Producer Ricky Kirshner on Pulling Off 'Celebrating America' in Just 6 Weeks With High Security, Secret Fireworks, Tom Hanks

Katy Perry in front of the Washington Monument, with inset of Ricky Kirshner
Biden Inaugural Committee via Getty Images; Courtesy of Christa Neu

By 1 p.m. Thursday, Ricky Kirshner was behind the wheel, heading out of Washington, D.C., and on his way home.

The super producer — a live-events specialist who has led global spectacles like the Super Bowl Halftime Show, awards shows like the Tony Awards and Kennedy Center Honors, and politico parades like the Democratic National Convention — barely had time to exhale after producing a series of inauguration events that culminated in the live special Celebrating America.

Hosted by Tom Hanks, it featured a parade of big-name acts including Bruce Springsteen, Justin Timberlake, John Legend, Demi Lovato, Foo Fighters and a finale with Katy Perry backed by a sky full of fireworks. There were appearances by everyday heroes, former presidents and the true guests of honor, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Far from cameras, in an undisclosed hotel in the area, Kirshner and his veteran collaborator Glenn Weiss, who shared producing credit while also helming the show, steered the ship from a makeshift control room. It was only six weeks ago when they received word that they'd gotten the job that reunited the entire team with their collaborators on the slick virtual Democratic National Convention. Celebrating America and its series of events — presented by the Presidential Inauguration Committee under the banner title America United — were designed to inspire unity and hope following a divisive administration, themes that took on extra relevance in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Kirshner from his car to get the backstory of how the production came together, what conversations with A-list artists were like over song choices, navigating unprecedented security in D.C. and how they managed to keep so many secrets (including the fireworks).

The reception has been overwhelmingly positive. Because you have many friends and fans in the business, when you finish a show like this, how many messages were waiting for you?

That's very funny. I really have friends and fans? No, it was overwhelming the number of emails, texts and all that I got. Everyone who knows me knows that I'm not on social media, so a lot of my friends copy and paste things from Twitter and send them to me. One of my friends always says, "You just need to hire someone just to follow Twitter for you." But I don’t care to do that. It was really nice and so positive [to get a great response] and it was a testament to our team because we literally had six weeks to pull that off. Forget the creative and consider the technical, the operational, the amount of COVID-19 testing and then Jan. 6 happened … every day felt like, “Are we going to make it?” The team was unbelievable.

Take me back to six weeks ago when you found out you're doing this job. Did it come because of your work at the DNC?

After election night, a lot of the staff and crew were like, "We're going to work the inaugural." But nobody knew what the inauguration would look like. We knew that it couldn’t be a ball. I thought maybe they would just swear in and go home. I always go into things with no expectation. We did a great job on the DNC, we did a great job on election night, but that doesn't mean they're going to hire me again. We do the best we can and I'm really a terrible self-promoter. So, it was nice when they called and said, "The team's back together, let's do it." Stephanie Cutter, who we worked with on the DNC, said, "We're going to do it together," and I said, "Great." She’s totally the driving force, so much. With the COVID-19 memorial, it was in her brain that that’s what we needed to do and we executed it with her. She was the driving force on the TV show featuring the hometown people and [real life heroes], which I really thought was a beautiful thread throughout.

Six weeks is not a lot of time for a production of this size with the level of security and the talent involved. Is that the shortest lead-up you’ve ever had?

We did the Tony Awards at six weeks, but with the Tonys you know what you're getting. You know the nominees, you've seen the shows, they come in self-contained. Six weeks to do something like this is pretty tight.

The inauguration was always going to be unusual this year with the pandemic. Then the events of Jan. 6 unfolded. How did you navigate the increased security and how did it affect your plans?

When we did the DNC, that just so happened that we were in a ballroom in Wilmington, Delaware, not in a video truck. We took over meeting rooms and ballrooms and built a control room. We did the same thing for election night in Wilmington. So, we applied the same thing here. We knew we couldn't all be in a video truck at the Lincoln Memorial, it just wasn't feasible, and we didn't want to start putting out more trailers and spreading out there.

So, we took the same approach for this. We took over a hotel in town and we built our control rooms in the meeting space. We had our COVID testing there, we fed people there. We felt it was a pretty good set-up and we would shuttle people to the site every day. Then January 6 came and it turned out what we were doing was a brilliant plan because [our hotel] wasn’t anywhere near the Lincoln Memorial or the Mall, so we were self-contained. No one really knew where we were. We put a fence and security around our hotel. We were basically in our own bubble. We had a crew of about probably 100 people going to the Lincoln every day to build it, video guys, stuff like that, but the bulk of what we were doing was not in town so that worked out.

