School’s Out: 13 Reasons Why Concludes Its Fourth and Final Season

by Shannon A. Mullen

When location scouts started knocking on doors in the San Francisco Bay Area for the first season of 13 Reasons Why, the show’s controversial content was no secret. Its source material, Jay Asher’s eponymous novel about a teenage girl who takes her own life, had been around for a decade—an international bestseller translated into dozens of languages. “Many location owners would hear which show was asking and slam the door,” said series creator, writer and showrunner Brian Yorkey. “Every now and then, one would embrace us enthusiastically but I think we had many more closed doors than the average show.” That content hurdle never came down, but the location team found new meaning in the process of getting past it, and the show originally developed as a limited series, bowed its fourth and final season in June.

Sebastopol’s Analy High School stands in for the show’s Liberty High School. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

For 13 Reasons Why to start productive conversations about bullying, self-harm and sexual assault that its producers believed it could, they knew the show had to feel fully authentic, starting with the world of the story. When Yorkey was writing the pilot, he envisioned an exurban setting like his native Pacific Northwest while trying to honor the novel’s description of where the characters lived. “We wanted this town to feel like a real place, and a place, perhaps like the one where you grew up, or where you were raising your kids,” he said.  

Once the decision was set to shoot in California, Yorkey felt the state’s southern region was “fairly well shot out” for a show aimed at young adults and was adamant that nary a palm tree ever appear on screen. “I remembered growing up watching teen series set in LA among the palm trees and beaches and thinking that’s nothing like real life.” When one of the first-season directors broke Yorkey’s palm tree rule in a driving sequence, he went so far as to order reshoots. “Possibly I was a bit insane about it,” he admits. “But I still hear from people, from all over, that the town feels like their town growing up.”  

Caleb (RJ Brown) and Tony (Christian Navarro) at the Ring Boxing gym.

The show eventually settled on the Bay Area towns of Vallejo and San Rafael for the heart of its fictional Evergreen County where most of the characters live, work and hang out. Location scouts were met with the full range of reactions from homeowners and business owners they approached. “I would often be floored by devastating personal stories about suicide, which could blindside me because my mind was often in securing something for production,” said Ehrin Davis/LMGI, who started the first season as a scout. Some people he met said the book helped people they knew and prevented suicide. One couple he approached for a potential recurring location told him they’d lost their 11-year-old daughter to suicide less than a year earlier. “It was a very painful conversation that taught me the importance of being a good listener and to not push people that weren’t interested.”  

The story was also personal for some members of the Location Department, including Dan Kemp/LMGI, a location manager on all four seasons, whose nephew took his own life. “One thing I discovered is just how many people suicide has touched,” Kemp said. He found that educators were among the show’s strongest skeptics. “Over the four seasons of the show, there were times when a phone call to a school to inquire about support space was met with a harsh ‘I know what your show is about, and you are not welcome here.’”

One potential host school that Kemp said was initially open to renting lunch and staging areas during the first season backed out after a coalition of guidance counselors “wrote a letter warning the district of their perceived dangers of the show. That quick rejection played out a few other times at different campuses, many of them colleges, over the three seasons that followed.”    

ustin (Brandon Flynn) & Zach (Ross Butler) on the field.

The show found an ally in the West Sonoma County High School District, which leased the campus of Analy High School in Sebastopol to stand in for the fictional Liberty High—the epicenter of the story and the keystone location in all four seasons. Its administrators read Asher’s book and supported the show’s good intentions. They were also dealing with a budget crisis that outweighed their concerns about the liberties Hollywood might take. “This was a way for us to generate a large amount of revenue,” said Jennie Bruneman, who managed the contract for the district. “Looking back four years later, I would have asked for more money,” she joked. “It was a lot of work.”  

