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Ben Winston Talks Directing the ‘Friends’ Reunion and Lady Gaga’s Guest Appearance

Friends Reunion Ben Winston
Friends: HBO; Winston: AP

Welcome to this week’s “Just for Variety.” It’s a bit longer column this week because of the “Friends” reunion. I caught up with Ben Winston, the director and producer of the HBO Max special, on Monday to chat about getting the cast back together, and we had much to talk about.

That said, stop reading now if you don’t want to know what happens on “Friends: The Reunion.” Make sure to come back after you watch the special.

Winston was just 10 days away from directing the “Friends” reunion special for HBO Max in 2020 when he turned to his wife before bed and said, “Don’t you sometimes just wish that you could press pause and just get a bit more time?” Days later, Hollywood production — and the world, for that matter — came to a screeching halt due to COVID-19. He turned the postponement into a yearlong course in all things “Friends.” “I watched all 236 episodes, I read a couple of books about ‘Friends,’ and I met with the cast a few times over Zoom to get to know them better,” says Winston, who also serves as a producer of the long-awaited special that premieres on HBO Max on Friday. The reunion, which was filmed over two days, marks the first time that the entire ensemble — Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, Courteney Cox, David Schwimmer, Matthew Perry and Matt LeBlanc — were in the same room in 17 years.

Lady Gaga makes an appearance to duet with Kudrow on “Smelly Cat.” “I said to Lisa, ‘Would you be prepared to sing it?’ And she was like, ‘Yeah, that would be fun,’” Winston, who is co-executive producer of “The Late Late Show With James Corden,” recalls. “We went through a few names, and we both agreed that Gaga, if we could get her, would be the ultimate one because she associates with and feels close to Phoebe in so many ways, as Gaga says on the show. That was a really beautiful moment. And Lady Gaga jumped at the chance to do it.”

Kudrow and Gaga had barely any rehearsal time. “We sat there with the two guitars with Lisa and her and worked it out there and then,” Winston says.

What else did Winston tell me? A lot.

How he got involved: Winston was most excited about meeting creators and producers Marta Kauffman and David Crane and producer Kevin S. Bright when he got a call asking if he was interested in tackling the reunion. “I’m a TV geek,” Winston says. “When I meet producers and writers of shows I watched growing up, they’re far more exciting to me than movie and TV stars.” He also had to pitch his ideas to each of the “Friends” stars, who are also producers of the reunion.

Getting it together: Scheduling the cast to shoot in Studio 24 was a logistical game of hopscotch. “Studio 24 is one of the main studios at Warner Brothers that they use for sitcoms. It was a three-week load-in and light, a 10-day strike-out and a three-day shoot,”  Winston says. “So you’re looking at, ‘How do you get Studio 24 for five weeks?’”

Cutting room floor: The first cut of the show was three hours, but there will be no “Winston Cut” released in the future. “It was rubbish,” he says, adding, “I believe if it didn’t make it in, it wasn’t good enough. There are no extras.”

Zoom exception: Winston decided early on that guests had to be in person, but they did allow James Michael Tyler, who played Gunther, to appear remotely. “If he wasn’t in it, it would feel like such an absence because he is so beloved by the fans,” he says.

Favorite segment of the reunion: “The table reads,” Winston says. “I felt like the take reads were really special. We shot them with four cameras around them on a track. It’s a complicated way to shoot because you can’t have the cameras get in each other’s shots. It was quite a science. It was almost like the opening scene of ‘Reservoir Dogs’ where we shoot around the backs of those mafia bosses. I really wanted it to feel like they were the only ones in the room. If you did that on a long table or a square table it wouldn’t have been as beautiful. It was all about them at that moment.”

Talking about their exes: The cast recalls many of the guest stars on the show, including Aniston’s ex-husband Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, who Perry dated back in the day. “They had the conversation, not me,” Winston says. “That had nothing to with me. I just filmed it.”

Feeling pressure: Winston says that making his Grammys producing debut earlier this year was a lot more stressful than the “Friends” gig. “The Grammys was a lot more pressure because it was three-and-a-half hours of live TV with 23 artists,” he says. “I had sleepless nights because everybody’s got an opinion and everybody sets out to hate the Grammys. It was my first one and it was COVID. I felt sick about it. I don’t feel as much pressure with ‘Friends’ because I was able to sit with it in an edit bay for four or five weeks, work with it and then improve it. I could see what works and what didn’t.”

Speaking of the Grammys: Winston says he’s interested in producing the music industry’s biggest night of the year again. “I enjoyed the fact that I could do something creatively different,” he says. “If we could do that again and look at it in a different way, then I’d be really excited to potentially do it again.” He’s meeting with newly installed Recording Academy president Harvey Mason, Jr. in a couple of weeks to discuss the prospect. “But I don’t think I’m going to do it like or 40 years like my predecessor,” Winston says, referring to Ken Ehrlich. “He did a great job, but I think maybe one, two or three years and I’m out. “

EXCLUSIVE: The Broadway Live Cinema Festival will launch at the AMC Empire 25 in Times Square on July 15. Screenings of “The Wizard of Oz,” “West Side Story,” “Chicago,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and “In the Heights” will include performances by Broadway talent. Ticket holders also have access to 54 Below at the AMC Rooftop for outdoor parties featuring cabaret shows and Q&As curated by Feinstein’s/54 Below. The performances will be directed by Kristin Hanggi (“Rock of Ages”) and musical direction by Jason Michael Webb (“Choir Boy”). Choreographers include Sunny Hitt (“The Tempest”) and Luis Salgado (“In the Heights”). “The festival is a big joy-filled summer party, welcoming New York back to Broadway and the movies,” Hanggi said in statement, in part. “This past year, we have lived through a collective trauma, and as we emerge, we recognize the power of storytelling has to restore the spirit.” Producers include Daniel Wise, Zvi Septimus and Jeff Croiter. Tickets go on sale June 7. AMC plans to expand the program to theaters nationwide.

