The Bachelorette was getting ready to film its first night with star Clare Crawley when production shut down. Back in March, and at the height of the novel coronavirus outbreak, California had issued its stay-at-home order and productions across Hollywood were instantly halted.
“It feels like the chance to be The Bachelorette, it’s just over,” Crawley recalls during the first episode of her season, which premieres — after a long road to get there — on Tuesday night.
After weeks of isolation and monitoring the situation, franchise producers Warner Bros. TV and ABC ended up plotting a path to resuming production. Gone is the recognizable Bachelor Mansion that has been home to the majority of the prior 39 seasons of The Bachelorette and The Bachelor. Instead, new COVID-19-era safety protocols, which viewers will see in action during the premiere, required the cast and crew to quarantine and undergo regular COVID testing in order to film the season in a bubble at the La Quinta Resort in Palm Springs, Calif.
“It just took this Herculean effort and this dedication on behalf of everybody to do this,” franchise host Chris Harrison tells The Hollywood Reporter of the top-down work that went into making the season happen. “The bar kept moving; the state of California kept moving the bar. Our goal was, ‘Let’s just get and start rolling and create this bubble.’ And it worked. It was 100-percent successful. And now we have a blueprint moving forward.”
Below, in a chat with THR, Harrison goes behind the scenes to share what it was like to film the COVID-free 16th season of the long-running reality series amid the pandemic, discusses how the franchise plans to shift into becoming more inclusive after public outcry over the Bachelor and Bachelorette‘s overall lack of diversity, and addresses reports that Crawley’s season will see a shakeup truly unlike any other cycle in franchise history.
There weren’t any COVID incidents during filming. Between the testing process, flying in families, the Fantasy Suites — what took the most brainstorming from production to pull off?
It was the logistics of getting everybody there, and quarantining and creating the bubble. Once you had the bubble going and you realized how people needed to enter safely, it was fine. It was just figuring that out and then realizing you could trust the bubble, so to speak, and once you could trust it and realize that we were weeks into it and had no issues. And we would continue to test. Just because you’re in, doesn’t mean you stop. We were re-testing as we went along and you realize, “OK, this is working. And we’re not having any problems.” When people would come, you realize, “If you follow this protocol, you are 100 percent effective and it’s safe.”
What were some unforeseen advantages to filming in a bubble?
There are some things that maybe we take out of this. That is, the intimacy and the pressure-cooker in that fishbowl environment. There’s not the release-valve of, “We’re going to Bora Bora and have two days of travel and an off day.” That takes you out of the element a little bit. Instead, being there at the La Quinta resort the whole time, there’s no off switch. It was just about dating and falling in love, and there’s really something to that.
How long was filming compared to a normal season?
We were able to shave off a little time because of the travel days. When you get into union hours and all that, there are dark days that you have to take. So we will travel to a different country, take a dark day and, the next thing you know, it’s been three days since you shot anything. Here, we shot every single day and so we were able to knock weeks off the production schedule.
Once you were secluded and safe in the bubble, how did it feel to not have to worry as much about the virus?
It was awkward at first, to be honest. It’s really interesting; when I was shooting, I didn’t have a mask on. But as soon as I was done, or if I was just going to eat, [I would put a mask on] really just for optics and perception because everybody else was committing to do it and I felt like I wanted to be a team player. But being on the cast side and not the crew side, I have to test more than everybody to have the ability to not have a mask on. You do feel a little weird. We hugged. We really wanted it to feel like a Bachelorette season. We don’t want it to feel like COVID-Bachelorette. We wanted it to be the same intimate, fun show that we always do.
Was the cast hesitant, especially at first, when it came to kissing and hugging and being physically close for the first time in months?
We definitely talk about that. You see more of it on Night 1 as everybody gets out of the limo and is like, “Ah, what do we do?” They talk about it; how nice it was to have the intimacy and to interact like that. But you see pretty quickly that everybody fell right back into place and felt really comfortable, and it’s a testament to our team of truly creating this bubble where everybody felt safe.
What about when it came to re-casting the season. How challenging was that, especially since you were looking for age-appropriate men for Crawley (who, at age 39, is the oldest Bachelorette ever)?
If there is a silver-lining to this mass of a pandemic, it’s that we had six more months to go back and re-cast the show for Clare. There were some great guys that we already had, but to be able to add to that is really an embarrassment of riches. This is a phenomenal group of guys and there are definitely more aged-appropriate because we had six more months to go back to the drawing board and find some fantastic, really sincere guys.
Let’s get to it: How does Crawley “blow up” The Bachelorette, as you say in the trailer?
It is an explosive season and she does blow up The Bachelorette unlike we’ve ever seen before. Obviously, you’ll have to wait and see how it plays out, but I will tell you this: I feel like a lot of people feel like they know how this goes, and you don’t. And I can’t wait for everybody to watch this.
