LAS VEGAS — It’s Friday afternoon, around 50 hours from the beginning of the months-in-the-making Billboard Music Awards, and in the darkened MGM Grand Garden Arena rehearsals for Justin Bieber and Will.I.Am’s tag-team performance of “#ThatPower” are underway. The several dozen people working on the show are in a state of intense but cheerful alertness, bustling with purpose while the executives involved with some of the artists performing on the show -- a mini Billboard Power gathering including Bieber manager Scooter Braun, CAA’s Rob Light, Dick Clark Productions’ Allen Shapiro, Will.I.Am/Britney Spears co-manager Adam Leber, Interscope’s Dennis Dennehy and many others -- socialize and swap stories about their artists (nope, we’re not telling). Lights flash, dry ice blasts come from beneath the stage, dancers test their moves, and everything snaps into place when Bieber arrives and the rehearsal begins in earnest. (Will.I.Am isn’t present; he could be literally anywhere in the world at the moment).
The calm at the center of this controlled whirlwind is Don Mischer, executive producer of the show for the third consecutive year and one of the titan producer/directors of live television events. The first Obama inauguration? His work. Super Bowl halftimes with Prince, the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, and Tom Petty? Yep. Olympic opening ceremonies in 1996 and 2002? Him too. Not to mention 15 Emmy Awards and dozens more credits, and he’s still going strong.
After the Bieber rehearsal wrapped, he took time from his dinner break to talk with us about Sunday night’s show. And if any more evidence of his professionalism could possibly be needed, there’s this: We’d asked for 15 minutes. Our recording of this interview is 14 minutes and 47 seconds long. (Which is why we've also included a 2 minute video interview with Mr. Mischer below)
Considering the scope and scale of many of events you’ve produced, are ones like this relatively easy?
None of them are “relatively easy” (he laughs hard). This show is big: it’s wall-to-wall music -- three hours of music -- and we’re giving out eight awards but there’s 17 musical performances. Each one’s different: each one’s got a different band, different dancers, different sets, different lighting cues -- it’s much bigger than your average awards show. If you’re producing the Emmys or whatever, there’s not this much music, this much staging -- there’s a tremendous amount of production value in this show, everything from technical things like lasers and liquid nitrogen and pyro blasts to content that’s on the screens which is custom made for a particular song. So there’s a lot more that goes into this, just in terms of the production itself.
How far ahead do you start?
We started this back in the summer, beginning to think about who it might be good to have on the show, whether we want to make any changes. The first thing we do every year is we go back and look at -- we get something called minute-by-minute ratings, so we go back and study that from the year before to find out what works the best in terms of making people want to watch the show.
[The show takes place on] the last Sunday night of sweeps, which makes it a very competitive night. We’re on for three hours on ABC, so we want to put music in this show that people really want to watch. We’ve learned that popular music, that is playing now and selling now and people are listening to now, is the best way to do that. So out of the top 20 songs I think we have seven that we’ll actually be doing live here on Sunday night.
We don’t really start to book the show until later in the year because things change so quickly in music, you never know who’s going to be emerging -- I mean, over a weekend a band can just blossom. When it comes to something like the Icon Award, which is a discretionary award determined by the editors of Billboard under the direction of Bill Werde -- that, we can start on early. So when they said they thought Prince deserved this award, we began to talk to him about the possibility of coming to accept it, and I had worked with Prince a few years back at the Super Bowl -- where it rained during the halftime show! (laughs) And we were really honored that he said he would come. But most of the booking will have three to four months ahead of time.
What’s the most challenging performance of show?
Honestly, it’s really hard to pick one -- we are trying a lot of things that are a little different. We’re doing some things where we’re projecting on a screen that’s in front of the artist but you can see through it -- we’re doing that with Miguel, and Taylor Swift is going to be really big and is going to consume the whole room, practically. But with the [level of] planning we have, there’s hardly anything that we can’t master. Our team will start talking to an artist and their reps months out. And first an artist will come to us with an idea for what they’d like to do, or a song they’d like to do, and often they’ll come with a creative idea or whatever. And our creative team then kind of weaves into their creative team, and we work on it together. If there are obstacles or things that keep us from being able to do something, then we deal with it months ahead of time.