And sleeping at the hotel must’ve made it very convenient …

Yeah, I could go from my room to the ballroom and realize I forgot something in my room and be back in five minutes. Usually, a trip like that would take an hour.

Right, exactly. With the mix of the live and the taped segments, did that make it easier to produce or more of a challenge?

We built a control room to do a lot more live but as it turned out, we didn't do as much live as we thought. We were over-prepared. It's funny when you say live versus tape, even the ones on “tape,” we produced live. We might not have produced them live last night, but we produced them live by having a crew there shooting, directing and producing, or producing over Zoom. It wasn't like, "Send us your latest music video," because we made a point to tell everybody that the song had to have a message. You needed to have a reason to be there. As you can see, that was reflected in the songs like “Land of Hopes and Dreams” with Bruce Springsteen, Justin Timberlake and Ant Clemons did a new song, “Better Days,” and Tim McGraw and Tyler Hubbard did a new song, “Undivided.” So, it wasn’t like, “Oh, I have the video of this song and I’ll send it to you.” Let’s not call them tape, let's call them remote production stuff.

Thank you for correcting me on that. The part about themes and song choice is interesting. What were conversations like with artists over what they would perform?

Some, like Tim and Tyler said, "We have this new song," and they sent it to us and it was great. We went out and shot the video. We had talked to Bruce about opening and, I mean, that opening of the show was the first thing we thought about. I think we gave them two or three and “Land of Hope and Dreams” was one of them. Bruce came back to us with one choice and that was “Land of Hope and Dreams,” so we were on the same page with Bruce. But we were very specific with people that you needed to have a message. It was a nonpartisan event. There was no bashing the other people, it was about unity. The election was over, we weren't campaigning anymore. We needed to all be on the same page. The president's message said that last night, the vice president's message said that last night, and that was the message we sent out last night. It was our goal from the beginning.

The thing with Demi was something we really wanted to do. We asked Demi to do it and I think she killed it. She was terrific. With John Legend, there were three choices and his manager sent me, “Feeling Good.” He did it in rehearsal and we all looked at each other like, “Holy crap.”

You mentioned it being a nonpartisan event, but the changing of the administration in D.C. is significant in that Hollywood is welcome again the White House after a divisive time. Did that make it easier for you to book artists? I know you have personal relationships with many of those who performed, so how did it all shake out?

Well, we had an abundance of artists, no problem at all. Some reached out to us, others we reached out to, but most reached out. We produced The Kennedy Center Honors and the last four years have been tough to get people there. We are looking toward a new day on that show and we’re hoping the president will come to our show. We’re hoping that we can go back to the White House for a reception. I do think it’s a new day.

Back to your fans. I got an email from a man named Bob in D.C. and he took the time to say what a great job you did. He said the word on the ground is that nobody knew what the production of Celebrating America would look like or that it would include fireworks. How hard was it to pull that off?

We tried to keep a lot of it secret. As a matter of fact, if you noticed, we never said we were going to be at the Lincoln Memorial in any of our press because we were worried about security. We didn’t want anyone to know what our ambitions were. By the way, I love when you say my fan Bob from Washington like it's a radio show. That's cool. But on the pyro, I was just talking to some of our top people about this because people never understand the minutiae that goes into this that could derail something and pyro permitting is one of them. The permitting process itself is a complicated situation dealing with the city of Washington, the National Park Service, are you on federal property? Are you on city property? Whose land are you on? You put in the permit and deal with the fire department.

The minutiae that goes into it is unbelievable. That’s why we like dealing with the same vendors over and over. The vendor that did the pyro has done all the Super Bowls for me, he did election night, the DNC. The reason is that he’s creative … and you’re paying for someone you trust. That’s really important. I can say, “Hey, we want pyro here, here and here. Get it done. If you have a problem, I’m happy to jump in or happy to have our team jump in.” There’s a trust factor and creatively, I [have to] know it’s going to work because pyro is one thing you can't rehearse. You can only do it once.

Would you say that was the most challenging portion of the show to pull off?

No. Mainly because, honestly, he never came to me and said, "There's a problem,” so it was OK. We were trying to keep the whole Lincoln Memorial a secret.

How did it compare to other events you’ve done in keeping elements under wraps?

