Grammys Producer on Reimagining Music’s Biggest Stage Amid Pandemic Protocols: “We Are Going for It”
The Late Late Show exec producer Ben Winston, equally magnetic as on-camera counterpart and pal James Corden, picked one hell of a year to run his first Grammys. Taking over for longtime maestro Ken Ehrlich, who retired from the show with the 2020 telecast, Winston has had to navigate a seven-week delay and the challenge of safely putting 23 acts in one room, albeit a big one, at the L.A. Convention Center. Over Zoom, a week out from the big night, he discussed his ambitious Grammy vision, that Late Late Feb. 25 segment with Prince Harry and how the pandemic is no excuse to literally phone it in: “No one is saying, ‘Hey, we’ll toss off this year!’ We are going for it.”
How different is this version of the Grammys going to be from the one we would have gotten in January?
The physicality of the show isn’t going to be so much different. It just felt inappropriate. We have three COVID experts working on this show, and they knew what was coming. Science predicted the peak in Los Angeles would be the last week of January and, by the second week of February, we’d have a real downturn.
Well, they were right.
It’s sort of remarkable! They were only about five days off from when the actual peak occurred. It just felt very intense in January. It was less about the show and more [about] the hospitals being full. I was just as worried about a rigger falling off of a ladder as I was about anyone getting coronavirus because there was nowhere for them to go. It felt irresponsible to make 300 people work during that last week of January.
And you got more time to plan.
The crazy thing about the Grammys is you get the nominations around the beginning of December, so that’s the earliest you can book anyone. Then there’s two weeks, with Christmas and New Year’s, when no one is picking up your calls. Suddenly you’re on air at the end of January.
You’ve been producing shows almost daily since the pandemic started, but I assume there are a lot of new challenges with this.
The live element of it makes me more nervous than I would be on The Late Late Show. Sure, there’ll be elements of it put on tape in the week leading up to that night, but it’s still very much a live show — a really ambitious show as well. Somebody told me the other week that making television now is doubly hard. It really is. You feel like you’re walking through treacle. Just getting into this building today took me 15 minutes with the tests, getting my temperature and being cleared for the wristband that shows I’m safe.
What kind of conversations do you have about the potential for technical glitches? We all just watched Daniel Kaluuya accept his Golden Globe on mute.
It was every Zoom call that you and I have ever been on! Somebody is on mute, and they don’t realize it. … Look, anybody who put on any sort of show over this last year deserves credit. It’s very easy to criticize the mistakes, but we’re not doing a virtual Grammys. We are going to be in person. We have designed a set and a way of doing it that I first thought of a year ago when it was clear we probably wouldn’t be able to have that live audience.
What is it going to look like?
We’re building a beautiful room in the round, and there’ll be five stages. Some of the greatest artists in the world will fill those stages. For 45 minutes, we will be with those five artists and they’ll play, one after the next. They’re all safe because they’ve all come in from a totally different entrance. Our host, Trevor Noah, is in the middle of all that with the viewer — because that’s where the cameras will be. After 45 minutes, we clear out and the next five artists will come in.
Music is a big throughline in your work. Is it difficult to make live performance translate on camera?
Music can be shot in a way that can kill it, really elevate it. There are going to be 23 performances on the Grammys. We might not get them all right because we’ve only got very limited rehearsal time with each one. But it’s a funny show. I cannot think of another one where you’ve got that amount of pressure of viewers. And I know [viewership] is going to be down 40, 50 or 60 percent. I’m aware of that, but I just hope people realize that that’s partly because we’re watching television so differently. My daughter isn’t growing up in a world where she’s asking what time Peppa Pig is on. She’s going, “Hey, Dad, I’d like to watch Peppa Pig right now.”
There’s this recurring press narrative that James wants to move back to the U.K. How do you feel about life in L.A.?
I really like living here, and those stories were blown out of proportion. It was one interview, and it was more to be nice about England because he was talking to an English tabloid. James was like, “I love it. I miss everybody!” Suddenly it’s everywhere that we’re moving home. It was news to me, and he’s my best mate.
What was the reaction back home to you both booking Prince Harry?
I think people saw him for who he is, which is a really lovely, good guy. I felt like the piece spoke for itself. It reminded everybody that there is a real person behind those sometimes-unfair headlines. I like that we dropped it and no one knew it was coming. There was so much talk about other shows that Harry and Meghan [Markle] were doing. We didn’t even tease it. We just put it out on a random Thursday night, and then everyone woke up the next morning going, “What?”
That clip was unavoidable for days. [Not unlike Oprah Winfrey’s CBS special that dropped March 7 to huge ratings, after this interview took place.]
James gets anecdotes and nuggets you’re not used to hearing from people. We were finding out stuff that Prince Harry has never spoken about — stuff no member of the royal family speaks about. It’s a great credit to James as an interviewer. And I’ve known Harry for three or four years. I’ve always really enjoyed my time with him. He gave us some really quality time that day. And I do always call him Prince Harry. (Laughs.) I still keep the respect.
I know you’ve got to go, but can you tell me if we’re going to see that Friends reunion, which you’re producing?
Who knows! I’m excited for it, but I’ve got to get through the Grammys first.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the March 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.