Ben Winston had never really met the cast of Friends.
Sure, he’d said hello to Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, David Schwimmer, Matt LeBlanc and Matthew Perry over the years during their stops on CBS’ The Late Late Show With James Corden (which he exec produces) but after successfully pitching and getting them to sign on to HBO Max’s Friends reunion, Winston used his downtime during the pandemic to re-watch the series and reach out to the six stars.
The result was a nearly two-hour reunion that was filled with the fun and games he originally pitched the stars of the former NBC comedy as well as a couple big reveals, including one that set the internet ablaze: that Aniston and Schwimmer had romantic feelings for one another as far back as season one. That reveal along with many of the unaired clips (including how LeBlanc injured his shoulder) were the direct result of the extra year Winston and his team of producers had to bring the special together.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter podcast TV’s Top 5, Winston opens up about the pitch that got the stars to sign on to the reunion, how he specifically engineered the moment when they all see each other again on the meticulously re-created set and which other big reveals were left on the cutting room floor.
Here are edited excerpts from the nearly hourlong conversation, or you can listen to the full podcast interview, below. Check out what the Friends creators think of the reunion and with our exclusive interview here.
How much did the cast know what they were walking into? And how much were they involved in the planning of how the reunion was executed?
They were exec producers and involved in the larger scheme of things. I pitched the quiz, the table read and asked Lisa if she would sing with Lady Gaga. The questions that I would ask them on camera were not vetted. The stuff I would throw out to them, especially the documentary side of it, was more to evoke discussion. I knew where I wanted them to go. I would throw a topic out there and exit and let them just take it away because the six of them discussing it with each other was what I wanted to see. When they walked on set was one moment that I was specific with them about. That emotional rawness when they see each other in that environment was impactful because it was true to the moment.
Was there anything they didn’t want to do? Would Schwimmer and Cox have done “The Routine”?
I did say, “Would you ever consider doing The Routine?” And both of them were like, “Oh, please don’t make us do that.” There were certain things I really cared for, like the table read or the quiz. I also couldn’t work out where it would have worked. I’m not sure it would have landed 20 years later. But it was definitely on my list of ideas that I pitched.
How much time did you actually have with the six of them?
I filmed over two days with them. I had more time [to prepare] than I was ever supposed to because of the pandemic. I pitched it in 2019. This got greenlit in January 2020, and we were supposed to shoot it March 22, 2020. I had more time to shoot those interviews with [creators] Kevin Bright, Marta Kauffman and David Crane. I’d shot David Beckham and BTS before the pandemic. Day one I did the stuff without an audience: table read, documentary, watching clips. Day two was the quiz, Lady Gaga and Lisa, the audience. I always said to them that day one would be emotional and day two we’ll just have a blast.
The pandemic delayed the reunion by a year — execs stressed this wouldn’t be done over Zoom, for obvious reasons. With all the delays and pre-taped segments, how did the pandemic change what you originally envisioned?
Only one thing changed from what would have been shot March 22, 2020, to what was shot in April 2021: We moved the audience a bit to outside. Originally, we were going to put 300 seats in Studio 24 and turn that into a variety show-style feel around Central Perk on that actual stage. Schwimmer [pitched moving outside]. I was seeing something like SNL 40 when they built out that audience on the SNL stage. I’m so glad that we moved outdoors.
The reunion was poised to be a big part of HBO Max’s launch. Was anybody asking you to deliver something that they could have for launch?
There was pressure from HBO Max to do something with these Friends characters in some way. But they were respectful of the creative we pitched. I’d gone into HBO Max, met with [then-head] Kevin Reilly and Sarah Aubrey, and I pitched a very specific show in October 2019. And that is literally the show that you watched. The cast signed on to it because they liked that vision for the show. HBO Max understood that whenever this came, it would be great.
So how did you get the cast to sign on to this?
I pitched this to each of them individually. In August/September 2019, I went in with a deck that said this is what this show is going to be. Page one featured an interview in front of an audience. Page two was a documentary about six people coming back together after they haven’t seen each other for 17 years, and what that feels like when you go back to the exact space. The next page was people from all over the globe saying how Friends affected their life. Rather than just showing clips, why don’t we get Malala and David Beckham to tell us what their favorite clip is and then show it. Footage that people hadn’t seen. We digitized all the old film reels that no one had ever seen before — like Matt LeBlanc breaking his shoulder. And then variety moments like the quiz or Gaga singing. They were like, “This sounds great. This sounds fun.” I pitched new ideas along the way. The fashion show came later when one of the producers went to the Warner Bros. archive and discovered they still had all the costumes. The document that I could show you today from 2019 is what you saw on screen and everybody bought into that vision.
Who picked the scenes for the table reads?
I knew that I wanted to do a Ross and Rachel section. Schwimmer said, “You should get us to read the Ross and Rachel scene. That’d be a really cool thing to read.” David offered loads of brilliant ideas throughout this process.
Was there anything you attempted to do on the day where you got a couple minutes into it and just said, “Yeah, this isn’t doing what we wanted to. Let’s move on”?
