No matter how many big shows a person might have attended, the sight of a major arena production being assembled still astonishes. On Friday morning, approximately 80 hours before MTV’s annual Video Music Awards begin, New York’s legendary Radio City Music Hall was in the process of being transformed: the stage was loaded with towering sets and light structures swooping overheard, a giant lighting rig covered approximately a third of the ceiling, 1,500 seats had been removed to expand the main stage or clear the way for other stages and camera platforms, and the venue’s iconic lobby was nearly completely filled with anvil cases; hundreds of staffers and technicians bustled everywhere while announcements crackled across the PA. Huge light structures loomed over the sides of the room and hung from the front of the balconies. (Head here for Variety’s exclusive look at the set of the 2018 VMAs.)
In the front rows of seats, placards for stars like Cardi B, Shawn Mendes, Millie Bobby Brown, Rita Ora, Logic, Jennifer Lopez, Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande, Travis Scott and Kylie Jenner, Tiffany Hadish, Keegan Michael Key and Aerosmith (huh?) were in place, yet standing in one place for more than a couple of minutes guaranteed you’d be in the way of anything from a giant roadcase being pushed along by workers or a technician crawling under the stage at your feet.
Amid all of this controlled chaos, executive producer and 12-time VMA veteran Jesse Ignjatovic exuded the kind of weary but alert calm that seems to be a prerequisite for the job of making sure than none of the thousands of things that could go wrong actually do go wrong.
“I do this every year, and this year is exceptionally big in terms of talent, the level of performances, scale, what we’re doing with technology on the show, what we’ve done with Radio City,” says Ignjatovic, whose Den of Thieves also handles the iHeartRadio Awards, ABC’s “Gong Show,” March for Our Lives and other projects. “I’ve been here numerous times doing shows, and we’ve never done anything on this level in terms of ambition, the room, moving seats. We never build into the room here,” he continues, gesturing at the ceiling, “there’s no rigging points, but we’ve managed to do something pretty impressive. I think the level of the production is probably greater than we’ve ever done.”
And amid all that comes another familiar dilemma: Working a new segment into a show that has been in the planning stages literally since the beginning of the year. In this case, it’s a tribute to the great Aretha Franklin, who passed away Thursday, four days before the show.
“That’s our big focus now,” Ignatovic says. “Even [considering] how many times she performed here, her connection to MTV in the heyday of music videos on the channel, and just what she means to music. We have our pie-in-the-sky dreams, but she’s one of the all-time greats so we have to do her justice.”
Asked whether the tribute will feature a single performer or an ensemble, it seemed that — not uncommonly for such situations — the final plan is still coming together.
“It could land on either,” he says. “It’s such a scramble to figure out what to do, we have to make sure whatever we do is true to her art. We don’t want to do anything too kooky, it’s got to be organic.”
He also said that the current political climate will be reflected in the show, and hopes that it will be more smoothly integrated than last year: In one instance, Paris Jackson went immediately from a Charlottesville-related call to “show these Nazi supremacist jerks that we have zero tolerance for their violence, hatred and discrimination” to, with an impressively self-aware laugh, “And now: the nominees for Best Pop Video!”
“That one was so last-minute, we probably should have done a better job,” he acknowledged. “I hope it all feels interconnected [this year]. It’s reacting to what’s happening in the world and trying to find the right place for it. It’s constantly going back to the show grid and looking for the best possible places for things.”
As for an overriding theme to the show, he said, “When you come to New York, that’s kind of the theme,” he said. “MTV is so connected to New York, we’re back at Radio City and we haven’t been here since 2009, and the first VMAs was here in 1984. New York is a different energy for the show, and it always has been.”
The 2018 VMAs air live on MTV Monday, Aug. 20 at 9 p.m. ET.