Glenn Weiss on His Proudest Moment During 'Celebrating America' Inauguration Special

Celebrating America Primetime Special - Bruce Springsteen
Biden Inaugural Committee via Getty Images )

Describing Glenn Weiss's past few months as packed doesn't tell a complete story. Amid a global pandemic and restrictions around live production, Weiss, a high-profile director and producer who has steered dozens of high-profile Hollywood telecasts from the Oscars to the Tonys, managed to pull off the slick Democratic National Convention barefoot from his Brentwood home. That was in August and he went on to close 2020 on a run that included the 55th Academy of Country Music Awards, the American Music Awards and Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve with Ryan Seacrest.

Then, approximately six weeks ago, he and veteran collaborator Ricky Kirshner got word they would be teaming with the Presidential Inaugural Committee on a series of events welcoming President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to the White House. It culminated in the primetime special Celebrating America which the duo executive produced and Weiss directed. Their work earned raves from audiences as messages of unity reverberated through performances by Bruce Springsteen, John Legend, Katy Perry, the Foo Fighters, Justin Timberlake, Demi Lovato, Tim McGraw with Tyler Hubbard and Black Pumas. The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Weiss after he had a few days to decompress to talk about the entire experience, the challenges of navigating security in the nation's capital, and his proudest moment from directing the historic show at a pivotal time in America.

It's Sunday night, and I am curious, what have these past few days been like after the show?

Overwhelming. As you know, I do live shows and big events all the time. And it's not that it's blasé, but you do shows, and you move on. I cannot even begin to tell you the volume of reach out, from all over the industry, from friends, from family. It's been insane, and in a really good way, but I've never quite had this many people relating and having to tell me how good they felt after the show, which is a really gratifying feeling.

It may be obvious but why do you think this elicited such a response?

Well, the interesting thing is the word that kept coming up in all the responses was hope. "I felt hope. You gave me hope again." A lot of other words have been used, but I really heard that a lot, and I felt that. We’ve been through a lot in this country, and a lot of people were looking forward to inauguration day, but I think we also ... We wanted to do a show. We wanted a message. We wanted to leave there feeling hopeful, and it feels like that message has resonated. The other thing is, I don't think anyone knew what to expect. On a traditional inaugural, in the nighttime, you have the inaugural ball. COVID changed that and since we weren't doing that, I'm not sure people knew what to expect.

You had six weeks to pull it off. Was it the toughest job you've ever had?

Tough is a funny word, but yeah, we put together shows in short timelines before. But again, the six weeks that you're talking about had holidays in the middle when pretty much the world shut down so it really was a consolidated timeline. The better word for me is not tough but extremely challenging. The challenges made a whole team really rise up. Ricky and I always get the press and the accolades but, honestly, without a whole team of people who are just rock-solid professionals, this couldn't possibly happen. There were really great team efforts here and collaborations with everyone figuring out how to do it in a little bit of a changing landscape.

When we decided on the Lincoln [Memorial], we were trying to be very, very quiet about that. Then we were just dealing with doing a non-audience show, and then January 6 happened. You’re not just dancing around COVID anymore, because now there were serious security concerns and what may happen on inauguration night. This might’ve been one of the biggest tap dances — I guess that’s the word — as we were putting it together.

Was there a plan to do a non-audience show, like in a theater?

No. We were heading down the path of the version that we saw, but from the get-go, we knew we weren't going to be able to have an audience. So, when we talk about the Lincoln, shows have been done at the Lincoln before. But all the shows that have been done at the Lincoln in the past have built up a big stage, a big PA system, big truss structures for lights and cameras, and a big crowd. We had to re-invent that. My bigger objective was that we were playing to a TV audience. We wanted it to be more intimate. We wanted to be able to be in this grand place while showing the grandness of the place but when you see Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen, Katy Perry, John Legend — you want it to come across much more intimately for the people at home than it would for a big audience show. That, in itself, was challenging.

Keep in mind, we also built the COVID Memorial down by the reflecting pool. It was a heck of a big endeavor, a big structure, lots of physical pieces, lots of labor, lots of intense-ness. The original plan was that we would be doing that around the public and it wasn't going to be a closed space. Everything changed January 6 and it was fluid and moving constantly. It made the job really difficult. Just moving our crews around Washington was a huge endeavor. So, it had to have been challenging, not just on what we were putting out on television, but the process itself. It was some of the oddest conditions and things to work around that I've ever experienced.

Was security the biggest challenge?

Security is an all-encompassing word, but it comes down to literally planning how long will it take buses to go what would normally take 15 minutes to bring people. That's the security part of it. Now, with COVID, the buses that might only hold 30 people can only hold 10. So, there are layers to the challenges in having to navigate the world and the COVID world, as we know it, and now the security/safety world. Just moving our crews around Washington was a huge endeavor. It was some of the oddest conditions and things to work around that I think I’ve ever experienced. Meanwhile, you’re putting together what you hope is a compelling show that will make people want to watch. So, the creative brain is going, the logistical brain is going. Like I said, a huge team of people helping figure out all of that kind of stuff, which is just on top of doing a normal show.

It also wasn’t a normal show in that you are shooting these grand, beautiful structures in D.C. with the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and then you got the White House shot with the Bidens. As a director, how exciting was that?

