Grammys Executive Producer Ben Winston on What to Expect From This Weekend’s Show — and Some Behind-the-Scenes Surprises From Last Year’s

Now in his fourth year as executive producer of the Grammy Awards, it would seem like Ben Winston’s job would get easier: After all, his first two years in the job were 2021 — i.e. the extremely complex, first-ever socially distanced Grammys — and the slightly less restricted 2022 awards, which had to be moved to Las Vegas and delayed two months after the Omicron variant hit Los Angeles. But basically nothing about producing the three-and-a-half-hour-long show celebrating Music’s Biggest Night is easy.

Since his arrival in Hollywood with James Corden more than a decade ago, the Brit has launched “The Late Late Show,” which ran for eight years and turned out viral hits such as “Carpool Karaoke,” executive producing and sometimes guesting in “The Kardashians,” and running his U.K.-based production company Fulwell 73.

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But the Grammys are unique, and this year’s will feature performances from SZA, Joni Mitchell — making her Grammys performance debut — as well as U2 (in a remote appearance from Las Vegas’ Sphere), Billy Joel, Dua Lipa, Olivia Rodrigo, Luke Combs, Travis Scott and Burna Boy, with more to be announced.  Winston caught up with Variety late last week for a download on what to expect — and some interesting details about what went on behind the scenes last year.

How’s the show going?

It’s really good — it’s better than I thought it’d be. It’s always up and down on a show like this, but we’ve got some really great performances: young artists, classic artists, “In memoriam” is going to be outstanding.

Is that the hardest part of the show? It’s so sensitive, you really can’t mess it up.

Actually, I don’t want this to sound bad because it’s about people who have died, but in many ways it’s where you can be the most creative as a producer. Because the Academy and the voters decide who the nominees are, and ultimately, an artist is going to perform their song, and then it’s about making sure it looks great and how to make it original and whatever else. But the table has been set, right?

When you’re at “In Memoriam,” you’re looking at this incredible library of music and amazing stars, and then you think, “Who would be best to sing, and what song could that be?” Suddenly, it’s an incredibly creative thing. If you remember the first year [Winston’s team] did it, we had Lionel Richie singing a Kenny Rogers song, we had Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak on a Little Richard song, we had Brandi Carlile doing a John Prine song. And because there are so many commercial breaks in television, I really love the idea that we can just press play on a load of music — this year’s “In Memoriam” will be 16 minutes of music.

U2 will be performing from the Sphere, which is so massive — how are you going to render that on television?

We’re using drones — it will be the first time anyone’s ever shot inside the Sphere. That’s what I mean about fun bits where you get to be creative. It was [U2’s] idea — they asked if we’d be interested in doing something and we said we’d I’d love it if you could present an award from there too, so it’s sort of a performance-stroke-nomination. We’re very much collaborating with them, they have a real vision for what it’s going to be. They’ve been brilliant — and what a buzz to do Zooms with Bono.

We’re just over a week before the show — have all the performers and performances been confirmed?

I think they’re all confirmed! (Laughter) There’s a couple where I think they will confirm, but things change, right? You know, we booked somebody last night for “In Memoriam.” Some things do come together late, as much as we try and plan in advance. Before the nominations, [artists] are like, “I don’t want to even talk to you,” because they don’t know if they’re going to be nominated. And then nominations come out in early November, so you’ve got until mid-December, and [the holidays] and you don’t hear from them again until January 5 th or 6 th when everyone goes, “Oh, there’s less than a month to go, I should I really should start thinking about this!” So it’s a crazy, insane month.

Each of the last three years, there was a moment where people from the music community presented awards — the first year, during Covid, it was people working at venues; then it was touring staff; last year it was superfans. Will there be one this year? 

No, we’re actually not going to do anything like that this year, but we are going to have some really beautiful story-of-the-year packages that will play before certain artists’ performances. Not many, just five or six that are a minute and a half or two minutes long. I feel like we are always more engaged with music and artists when we hear their stories — and what you’ve got to do when you make the Grammys is figure out how to keep somebody who loves Billy Joel engaged when Travis Scott is on.

This is your fourth year — what have been your most difficult performance to pull off?

I’ll go with two answers. The first one was coming up with a system of how to shoot a good show during Covid [in 2021]. It was really tough — it was the first time anybody had done anything like that: Building a stage in the round, where we have four stages exactly 30 feet apart, with four different entrances and no one crashing into each other’s bubbles. And then they would come to a stage B from a Stage C and then you’d disinfect it for the next artists. And it was outdoors — I don’t think you could find anything more complicated than that.

Second, and I can take very little credit for this, but last year’s 50 years of hip-hop tribute [multi-artist performance] that Jesse Collins, Fatima Robinson and Patrick Menton put together. That was unbelievably tricky for many, many reasons: 30 performers in the space of 15 minutes. And we literally lost performers during the performance — there were moments where, say, the person who was supposed to come on at 14 minutes decided not to come on. It was a very, very, very complicated thing.

There were some other very tough moments last year — Bad Bunny arrived at the show about 120 seconds before we went live. He’d gone home — we didn’t know he’d gone home — and then got stuck [in traffic], so we basically got told he wasn’t making the opening. And I remember it being like, five minutes before the show started and feeling like you want to vomit because it wasn’t going to be the show we’d worked so hard for. It’s a house of cards — if Bad Bunny doesn’t show, OK, then you go to Brandi Carlile to open because she’s on second, but then you have a monologue because the cameras already need to be setting for Stevie Wonder, who was third. And does it mean that Bad Bunny is now not in the show, or do you try and stick him at the end?

Other things went wrong: J-Lo, who was presenting the first award, she only just made it in time, so I was running around the arena looking for someone else to present it. And there was a problem with a piano during “In Memoriam,” along with the two or three hip-hop tribute artists who never made it. So it’s all those things that people don’t really realize — the whole show is a house of cards because if you move one performance, you have to rebuild it. There were some really stressful moments last year, but I look back on it with huge pride. I always say that when a live TV show starts, you jump off a cliff and really hope the parachute opens.

Does it ever get easier?

You just get better at dealing with it. You learn to not be stressed, and you maybe learn to handle it slightly better: It doesn’t feel like the world’s coming to an end when something goes wrong, “Let’s just work out how we solve it.” You get wiser, maybe, and less emotional. The first year I did it, I was so, so nervous, I didn’t sleep very well. But this will only be our second show that we’ve made at Crypto, because year one was Covid; year two we got delayed and moved to Vegas, and it was great but it still had a lot of restrictions — it was like Covid Lite (laughter). And then last year was like our first proper year, and  this year, I think we’ve got equally amazing stuff — definitely a few surprises lined up no question!

Anything more you’d like to say?

I know it’s a corny thing to say but I want it on record. When we took this over it was very much Ken Ehrich’s show, he did such a good job for so many years. But this is so not my show: It’s me, Raj Kapoor, Jesse Collins, Tabitha Dumo, David Wild, Hamish Hamilton, Patrick Menton and Jeannae Rouzan-Clay, so many others — there’s this great team of us, and the most creative moments are when we’re together and arguing over who should be booked and what they should be doing and coming up with loads of ideas. It is such a collaborative effort that I think I have a much easier time than Ken did.

The Grammys air on CBS from L.A.’s Arena on Feb. 4, starting at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT.

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