When the decision came down that the Democratic National Convention was going to be a first-time virtual event and no longer a live spectacle in Milwaukee, Wis., producer Ricky Kirshner and director Glenn Weiss were only sure about one thing.
“The first thing we said was, ‘It’s not going to be a giant Zoom call,’” Kirshner told Variety in a joint interview with Weiss just two days after the convention came to a close. “We were determined not to be that. So every plan we had was, ‘How do we make this look like live television?’”
And they certainly know about television. Not only has the duo worked on previous conventions — Kirschner has been involved with the DNC since 1992 — but they’ve won several Emmys for their work on the Tonys. They’re once again heading to the Emmys next month as nominees for the 2019 Tonys ceremony.
What was the hardest thing about producing and directing a virtual convention?
Ricky Kirshner: I just want to say, Glenn and I get coverage in the media, and people talk to us and it’s super nice, but there were so many hundreds of people that did things that were unimaginable, and never complained.
Glenn Weiss: I would say thousands of people.
Kirshner: And some people we didn’t know, like advance people. To do the roll call, we sent out people to advance different locations in each site, and then they staffed each site. We took in over 800 feeds to do this. There were over 287 speakers, crowd reaction feeds coming in from all over, 50 live speakers. I mean, that’s not just two people doing that. That’s an insane team.
What was the trickiest part?
Weiss: Filtering all of that into one good feed, while having a plan that was morphing as we went. I think for me, and Ricky may feel differently, that the trickiness was that the target kept moving, to no fault of anybody, because the world is a great unknown right now with this virus.
Kirshner: I also think the trickiest part was trying to center and focus it. When did we actually have an L.A. studio with the moderators [Eva Longoria, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kerry Washington and Julia Louis-Dreyfus]? Was it August 10th or something? If we were to just roll tapes and have a speaker, it wouldn’t have felt like a show. We were trying to anchor it somewhere.
Weiss: And by anchoring it somewhere it became a technical challenge, because feeds from all over the country had to wind up in this brand new destination within our structure. We were always in Milwaukee, and then this added element came that was a very important element. It wasn’t just remote, it was something that lots of source material had to play through. So again, the logistics and the coordination, and the figuring that part out, nobody gets to see. It kept changing. And we just had to amend and keep focusing. Now every piece of this structure that’s landing in Milwaukee needs to be fed to L.A., to the studio and some of the feeds are inbound, but the L.A. feed was inbound and outbound. So the job for the infrastructure got harder and harder as we went, but the team rallied and really stayed with it.
Were you involved with the decision to move to Delaware?
Kirshner: It wasn’t just a decision of keeping it in Delaware. It was a decision of, we don’t feel it’s safe for people to travel anywhere. There were plans to have other people show up and speak in Milwaukee and once we made the decision it wasn’t safe for anyone to travel anywhere, we wound up in Delaware and others wound up in their home states.
I keep hearing people are saying, “It’s the convention I’ve watched the most.” Everyone loved that it was streamlined in so many ways. When did you know that it was working?
Kirshner: Yesterday. [Laughs]
Weiss: What time did we go up the air on Thursday? I’ll answer it this way, we kicked into our live TV mode where things always change and you have to adapt on the fly. So, for us, we were getting from the start line to the finish line in this ever-evolving, changing thing.
Weiss: Honestly, it wasn’t until we started reading some of the press accounts because we were just doing what we do. But the response was overwhelming and really felt nice.
Kirshner: Other than the hundreds of people who did roll call and others that help us, our core team, we’re like a traveling band of production geeks. So, we trusted everyone. Even if we weren’t in the safe room, just hearing their voice on the PL [production line] made us feel better. That’s someone you really know and trust. And you know they’re going to do a great job and if you ask them a question, they knew the answer. And Glenn and I were 3,000 miles away from each other.
Weiss: The other thing to add to that is on a normal production we are in shared space. Since COVID came along and the very few shows have gone on have modified their spaces and people aren’t occupying tight quarters anymore. So within a building, people are being spread out and depending on an intercom or PL. And as a result, we made that just a little bit more exponential. And I’m calling a tape roll from Los Angeles, the tape is actually rolling in Milwaukee feeding a screen in a different studio in Los Angeles and then going to TV. But all of those layers along the way, we’re talking on a headset like they’re in the next room. Like if I’m doing the Tony Awards in Radio City and I’m in a truck outside Radio City, I call a tape roll, the person who’s rolling the tape might be in the same truck, but he’s not in the same compartment and I wouldn’t see him, I’d only be speaking to him on a headset. Same concept. We’re on a headset, we’re just not within the same space. And that’s what made it work. The engineering of the communications infrastructure.
It sounds like just really any other live television you’ve done in the sense that you’re on headsets so it doesn’t matter where you are.