Glenn and I really believe in trying to promote but also keeping secrets. When I say secret, I hate it when someone says, "So-and-so's could be on the show and they're going to sing this." I feel like I want you to watch a show to see what they're going to do. What if you looked at [a program] that said Bruce was doing “Land of Hope and Dreams.” Somebody could say, “I don’t like that song, I don’t want to watch.” Not that anyone would ever say that about Bruce, but I want some secrecy. I want people to watch.

You mentioned Glenn. You obviously have a long-standing relationship and work really well together. What is the key to your collaboration?

Glenn once said that what we do is a team sport — I think he said that in an Emmy speech once — and it's so right. About 10 years ago, I was at a client meeting and I was trying to explain this to the guy and he said, "Well, no, I want to pair you with people that you don't know so that you get the creative juices flowing with this and that." I said, "Would you take five guys that don’t know each other and put them out there on the basketball floor? I don't understand what you're talking about, this is teamwork.”

With Glenn, I can look at him and know that he’s going to do this. He's can look at me and just know, too. There was stuff that happened last night in terms of timing issues or whatever … and Glenn's calling cameras as I'm looking ahead for the next act. I’m also thinking how can we shorten this or play that out. I can just look at Glenn and say, “Hey, we’re 10 seconds under, milk the shot for Biden,” and there you go. I don’t have to say much more than that.

You’re always quick to give credit to your team. Is there anyone else you want to shout out?

How do we include everyone? It's going to be impossible, but look, Lisa Geers, is our supervisor in charge of all the events. We also did the virtual parade and we did the COVID-19 memorial tribute and Lisa has been there from the beginning. She was on the DNC team; she was there on election night and she was there for all three events this week. Stephanie Cutter [partner at Precision Strategies], Rod O'Connor, who was our senior adviser and was really a great help in terms of navigating a lot of the politics, our producer Sarah Levine, and Rob Paine, who always gets things done with the Oscars, Emmys and every other show. He’s a logistical, financial guru. So many more. Also, Adrienne Elrod, who booked all the amazing talent.

There was talk on Twitter about Tom Hanks being the perfect choice to represent unity as he’s the most loved man in Hollywood and the world. How did you get him to agree to host?

Honestly, we asked him and he said yes. What's better than that? It was like, "Let's ask Tom Hanks," exactly for the reason you said. He represents "America's going to be OK." I can't tell you how many shows we've been on when we say, "What about so-and-so? He'll never do it." We said, "Let's ask Tom Hanks. You think he'll do it?" He said yes the next day.

You mentioned all the well-wishes you've received. I'm curious if you've heard from President Biden or Vice President Harris?

I will tell you this, the answer is a qualified no. We did the Democratic Convention and, as you know, he was in our building. When a show like that would typically end, we would hug each other, have a beer or something. But this last one, we’re all standing around and we didn’t know what to do. We had built a control room and we turned around and opened the door and there he was and there she was. They literally came in and thanked us. They went into our production staff office and thanked the entire staff. On election night, the same thing in the same ballroom. He was outside giving a speech and when they came inside, walked in and thanked every one of us.

Wow.

I think he's a little busy running the government today so I don't expect a call, but that's the kind of person he is.

What I noticed last night is how much viewers enjoyed being included in such an event because inaugural balls are usually so exclusive. Do you think there's a place for a show like this at future inaugurations?

First of all, we went back and forth on the name of the show for a while. I think Celebrating America was the right choice because we were celebrating America. We didn't feel like we were celebrating, we felt like they were celebrating. We also didn't want to make it feel like a party in any way because it's not — 400,000 people have lost their lives. The intention of the show was always to make America feel better. In terms of these shows moving forward, we learned a lot at the DNC, we learned a lot last night. Back in '09, we did The Neighborhood Ball for Obama at the Convention Center and it was just a ball. It was the same thing they had done for years and years. If there was no COVID and there was no this, we probably would have done the same thing last night and it would not have been as special. It would have been another ball. We would have had good talent, we would have made it look really good, but I think under the circumstances we were forced to rethink how we did it and it forced us into something good.

You're still in your car. After you get where you're going, what's next for you?

I'm going to hang out with my family. My son turns 18 this weekend. It’s not the way we planned his 18th birthday to be, stuck at the house with his parents, but he's a great guy so we'll be fine. We did announce the Kennedy Center honorees and we're going to do that show in May. I'm hoping that the Tonys come back soon, and I'm hoping that Broadway comes back soon.