One of the most important things for me, no matter what size of show that I'm doing, is I do want to be intimate with the audience. And if it's grand, I want to show the grandness of it at the same time, which sounds like a contradiction, but it's really not. I want people to feel like that they're inside and a part of it. The White House is a great example. I can't tell you how hard that was to put together, because of the change of administrations.

In a normal world, we would have gone in a few days before, made sure the shots are what we want them to be. We didn't have access, because no one on Team Biden had access up until noon on Wednesday. So, there was a lot of work and imagination going into it. I wanted everybody to feel like they were invited inside. I wanted them to feel like they got to experience this with the Bidens, and getting those cameras in that room, getting the cooperation from all the right people. We couldn't do that without a ton of cooperation, which was really, really ... I'm so grateful for. Even the shots of the Bidens during the Demi Lovato singalong to “Lovely Day.” I'm particularly proud of that moment, because the whole concept of being in that room for the singalong, and then coming out to the balcony for the fireworks was something that I had imagined, but I didn't necessarily imagine that I would get the OK to do it.

When we were able to actually execute that and even the shot from behind of the Bidens as they were looking at fireworks, just inviting America in. This is something that has been so inaccessible, so letting America see their perspective ... it made it more intimate, even though there was this humongous fireworks display going on. That might be one of my proudest achievements on the show.

The finale was so impressive, and the visuals were stunning. What was that sequence like to direct because you weren’t able to rehearse all of the elements since you can’t rehearse fireworks?

The toughest thing about doing a fireworks show by itself is you can be prepared for what's coming, but you can't ever rehearse that kind of thing. Now put on top of that Katy Perry in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and then the camera dancing around with her to reveal the fireworks, and then her continuing to go. Put on top of that, the monuments, put on top of that, the White House, and then just the cherry on top, the vice-president was with us also at the Lincoln. It was so much story to tell, and I was trying my best to be in the zone and be in it, and let all of those elements be seen, let everybody at home know that whole story, know that here are the Bidens on the balcony at the White House, finally. Here's our vice-president in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Here's Katy singing. There are the fireworks, illuminating the sky in such a grand way. As a director, it was such a terrific, visual story to tell. I was so happy with the outcome at the end.

It was so beautiful. I wanted to go back to one thing you said about the White House. Was that a Trump administration thing that you weren’t allowed access to plan for the show?

I'm not sure I want to get too deep in that, but suffice it to say that the people who would ultimately help us weren't in their roles until noon on Wednesday.

OK, got it. I asked Ricky this question, and since you are the dynamic duo of these big live events, what do you think is the key to your relationship?

Oh my God, our sensibilities. Ricky and I come from opposite ends of production, and there's such a shorthand between us. Our sensibilities are so much alike, which is good, but we also come in with a wealth of experience, each of us, from different corners. It really gives us a shorthand, in terms of putting things together. On a show like this, you need every shorthand you could get. It was so intense, putting it together. Sometimes dividing and conquering, sometimes attacking it together, but knowing we're not back in the home office, so to speak, butting heads on creativity because our sensibilities are so aligned.

Speaking of a home office, that photo of you directing the DNC barefoot at your home in Brentwood, kind of went viral. Thinking of that experience, has it made it more difficult to go to work in a hotel or ballroom, or do you prefer being at home with your shoes off?

Honestly, I prefer being on stage where I can be more active, as I want to block things and change things, and not depend on being shown things on camera, but being able to kind of step into it and say, "Come here, come here." So, my preference is always to be onstage. Being at home was a great experience during the DNC. I would much rather be where there are other people safely distanced on the team around you though because literally, it's a team sport at the end of the day. It was nice to be home, but it's really nice to be around the team and being able to make eye contact and use hand signals and stuff like that.

Speaking of the stage, you have the Tony Awards upcoming. Do you expect that show to be live in a theater, with maybe just a limited number of people?

I think right now, all of us are praying for the day when Broadway comes back. We on TV, have been able to practice our craft. I just did New Year's Rockin' Eve in the middle of all this. But the folks on Broadway right now, there are no audiences and there are no shows. My heart goes out to that community and I want them to get up and running again. I think your question about the Tony Awards relates to when theaters get a go-ahead. I'm not sure anybody was really interested in doing a Zoom Tony awards, but I think we're all really hoping that sometime soon we can get that whole industry up and running, not just that show.

But as a whole, not just me and Ricky, this whole industry had to get really creative and work around audiences not gathering. There's been a lot of great work out there. I've been proud to be a part of everything that I've been a part of, but there's a lot of great work out there from our colleagues and competitors too, I think we all would love audiences to come back and start resuming life as we knew it in the events space. We'll do what we have to do and we'll bring as much entertainment to the world as we possibly can and try to keep morale up during this really, really rough time, but we're all ready for the thrill and the response of live audiences. It's great that we're able to do things like [Celebrating America], but it'd be really sweet to get back into the world of shows with audiences.

Lastly, I can't lose an opportunity with Glenn Weiss on the phone and not ask about the engagement. Have you set a date?

The pandemic has gotten in the way of so many things, including on the personal side. We had our big moment onstage. That was really wonderful. So, we're sort of dancing around what's going on with the pandemic and deciding what the great next step is. But I think it'll be a nice, small, intimate affair.