EXCLUSIVE: Ricky Kirshner had been working on Democratic National Conventions since the first time Bill Clinton was nominated, but the realities of the coronavirus pandemic this year saw the Emmy winning producer to literally move the show across the nation at very short notice.
“We built a show that was anchored in Milwaukee, with a center in Milwaukee, where we would kind of roll out on to a much bigger set,” Kirshner says from the control room in Delaware as he gears up tonight for Night 2 of Democrats’ remote shindig
“So, the hard part was taking all of that infrastructure and moving it to Delaware, scenically,” the longtime Tony Awards and Super Bowl Halftime producer reveals of the four-night show that will nominate KSen. Kamala Harris for VP tomorrow and culminate in Joe Biden’s acceptance speech on Thursday. “It was a matter of moving a lot of the tech infrastructure around. Literally, our set, lights, screens, everything were in a truck in Milwaukee to be unloaded the next day when we got the call. Now, we have a control room in Delaware and we have a control room in Milwaukee, where our technical hub is built.”
In any other year, being nominated in the Emmys’ Outstanding Variety Special (Live) category for both the 73rd Tony Awards and for the Super Bowl LIV Halftime show with JLo and Shakira would be the apogee of achievement this summer. But this isn’t any other year and this isn’t any other summer and this really isn’t any other Democratic Convention.
Leading into tonight with moderator Tracee Ellis Ross and speeches from ex-Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Dr. Jill Biden, Kirshner spoke with me about the biggest challenges of pulling off the 2020 Convention. The seasoned producer and 9-time Emmy winner also discussed his nominations and Super Bowl 2021, as well as that blistering speech by Michelle Obama last night that ripped Donald Trump to shreds with a smile.
DEADLINE: So, Night 1, how do you think it went?
KIRSHNER: (LAUGHS) I think that if people knew what we went through to get here, they’d be amazed.
Obviously, we see some glitches that not everyone in the world sees, but look, we started out, a year ago, doing a normal convention in Wisconsin for 15,000 to 20,000 people in a basketball arena. Then we were down to 1500 in the Wisconsin Center and then 300 at the Wisconsin Center. Then probably less than 10 days ago, we moved the whole thing seamlessly to Delaware, but we’re still in 5 different locations in 4 cities. That’s just our control room setup, our technical infrastructure, etcetera, etcetera, not counting the 25-to-30 live remotes. So, considering all that, it went well, I think
DEADLINE: The closing speech by former First Lady Michelle Obama has been widely praised, but, from your perspective, what do you think also landed with the audience?
KIRSHNER: You know people responded to a lot of the things we’re excited about, like the National Anthem and the We the People and you know things like that, so we knew it hit the right chord.
DEADLINE: You have three nights left in this miniseries of sorts, how hard was it to go virtual and shift the center of this universe to Joe Biden’s backyard?
KIRSHNER: First of all, I don’t want to say virtual because when people say it’s a virtual convention last night, everyone thought we were doing a Zoom call, including my mother. We were doing live, some live speeches, and there were live people.
Otherwise, we built a show that was anchored in Milwaukee, with a center in Milwaukee, where we would kind of roll out on to a much bigger set. So, the hard part was taking all of that infrastructure and moving it to Delaware, scenically. It was a matter of moving a lot of the tech infrastructure around. Literally, our set, lights, screens, everything were in a truck in Milwaukee to be unloaded the next day when we got the call. Now, we have a control room in Delaware and we have a control room in Milwaukee, where our technical hub is built.
DEADLINE: Clearly the last few months have seen everyone doing a lot of things differently and live events and shows all going remote and online, so the final decision to head to Delaware and with no audience couldn’t have been that much of a shock?
KIRSHNER: (LAUGHS) I mean it wasn’t like out of the blue. It was more out of the blue, actually, in 2008, when we got a call on July 4th that said, oh, we want to go to a stadium for in Denver for President, sorry Senator Obama accepting the nomination, not the Pepsi Center.