“We at AMC are thrilled to be lighting up New York with The Broadway Live Cinema Festival, at the iconic AMC Empire 25,” said Elizabeth Frank, AMC Theatres’ executive vice president of worldwide programming and chief content officer. “This first-of-its-kind film festival featuring Broadway films will bring together American movie-going and theatre-going audiences for a fun and innovative experience that joins the magic of the big screen with the power of live performance.”

Architect and Tony-winning set designer David Rockwell is donating the royalties from his just released book “Drama” to The Actors Fund. Check it out here phaidon.com/drama.

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Michael Buckner for PMC

Dwayne Johnson recently teased his “Black Adam” look by posting a mysterious photo of himself wrapped in a dark cloak on Instagram. Now, his producing partner Dany Garcia tells me why the pandemic made designing his superhero suit much easier than originally expected. “My husband is DJ’s strength and conditioning coach, and they were able to get his physique to the right place with so much time before shooting that. There wasn’t a lot of ‘Where are we padding or where are we adding?’ and things like that,” Garcia, who was married to Johnson for 11 years before they divorced in 2008, told me at the launch party for her lifestyle brand GSTQ. “I’ve seen him in the full costume and let me tell you — it’s a thing!”

“Black Adam” is currently filming in Atlanta. “We have all our COVID protocols in place and everything is running really smoothly,” Garcia says. “A lot of our cast is vaccinated. We have different zones. It adds about 30 percent not only to cost, but to the logistics, but we’ve had no outbreaks.” Garcia declined to comment on how many “Black Adam” films are planned but said, “We want to do many. We’re excited about our long-term relationship with DC on this property.”

The launch party for GSTQ included Salt & Straw (Johnson and Garcia are investors in the popular ice cream brand) and a screening of “In the Heights.” “I created the concept of the brand when I was 16 and sat on it for a few years,” she says, laughing. “It was all about the space of athleisure and power dressing. I’m an athlete and the clothing I wear when I’m training does something for me and I wanted to transition that into power dressing. It’s about the clothing wrapping around you and saying, ‘I got you.’ It’s comfortable. It’s stylish and the fabrics move with you.”

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Kevin Scanlon

Love that Sycamore Kitchen on La Brea. That’s where Punam Patel met Ryan O’Connell for lunch to discuss her playing his bestie Kim on his semi-autobiographical Hulu series “Special” about a gay man with cerebral palsy. “He actually didn’t audition anyone else because we just hit it off,” Patel tells me. “We did a test, but that was just for show. By the time we were filming a couple of months later, we had already become good friends.” Many fans may assume Patel may be playing herself on the show. “There are parts of me that if you heighten them that would be Kim,” she says. “I do like getting dressed up and it’s fun but on a normal daily basis, I’m not putting on a wig or putting on makeup unless I’m getting paid. And also, I think if I kept doing it I feel like I wouldn’t like what I look like normally. But I do think Kim and I are really similar in the sense that any child of immigrants in this country has an identity crisis at some point in their life. …But even outside of immigrants, I think we can all relate to that phase in our life where we were just trying way too hard. I look back now and I’m like, ‘Why was I trying to be like a long torso-ed white girl like when Tara Reid was hot and stuff?’ I was like, ‘I wish I was blonde and had a long flat torso?’ Now I’m like, ‘I’ve got curves for days and I fucking love it.’”

Kim spends much of the second and final season of “Special” with her family. Working with so many actors of Indian descent at one time isn’t something Patel imagined early in her career. “I didn’t think they’d ever allow more than one of us on set,” she says. “To shoot ‘Special’ and have literally a whole week where everyone is Indian and there’s Indian food and we’re wearing Indian clothing, it was like zero to 60 because I’m usually the only one. … I never thought I could be a part of a show that celebrates every single person for who they are as a full person. You see shows that sensationalize certain races or certain disabilities and kind of give themselves a pat on the back. Like, ‘Look at us. We did it.’ But this show lets us all exist. I think that’s the greatest form of celebrating people is normalizing them.”

Now that Sam Richardson has had a taste of action work in Amazon’s upcoming “Tomorrow War” with Chris Pratt, he wants some more. He’d love a shot at playing the X-Men’s Beast. “I think Beast is like a big blue-haired Richard Splett,” he told me at the Big Screen Is Back event, referring to the character he played on “Veep.”

Frankie Grande is back. The actor and influencer will host the second annual Rainbowthon, a virtual fundraiser for the Los Angeles LGBT Center, on June 3. The inaugural event, which included an appearance by Grande’s sister Ariana Grande, raised $55,000 for the organization. This year’s lineup includes JoJo Siwa, Jewel, Alexandra Billings, MacDoesIt, Chaunté Wayans, Gizzle, Jasmine Davis, Shoshana Bean, Alyson Stoner, Laith Ashley, Rayvon Owen, R.K. Russell and Corey O’Brien, Kenton Chen and Shea Diamond.