From Kramer mixing it up on Mad About You to that time when the Fresh Prince met The Jeffersons, television has a rich history of crossover episodes.
“But I don’t recall ever seeing a crossover promo,” said Julio Cabral, VP of on-air promo creative at Fox.
An interstitial scene airing Wednesday night that merges the worlds of Fox’s Empire and its other, hotly anticipated new show, Star, “might be a first.”
Airing in the middle of the new episode of Empire, the scene sets up the premiere of Star that follows. Lee Daniels is the creator of both shows, and wrote the scene linking them himself, bringing together Empire patriarch Terrance Howard and Star guest star Lenny Kravitz for a brief yet suspenseful encounter. Kravitz, not surprisingly, plays a fictional rock god in Star, whose daughter has ambitions of attaining stardom of her own with a trio that includes the show’s titular character, played by newcomer Jude Demorest.
“How often do you get two shows back-to-back with one singular voice, and both have a similar theme?” said Dean Norris, SVP of marketing and special projects at Fox. “It lends itself to setting up that world, to letting these two characters have a back-and-forth at an intense moment.”
Tonally, “the shows feel different,” added Scott Edwards, SVP of on-air promo for Fox. “Empire is bright, Star is grittier. To bridge those two shows with this scene kind of shows you they’re a perfect fit.”
Bringing together two figures of the caliber of Howard and Kravitz for a one-off promotional scene would be quite an undertaking under any circumstances, but because of scheduling constraints, co-chairs Dana Walden and Gary Newman couldn’t green-light the spot until two days before actually going into production.
“We were set up for a very last-minute shoot here in L.A. that we were going to shoot on the set of New Girl,” Norris said. But then the plug was pulled on that plan, and “it was up in the air where and when talent would be available and if we could get Lenny Kravitz to Chicago or to New York… Chicago would have been a no-brainier, but he was on a deadline to get on a boat.”
Kravitz was heading off to France in a matter of days, and once he was gone, there would be no chance to shoot the scene in time for Star’s debut. Fortunately, Howard could be in New York before Kravitz left, and what’s more the two were pals.
“Because him and Terrance are close, Lenny had an interest in doing it for his friend,” said Edwards.
With the stars literally aligned, the Fox in-house team sprang into action for a whirlwind, down-to-the-wire shoot. As Daniels made last-minute revisions to the script, Cabral and company called upon veteran production company IKA Collective to facilitate the shoot in New York.
“We’ve worked with Fox for a very long time,” said Ian Karr, executive producer for IKA, “so when Dean calls and says, ‘okay, I’ve got two of the biggest TV stars in two of the biggest shows, and it all has to happen by tomorrow,’ it’s like, ‘all right, let me pour a scotch and let’s figure it out.’ It was cool to be given that opportunity to see what was possible.”
What IKA and the Fox team pulled off seems astounding in retrospect. Seasoned actor and director Paul McCrane (Robocop, Fame, ER) was asked to helm the spot the day before the shoot, a choice put forward by Daniels himself. Hours after agreeing to do it, McCrane got on a red-eye and flew to New York to get to work the next morning.
“He had, like, 10 hours to plan,” said Karr. “The script was emailed to him while we were on the first phone call, talking it through.”
Karr remembered the scene of that first cross-country conversation as something “out of one of those old news movies,” with McCrane envisioning the world of the shoot on the fly, and the producers in New York “furiously writing notes” as he delivered requests for extras and other details over the phone. With the help of “total rock star” producer Willa Goldfeder, Karr’s team was able to pull together a file of potential shoot locations in a matter of hours, and “prequalify” each one to “know we weren’t putting into the mix something we couldn’t use.”
So tight was time that some elements, including the final club location and choice of camera, were selected without McCrane’s input. It was as though the shoot were “retrofitted for him in a way,” said Edwards. “We had to find a location, cast all the people, do the set dressing, and then he stepped in and elevated it all with his own vision.”
Upon arrival, McCrane got off to a fast start thanks to an unlikely connection to the talent. A huge fan of Lenny Kravitz’s music, he “was trying not to geek out” prior to meeting him for the first time at the shoot, Cabral said. But when McCrane walked in to Kravitz’s trailer to introduce himself, “the reverse happened: Lenny looks at Paul and Lenny geeks out.” It turned out that McCrane’s former role as sensitive redhead Montgomery MacNeil in the iconic 1980s teen musical drama Fame was “inspirational for Lenny,” and even helped “inspire him to go into his music career.” The mutual respect between the actor and director “broke the ice,” Cabral said, and helped the shoot sail smoothly from then on.
But any production involving two of TV’s most famous personalities squeezing in a shoot day on a spot for one of the year’s most anticipated shows is going to feel tense, let alone one scrabbled together in less than a week. When all the pieces miraculously fell into place and the shoot was rolling, Karr remembered having a moment on set with Cabral, “looking at the monitor, thinking about what could have happened if even one little thing had gone wrong. If Terrance didn’t make his flight, or even if the furniture didn’t arrive on time.”
“It’s a really great move for those Empire fans who are going to tune in and see Lyon interact with this new character who they’re going to watch right after the finale,” Norris said. “When you see these two guys sit across from each other, in this scene, it feels believable, all the way down to the person who sits next to [Kravitz] in the sparkly silver dress. She looks like she could be dating him. The moment is with these two great iconic actors and you buy into it… Even if [viewers are] somewhat familiar [with Star], they’re going to see that scene and go, ‘we have to watch it now.’”
“It was really cool for me to see what the power of assembling a lot of talent can do in a short period of time,” added Karr. “You don’t usually have to work under those conditions, but when you do—to see what’s possible when great talent and great clients with great vision get together… it was like poetry.”
(Image ©2016 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Amanda Demme/FOX)
Dana Walden, FOX chairman
Gary Newman, FOX chairman
Angela Courtin, CMO
Julio Cabral, VP, On-Air Promo Creative
Dean Norris, SVP, Marketing and Special Projects
Scott Edwards, SVP, On-Air Promo
Aaron Goldman, VP, On-Air Promo Drama
Ulmer Bicknel, Editor
Executive Producer, Ian Karr
Producer, Willa Goldfeder
Director of Photography, Bill Winters
Production Designer, Brian Tubbs