DEADLINE: And you were able to pull that off…
KIRSHNER: (LAUGHS) We were, we were …
DEADLINE: In that, what was the greatest technical of last night and what do you anticipate being the greatest technical challenge going forward tonight and the rest of the week?
KIRSHNER: Well, last night, the biggest technical challenge was just making sure it all worked before we ever got on the air. Like I said, we got spread out to five different locations in about a week or 10 days…
KIRSHNER: Once we knew it worked in rehearsals, two days ago, it felt a lot better.
KIRSHNER: Yeah, because then anytime you throw to a live remote, a lot of these live remotes, we’re not doing the typical satellite uplink. We’re doing them with pretty much with these American Idol kits. Here’s two iPhones and a ring light, you know? So, you’re dealing with that, and tonight’s big challenge is that we’re doing the roll call. We’re doing roll call to 57 different states…well, 50 states, 7 territories. Ten of those roll call shots will be live tonight, on top of live speeches from other people, so we probably have 15, maybe 16, 18 live shots tonight, tonight alone.
So, in my opinion, that’s the big technical challenge, how do you get from A to B?
The other thing people don’t realize is that we’re integrating with broadcasters.
DEADLINE: How do you mean?
KIRSHNER: As you know, when we normally do a show, you tune into X network and you see our show. Here, we’re doing a show and have to integrate with all the other networks, the cable networks, CBS, NBC, ABC, etcetera. All being coordinated to when we’re going to hit certain times, when we’re going to do this, and that’s a big technical challenge, also.
DEADLINE: So, what’s the way to hold it all together? I mean, you’ve been doing the Democratic Convention since 1992 when Bill Clinton was nominated. Tonight, the now former President will be speaking and let’s be honest, Bill Clinton is rarely brief in his speeches but here he has a prescribed time. To me, this year’s convention seems to draw more from your Tony Awards and Super Bowl background…
DEADLINE: So, what was your foundation to make this work?
KIRSHNER: I think anchoring it somewhere really helped us, having moderators like Eva Longoria last night and Tracee Ellis Ross tonight.
KIRSHNER: Well, when people started talking virtual and what this thing was going to be, and like I said, the Zoom call, everyone just thought it was going to be like all the other shows you’ve seen, and most of them, they weren’t live. Once we started to talk about it back in April or May, we started realizing the technologies that were available. I literally would say to people on our team, like, if there’s protests in the streets, CNN and all these other networks seem to be able to get a feed up on a day’s notice. We should be able to do that kind of stuff, you know?
So, the foundation was strong if we have an anchor. Because something goes wrong, we can get back there. We can, roll the tape and take a breath until we figure out what went wrong. you know? The foundation of the technical production is always having a place to go back to if something goes wrong.
DEADLINE: So, with the convention you are producing this week and the GOP next week, is this going to be the new normal for these shindigs, even post-pandemic?
KIRSHNER: Yes and no. I think it’s going to be a hybrid.
You know, you can’t underestimate the fact of human interaction at some point. If you’ve ever been to a live convention, the energy in the room and the parties afterwards, it is real. The other thing is the delegates are people that are really committed to the cause, and they get excited to come together every four years, and there’s a lot of this going on that’s not on the air, like caucus meetings and platform committees, and I just think that’s kind of lost in this world.
Truthfully, we could have done a very similar show, maybe the exact show in the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. Used those screens that we were going to put up there and put our moderators up there, and you would’ve had 15,000 people cheering us on. Maybe, we’re not cutting away to Michelle Obama. Maybe she’s in the room to finish the night.
So, I do think there’s a hybrid of these things, going forward. I hope so because if there isn’t, four years from now, it means we still haven’t gotten out of our homes.
DEADLINE: Shifting focus to another challenge, you are literally up against yourself in the Emmys this year. Nominated in the Outstanding Variety Special (Live) category for the Tony Awards and for the Super Bowl Halftime show with JLo and Shakira. How does that hit you?