ABC promised that viewers will get a “glimpse at the shocking moment that will change the course of this [show] unlike any other in franchise history” during premiere night. Can you elaborate?
Well what I’m excited about and, again, this may be a benefit of not traveling and staying in this bubble — you’re going to see absolutely everything. Because we’re there 24/7 and we’re able to cover this story. Sometimes things get lost in transition from one place to another and you can’t always see it with your own eyes. Well, being at La Quinta and staying there, you see it all. There is nothing you don’t see. So that part is pretty fantastic.
Because you were in a bubble, were you surprised to see that some of the biggest news about the season still leaked?
As soon as people start going home, as soon as people start traveling and as soon as the bubble was burst, you knew things were going to start to get out. That’s the world we live in. Look at social media and how it runs our lives. People can’t wait to talk. Some of it’s true; some of it’s not true. That’s kind of the beauty of it. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, which I enjoy. I read a story today [on Sept. 30] that said we were already in production on Matt’s season of The Bachelor. I can assure you, unless someone stole the season, I’m at home right now in my office. Hopefully he’s not handing out roses without me!
If reports are true that Tayshia Adams ends up taking over as the Bachelorette, the franchise would have its second Black Bachelorette leading into Matt James’ historic season as the first Black Bachelor. How will the franchise look differently as it shifts into being more inclusive?
We made a concerted effort, before the pandemic, to make better strides for diversity and let people see themselves and their love represented on the show. That’s the great thing that you want in The Bachelorette: is for everyone to feel like, “Wow, I belong here and this is my love story, too.” You saw that with Peter [Weber]’s season; we had a much better diverse cast. And you’re definitely going to see it Night 1 with Clare. Obviously, with Matt James — he’s a historic pick as our Bachelor and I can’t wait to go start shooting with him — we’re going to have a great group of ladies as well. This summer during the pandemic, I didn’t want to talk about it and say what we were doing. I want you to see. I’m a big believer in actions, not words. But there are also a lot of changes you are not going to see. Changes behind the camera; more diverse hirings within our staff, within our producers and our crew. Things that I’m extraordinarily proud of, in moving people along and being better at promoting those [people]. I think the best thing we ever did was realizing and admitting there was an issue, and then saying, “Let’s get to work and let’s do better.”
Rachel Lindsay has spoken about some of the racism she encountered as the first Black Bachelorette. How does the franchise plan to protect the Black leads?
I’m sure Warner [Bros.] is putting together a better plan for that. [The franchise announced that they will be monitoring social media and deleting comments that are abusive.] Personally, I am always willing to step in front of any of our leads, and they know that. I will be right there. Whether it’s sitting next to Rachel, [Lindsay] standing in front of Matt [James], or Hannah [Brown] or Kaitlyn [Bristowe] being slut-shammed; no matter who it is, if I believe in the purpose and the cause, I will be right there. I tell them, “I will take the beating and be out there front and center.” Unfortunately in this world that we live in, you’re not going to eradicate that. Our goal is to get to a place where everybody can positively look at this and realize that it’s a good thing. Realistically, we all know better; that’s just not how we are yet. But we’re getting there and if we can help [viewers] take steps forward in that regard? Good on us. And if we can further the debate. Hopefully that’s what this causes: Raise the level of debate, create a little compassion, a little thoughtfulness, a little love. A little empathy goes a long way and it’s something we’ve really lost these days.
How are Crawley’s men a step in the right direction in terms of the inclusivity and shifts ahead with James’ season of The Bachelor?
Hopefully if you watched the introduction of the men, it’s an incredibly diverse cast. And not just racially. From where they are from geographically, their age, what they do for a living. It’s a lot of professional men who have a good idea of where they are in their life and what they’re looking for. It’s a phenomenal group. It’s very much in line of taking these strides and doing better as far as diversity.
What is the biggest lesson you learned with production on Crawley’s season that you will apply to James’ season?
My biggest takeaway and the happiest thing I can say is: We can conquer anything and we can do anything. Our family, the Bachelor family that pulled this off, I can’t bless them and thank them enough, and give them enough credit. The diversity is wonderful and all of the strides we’ve taken in that regard, but the effort it took to get this season on television? That’s a show in and of itself. And I know that’s all behind the scenes stuff — it’s not sexy, it’s not pretty — but it’s a miracle that this happened.
When do you start filming The Bachelor?
I’ll start heading out and in the next week or so, we’ll start shooting. But we have to get into quarantine and start the traveling process. That will happen very soon.
Crawley’s season of The Bachelorette premieres Oct. 13 at 8 p.m. on ABC.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.