John Shaffner is truly going out with a bang. The veteran production designer with more than 100 credits to his name recently retired from the industry, but he’s leaving Hollywood behind with two more Emmy nominations: narrative, half-hour production design for “The United States of Al” and variety special production design for “Friends: The Reunion.” The latter is particularly special since he started his sitcom career on that show’s original 1994-2004 run and had to recreate the most iconic sets almost two decades after the sets had been stripped.

You have done so much since “Friends,” what was your initial thought about returning to the show in this new format so many years after it ended?

Ben [Winston, “Friends: The Reunion” executive producer and director] called and it was like, “Huh? Ben?” But he laid it out that what they wanted to do was recreate “Friends” and get all the sets back together. Well, OK how do we do that? The immediate thing we knew for sure was the coffee house did exist — it was rather chopped and reduced and shortened, but all the dressing was still pretty much there because it had survived so long as the tour piece in the prop house and then it had been moved over to the museum stage.

John-Schaffner Friends Reunion Production Designer

Were you able to use the Central Perk set as it exists on the WB lot now?

The version that’s on Stage 48 is where we shot Lady Gaga, but in order to make it fit [there] they cut off multiple feet from the top, and outside the upstage door there wasn’t very much room, and of course through the door and through the windows nothing matched at all. That space outside the window and door just felt so wrong, especially after we had gotten used to nine years of our street. The first season it was just some of the very old painted backdrops, but then we built and finished the whole outside; we even put real asphalt in there with pipes for steam and everything. So, it really was necessary to build the set from scratch and try to match as best we could.

What was the process to rebuild the apartment sets when none of those pieces had been meticulously preserved for all these years?

We contacted the archives, but the phone call was pre-COVID and then every time we’d make a plan to do it, it had to get pushed. But we did pull out all the sets and I had all my original drawings — I had just taken everything the year before and said, “Well there’s no point in storing all this, it belongs to Warner Bros., it should all go to archives.” So, all my drawings and all my color charts and all my research on the show was recoverable relatively easily. And they did a really marvelous job, for the most part, of saving all the decor.

So, you were able to just find the original pieces of many things instead of having to completely build or source anew?

Yes, but once you get the walls, in particular, out of the warehouse after 17 years of sitting in a big dusty, dirty, birds-fly-through-it kind of place, they require a great deal of attention. And there really wasn’t any list, there were no pictures, there was nothing that showed what had been saved. Fortunately I had a tremendous construction coordinator — Clifford Whalen — and all the sets were delivered and then began the great sort: Which wall goes where? But because we had the drawings, we were able to identify that. And which walls came in looking like splintered chopsticks and had to be repaired or restored? I would say we were fortunate: about 70% was there, including the landing behind the two apartments. We were pretty sure that wasn’t going to show up!

Out of the 30% you didn’t have, what was the biggest thing?

They had completely dumped the street, so we had to rebuild the street from scratch. The original street was an idea that [executive producers] Kevin Bright and Marta Kauffman and David Crane agreed to towards the last minute [in the original series] and so we scrambled, pulling walls from whatever we could find from stock scenery: “Oh well, here’s a storefront,” “If we move this a little bit, we can move this wall in between.” The drawings on that were a little funky, but for that we had a lot of photographs.

Friends Reunion Special - Photography by Terence Patrick

But then it all had to be stored on Stage 19 and put on a halt [because of the pandemic]. Construction was one huge part of the process; the second part was they started bringing in the boxes and the crates [of set decoration]. It was a scramble, and certainly at the time, archival 17 years ago was much less thorough than it has been in recent times.

We know Lisa Kudrow took the original cookie jar, what else had to be re-sourced or recreated in that respect?

We couldn’t find the Barcaloungers [at first]; they had been stuffed into the back of the warehouse as far as I know. Finally they found them, but we had two very large challenges. One was that it’s common to use linoleum to pass as wood floors in multi-camera comedies, and they did not make that particular pattern anymore. There was a chunk of it still on the platform by the window, and so Greg Grande arranged for a section of it to be photographed, scanned, colorized and then custom printed on linoleum so we could match it. And then the next one was, the living room carpet had disappeared, so once again, because of today’s technology, Greg worked with a graphic artist and they were able to reproduce [the pattern from our old photographs] as close as they could. He bought a piece of plain carpet, and they printed the pattern on the carpet. It had been a woven carpet that had the detail poked into it, but this time it was applied to the top.

How did you determine which season to use as the basis for the set recreations?