KIRSHNER: It’s gratifying and kind of weird in a way. We did it like three years ago and won that year with James Corden.
But look, I did the Tony Awards with my partner, Glenn Weiss, and the other weird thing is Glenn’s up for directing in that category. And Hamish Hamilton’s up for directing the Super Bowl. Glenn, my partner, and Hamish on my show and a good friend, so that’s also weird. It’s just weird. I don’t root for one or the other. I just root for us to get noticed. And it’s really nice.
DEADLINE: I know you’re not the narrative guy, that’s for the campaign upper echelon, but this is a big story of Joe Biden, of this country right now that you are telling and building. There was a lot of juice last night, a lot of energy, where does that come from in a room lacking the cheering crowds?
KIRSHNER: I think you’re right about the building. I think when you see what we do, what we have coming on Thursday night, you’ll see it.
Honestly, what I bring is an amazing team, and I’m not saying that to be humble. I say that because like, like I said in 2008, the day that we were told, on July 4th, to go build a stadium show for Barack Obama’s nomination, which no one had ever done, as a convention. Everyone on the political side was like, oh my god, and all our production people, like, this is going to be awesome, this will be so cool, right?
That’s the attitude.
So, like, all these Super Bowl people who can build a stage in 8-minutes and do a show in 12-minutes and knock it down in 7-minutes, when we were told to move in seven days this year, we all kind of looked at each other. We took a sec, and we were like, okay, it’s a challenge, but it’s kind of cool, and no one’s ever done this before. If we pull this off where we’re in five different locations and we’re literally all talking to each other on intercoms. My director Glenn, you know, my partner, he’s in LA. I’m in Delaware. Our technical hub’s in Milwaukee. Like, that’s what I think we bring to it. I think we bring to it like we’re not scared of this. We’re like we could pull this off, and we trust everyone on our team to know what the hell they’re doing.
We worked our ass off to get to last night to tonight. It’s cool, but by the time you roll it on the air, it’s the first time a lot of people have seen it. It’s the same as the Super Bowl. We had We the People last night, or that anthem, or something you’ll see tonight called our keynote, which is a keynote that’s never been done this way before. But we’ve seen it so many times that by the time we roll it on the air, we just know it, we got it.
DEADLINE: But you have some surprises up your sleeve?
KIRSHNER: You know it’s so funny because like when we do these things, every year, like someone will say to me what do you think will be the moment, or what do you think will be this?
There’s Bill Clinton’s famous walk in ’92, we didn’t know it until the night before, or moving to a stadium in LA, or Gore kissing Tipper or Barack Obama’s keynote speech in 2004 and things like that. I don’t consider things surprises. I just consider things like we’re going to do this cool stuff, and then something happens you never expect, and you react to it.
I mean that’s live television, you know from the Tonys, like some of the times you do a show and the best moment is a speech. We didn’t know in 2016 that Lin-Manuel Miranda was going to do love is love is love is love, and that’s the moment of the night in some ways.
So, anything can happen. We are here to support the speech in a creative way, a well-produced way, but the speech has got to stand on its own.
Look, Michelle Obama, last night, you know, her words were as powerful as anything we could’ve done, right? We put her in a nice setting, we shot it okay, and everything like that, but the words is what everyone’s talking about still today. Yeah, we did the anthem. That was cool. We’ll do some cool things as we go forward, but I can’t tell you like we’re going to surprise anyone. I think there’ll be some impressive moments that people will be …impressed with, I guess, is the right word.
DEADLINE: So, on another field, there’s a lot of talk about what’s going to happen with the NFL and if there is going to be a Super Bowl in February next year. Is your mind even there yet, or is that like a post-convention, in the middle of the fall-type thought, decision?
KIRSHNER: No. Yeah. My mind definitely is not there yet.