When Ben Winston set out to helm HBO Max’s “Friends: The Reunion,” he had some of the most iconic television sets at his disposal. But rather than showcasing them the way fans had watched for decades, he opted to flip things around — literally.
“When they were doing the documentary element of [the special] — the cast coming back together and reuniting — I purposely wanted the camera to shoot off set,” Winston explains. “When they’re talking in Central Perk, I actively am behind them, which is a very weird angle to take. We’ve seen the six of them having conversations in Central Perk for years — what I wanted to do was show what their point of view was of that audience.”
Diving back into familiar properties — but with a twist — was a common theme for this year’s crop of Emmy-nominated directors, from Winston to Matt Shakman of Marvel property “WandaVision,” Jon Favreau of “Star Wars” series “The Mandalorian,” Thomas Kail from the filmed version of “Hamilton” and Thomas Schlamme of a staged take on “The West Wing.”
For the latter, “A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote,” the team opted to do a scaleddown production of the 2002 episode “Hartsfield’s Landing,” which led to Schlamme figuring out “how to deconstruct the idea of ‘West Wing.’”
“There’s no way I wanted to duplicate what we had already done once,” Schlamme says of the special, done to raise awareness for the nonprofit When We All Vote. Instead, “we put it into this brand-new environment that would still have enough touchstones to an audience to feel the power and the memory of what that was to watch the show.”
Kail, who also directed the Broadway production of “Hamilton,” too had his own challenge: to capture the vibrant, Tony-winning show in a way that was accessible to all levels of familiarity with the musical.
“When you’re making a film, you’re able to control the frame in such a more comprehensive way,” Kail says. “What I wanted to do was give an experience so a person that had never seen the show would feel like they were immersed in the storytelling, and for the person who had seen the show, allow them to see something from a perspective that they didn’t know existed.”
The “Hamilton” film was shot over a few days in 2016 as a mix of live shows (with audiences) and specialized numbers (with just the ensemble present), allowing for Kail to experiment a bit more. “During the day when we didn’t have an audience, where we could get on stage, that’s where the Steadicam and the crane and some of the dolly shots could be utilized.”
“WandaVision,” which found Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) channeling her heartbreak through her love of television, allowed for Shakman to jump head-first into his “director’s dream job” of playing in the same world over the span of decades.
“We knew that the look of the show is constantly going to be shifting, so making it feel cohesive was really the biggest challenge,” Shakman says. “And ultimately, the emotional connection — this is a meditation on loss and grief— and that it’s Wanda’s view of the world holds everything together.”
To recreate the retro shows Wanda envisioned, “we matched the shooting style to what they would have done,” he continues. “‘Dick Van Dyke Show,’ ‘I Love Lucy’ would have had a live audience, cameras on tripods, move around pedestal cameras. And that’s what we did — we shot it [on] dollies and it moved around, but it was three cameras going at the same time, in the same way that they would have done it. We used vintage lighting and lenses. The only thing we didn’t change really was the camera. That allowed us to sometimes film multiple styles in the same day, including modern MCU.”
“Friends: The Reunion”employed similar tactics, with Winston using “cinematic cameras” when shooting the cast reuniting privately but moving to crane shots for the outdoor Q&A portion and a more standard sitcom set-up for the cast’s quiz segment.
“I was showing the scale because I wanted to cut between the quiet intimacy of the six of them on set with just each other to the huge, massive outdoor [setting with] 200 people cheering them. And that’s why you’ll often hear the sounds bleeding through on the previous bit — so you know where you’re going. We were guiding our viewers.”
When taking risks with familiar properties, the trust between cast and director can be key, but also unnerving.
“There will never be a directing experience I have where I talk to the actors less about portrayal and characterization or have an editor that I talked to less about order and time. We weren’t cutting anything and the second scene was not going to be anywhere but in the second slot,” Kail notes. “A lot of those things that you often spend your time and energy on were completely removed from the equation.”
Instead, the discussions centered on “doing it [a few] more times so that we could have the chance to capture it and honor [the show].”
For Kail, the wild card ended up being the live audiences who came to see “Hamilton,” unaware until they entered the theater it was going to be recorded.
“There was definitely a little bit of an adjustment for them, which was an adjustment for us, because it was a different kind of energetic field flowing back and forth,” Kail recalls. “It took them a couple of numbers to say, ‘Oh, I can just relax and watch the show.’ In some way, that also helped our company just realize we’re all going through this together.”
For Schlamme, who directed more than a dozen episodes of “The West Wing” during the show’s run, the relationships “of course, helped me. But it also did the opposite, too. My relationship with all of those actors is fraught with pain and love — an incredible relationship, one which I cherish. Therefore, to come back and to do something and [possibly] fall flat on my face put added pressure.
“Aaron [Sorkin, “The West Wing” creator] was not completely on board with the idea,” Schlamme continues. “He felt like we could just be on stage, [like] Readers Theater. So knowing that, I also didn’t want to disappoint him. But that’s exactly the thing that was so exciting: we were trying to do something just a little bit different with a group of people that I felt so confident in.”