‘The Bachelorette’: ABC Executive Gives Glimpse Inside Clare Crawley’s Unprecedented Season

“The Bachelorette” always promises to provide ample drama, but this season truly lived up to franchise’s tagline of being “the most dramatic season ever” — before it even started.

Production on Season 16 was shut down just as filming began, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. After a nearly four-month hiatus, the network and studio went to great lengths to ensure filming could ensue in a safe manner, while still providing entertainment for viewers at home. With strict health precautions and creative twists-and-turns, production was successfully completed with no major hiccups.

Well, other than rumors that leading lady Clare Crawley left the show after finding love quickly during the season.

Sources close to production told Variety, while the season was still filming, that Crawley does indeed depart the show, and Tayshia Adams is brought in to be the new “Bachelorette.” (ABC has repeatedly declined to comment on all reports regarding the casting shakeup.)

But long before Crawley may-or-may-not have ended her journey early, and long the pandemic halted production, the network garnered positive reactions for selecting Crawley, who marks the oldest leading lady the franchise has ever cast, at the age of 39.

“We met with girls from Peter’s [Weber] season, and we felt that we should maybe go with someone who’s a bit more mature,” Rob Mills, ABC Entertainment’s senior vice president of alternative series, specials & late-night programming, tells Variety.

Crawley was officially announced as the new star of “The Bachelorette” in early March, just a couple of weeks before cameras were set to start rolling. Only one day after production began, it was shut down due to the COVID-19 crisis. When production resumed, the entire cast and crew was sequestered together at La Quinta resort near Palm Springs, Calif., essentially creating a bubble where everyone was tested on their way in and was not allowed out.

“All of a sudden, we were shut down for months,” Mills says. “By the time Clare got there, she was like, ‘Oh thank god.’ Because it felt like she had already run a marathon. She was excited to finally meet these men in-person.”

Here, Mills talks with Variety about casting Crawley, and how the team behind the show pulled off production during a pandemic.

You’re in charge of all unscripted programming at ABC, and so far, you’ve managed to pull off quite a few reality shows being produced during the pandemic from “American Idol,” to “Dancing with the Stars,” “Shark Tank” and now, “The Bachelorette.” What has been the biggest learning process?

We’ve learned to have a sense of realistic optimism. Even though we held our breath every step of the way, it always felt like this is definitely going to happen. The outlook was that safety comes first, but then our mindset was that we are just going to get this done, no matter what.

In terms of safety, shooting in a quarantined bubble worked. Creatively, did it work?

It was a very unorthodox way of filming, but it felt very much like any other “Bachelorette” season. We felt like we really recreated our show, and Clare was in a great place.

Shooting a dating show in the age of social distancing is almost comical. For the record, can you confirm that this will not be a socially-distanced season of “The Bachelorette”?

Everyone was tested, so they could do everything they’d do on a normal season, like kissing and hugging and everything else. It will be acknowledged at the start, in terms of what everybody had to do — they had to quarantine and get tested — but then once you’re in the bubble, you’re in. There won’t be travel, but it looks like a regular season. It’s not socially distanced in any way, shape or form.

“The Bachelor” franchise is known for its over-the-top dates to international locations. Do you think the season suffers from the lack of travel?

The travel becomes part of the love story, so this was just very different. It’s amazing to go to places you normally wouldn’t go with someone you’re falling in love with. These are once in a lifetime trips. That’s a big positive, so to have that taken away was tough. But on the other hand, these are the type of dates you would go on in real life, so it is more realistic. In terms of storytelling, we couldn’t just hide behind bungee jumping or traveling to amazing place, so I think there is a bigger investment in the characters that we didn’t have before.

It sounds like there were some unintentional positive outcomes that came from the restrictions forced by the pandemic.

It allowed us to get more creative. I also think it kept people more focused. Without travel time and time zone changes, the guys who really wanted to be there for the right reasons were able to focus and figure themselves out, as well as their chemistry with the lead. There is something to be said here because the guys were really focused on the task at hand, which is Clare. And from an emotional standpoint, with the heat in Palm Springs there was no time to try to hide your emotions, so that makes for great TV.

Aside from International dates, production always travels for hometown dates when you meet the families of the finalists. Will we see hometown dates this season?

You will see hometowns, but it will be different. We didn’t know what we were going to do, and it ended up being so amazing — everyone’s family offered to come out and quarantine, so the families all came out to the bubble. That’s such a special part of the show that we love. Meeting the families leads to some of the most heartwarming moments and some of the most shocking moments, so it was a real worry that we’d be robbed of that. The fact that it happened is a testament to how great these guys are and how great their families were, and we were so lucky that we were able to do it safely and not put anyone in danger.

It seems like an eternity ago with the current state of the world, but Clare was announced as “The Bachelorette” on Mar. 2, which was about two weeks before the pandemic shut everything down. Clare was a surprise pick. Can you talk about the casting process?