What we tried to do ultimately with the decor was to reproduce the final season as best we could. We started out with a boys’ apartment where we identified Chandler and Joey as two guys who are 100% afraid of color. The first season everything was brown or tan, but then of course as the show changed and the boys got bolder and they made a little more money, then all of a sudden there was a yellow leather sofa and the Barcaloungers and the big TV cabinet they built. We knew we had to go back to where we had ended because that told the story of the 10 years of their lives.

Yet you did include the beam that divides Monica’s kitchen and living room, mostly in Season 1 but in a handful of other episodes as well. Was that built into this version of the set to be structural or to facilitate the conversation around the fact that it came in and out of the original episodes?

I wanted the sets as original as possible and to try to accomplish something that was rather present in the minds of the cast. The whole point of this, really more than anything, was to follow them in and around as they explored the old environments and catch the emotional experience of them being in this place where, “Oh my god, it’s like coming back to grandma’s house 17 years later.” It was a total time trip.

Friends Reunion Special - Photography by Terence Patrick

You also utilized the fountain, which used to be on the Warner Bros. ranch but is now on the main lot, and which was used in the interview portion.

The whole point was to recreate the stage exactly as left it, so we put in bleachers — we put them all in the same place, the same size, and we custom-made the front railing with the Plexi in it because they don’t make those kind of railings anymore and you can’t rent them anymore. And we’d gotten as close as could to the same chairs and we had the neon “Friends” sign to hang in the back. But as COVID encroached more on our work, Ben said, “What can we do? How can we spread people out?” So a year ago at this time, I was sitting at a drawing board, drawing 6-foot diameter circles so I could figure out how many people could sit in the bleachers. And then we discussed arranging pods of people if we could get audience as family groups and put them on a sofa or at a table and dress a large portion of the vacant area where we used to do swing sets. We talked about risers and what kind of screens we would need for playback. We went around version after version, and the closer we got, it just became apparent that there was just no way we were going to have any kind of an audience that would be meaningful [on Stage 24].

Ben called me and said, “John, I think we’ve got to do the interview outside — I think by the fountain.” He said, “I want to recreate exactly what was there in the opening titles.” So of course he wanted to build the buildings! I said, “No, you don’t need to. We have a whole street behind here; we’ll block off some with greens and our lighting director will be able to create the atmosphere of light around it. And then we have to build our amphitheater for an audience.” What was crazy is, we can’t build it like we normally would because we had to have a person every 6 feet and that would look very strange. So I designed them so they were just narrow step, wide step, narrow step, wide step. And I said, “Just get as many throw pillows as you can,” and our DP suggested putting little lamps around, and we dressed the green area on the grass with some more sofas and tables to mix and match. The way you decorate your apartment when you’re young and poor in New York is, the night before the trash pickup is, you go where all the rich people take their furniture out on the street to get rid of it. So that was the impetus behind all the decor. I think decorating is like putting paragraphs and sentences together: sofas and chairs are story.

What was so marvelous about that experience personally — and yet I also think it was so much “Friends” New York — is we created, in a weird way, the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. I had designed two shows there way back when I lived in New York, and the experience of being in the trees and the big lake behind it — we had our fountain and we had grass, so it was like, “Oh my God, we really are in New York.”

And just to go back to the apartments for a second, how did you want your team to handle the shade of purple for Monica’s apartment? Could you collaborate with the lighting department on gels or bounce if the exact original shade couldn’t be matched?

I had all of the boards with the original colors written down on it.

You were able to find the original paint!?

Yes. The purple apartment was fun because originally we present our designs in a white model form so that we study the geography and the architecture, and then began the discussion of color. And [back in the ’90s] Kevin said to me, “Please, I just don’t want this to be a New York landlord white apartment.” I thought for two seconds and I looked him in the eye and I said, “What about purple?” I got a little white model and I got out a little paintbrush and I painted the model purple and I painted the little parts green and yellow in the kitchen. They said, “Well, this kind of hard to tell what’s really going to look like but go ahead and paint it.” And they came down to the stage and went, “Oh we love it.” And one of the reasons I had suggested the purple color was because the women in the cast were all beautiful, but they each had different coloring and lavender-purple is really a marvelous complement to all skin tones. The fallback is blue, but I just couldn’t imagine the apartment being blue. And then the color choices we made in the decor was, a lot of the times, more neutral — the oatmeal-colored sofa, the light wood coffee table, the wood desk and then the mismatched colored chairs as if she had found chairs and painted them.

Friends Reunion Special - Photography by Terence Patrick

Which was the one area that I always thought would upset Monica’s OCD.

Well, she got worse as the years went on. It wasn’t a major character trait of her in Season 1. I thought she would have gotten some new chairs at one point, but she never did.

 

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