah as a person so you’re more emotionally involved and you go through that journey. It’s very tricky when she’s doing this story through a tape, you didn’t want her to come off as a fictional character, you wanted to go through the journey with her, so when you are at that point of the journey when she’s taking her last breath, you are just heartbroken and want to say, “It’s going to be ok.” That’s the message we wanted kids to be saying that subliminally to themselves without even knowing that’s what they were doing.
When we tried the feature, Hannah wasn’t coming out as likable. You couldn’t really explain much. You just really experience almost her bullying everyone with the tapes. Everyone is having their own issues and it’s the butterfly effect, and so that was the plus. It was hard to adapt such a broad story with so many important issues in a way that they deserve to be recognized.
13 Reasons Why is now streaming on Netflix