Friends Reunion Special - Photography by Terence Patrick
Friends: The Reunion director Ben Winston talks to Awards Daily about the international impact of the NBC comedy and how COVID affected the special event: “It made it very, very difficult.”
In the age of reboot culture, you have to admire the Friends team for refraining from doing what so many of our favorite shows are doing: unnecessary add-ons to stories that have reached their conclusion. No one wants to see Ross accidentally fart on a Zoom call with the university, Phoebe’s old coffee-shop songs go viral on YouTube, or Joey get #MeToo-ed by a former extra on the set of Days of Our Lives.
Thankfully, with HBO Max’s Friends: The Reunion, director Ben Winston plays to the show’s strengths (Janice! “The One Where Everyone Finds Out”) and doesn’t even address its weaknesses (not a word is uttered about Joey and Rachel’s relationship, thank god) to make for an emotional and ultimately satisfying homecoming for the cast and fans.
Not Your Average Reunion Show
Winston had the tricky task of taking a show that everyone loves (and that Buzzfeed frequently writes listicles about) and making the content feel fresh and new. To always keep it moving and keep it interesting, he created multiple segments on the show: the cast visiting the set, James Corden’s interview with an audience, and then games and never-before-seen footage on set.
“I wanted it to surprise people,” says Winston. “I wanted it to be unpredictable in the way it was. I also wanted it to keep changing and evolving throughout the show. I looked to seven or eight different film techniques: vérité documentary (the six of them coming in), talking heads, archives, variety-style stuff like the fashion show and singing performances, and then just the talk show element with the chat. And recreation. I knew they’d never be Ross and Rachel or Chandler and Monica again, but with the quiz and the table reads, it gave us as fans something we really wanted without making them feel like they were doing something beneath the brilliance and gravity of the show.”
Winston pulled this multi-faceted format off with just two days of filming with the cast.
“Day 1 was just the six of them and my camera, me and nobody else around. It was very quiet those days. It was those more poignant, emotional moments. Day 2 was much more of a fun day. The quiz, the audience bit. Everything where there was a crowd there, that was Day 2. That’s where we opened the doors up and allowed people to be a part of it.”
The Friends Set: The Crown Jewel of Television
Just the way Jennifer Aniston doesn’t look any different from when the show went off the air in 2004, neither does the Friends set, something the Warner Bros. team preserves with great care, ironically like the dinosaur bones Ross used to maintain at the museum.
“What’s amazing about Friends, because of the success of the show and the importance with Warner Bros. history, they archive everything,” says Winston. “So in Warner Bros. archives, they literally have everything in an archive, from the mugs to the plates to the props to the carpet to the clocks on the walls. It wasn’t about recreating anything; it was about bringing stuff down and getting it in exactly the right place that it was.”
John Shaffner, the original series production designer, and Greg Grande, the original series art director, worked on the set for Friends: The Reunion, so for these two it was about finding all of the old stuff they designed or bought 25 years ago and putting it back in its rightful place.
But how coveted is this set? Let’s just say that Warner Bros. was a little intense about it. There were security guards watching as they built the set and WB was even a bit antsy about getting it back.
“As soon as we finished taping, all of the archive team from Warner Bros. were literally there on set to take it away, and I had to persuade them to leave it for a few hours, so we could all have some photos on the set after we wrapped.”
The One that was Shot During a Pandemic
With the past year clearing a lot of schedules due to the pandemic, did this reunion happening during COVID-19 actually help get everyone together in one room, including surprise guests?
“Fundamentally in bold and underlined, no,” says Winston. “It made it very difficult. When you’re filming a show, you’ve got to be in your show’s bubble, so you can’t really transfer from one show’s bubble to another. There’s been talk of who’s been invited and who’s not been invited, who’s there and who’s not there, but we’re shooting in the middle of a pandemic. No one is allowed to fly into America.”
Winston had to get permission from CBS to leave The Late Late Show bubble to work in the Friends bubble, and so did Aniston for The Morning Show and Schwimmer for Intelligence. Plus, they had no flexibility on the dates, which proved to be very complicated. So while COVID made a lot of people less busy, it only kept Winston more so.
Yes, in true series form, Friends: The Reunion ultimately worked out because of the ability to pivot.
Megan McLachlan is a freelance writer that lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, The Cut, Paste, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thrillist, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @heydudemeg.