“I had this big hole in my throat. I couldn’t breathe,” recalled Teefey, whose daughter, pop star and actress Selena Gomez, is also an executive producer on the show. “When it was over, (Asher) was silent for a moment. … Then he goes, ‘I could not be more happy right now and more impressed.’ And then I could breathe again.”
“I absolutely love what they did with (the story),” Asher said.
Based on Asher’s best-selling novel “Thirteen Reasons Why,” the Netflix series — which premieres Friday — follows high school student Clay (“Goosebumps” star Dylan Minnette) as he uncovers why his former classmate and crush, Hannah (Australian newcomer Katherine Langford), committed suicide.
The only clues come from a shoebox of cassette tapes recorded by Hannah, detailing the 13 people she blames for her death.
“At the beginning of the story, she’s this happy, optimistic new girl in town, and she changes to the exact opposite — someone who has no hope of things getting better for her,” Asher said.
“You love her. … You want to protect her because you want to be her friend,” the author continued. “You see her absolutely crushed, which, because you know her, (is) devastating to watch.”
I remember being very tense the entire two hours we were watching it because I was amazed by what I was seeing. It was so good.
Jay Asher, author of “Thirteen Reasons Why,” on watching the premiere of the Netflix show based on his novel
Created by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Brian Yorkey, “13 Reasons Why” boasts an all-star slate of directors including Oscar-winner Tom McCarthy of “Spotlight” fame. Electronic musician Eskmo composed the soundtrack.
Asher, who served as a consultant on the show, said the idea for “Thirteen Reasons Why” came to him as he was driving one snowy morning in Wyoming, where he and his wife were living at the time.
“I pulled into this gas station (parking lot), and I just sat there writing down the opening scene,” he recalled.
A dark exploration into the factors — from salacious gossip to sexual assault — that drive a teenage girl to kill herself, the book represented a major departure for Asher.
“Everything I was trying to publish before this (book) was humorous and for young kids,” he explained, while his debut novel, published by Razorbill in 2007, is recommended for ages 14 and up.
Over the past decade, “Thirteen Reasons Why” has reached millions of readers, spent years on The New York Times’ best-seller list and has been published in more than 30 countries. (Razorbill published a 10th anniversary edition of “Thirteen Reasons Why” in December.)
Asher, meanwhile, has written two other books for younger readers: 2012’s science fiction-flavored “The Future of Us,” penned with Carolyn Mackler, and the holiday romance “What Light,” published in October.
Teefey, founder and president of Kicked to the Curb Productions, discovered “Thirteen Reasons Why” in 2008 while browsing at a Barnes and Noble bookstore.
“I picked it up and I stood there and I read the entire book,” Teefey recalled, “and then I called my daughter’s agent and said, ‘She has to be part of it somehow.’ ”
Asked what attracted her to “Thirteen Reasons Why,” Teefey said, “It was very lyrical and beautiful and sad.” But it was the book’s focus on bullying that spoke directly to her and her daughter, then the 15-year-old star of Disney’s “Wizards of Waverly Place.”
“When I was growing up, I was always bullied because I was the outsider, the weird girl with the purple hair and combat boots. Then I was a teen mom,” Teefey told the New York Times earlier this month. “You get really judged.”
In Asher’s story of a girl pushed to her breaking point, Teefey and Gomez saw a chance to set the record straight on how peer pressure can shape, and sometimes destroy, lives.
Teefey wanted to help viewers “understand how much pain someone has to be in to hurt themselves,” she said, adding that she feels that aspect has been glossed over in previous movies and TV shows dealing with teen suicide.
Some even portray the act as “a cinematic moment of honor,” she added. “There’s no speaking to the sadness that goes along with a life that’s lost.”
Not surprisingly, when Teefey and her team started pitching a big-screen adaptation of “Thirteen Reasons Why,” they encountered significant resistance from studio executives.
“(They said), ‘Teens won’t want to watch this,’ ” Teefey recalled. “I said, ‘You are underestimating the intelligence of this generation. This is going to be something that they’re going to talk about, and come back and watch again.’ ”
Others were put off by the fact that Asher’s book was originally written for young adults.
“With the bigger directors, all you have to say is ‘YA’ and they say ‘no,’ ” said Teefey, who got the same reaction from writers.
Then Teefey and her daughter met Yorkey, whose Tony Award-winning musical “Next to Normal” deals with a suburban mom living with mental illness.
“I felt for the first time that somebody got it,” Teefey recalled.
She had a similarly strong feeling about Netflix, the studio that picked up “13 Reasons Why” as a 13-episode series.
“Netflix wasn’t afraid” of the darker aspects of the story, Teefey said. “They got it and they wanted to go there.”
Filming for “13 Reasons Why” started in June at Bay Area locations including Marin, San Rafael and Sebastopol and wrapped up in November. Asher, who saw the first two episodes of the show at the wrap party, said he was awed by the results.
“I remember being very tense the entire two hours we were watching it because I was amazed by what I was seeing. It was so good,” Asher recalled. As the credits rolled, he said, he felt “a sense of relief but also of pride.”
Although the producers originally envisioned “13 Reasons Why” as a feature film with Gomez starring as Hannah (the actress aged out of the role), Teefey said the story lends itself to longer-form storytelling. Having 13 episodes “gives us more time to explore the characters,” she said.
“We need to understand where these kids … are coming from,” Teefey said, explaining that she wanted to “speak to an audience that I’ve seen really hurt each other more than love each other.”
That’s why “13 Reasons Why” doesn’t flinch when it depicts Hannah’s suicide, she added.
“You literally watch her take her last breath. It’s so effective,” she said. “I want somebody, the next time they want to do something mean, to visualize (that scene),” she added, and think about how their actions affect other people.
Teefey acknowledged that “13 Reasons Why” could generate controversy, but said it’s worth it.
“You can’t be afraid of talking about something that could save millions of lives.”
Asher agreed, saying that he hopes the show will generate the same kinds of conversations that the book has.
“The story means a lot to me, and I know it means a lot to other people,” Asher said. “I think people are going to love it.”
‘13 Reasons Why’ on Netflix
All 13 episodes of “13 Reasons Why” premiere on Netflix on Friday, March 31. Visit www.netflix.com for more information.