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Alan Yang on Recreating ‘Friends’ for Jay-Z’s ‘Moonlight’ Video, the Sneaky Camera Transitions and What’s Next

The “Master of None” co-creator breaks down on how the whole crazy idea came together.

Jay-Z's "Moonlight" video

Jay-Z’s “Moonlight” video

Jay-Z/Vevo

Alan Yang is riding a high after “Master of None,” the comedy he co-created with Aziz Ansari, was nominated for multiple Emmys again. But he has another reason to celebrate. Last week, audiences got to freak out over the music video he directed for Jay-Z’s “Moonlight,” which features the sitcom “Friends” reimagined with an all-black cast.

Yang began directing with “Parks and Recreation,” where he first met Ansari. He also directed episodes for “The Good Place” and “Master of None” before Roc Nation contacted him to send a few pitches for “Moonlight,” his first ever music video.

“When Roc Nation came to me, they gave very loose parameters,” said Yang. “They said, ‘Maybe it could be funny, maybe it could be something comedy-based — but really come up with what you want to come up with.’ I think that’s really freeing. Of the ideas I pitched them, ‘Friends’ was my favorite idea.”

Yang added, “One of the things, I think, that has been rattling around in my brain for a while is the conversation we had way back in Season 1 of ‘Master of None,’ when we did the ‘Indians on TV’ episode, where we started that episode with a montage of all of these films that had portrayed Indian characters as sort of racist caricatures and TV shows with characters making fun of them. We just used the actual clips and I still remember how powerful it was to see those actual clips and just remember how recently that was.

“‘Friends’ is not like that at all. ‘Friends’ was not a racist show by any means. But there’s something powerful about the real material. That’s why it was really important for us to just do a shot-for-shot remake of that episode. There was no deviations at all. Part of what this film conveys is how far we’ve come as a culture in terms of representation and how far we still have to go. That’s sort of just the jumping-off point for the whole thing.”

Oddly enough, Yang was more of a fan of “Seinfeld” than he was of “Friends.”

“I’ve seen every episode of ‘Seinfeld,’ but it was impossible not to be affected by ‘Friends.’ It was impossible to not accidentally catch an episode,” he said. “I’d have friends who were obsessed with it. I’ve met Marta Kauffman, who’s one of the creators and she’s super, super sweet. We’ve done some panels together. It’s just this thing that dominated culture in such a way that it’s difficult for a show to have done since. Much less, a comedy, you know? That was one of the reasons I picked it. It was just how overwhelming it was in culture.”

Watch the video below and then read on for how it all came together.

Preparing for the Shoot

In the original “Friends” ensemble, each person carries their own weight when it comes to personality and comedy. Yang knew he needed an equally strong cast that evoked the same recognition.

“It is unbelievable how many people we got from literally just the first treatment I wrote up. I wanted just the best, brightest, funniest actors out there,” he said. “It’s just a murderer’s row. Jay and I both wanted Jerrod Carmichael from the start. He’s just one of the most charismatic people in the world to me. Jerrod and I have been friends for a long time. We used to sit down and have dinners and talk about when I was developing ‘Master of None’ with Aziz and he was developing his show.”

After that, everyone else fell into place: Tessa Thompson (“Dear White People,” “Creed,” “Westworld”), Lakeith Stanfield (“Atlanta,” “Get Out”), Lil Rel Howery (“Get Out”), Issa Rae (“Insecure”), and Tiffany Haddish.

Lakeith Stansfield and Lil Rel Howery, "Moonlight" video

Assigning each person to play each of the “Friends” was also crucial. “These are such indelible characters, and part of the reason I think people are responding to the video is because that was such an iconic show,” Yang said. “People do know those characters. To see Issa as Rachel, and Tessa as Monica, and Tiffany as Phoebe, I don’t know. To me, every piece of casting made me laugh, I love to see Rel as Joey. That would be amazing, and also Lakeith as Chandler is just a totally different take, but he’s actually just such a strong actor. It was just really funny. He did sort of a deadpan Chandler and it just killed me. He’s got that deep voice. It was really fun to watch and they really started tearing into it. It’s a very weird idea. We did rehearsals and it’s just a strange sell, but I really like the way it came together. I’m so glad that I got all the actors in those parts.”

Those with particularly keen hearing my recognize that Jay-Z himself is the voice of Richard, Monica’s ex, who leaves the voice mail message in the video.

Reimagining “Friends” also required recreating the familiar set of Monica’s apartment, which is only second to iconic status as Central Perk.

“I’ve got to credit our productions designer, Jackie Molina, who built the entire ‘Friends’ set from scratch,” Yang said. “She built that apartment from basically nothing [beyond] the original plans and you wouldn’t even know it. I showed some of it to my sister and she’s like, ‘Oh, so that “Friends” set is just still up since the show ended?’ I was like, ‘No, it’s completely new.’”

The Opening Sequence

"Moonlight" music video

Mimicking the iconic opening sequence wasn’t easy, since the original included multiple shots and Yang only had one evening to film it.

“We really hustled, man. We thought about duplicating each and every shot and it ended up being, I think it’s hundreds of shots,” said Yang. “We didn’t have that kind of time. We shot the whole video in a day, and there’s only so many hours at night, so we took the very most important shots. We took the ones where the actors’ names appear and the kind of trademark shots: Joey in the fountain and the chair, Ross falling in, Phoebe doing her little dance. We got all of those. We captured the really, really important ones and then we sort of had them dance and just hang out and do crazy things. I showed them the credits over and over again so we try to get them to do what their counterparts did. Then, we sort of took the camera and dollied back and forth. We ended up getting something I thought that’s pretty damn similar to what the credits are.”

Although they couldn’t get the rights to The Rembrandts’ theme song “I’ll Be There for You,” Yang used Whodini’s song “Friends” instead.

“The credit for that idea goes to one that’s Shawn Carter, Jay-Z himself,” he said. “That was his idea, which I thought that was really awesome to see.

Continue reading for Hannibal Buress, the camera transitions and “Moonlight” homage>>

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