No. The day was planned really specifically. I shot extra rounds of the quiz. And there were lots of questions that got cut out. There were a couple of scenes that they read that I didn’t end up using. There’s lots of stuff like that, but no wholesale elements that I just chopped out.
Will there be a “Winston Cut” of the Friends reunion?
Everything I wanted to put in the show, I put in the show. It’s 1:45, that’s long enough. There are a few fan stories that I couldn’t fit in. This really was the Winston Cut. There was nothing that I was asked to remove from anybody. They all were very happy with this cut and let me make the film I wanted to make.
How much were you looking for these untold stories that people didn’t know — that Aniston and Schwimmer had crushes on one another in season one and the story behind how LeBlanc hurt his shoulder? These are things that diehard Friends fans didn’t know. How did you discover them?
I was 100 percent looking for them. The extra year helped. I was rushing to film on March 22. When the world was put on pause, it allowed me watch all 236 episodes during lockdown and go through them: “Would that scene work for a read through?” Before August 2019, I’d never met any of the cast. They’ve come on The Late Late Show but I didn’t know any of them. I used the extra year to do Zoom calls. I would chat with them about what they remembered. Suddenly LeBlanc would be like, “We always did a huddle … but the only night we didn’t was when I broke my shoulder.” And chatting with David, who told me the story you mentioned, and then I had a chat with Jen and asked if it was true and she felt the same when she said yes. I was able to do a lot of research in that year because we were all at home on Zoom.
Were there untold stories that you had to cut?
There is one outtake that I would like to try and put out there that I didn’t have time for. It’s a Bright, Kauffman and Crane story of how the opening titles came to be. An NBC executive saw the show and said the first 10 minutes was boring. It was just six people sitting around in a café talking. “This isn’t good enough. Unless you change it, you’re not going to make air.” So, they decided to do like a fast, funky, opening titles to R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People.” And they cut the highlights of them doing silly faces and dancing around and gave it back to that network executive. The only thing that they changed was a title sequence. They wouldn’t have ever gone to air with R.E.M. It was just for the purposes of showing the network executives. I have little things like that I found out but I couldn’t put in. Maybe I’ll speak to HBO Max and see if we can release some of those little stories.
Why weren’t The Rembrandts part of the reunion?
They’re amazing but I never wanted that. That wouldn’t have been the tone of the show that we were trying to make.
We had a choice, either book Marcel or David Schwimmer. I don’t think I could have had both, it was one or the other. (Laughing.)
How much did Kudrow have to rehearse “Smelly Cat” and how did that duet with Lady Gaga come together?
I told Lisa that I wanted a music performance and didn’t want it to be the theme song. I asked if she’d consider singing “Smelly Cat” and she thought it would be fun but said she never really played guitar. We gave her a guitar to practice that morning. I gave her a list of three or four names of people I thought would be really great to duet with, but Gaga was, without question, my number one. And she loved the idea of Gaga. Because Gaga — and I don’t think she’d mind me saying — has some Phoebe spirit in her. There is synergy between Lisa Kudrow and Lady Gaga in some way. Gaga said yes in a heartbeat. She was like, “I would love to perform in Central Perk with Lisa Kudrow.”
The reunion featured so many great cameos from former Friends guest stars. Was there anyone you wanted but couldn’t get?
We asked loads of people to come and be part of it, especially the supporting cast. We had no flexibility with the time or date and people couldn’t always get on flights — or couldn’t get into America. Some were in bubbles on other shows and films. Jennifer, for example, had to get special permission to leave The Morning Show bubble to come to the Friends reunion bubble. We couldn’t have everybody.
Were the international segments a way to sort of address how the show has been criticized about its lack of diversity?
No. Doing the research for this show, you hear that it was the No. 1 show in India and in Ghana. It’s insane to me that a show that was written and performed in 1994, there is a 20-year-old woman in Ghana who says it changed her life. And my 9-year-old niece in London can quote every line from the show. It came from that.
There were a number of emotional moments with the cast, including one where Matthew Perry gets choked up. There’s been a lot of speculation about his health, and I hate to even ask, but is he OK?
Yes, he was great. People can sometimes just be unkind. I wish they weren’t. I loved working with him. He’s a brilliantly funny man and I thought he had some great one-liners in the show. I felt just happy and lucky to be in his presence and directing him on something like this.’
It’s directly asked whether the cast will ever do another episode of Friends or a movie or even another reunion, and everyone says, “No, this is it for reunions. And no, we wouldn’t want to undo what the creators have done.” Do you buy it?
I definitely do. I can’t speak for them getting back together in another 15 years to do this sort of show. They might decide to do another show together to celebrate the 40th anniversary. Who knows! Will they ever do another scripted episode from getting to know them as a nine? Because it’s Bright, Kauffman and Crane plus the six? Absolutely, categorically never. Marta always says, “This show is about when your friends or your family. And as soon as you have your own family, it’s not about that anymore. It’s a different show.” And they don’t want to make a different show. And we wouldn’t want to see them making that different show. And they all love the happy endings their characters got. The finale gave us what we wanted to. And I hope that the six characters taking part in this show that we’ve created, paying tribute to something that was such a big part of all of our lives and somehow still is, is actually what we wanted, even if it isn’t necessarily what we thought we want.