We first spoke to Clare in mid-February. She was the last girl we spoke to about being “The Bachelorette.” Everyone we met with, we didn’t meet with them unless we thought they’d be great. But I have to be honest, I think that we felt that Peter’s girls were maybe a little bit too young. They were great on their season of the show, and certainly, we want to keep them around for “Bachelor In Paradise” or to potentially be “The Bachelorette” in future seasons.”

Who else did you meet with about potentially becoming “The Bachelorette” for this season?

Well, Madison [Prewett] was not really an option because Peter still had feelings with her. From Peter’s season, we met with Victoria P. and Victoria F. And then we met with Tia [Booth] who is fantastic, and then we met with Tayshia [Adams].

What do you recall about your conversations with Clare during casting meetings?

There was such a refreshing candor about her. And she was really emotional talking about her past and what she had learned about herself during her time with Juan Pablo [Galavis].

Did Clare’s age play into her being selected, in terms of her truly being ready to find her life partner? In other words, did you feel she was actually there for the right reasons?

Clare is loved by viewers of “The Bachelor,” but there were also plenty of viewers who didn’t know her and they do like [that] she’s a bit older. At least, that’s what I saw on Twitter. One of the criticisms of Peter’s season is that some of the girls seemed awfully young and the audience was questioning if they were ready to settle down. No one can argue with the fact that Clare is ready.

Looking back, do you feel like other young leads from the franchise’s past were not ready? Or maybe they were in it for fame or an Instagram career?

You know, not necessarily. The people that make up the cast, some are ready and some are not. But with the lead, there isn’t one I can point to where they weren’t ready. For instance, Hannah B. was younger, but she was ready.

So, why did you ultimately pick Clare?

I had started to see on Twitter that longtime fans were saying Clare would be a great “Bachelorette,” and I forwarded a tweet to one of our producers who said he always thought Clare would be great, and that’s when we met with her. I hadn’t spoken to Clare since “Bachelor Winter Games,” which was a few years ago, and she was in such an interesting place when we spoke to her because it had been a few years since she had been on the show, so she had settled into her normal life as a hairdresser living in Sacramento and taking care of her mom. It felt like such a left turn and that’s always good with this show because it’s been on for almost 20 years, so you want to keep mixing it up.

Is Clare ready to jump back into the limelight after a few years away?

She is really centered with the fact that she has a wonderful life in Sacramento. She has been through this so many times that she knows that you’re in the limelight, and then you’re not. She knows that everyone will be talking about her and tweeting about her for a while, and then it’ll stop and move onto someone else. She felt she had nothing to lose, and she went all in.

You were on-set. Did it feel safe?

You certainly felt safe. There was no room for error. You have to really have the conviction that nobody is going to get sick there, and that was taken so seriously. There was a document that was 40 pages long that had every single answer for everything. The testing was so maniacal and everyone was being so careful, but it was still so scary not knowing if we would ever be shut down. After a few weeks, it felt like we’re going to make it and we got into a rhythm.

Can you go into detail about what the heath and safety protocols were like on set? 

There was regular testing — the full nasal test — and you’re living in a fake city where everybody has tested negative for COVID-19, but you still were not able to act normally, so you acted as if you didn’t know that everyone had tested negative. Nothing was left to chance here. The control room was not very full, but in the control room, you had to wear N95 masks. When you went to craft services, one person was handing food to you. You could not touch anything. We learned so much from hand washing, to making sure you weren’t in contact with anyone. The crew was seated at long tables with one person at each end socially distanced, so when you ate meals, you didn’t sit directly with someone.

For how long did the cast and crew live on set?

The cast and crew were moving in and prepping and setting up in June, and shooting went from beginning of July to beginning of September. It absolutely was a grind and it was tough. If you did leave set, you had to come back and re-quarantine. The quarantining was really strict.

Chris Harrison left set to drop his son off at college, and he had to skip out on a few episodes to re-quarantine. Despite some reports, I assume that was all planned in advance?

Yes. [Laughs] Chris was not upset at anybody for having to quarantine. This was planned and he was fully on board. He was thrilled to come back and re-quarantine and have JoJo [Fletcher] fill in for him, and he had a negative test and we had a successful rest of the shoot. You only get one chance to move your son into college — and graduation didn’t happen for his son, so this was very important, and we were thrilled for him to do it.

The pandemic created a crazy domino effect for “The Bachelor” franchise and “Bachelor In Paradise” was completely scrapped this past summer. Why was it so important to get “Bachelorette” back on air?

Everyone knows what this show means to people and it really was important to get the show back on. We all need this show back — not just the crew getting back to work, but the viewers in Bachelor Nation. I know it sounds ridiculous, but our goal to deliver a great season because we want to make people forget about what is going on in the world.

The new season of “The Bachelor” just went into production. After successfully shooting “The Bachelorette,” do you feel confident?

Absolutely. And the place we’re shooting “Bachelor” at is an absolutely massive resort. It’s a much bigger bubble, so that gives us a lot more options, as well.

“The Bachelorette” Season 16 premieres Oct. 13 at 8 p.m. on ABC.

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