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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

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Shooting the Sitcom

“It was a real whirlwind,” said Yang. “I was in New York, I met with Chaka Pilgrim, who works with Jay, I think in maybe May or something. The whole thing, it was a matter of a few weeks at most. All the casting, all the set being built, the set was built unbelievably quickly. Yeah, it was all done really quickly. Yeah. We just shot it in a day. We shot the whole thing in a day.”

Yang had watched the episode “The One Where No One’s Ready” multiple times to prepare for the shoot. His cast was similarly dedicated to getting everything just right.

“If I’m not mistaken, I think Tessa was probably the biggest fan,” he said. “I could also be wrong, because Tessa is someone who is such an exhaustively hard worker and prepares for everything so that might of just been her watching every episode in preparation to play Monica. I think I remember her having the most knowledge about that. I don’t think anyone was like, ‘Man, I was a “Friends”-aholic and I just watched every episode.’ I think Tessa had seen the most, maybe.”

Tessa Thompson and Jerrod Carmichael, "Moonlight" music video

Although everybody did their homework, the video also went right to the source on the day of shooting.

“We had basically a split screen on set of the original episode playing next to our version, so we knew it was exactly the same,” he said. “Every now and then, I’d have the actors come watch the episode with me, then we’d go and do a take. The cameraman all had frames of every shot of the entire episode. So, we had all these cameras going and actors had to hit their mark exactly and the timing had to be exactly right. It was a bit of a choreographed stage play in some sense, which is kind of what a multi-camera set is already. We had to be pretty accurate otherwise people would be looking into the wrong places and standing in the wrong places.

“It didn’t end up being that crazy of a day. I think it was really, really fortunate that the actors were so well prepared. They really killed it.”

Leaving “Friends” Behind

The video takes two deviations from “Friends.” First is when the sitcom fourth wall is broken and the actors take a break from set. Carmichael wanders over to speak to Hannibal Buress, who plays a version of himself, to get his take on this bizarre project. Buress is not a fan.

Hannibal Buress, "Moonlight" music video

“He’s just really funny. When Jerrod asks what he thinks, he’s like, ‘Garbage.’ That always kills me,” said Yang. “His stuff about playing a parrot in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ was always really funny to me too. A lot of his funniest lines, I got some help from a couple writers, Joe Mande and Aniz Ansari, who both have worked with me on ‘Master of None’ and ‘Parks and Rec.’ They came to set and helped me out a little bit too. Some of Hannibal’s jokes, especially, were pitched by those guys.

Later, in a sequence without dialogue, Rae leads Carmichael off the set, and he wanders out as Jay-Z’s song finally kicks in.

“It was really important that that feel sort of dream-like. I really wanted you to feel like you’re in Jerrod’s character’s head,” said Yang. ‘If you notice, there’s a very subtle sort of change in the show. First we’re in this standard 4:3 sitcom TV ratio, which is what TVs were like in the ‘90s. Then, when we break the fourth wall and go to the craft service team with Hannibal Buress, it’s a 16:9 ratio, which is a lot of what TV is now. Then, when we go into the Jerrod reverie scene, it turns into anamorphic ratio, which is the cinematic ratio.”

Issa Rae, "Moonlight" music video

“I’ve got to credit Dave Jones, he actually operated camera on that and sort of was like, “Yeah, we just sort of get inside the cameras that were used to shoot the actual sitcom and just sort of drift, kind of have those small, low-key movements, hew upwards towards the light. It’ll really sell.’ I thought he did a really good job of shooting that. Then, the steadicam shot right after that is to me one of my favorite parts of the whole thing, where Issa is in the doorway there and we follow them out. That was another thing I was really happy with.”

At the end of the song, before the credits roll, the audio plays from this year’s Oscar gaffe, in which Faye Dunaway accidentally calls out “La La Land” as the Best Picture before it was revealed that “Moonlight” had actually won.

“When I heard the track the first time and heard that it was called ‘Moonlight,’ it got me thinking a little bit,” said Yang. “That’s part of why the video’s partially about representation, and I was a huge fan of Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight.’ It’s just a really inspirational piece of work. I’ve been in touch with Barry a little bit, we DM each other on Twitter a little bit. Certainly, that last frame of Jerrod sitting on a bench and looking up at the full moon and then the slow dolly back, that was in the original treatment the whole time. I always wanted that to be the last shot of the entire video.”

"Moonlight" music video

What You Didn’t See

“This is really crazy, but there’s another sort of scene where we pull out another time,” said Yang. “We see Jerrod at another show, which is his own sort of ‘Master of None’ show. It’s a great scene, but we didn’t end up doing that part. It was really a sense of giving the audience a little bit more clarity as to what would happen later or set up sort of what’s in Jerrod’s character’s head, so it’s not just a random occurrence.”

What’s Next

The last time IndieWire had spoken to Yang about “Master of None’s” Emmy nomination, he had teased that “I have a couple projects that I’m not allowed to talk about yet. But I do have a movie script that I want to direct very soon. I got a couple other things going. I’ve been doing more directing. And again a couple things I’m not allowed to talk about yet. Sorry that answer isn’t very interesting, but I’m definitely been keeping busy.”

Apparently, Jay-Z’s “Moonlight” video was one of those things he couldn’t discuss at the time. As for what’s next, Yang was similarly circumspect. “There’s definitely a couple,” he said.

When asked when he’d do a project about Asian representation or something on par with “Get Out” but for the Asian community, he said, “Well, hopefully it’s one of the things I’m working on. Let’s just say that. It’s definitely something I have been thinking about for a lot of time. I have something in the works.”

"Moonlight" music video

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