Everything has to fit in the context of three hours of live television. So we have two stages: when we’re on stage A there’s what we call a closedown on stage B that’s being changed over to the next act and then when stage A is finished we’ll go to a commercial and then stage B will open up, so we ping pong back and forth and that’s how we have enough time to set up the instruments, to mic-check them and to plug in all the computer codes we need to run pyro and the screen keys and all that.
The past two Billboard Music Awards have been stellar -- do you feel a lot of pressure to top them?
Every time we go into a show -- I like to call it ringing the bell, we try to ring the bell. And it doesn’t happen all the time, so that’s part of what you have to deal with. When you work really hard, and we work ludicrous hours under extreme pressure for a long period of time -- some people call us “stress junkies” -- and it falls short, you don’t feel good when you walk out of the arena. But the times that you do live up to your expectations, it’s a wonderful feeling. Because this is a high-risk business, this is live television and we have 500 people on our crew and miles and miles of cable and audio and lighting gear and all the rest of it and it’s all gotta work. So it’s high pressure but I can also say -- as someone who’s directed a lot as well as produced -- there’s no feeling like the feeling when you’re in the control room and the clock is counting down and you know you’re going on the air and when you’re doing the Olympic ceremonies, you know that 80 percent of the planet is watching. And there’s no feeling like that. Yes its stressful but its also exhilarating.
Watching you here, you’re so calm, there’s no frantic or arm-waving or yelling or anything.
I’ve been this business a long time. Yelling does not motivate people; it alienates them. And what you have to do is find ways to inspire people to really give you everything they’ve got. And whether you’re running a camera or a spotlight or hauling a piece of scenery, it’s about motivating people and making them proud of what they’re doing, and helping them know how much they are appreciated by viewers and the people at Billboard and everyone who’s working on the show. But it’s something that gets into your blood, and I still love coming to work. I love talking to artists and coming up with a creative plan for what we’re going to do onstage and trying to come up with something that hasn’t been done before. It’s fun. And there’s never a dull moment.
What was the most challenging production of your career?
Nothing is like the Olympics because they’re so massive: we had 10-11,000 people for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, we had 2800 volunteers, we had 8-900 crew and staff on the payroll, and that’s probably the most daunting. We’ve had other challenges that are specific to particular projects -- in 1997 we produced all the [happenings] in the harbor in Hong Kong when it was handed over from Britain to China, and when you talk about logistical challenges: because Hong Kong has always been called the Pearl of the Orient, we built a giant pearl to sit in the harbor that was 40 stories high and made out of fabric, and we kept having these typhoons come through and just destroy it! We started going to Buddhist prayer meetings, and we had 27 straight days of rain and high winds. So when you’re outside, weather is always a big challenge. Take the Prince halftime show: the night before that I was terrified, and I had these dreams about Prince falling down, or he had these two dancers with him, and they were on 9-inch-high heels and I thought what if one of them falls down and breaks her leg? Do we just keep going? Does Prince step over her? Do we bring the paramedics in and get her on a stretcher? Those are the things you worry about.
I would say that the rain actually worked in your favor that night. It was amazing.
You know what? When it started, I said “oh no no,” because it just started to really pour down. Sixty seconds into that show, I said “This is a blessing. This has given us this ethereal feeling of moodiness and drops of water on the lens and thick, dense fog and smoke in the air. This is nothing we ever could have created if we tried.”
So can we expect some rain for Prince on Sunday night?
No, there’ll be no rain in here! If there is it means a pipe broke someplace and that’s not a good idea!
Who are the biggest divas? Actors, musicians, athletes or politicians?
I would say probably politicians. I continue to be amazed!