When Friends went off the air in 2004 there was a definite feeling that, somehow, this would not be the end of it, an itch that was finally scratched some 17 years later when the HBO Max special Friends: The Reunion appeared in May. Directed by British documentary filmmaker Ben Winston, the Fullwell 73 and Warner Bros Television production was an apparently effortless success that has resulted in four Emmy nominations. But, surprisingly, this wasn’t part of some long-term plan, and the series’ veteran production team of Kevin S. Bright, Marta Kauffman and David Crane admitted they didn’t have any plans to revive the show until they were presented with a very convincing pitch.
“[It was] because of Ben Winston,” Kauffman said during the team’s appearance at Deadline’s Contenders Television: The Nominees awards-season event. “Ben had the ideal take on it. He stepped in and came up with an approach to doing it that was, as far as we were concerned, just genius.”
“I would agree,” said Crane. “When we went into the meeting, I wasn’t convinced this was a good idea. I mean, we’d been saying no for – what? – 16 years, and Ben laid out a vision for what this could be. It felt really celebratory and positive, and we came out going, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ ”
So what was the magic formula Winston brought to the meeting? “I had this idea,” he said, “that people always think of television shows in the unscripted medium as [just] one approach: an interview with a host, or a documentary, or well-known people talking about whatever it may be. And I had this idea that actually we could take [many] different elements of storytelling. [It could be] a documentary using archive footage that people have never seen of Friends before. … A documentary about six people who haven’t seen each other in years coming into a room where they made their name and where they have such history. … An interview with celebrities talking about their favorite clips as a way to show those clips … Kids from all over the globe—young kids who a lot of them weren’t even born when the show ended—from India to Ghana, to Mexico, talking about how the show affected their life … ”
“What I never wanted the show to do was stand still or be repetitive,” he said, “but instead created a sort of timeline where we were only in each element for four or five minutes and you never, as a viewer, got bored.”
Said Bright: “Ben really got into the mind-set of the Friends fan. He really put out there what they wanted to see—the cast being themselves and assuming the characters again—and presented it in a way that really gave them what they wanted.”
Check out the panel video above.