Super Bowl Halftime Producer Talks Justin Timberlake, Prince, and Confirms: ‘There Was Never a Hologram’ (EXCLUSIVE)

A large image of Prince is shown as Justin Timberlake performs during halftime of the NFL Super Bowl 52 football game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots, in MinneapolisEagles Patriots Super Bowl Football, Minneapolis, USA - 04 Feb 2018
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Super Bowl Halftime producer Ricky Kirshner proudly is not on social media and even admits to still using a flip-phone. But there was no avoiding the barrage of rumors the day before Sunday’s Super Bowl in Minneapolis stemming from a single unconfirmed TMZ report that halftime performer Justin Timberlake would incorporate a hologram of the late, legendary Twin Cities native Prince into his set.

The story posted in the wee hours of Saturday morning, quickly spread onto other sites and by afternoon even Prince’s longtime friend and collaborator Sheila E. had weighed in, tweeting “Prince told me don’t ever let anyone do a hologram of me. Not cool if this happens!” The rumor gained momentum all day — with reps for the Super Bowl and Timberlake declining comment — until ultimately it was Sheila who calmed the situation, some eight hours after her initial Tweet, posting: “Family, I spoke w/Justin 2nite and he shared heartfelt words of respect for Prince & the Purple fans. I look 4wrd 2 seeing what I’m sure is going 2 be a spectacular halftime show. There is no hologram.”

Of course, ultimately Timberlake did pay tribute to Prince during his set, in tasteful fashion, with 1980s-era images of the singer projected onto a billowing screen above the stage — evoking both Prince’s classic era and his own galvanizing Super Bowl Halftime performance in 2007 — as he sang along with the late legend’s voice on the song that closes the “Purple Rain” album and film, “I Would Die 4 U.”

Still the drama had an effect, and ten-time Emmy winner Kirshner was disappointed that it took away from the herculean work his teams do to put on a show that tests the laws of physics every year. “Our people show up in below-zero temperatures and work their butts off for two weeks or more,” he says. “That’s what people should be writing about — how do you put on a show like that, and get that [production] on and off the field in six minutes? I think that’s more important than if we had a hologram or not.

“And to refute any stories that were out there,” he stresses, “There was never an idea to have a hologram.”

Do you have any idea how the rumors started? Do you think it’s possible someone caught a glimpse of Prince’s image during a rehearsal and thought it was a hologram?

I can’t speculate as to what someone saw, but I do know that all of our people are not authorized to talk to the press so whoever was there and saw something they shouldn’t have seen shouldn’t have been there to begin with. Justin has always said that he reveres Prince — his [2016 Netflix concert film] was dedicated to Prince —  we were in Minneapolis, we thought it would be the right thing to do, and I still believe that. I watched the morning news shows in Minneapolis the day after the show and all of them were over the moon that we did something to honor Prince. Just because a few people tweeted that they didn’t think we should doesn’t make it wrong, in my opinion. It was always the intent to honor Prince.

Do you know why he chose “I Would Die 4 U”?

That’s the song Justin wanted to do. Maybe he thought it worked best with “End of Time” and maybe it’s his favorite song, but we never really got into why or [talked about] another song.

Projecting 1980s Prince onto the billowing screen, which evoked Prince’s legendary rain-drenched Super Bowl performance, was a nice combination of references — was that intentional?

You got it — that was the exact idea. The idea was to pay tribute to the original Prince banner that we had done 11 years ago — and it was a bit harder to do it with the blowing fans like we did in Miami from a production point of view. But from the way we hung it — not being a tight projection screen and making it look like a banner — and ending it the way we did was a tribute to the way he did it 11 years ago.

You had to get permission from Prince’s estate to use his voice and image — and to use a hologram if there had been one, right? 

Yes. They absolutely gave us the audio and authorized Warner Bros. to give us the footage.

How long did the actual production of the show take?

That’s a hard question. [Timberlake] rehearsed with his dancers for a while then we all rehearsed out where he’s rehearsing his tour, and then we moved to Minneapolis the Saturday before the Super Bowl. But all the groups were rehearsing simultaneously. If you count the marching band and our field team — the kids on the field — that’s about 800 people, and those are just performers, that doesn’t count the people who moved the stages on and off. We’ve got hundreds of people that do a fantastic job, and they deserve all the credit. There’s a few of us that sit around and come up with these ideas, and then we have to figure out how do we get this stage here and that stage there, and — even going back to Lady Gaga’s [skillfully edited, seeming jump from the top of the stadium] last year — there are moments when we say, “We’ll never be able to pull that off.” But then we look at each other and go, “Our team will figure this out, don’t worry about it.” So raising the bar to set something up in 6 to 8 minutes and pull off a show like that is really a tribute to the people who work for us and how much they care. [In the stadium during halftime] a lot of people stay in their seats just to watch us set up. It’s quite a sight.

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What were some of this year’s biggest challenges?

This venue had its own challenges — normally, if you look back to Houston or some of the other [Super Bowl locations], we would line up our stages outside, wait for the game to start and then start rolling them in. But [this year] because of the cold we couldn’t line them up outside, so we had to figure out how to get them in the building before we started. To create a show like that and still make it entertaining is obviously a huge tribute to Justin’s talent — being able to move from stage to stage and change moments and moods — but also huge tip of the hat to our team who figured out how we got all those pieces into the building and moved them around. We were actually loading the show out as he was still going! The ramp that he entered on was gone by the time that he got to “Mirrors” [just minutes later].

How many years have you been doing the show?

Prince [in 2007] was my first one. People had said, “Oh, it’s never rained in the 40-year history of the Super Bowl,” oh boy … But it was amazing, he was amazing, I can’t say enough good things about how he treated us, about how he treated the music, about how professional he was and how amazing he was to work with. Just to be working on my first Super Bowl was scary enough, and he made it so cool.

What do you do to celebrate after the game?

First I try and beat the traffic, and then usually try to get together with our staff and celebrate, just to thank everyone. This year we were kind of spread out in a bunch of different hotels so it was harder, but we try to get together. Sometimes the [performer] will have a party — although this year obviously Justin went to do the Fallon show — but usually either in the office or back at the hotel the staff gets together because I really do want to give them all the credit they’re due. We have people who work on every major show — Grammys, Oscars, you name it — and they say “This is the one we look forward to.” It’s a tribute to our production team that tries to treat everyone with respect, and in return, you get amazing work out of these people and we really appreciate it.

Out of all the years that you’ve done this, which performer threw the most bangin’ party?

Apparently it’s a party I didn’t go to. I’m not a big party guy, I don’t go out a lot, but I was talking to our director and he said the party at Super Bowl 50 was amazing — and our associate director Hayley [Collett] got to dance with Beyonce. I would say that was probably the best party, and I missed it!