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How Inauguration Night’s Star-Studded ‘Celebrating America’ Spectacle Came Together in a Pandemic

January 20, 2021 - Washington, DC,
ASSOCIATED PRESS

The inauguration television special “Celebrating America” was only about six weeks in the making. “We did election night, and people are calling me and going, ‘Okay, what are we doing for the inaugural?,’” producer Ricky Kirshner tells Variety. “I was like, ‘No one’s called me.’ It was cool that no one called me because I assumed that they were thinking about how they’re going to govern the country.”

But when the call came, planning began. With none of the traditional inaugural balls taking place, Kirshner and producer-director Glenn Weiss along with their team started with a blank slate that eventually turned into a 90-minute special hosted by Tom Hanks that attracted about 20 million viewers across ABC, NBC and CBS and the cable news networks, CNN and MSNBC.

How do you even begin to plan something like this?

Weiss: In the past when we’ve been fortunate enough to do this, the world wasn’t living through a pandemic. The election happens and then you start thinking about inaugural balls. The balls are a particular thing. There’s an event. There’s something to work around. In this particular case, there was nothing to work around. There’s a pandemic and you don’t know if it’s getting better or worse, you have no idea where it’s going. I like to say that our plans were carved in Jello. Everything was moldable. In a way, it makes it tenfold harder, but in a way it’s a little freeing because you’re not stuck into shoehorning into the things that exist. The pandemic also caused us to figure out how to not draw a crowd and how to build a show without drawing a crowd, which is against every instinct we have. You’re also dealing with having it maybe being at the Lincoln Memorial, but you’re not building at the Lincoln an event to attract people. You’re working very covertly, and you’re dealing with rules and restrictions of the National Park Service, but you’re also trying to do something that isn’t going to be a magnet for people, that we could just quietly show up and do and be respectful and have what we want.

How many hours of footage did you have from the pre-recorded elements?

Kirshner: It was crazy because at the same time we were doing this mid-day parade, and in the last week or 10 days, our team would send us a calendar of the shoots. And I think one day, maybe last week, I’ve lost track of time, I said to Glenn “Do you notice how many shoots we’re doing for this thing?”

Glenn, you famously directed the DNC from your home in Los Angeles. Where were you for “Celebrating America?”

Weiss: In D.C. we set up a master control at a hotel and as it turned out after the social unrest and all that that happened, we were in a place that was fairly well secured, which was good. We had access to the feeds coming in from Lincoln, the feeds coming in from the White House.

Kirshner: It was a really elaborate set-up. We were able to make a command center, if you will, a master control, out of a ballroom. And then we had everything we needed under one roof, including catering and COVID testing for staff and crew and everybody. It was a real isolated, safe place, but in the thick of it, except we made Glenn wear shoes because we were all there with him. [Laughs].

It’s not like you could have a rehearsal and a run-through.

Kirshner: The White House was incredible. We were like, “You guys are moving in at noon, and as you move in the furniture and the suitcases, do you mind taking in three cameras and a big screen TV?” Seriously, that was crazy that we even asked. But fireworks, obviously, you never rehearse. It’s amazing the reaction we got to the fireworks. I don’t know about Glenn, but I never thought of it like this is going to be the world’s biggest fireworks show. We actually had two locations for Glenn’s cameras and I just think it made it look bigger. But I’d like to say this — Glenn and I say it all the time — it’s about a team. There were so many moments this thing could have turned upside down. Just getting our crew from the hotel out to the site every day, became a mission.

How nervous were you after Jan. 6? The security was intense, but that also scares people.

Kirshner: I felt safer after Jan. 6, honestly. The National Park Service wanted to keep the monument open until Jan. 18, and we kept saying, “We can’t.” The COVID Memorial was on January 19. How are we going to set that up if there’s a public there?” No one was listening to us, and after Jan. 6, people took it seriously. So I think in some ways I felt better.

You also produced and direct the COVID memorial the night before the inauguration. How much responsibility were you feeling about getting the COVID memorial right? It was the first time that country had any sort of nationwide event to mark the pandemic.

Kirshner: First of all, I’d like to say that that was 90% [executive producer] Stephanie Cutter. She said we needed a memorial and then she put it on us to come up with the idea, which we did with our lighting team and others. We had some really cool ideas that the Park Service wouldn’t let us do, but I think this was even better. And I called Stephanie, and I said, “We have ideas, but sorry, we don’t have the budget for it.” She was like, “We’re going to do this. We’re going to find the money. I don’t care what you say.” And you don’t say no to Stephanie. At the beginning, it was just supposed to be this little press event. And then at one point we decided, “Okay, well, if it’s going to turn into something, we better produce it so it’s good and Glenn better direct it so it’s good.”

There was lot of chatter on Twitter saying that Tom Hanks looked really cold. Was there ever a point when someone said, “Go get him a coat or go get him pocket hand warmers?”

Kirshner: I know our wardrobe people had thermals and hand warmers for him. But in the thick of what we were doing, Glenn is at the monitor more than I do so I didn’t look up at the monitor much. Once I heard Tom talking, I knew he was where he was supposed to be and I looked at what’s next. I didn’t realize until it was over and people started chattering.

How did you rehearse the fireworks with Katy Perry?

Weiss: She was on site the night before and then the evening before we started. The fireworks were choreographed to her track to her song.

Kirshner: To be clear, she was singing live. The track was just music.

Weiss: The music track sends out a time code signal which runs the fireworks. And the rehearsals that we did onsite with her was coordinating literally the camera coming around her to find the fireworks, her turning to the camera with her wardrobe and referencing the fireworks. It was finding the sweet spots for all of that kind of stuff, which came out beautifully by the way.

Is there one thing that you really wanted to do, but you just couldn’t pull it off for one reason or another?

Kirshner: About a hundred things. I think once I found out that we weren’t getting the White House until noon that day, it changed a couple things.

Weiss: It definitely changed something that we were dreaming up for sure. But I will say this, that “Lovely Day” sing along that we were able to get participation from, not just the President, but the First Lady and the President holding his grandchild for some of it, it was all just so touching and it felt inside and inviting, which is such an extra layer that was a dream. But until the day of, until probably the show was on the air, I wasn’t quite sure what was actually going to happen.

After the DNC, Biden and Harris came to the control room and thanked everyone. Did you get the same after “Celebrating America?”

Kirshner: I would just say, first of all, we were nowhere near them this time. And two, I think they have more important things to worry about. But we got calls from people that were in the White House at night with them and they were very appreciative.

You made the President and Vice President happy.

Weiss: You know, that’s great, but from the response I saw, I think we also made the country happy and that’s meaningful. After this show, I felt hope again. And I haven’t felt that in a really long time, but that seems to be the emotion that I’m reading across the board from a lot of people who are giving us such positive feedback.

Kirshner: And I would just like to say that there was a lot of great talent on this show. We had a lot more that wanted to be on the show but we couldn’t fit them in because of the time we were given. But every act we talked to, from the minute we talked to them and said, “You need to do a song that means something,” they got it. It wasn’t like, “Here’s my new single.” It was, “OK, I understand what I’m part of.” Everyone was on message. Once again, we give credit to Cutter. I thought the intros from the real people were amazing. And she pushed to go get the three presidents. She went and did that interview herself actually. She didn’t go the swearing in, because she went and interviewed the three presidents. And there were moments, there were some peoples that said, “Really?” But people really related to it.