Weiss: Adaptively speaking, yes. In other words, we all get in that mindset that, okay, now we’re in a show, put on a headset, start looking at a monitor and you’re in your element, you’re in your zone. And that is true. The difference is that we dress rehearse the Tony Awards and then we all gather around the monitor and give notes to each other and talk. And that in the virtual world of production is the hard part. Can’t necessarily gather and share notes, so you’re gathering on either a Zoom call or continuing the conversation on a headset, which is effective, but I’m not going to lie to you, I miss being able to gather the troops and have a pep talk or a note session because it’s a part of the whole team process of production.
Glenn, why did you stay in Brentwood? Was it because you just didn’t want to wear shoes? [A photo posted by Weiss’ fiancée Jan Friedlander Svendsen of him barefoot in their home surrounded by computer monitors went viral late last week.]
Weiss: That’s exactly right. Apparently there was a sign on the door saying, “No shoes, no shirt, no service.” [Laughs]. Basically, this was a really fast moving target and a fast moving train. And at one point, Ricky wasn’t going to Delaware either, and Delaware was going to be much smaller, and we were still trying to figure everything out. Meantime, we planted our hosts in Los Angeles. Also because of safe distancing and all COVID policies that we had on all sites to protect everybody, I found myself in a situation where I was probably going to wind up being planted in a closet at the studio, isolated from individuals anyway.
When did you start outfitting your house as a control room?
Weiss: It took about a half day to load it in, and probably an hour-and-a-half the day after to take it out.
Kirshner: And Glenn learned a whole new skill on this — how to start a generator.
Weiss: We wanted to make sure that we had backup. We were going through my home internet, but we had brought in some cellular-driven internet for backup. We brought in a backup system for the intercom that was battery powered. We came up with a lot of different backups. But as we’re heading into rehearsal, that’s when the heat wave started out in California. It was a lot of conversation about rolling brownouts and blackouts and the power going away. So we brought in a little generator in my backyard ran a basic switchover system. It really only needed to be running when we were live on the air. If, unfortunately, something went down during rehearsal, I’ll get on my cell phone and tell everybody and we’ll recover. It’ll be fine. But the production, rightfully so, wants to be very careful. They said, “We’ll plant somebody out in your backyard, they’ll sit there, wait, and then, they’ll start the generator.” I’m like, “Look, I can start a generator. Show me what I need to do.” So, literally, every day, 15 minutes before we go on the air, I go out to the backyard, and I’m pulling the cord, and pulling the cord. On the second day, I couldn’t get the f—er going.
What you’re saying is the future of the democracy was based on a generator?
Weiss: And a guy who’s never operated one before pulling it. Yeah, that’s pretty much it.
What did you want viewers to understand about Joe Biden?
Kirshner: All the things you need to know about him, that he’s a compassionate person, that he’s still got the energy to run the country, that he’s faced down dictators. I think all those points we got across.
Whether it was stories about Biden’s first wife and daughter and the death of Beau Biden or Brayden Harrington, there were so many tweets from people who said they were crying while watching the convention.
Weiss: My fiancée Jan was sitting behind me on the couch, watching all of this unfold. And I keep having to make my speaker louder and louder, because all I keep hearing is her sobbing behind me throughout the night. I said, “I appreciate you being here, and I appreciate the real-time feedback, but I got a show to do here.” But that, honestly, was an indicator that, ‘Okay, I think we’re touching the right buttons here.’ I’m a little bit more, shall we say, just jaded and in the moment, but she’s seeing everything in real time for the first time, and when she’s reacting, I’m going, “Okay. That’s a really good indicator.”
Have you heard from Biden?
The fireworks had ended and we were still on the air, actually. The door opened at the control room, which was a ballroom in the same convention center where he was, and it was him and Dr. Biden and Kamala Harris and her husband. They came in and thanked us. Our staff was completely overwhelmed and surprised. It was beautiful.
You’re nominated for an Emmy for the Tony Awards. Have you started thinking about what the next Tony Awards will or can look like? [It was announced on Friday that the Tonys will take place digitally in the fall. A date has not been announced.]
Weiss: I’m just not sure of anything more than an announcement at this moment in time. I will say this though, Ricky and I do TV all the time, but the Tonys is a really unique thing that we’ve been really honored to be a part of, going on 20 years at this point. Everybody who makes the Tonys possible is part of a community that’s entirely shut down. Our industry, television, has continued. Theater has not. And I can’t even begin to tell you the internal sorrow over the fact that so many people that we know, and I’m not just talking actors and directors and choreographers, I’m talking all the way down the line, nobody’s working right now, because they can’t. We want to do whatever we can to help make that better in any way that we can.