Kyle Patrick Alvarez knows how hard it is to watch the final episode of “13 Reasons Why” Season 1; after all, he directed it. “I mean, even in editing, it wasn’t easy at any point,” he said to IndieWire. “It was one of those things where you just, you want it over. It loomed over the whole production of that episode because everyone knows it’s coming. Everyone had to prepare for it.”
However, that might have actually worked to “Tape 7, Side A’s” advantage, if only by osmosis. “Hopefully that same feeling of sort of dread and anticipation is in the episode, too.”
A Sundance award-winning filmmaker for his third feature, “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” Alvarez had been interested in getting involved with “13 Reasons Why” going back five or six years, and at an early point in the project’s development process he was able to sit down with showrunner Brian Yorkey and the producers and explain why he was so dedicated to this story.
“I’ve been trying to get work in television for a long time and the attitude’s always like, ‘Well, if you haven’t done it, how do we know you can do it?'” he said. “And I was like, ‘I can guarantee you that production on a tiny, say, $300,000 indie movie is more challenging.’ But someone still really has to have faith in you to take the first step, and I’m really grateful that they and Paramount and Netflix did.”
“13 Reasons Why” tracks the series of events which results in teenage Hannah (Katherine Langford) deliberately killing herself by slitting her wrists in her bathtub, a scene depicted bluntly by the season finale, which Alvarez directed.
Alvarez wasn’t surprised by how immediately compelling the show proved to be, once he saw the first dailies. “It was immediately just like, ‘Oh Katherine.’ She has a really rare accessibility,” he said. “We always said Hannah Baker died the death of a thousand cuts, and that was something I talked to Katherine about. She died before she got into that bathtub. We did a lot of research about the mental state of people, and they had a lot of consultants and mental health experts on the show, and we could not have leaned into them heavier.”
But once the show was released into the wild, he was surprised by the reaction from audiences, especially unexpected fanbases. Why that might be, plus plenty of details about the shooting of “the bathtub scene” in the season finale, follow.
When did you find out that this was going to be the episode you were directing and, more importantly, the scene you were directing?
I think maybe at some point the intention was for Tom [McCarthy] to do it. But when I was in post-production, I got the call to see if I could do the finale and of course I said yes. I loved these kids, I loved being up in the Bay Area, I loved working with the crew, and it was obviously an honor to get to be asked. But of course, as soon as I hung up the phone the first feeling was like “Oh my god, OK, I know that scene is there.” And then it’s in the back of your head the whole time. What are the ways to do it, what are the ways to not do it…
What do you know about the decision to really deliberately depict Hannah’s suicide in the finale?
I’m speculating some here, and I don’t want to put words into anyone’s mouths, but I think the intention was to always make a teen show that didn’t pander to its audience at all, that wasn’t trying to speak down to them, or sugarcoat, or create any sense that it was being handled in any other way. Teenagers are smart, and I think that if this is a show that has a lot of challenges and brutality in it and then suddenly that moment’s not there, that brings some more attention to itself.
When it comes to the use of violence in something, I take it really seriously. At times, it can be more effective to not show something — for the audiences to use their imaginations. It’s like when you look back at some of the great horror movies. They’re hardly as violent as you think they would be.
But in this case, it needed to be presented, because I think that omitting it, in fact, actually creates more trouble. It actually creates the ability for the audience to romanticize or kind of glorify in their minds. As opposed to saying, “No, this is ugly and it’s gross and it’s horrific and it’s violent.” I think that that’s a quality of it that was absolutely vital, in terms of what the show was trying to do in the scope of the teen/YA TV space.
Explain a little bit about what filming was like that day, especially in terms of working with Katherine.
With Kat, we set aside a whole day, mostly. I think we first shot her cleaning up her room and recording some stuff with the tape. Normally, you know, you’re shooting anywhere from eight to 12 pages a day, and so everything’s really fast and really chaotic. But early on me and the AD were very clear that this was a day where we didn’t want to be rushed, in an effort to create an environment for the actors to feel comfortable.
But you know it’s also challenging because there’s a lot of resets. I had more production meetings about this scene than I have had for any one scene or moment that I’ve done. How are we going to make sure that Katherine’s comfortable in the tub? We rearranged cushions and seating inside the tub so that she could be comfortable in there. How are we going to make sure to get clean warm water in there? The things you don’t even immediately think about. What color is the water going to be? How deep of a red is that going to be?
That was a whole conversation and a lot of tests went into it, because I didn’t want it to be gory. I didn’t want to use any of the iconography or the imagery, in terms of the water overflowing the tub in any which way that would imply potentially any kind of horror movie imagery. a la “The Shining.”
Then in addition to that there’s the prosthetics; she was wearing prosthetics on her arms so that the blood and the effect work was practical. So we had to test those, we had to get those molds made, we had to test them, we had to reshape the molds… I mean, there’s an unbelievable amount of things that went into it.
So by the time you get to that day, you want the actors to not be worrying about the blood pumps. You want them to be able to be as focused as possible. So it was very much about making it a closed set, and a closed set in a very real way. I didn’t want her to feel like there was extra onlookers.
Then, we just told [Katherine] to take her time and truthfully — we ran it twice in two different sizes with two cameras, there were just those two takes. But she just did it right the first time. I think that if you create that environment for the actor and they know what to do, you can create an environment where the first time can be the right thing.
It’s lovely that you guys were able to commit a full day to it. You said that you guys were typically doing about eight to 12 pages, was that an eight-to-12 page day?
No, it was probably a three or four page day because we just made it such a priority to make sure that day had cushion and space.
You mentioned the idea of trying to avoid horror film imagery. Why was that important for you?
I guess I use that as just a shorthand for violence — why are we seeing blood? What are you trying evoke out of that, right? A lot of horror films are trying to invoke people to be scared, or to scream, or to look away. And here it was much more, I think I wanted it to come from a much more emotional place. That’s why there’s one close-up on her wrist, and that close-up is not held very long.
You show up and you look at the scene and you go, “OK, well, what’s the right way?” and to me the right way is to show its ugly violence and to present it in a factual way. That’s why there’s no camera movements. It’s really tough — when you’re hired as a director and you feel like you’ve got to show your hand, there’s always that pressure of being like, “Oh, look at this beautiful camera move or look at this beautiful angle.” But early on we decided to not do any of that, to not have any music, to not have handheld — that’s one of the first times there’s a flashback scene [in the show] without handheld. That moment has a need to present itself as a really stark reality, in stark contrast to what is essentially a teen melodrama of a show.
Are you going to be involved in Season 2?
It’s still yet to be seen. I can’t speak too much about it. I certainly want to be, but I’m involved in a new show [the Starz wrestling drama “Heels”] where I’m the local writer, director, and the peon, and that’s basically my full time job right now, which I’m really excited about and it couldn’t be more different than this show. But we’re still trying to figure it out. Schedule allowing, I would be up there in a heartbeat.
What has surprised you the most about the reaction to Season 1?
I knew it was a good show and I knew that teens were gonna really like it. What surprised me the most was how much adults have liked it. Not even just adults with children, I’ve talked to everyone from people in their 60s to people in their 20s and 30s, who have responded to it in really different interesting ways… It certainly surprised me, I didn’t expect it to have such a universal appeal. But it’s been a thrill and I’ve been so happy for Brian and all the kids and cast for the show’s success.