Zach & Chloe (Anne Winters) share a quiet moment. Photos by David Moir, courtesy of Netflix

After the series wrapped, Bruneman reported to school officials that the show paid a total of almost $500K over the course of its four seasons, including the lease payments, staff overtime wages and infrastructure improvements that would be left in place. She had nothing but praise for the cast and crew for their professionalism and minimal impact, whose production schedule sometimes overlapped with the school calendar. “A lot of it was a shell game,” Bruneman said. “I moved football games, choir, every practice you can think of. We were willing to be flexible and I’ll give it to Hollywood, they are not afraid to ask. The answer is always no unless you ask, and I wanted to help them make something that was bigger than all of us.” 

The first season of 13 Reasons Why broke records for audience demand, according to seemingly every available metric (save for actual ratings, which Netflix does not release). The show also drew mixed reviews and fierce criticism. In a statement, then Netflix VP of Original Series Brian Wright said, “We saw global conversation explode on the controversial topics covered by the series and understood we had a responsibility to support these important discussions.” The streamer commissioned a study that showed the majority of teens and adults who watched the first season “found the show relatable” and said it “made them feel more comfortable processing tough topics,” among other positive findings.  

When Netflix greenlit a second season, Bruneman found it was a harder sell with school officials. “We didn’t have a book to reference,” she said, adding that every season was carefully considered. “It was never a done deal.” That sort of uncertainty was an obstacle for the Location Department for the rest of the series. “Whenever I met a person who said something to the effect of ‘that awful show glorifying teen suicide,’ I would ask them if they had seen the show,” said Kemp. “Every time they would reply that they had not seen it, but they had heard about it. It was challenging to proceed with someone who had a preconceived notion.”  

Season 2 dealt with the ongoing consequences of bullying, sexual assault and rape, and the suicide that changed the characters’ lives in the first season, while they faced new struggles with peer pressure, mental illness and addiction. On top of that, Yorkey expanded his vision for the scope of the show: “I was able to say to the team at Paramount Studios—hey, there are a lot of eyes on this show, and it needs to look good and it needs to be of quality.” He pushed the story’s scope and daring and told his production and location teams to follow suit. “I embraced our fictional county of Evergreen,” he said. “But still—no palm trees.”

As the series grew, it spread into some areas that were new to hosting production. “This show had recurring locations in cities that weren’t very close to each other, so we had a great opportunity fine-tuning the permitting process in a lot of North Bay jurisdictions that don’t often have television shows based there,” said Bay Area native Frances Reyes-Bolinger/LMGI, who joined the crew on Season 2 as a location coordinator and finished the series as a KALM managing her own episode locations. “I got to know a lot of communities outside of San Francisco and Oakland that had a lot of heart and history.”

The show’s heavier footprint taught Davis, who was promoted to lead scout, to “clearly communicate the size of what we wanted to do,” he said. “When I started out, I was holding back on the gritty details and soft-selling people but quickly learned that it’s better to tell people that the circus is coming to town so I wouldn’t have to deal with blowback later.”  

His colleague Kelly Tom/LMGI joined the show on Season 2 as a KALM for the first time in her career. “I had been so used to being the messenger and just doing tasks that I was told to do,” she said. “This show gave me a chance to figure out my managing style where I got to be in an authoritative position, take on more responsibilities that once intimidated me, like cold scouting, contracts and permitting, and made me grow as a person to not feel so scared about taking initiative.” 

Less than a month after the second season launched, Netflix ordered another, giving Yorkey range to make the show even more cinematic. “Brian could reach for things,” said production designer Jeremy Cassells, who boarded the series on Season 3, having pitched Yorkey a plan to open up the visual dynamic. “We spent more money than they did in the first and second season, but the scripts got bigger.” Cassells increased the size of some permanent sets by 20 percent to add depth and light and give the crew more room to shoot. He said he also wanted to create more interesting location avenues for the narrative so that fewer scenes had to be set in the characters’ true-to-size bedrooms. “The audience didn’t see a massive difference but got more engaged with the story because the environment got richer.” 

