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Building Character With Time: “Best Friends Whenever” Executive Producers Jed Elinoff, Scott Thomas and Michael Kaplan

By: Marjorie Galas

After turning Randy Cunningham into a ninth grade ninja, writer/producers Jed Elinoff and Scott Thomas decided it was time to help some girls travel through time.

“We were meeting with some Disney executives and the notion of time travel came up. It’s a really exciting topic but it’s been done many times before,” said Thomas. “We had just come off ‘Randy Cunningham: Ninth Grade Ninja’ and thought it would be really unique to do time travel with girls, to do something more character driven where we learn who they are as we see what they would do with it.”

The two began to loosely define Shelby (Lauren Taylor) and Cyd (Landry Bender) – best friends since kindergarten who believe they know each other inside and out – until the way each treats their time travel exploits brings forth unexpected character traits. Recognizing a live action series would bring relatability to the audience, they teamed with executive producer/writer Michael Kaplan, whose creation, “Dog With a Blog” took a fantastical element – a talking dog – and seamlessly merged it into a popular Disney series. Looking over the friend format, Kaplan suggested the addition of a next-door neighbor who envisions himself as a future brilliant scientist. His friendship with the girls balances their time travel mishaps and allows their tight friendship to be nicely emphasized. Collaboratively, Elinoff, Thomas and Kaplan continued to refine the core of the series while allowing character development to unfold organically through each new episode and time travel misadventure.

“Animation would have opened possibilities with the time travel, but the limitations become the strength,” said Kaplan. Added Elinoff, “We have two average girls trying to do exceptional things. It’s fun to figure out as we explore what they do in these exceptional circumstances.”

The live action format of “Best Friends Whenever” provides an opportunity to zero in on how Shelby and Cyd use the time travel to their benefit instead of presenting more fantastic situations. It’s shot in the multi-camera format – a format that expands the limitations of a set. Noting the importance the set had to the series, Elinoff, Thomas and Kaplan wanted to find someone who could bring a unique feel to locations that viewers often see, such as school hallways and girls’ bedrooms. They hired Emmy nominated production designer Scott Heineman (“Dog With a Blog”, “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”, “Facts of Life”) to create unique environments that have the ability to be transformed to reflect different time periods. Heineman suggested an attic room for Shelby and Cyd’s bedroom, a seldom seen location for a girl’s room, and introduced the idea of neighbor and good friend Barry who converted his parent’s old motor home into his own personal science lab, a set piece that injected immediate history that could be played with during the time travel sequences.

To balance the personal growth of the characters with the fantastic elements of time travel, Elinoff, Thomas and Kaplan hired a team of talented writers with strong pedigrees including “Dog With a Blog” and “Randy Cunningham: Ninth Grade Ninja” as well as writers with a sci-fi interest who safeguard the show’s time-traveling/science infused elements, ensuring they are grounded in an element of truth. Forgoing a pilot and starting directly with a six episode series order, the writing team was put to task. They had to ensure the characters were fully fleshed out and able to transition smoothly from one episode to the next with no major adjustments or tweaks that often result after a pilot’s premiere.

Fleshing out these characters required perfect actors. Elinoff, Thomas and Kaplan worked with Judy Taylor, Disney Channel’s SVP Casting who, along with her team, aided in selecting a talented group of actors who fit perfectly into the roles.

“Judy Taylor is really amazing at what she does,” said Thomas. “Lauren (Taylor), Gus (Kamp) and Landry (Bender) had been in a previous Disney Channel pilot. They were so funny, they were just perfect.”

“Finding a Disney star is not easy. It’s really hard to find a kid with a special something. What these kids do is incredibly amazing,” said Elinoff.

Rounding out the main cast are Barry’s best friend Naldo (Ricky Garcia) and twin brothers Brett and Chet (Benjamin and Matthew Royer, respectively), who were discovered trying out for another show. (“We must have them!” Thomas recalled exclaiming when he saw them audition.)

Unlike animated characters, the young talent cast in “Best Friends Whenever” will continue to grow with each passing season Elinoff and Thomas are excited about the aspect of developing the characters as they move through high school with each passing year. As with any friendship, personal growth always brings complications. The more the girls learn about their differences as they travel through time, the greater the tests, and bonds, their friendship will endure.

“Kids in animation never age, but with child actors you have a more limited time period before they grow up,” said Thomas. “We want to show the development of their friendship. The girls think they know everything about each other. With each time travel, and through the stories of every episode, they will see new sides of each other, have new challenges to face and overcome. These issues are universal.”

“Best Friends Whenever” airs Sunday (8:30 p.m., ET/PT) on Disney Channel.

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