UPDATE (9.30AM): Following the publication of this interview, HBO Max distanced itself from the statements about the Friends reunion taping being imminent. A date for the shoot is yet to be determined, according to a person familiar with the matter.
EXCLUSIVE (6.30AM): Fulwell 73, the production company that counts James Corden among its partners, is planning to get back into production on HBO Max’s Friends reunion and the Camila Cabello feature Cinderella this month after producing around 50 hours of primetime television at the height of the pandemic.
In an interview with Deadline, Fulwell 73 partner Leo Pearlman and senior executive Carly Shackleton reflected on a memorable four months for the company, during which it made The Late Late Show in Corden’s garage and produced the first pandemic-era studio show in the UK: BBC One’s Peter Crouch: Save Our Summer.
The latter will help inform production on the highly-anticipated Friends reunion, which Pearlman said is poised to shoot in the next two weeks, with Fulwell 73 partner Ben Winston directing. Details of the show are being kept tightly under wraps, but it was delayed in April after coronavirus scuppered hopes of getting the cast back together in time for HBO Max’s launch on May 27.
“We’re very excited for that,” said London-based Pearlman, who would not be drawn on specifics about the reunion, but said the UK team is contributing to the show. The imminent shoot confirms what David Schwimmer told Jimmy Fallon recently about August finally being the month for the reunion.
WarnerMedia Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt’s ambition to get an audience in the studio appears to be in the balance, however. Pearlman said Fulwell 73 is working on the basis that it will be next year before it can start welcoming back audiences to its entertainment brands. “We’re assuming that even 2021 doesn’t have audiences that we are used to for any of the shows that we make. If that changes, then great,” he said, adding that his development team is working up ideas that do not involve a live crowd. “The only way it changes is if you have a vaccine,” he said.
The thinking around audiences includes The Late Late Show, which is also planning to get back into its CBS studio next week. “Whatever we can do, we will. It will look like a different show, but hopefully, it will feel the same,” Pearlman said of the Corden vehicle, which has traditionally seen the host interact with those in the room. For now, all or nothing appears to be the Fulwell 73 modus operandi. “You can’t have a TV audience that looks sparse, they need to be tightly packed,” Pearlman added.
Shackleton oversaw production on Peter Crouch: Save Our Summer, which had to be completely rethought after COVID-19 wiped out Euro 2020, the football competition around which the show was originally conceived. Soccer remained a central feature, not least because Crouch is a former Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool player, but the BBC insisted it could not fall into the trap of relying on Zoom.
Filmed at Riverside Studios in London, presenters socially distanced, house band The Horne Section were separated by Perspex, and musical performances were filmed in the gardens of stars including Kasabian guitarist Serge Pizzorno. Guests arrived on-set in specially arranged cars and left promptly after they had recorded their piece. “There was no hanging around in the green room, no bringing agents,” Shackleton said, detailing a formula that is likely to be replicated on other Fulwell brands after not a single case of coronavirus was traced back to Save Our Summer.
“It doesn’t look like a show that you’re used to. The first show felt like a pilot, which for us it was. We hadn’t made a show that looked or felt like this. It took until week two or three to hit our stride,” added Pearlman. “The public accepted it for what it was. There’s a perception that you have to give people the formattable points that they’re used to. That’s bullsh*t. That went out the window completely.”
Interestingly, coronavirus testing was not used on Save Our Summer, with Shackleton arguing it would have given people a “false sense of security.” While this is manageable on an entertainment show, it is proving impossible to remount scripted shoots without a sophisticated testing regime for cast and key crew. Pearlman echoed this sentiment and explained that testing will be central to plans to get Cinderella back into production in the UK before the end of the month.
Sony’s musical reimagining of the iconic fairytale stars Cabello, Pierce Brosnan, Minnie Driver and Corden himself. It was little more than four weeks into filming at Pinewood Studios when it was forced to shut down in March, as the pandemic derailed virtually all scripted production in the UK. There remains up to seven weeks worth of production left to complete and Pearlman said Fulwell 73 has had few issues reassembling its all-star cast. “The last two weeks of the shoot were in the midst of the outbreak — we were in our own little bubble. Everyone is invested in finishing the film,” he added.
Fulwell 73’s straight-to-series drama for The CW, The Republic of Sarah, is also set to go into production in October. Like Cinderella, testing will be a requirement on the shoot. The show, about a high school teacher who faces down a greedy mining company by declaring independence for her small town, is indicative of Fullwell 73’s growing scripted ambitions. The company recently made the Gavin & Stacey Christmas special for BBC One, the UK’s highest-rated show in a decade, and hired ITV comedy chief Saskia Schuster to run its UK scripted unit.
Next up is a young adult adaptation of Moondial, the Helen Cresswell time travel novel that inspired the BBC’s popular 1988 series of the same name. Matt Lopez, who wrote Nicolas Cage film The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, has been attached to develop the scripts. “It’s a tale of acceptance through the ages,” Pearlman said of the story, which follows a teenage girl as she discovers a portal through time while wandering the grounds of a nearby mansion.
Over in documentaries, Fulwell 73 is currently in the final stages of making a much-rumored Shawn Mendes documentary for Netflix. It’s also close to completing a self-financed series on the Chelsea Women’s soccer team, which the company is yet to take to market. Chelsea won the league after the season was canceled due to coronavirus, which has left Fulwell 73 with a decision to make over whether to end the series on somewhat of an anti-climax or film more on the new season remounting.
Reflecting on a testing few months for the company, Pearlman said: “We were incredibly proud of the team and how they responded.”