Cassells also brought in his longtime collaborator, Nancy Haecker/LMGI, as supervising location manager to help change the dynamic in their respective departments. “What Nancy and I gave to the show was more of a can-do attitude and pushed everybody to reach for a higher bar,” Cassells said. “My shorthand with her is she’ll always go for the best solution. She’s not only thinking of the production, she’s also thinking about what the story needs.”  

Before & After: Oakland’s 16th Street Train Station. Photos by Ehrin Davis/LMGI

Case in point: Haecker waited outside the Vallejo mayor’s office to press for permission to shoot on one of the piers on Mare Island, a peninsula with decaying warehouses, period homes and the remains of a defunct naval shipyard that was established in the early 1850s—all very cinematic but in need of extensive environmental remediation. The production had been using other parts of the island since the first season, but Haecker wanted an old pier for a climactic scene when one of the show’s villainous characters is pushed into the water and left to drown. “I think that location might have been a bigger idea because I was there. You don’t take no for an answer,” she said.  

Once Haecker and her team got approval from the required city, state and federal agencies, they spent months prepping the location so it would be safe for the cast and crew. The pier required structural tests, including underwater divers to evaluate the pylons. “Due to decades of neglect, precautionary weight limits were established for the safety of our crew,” Haecker said. “But to ‘make our day,’ we needed to park work trucks on the pier so we also emptied, stored and shipped out literally tons of tainted water that accumulated for decades in the electrical vaults along the pier.” Then asbestos, lead paint and metal debris had to be abated from the pier itself, which had been heavily used by the military in the 1930s and ’40s to prevent hazardous debris from falling into the Napa River. “We spent over one hundred thousand dollars cleaning up that little piece of pier,” Haecker said. 

In the process, the Location Department got a crash course on environmental hazards & remediation. “I had no real concept of the cost,” said Stevie Nelson/LMGI, who joined the show with Haecker as a KALM. “If you’ve never done it, you have no idea. For our boxing gym location in Seasons 3 and 4, we removed the dropped ceiling and all the flaking lead paint so you could see this beautiful barrel ceiling. We got rid of the asbestos, demolished the walls, restored the vinyl flooring to polished concrete. It was $40K for the abatement, then another $50K to put it all back so we could return the keys.” 

The show’s third season dealt with homicide, homosexuality, sexual abuse and the deportation of one character’s immigrant family. The episodes had yet to drop when Netflix announced a fourth run, which the streamer also said would also be the last, culminating with the characters’ graduation from Liberty High. “That felt like the logical ending point,” Yorkey told Entertainment Weekly before the final launch. “We wanted to end the series hopefully, but we wanted it to be earned hope.”

Tony (Christian Navarro) & Justin (Brandon Flynn) at Padilla’s garage.
Photo by David Moir, courtesy of Netflix

One of the climactic plot points in the final season, Liberty High’s prom, was also one of the most logistically taxing shoots of the whole series. The event was filmed over five consecutive days inside Oakland’s historic 16th Street train station. The 1912 beaux arts structure was abandoned for the better part of a century and is still in the process of being restored. Its derelict exterior had already doubled for the scene of a homeless encampment in Season 2. 

Before the crew could prep the site, which has no power or water supply, the station had to undergo environmental assessments, hazmat abatement and structural inspections, as well as engineering and construction work to reinforce the main entrance and the rigging system for heavy chandeliers inside. “The interior is gorgeous but it sits on a pile of dirt where the drainage wasn’t quite right, and it poured for the week and a half we were there,” Haecker said. “All we did for days was abate water.”  

Mare Island North Pier. Photo by Ehrin Davis/LMGI

Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice) at the pier. Photo by David Moir, courtesy of Netflix

A covered tunnel with raised platforms was hastily built so the cast could get to set without drenching their finery. “We had contractors with sump pumps drain parts of the set that began to flood,” said Daniel Branson/LMGI, who started on the first season as a location PA and was promoted to ALM. “Our background tents flooded faster than we could push water out, our walkway completely flooded, we had PAs making sandbags as quickly as possible to provide some assistance. But we made it through.”

By that point, the Location Department was well versed in managing disasters. During every season except the first, production was halted by wildfires that devastated parts of Northern California and the cast and crew had to evacuate or relocate. At one point, Analy High School was converted to an emergency shelter and the crew joined relief efforts. “They fed 250 people who showed up at the shelter,” said Bruneman, who got emotional when she added that the production also donated thousands of dollars’ worth of supplies for the community. She referred to the location team she worked closely with as friends. “It’s bittersweet to be honest because for four years these people impacted my life and now they’re gone,” she said. “The cast was great but the true heroes of the show were the people working behind the scenes, those are the people I’ll remember forever.”  

SLM Nancy Haecker/LMGI. Photo courtesy of the California On Location Awards. Photo by Dyana Carmella.

Yorkey believes that the challenges the Location Department faced on 13 Reasons Why made the final product better. “The limitations force you to be creative, and to tell the truest story you can inside what’s possible,” he said. “Nancy Haecker is a f***ing rock star. Period. As are Jeremy and [art director] Natalie [Weinmann]. Nancy never ever said no. She also never promised what she couldn’t deliver. And at the end of the day, she always delivered. She found solutions, always, and good ones. The look and world of the show are among the things I’m most proud of—and Nancy, Dan and our ass-kicking location team made it happen.”

The end of the series was also a graduation of sorts for the members of the location team who were newest to the field. “I say this with pride, that everyone came out a better location professional,” Haecker said. “I may be the one cracking the whip, but I had an entire department of professionals, many of them younger, who worked harder and smarter every episode. As Brian’s vision expanded, so did their skill set and commitment to excellence.” 

For some in the department, 13 Reasons Why was their first big production. Branson found that the show gave him a career path “and gave production in the Bay Area a chance to show that we have highly skilled and talented people who can shape content.” The team’s more seasoned members felt a sense of pride in the series that helped offset its challenges. “I’ve done a lot of shows in my life that were about the money because it’s a living,” said Nelson. “This was a show that gave a voice to people who, I think, didn’t feel like they had much of a voice. You can go a long time in this town and not have that, even with peak TV.”

Alien Killer Robots. Photo by David Moir, courtesy of Netflix

standing (L-R): Roland Greedy, Dan Kemp,
Frances Reyes-Bolinger, Daniel Branson, Stevie Nelson, Edgar Vega,
Peter Moody, Nancy Haecker, Lexi Whaley;
Kneeling (L-R): Ehrin Davis, Garrett Solis, Kelly Tom, Alonso Velarde, Patrick Cassells, Rashod Edwards.

The 13 Reasons Why Location Department

Nancy Haecker/LMGI – Supervising Location Manager

Dan Kemp/LMGI – Location Manager

Stevie Nelson/LMGI – Key Assistant Location Manager

Ehrin Davis/LMGI – Key Assistant Location Manager & Scout

Kelly Tom/LMGI – Key Assistant Location Manager

Frances Reyes-Bolinger/LMGI – Key Assistant Location Manager

Rashod Edwards/LMGI – Key Assistant Location Manager

Daniel Branson/LMGI – Assistant Location Manager

Alonso Velarde – Key Assistant Location Manager (as needed)

Peter Moody/LMGI – Scout (as needed)

David Weber/LMGI – Scout (as needed)

Heather MacLean/LMGI – Scout (as needed)

Virginia McCollam – Location Manager (Seasons 1 & 2)

Lexi Whaley – Location PA (Season 3)

Patrick Cassells – Location PA (Season 3)

LaMar Stewart – Location PA (Season 3)

Roland Greedy – Location PA  (Season 4)

Edgar Vega – Location PA (Season 4)

Julian Schonfeld – Location PA (Season 4)

Garrett Solis – Location PA (Season 4)