“We knew Winter Games would be a challenge because we wanted to pull all of these international people from The Bachelor and The Bachelorette shows abroad,” co-showrunner Bennett Graebner tells The Hollywood Reporter. “But I didn’t know that getting them into the country would be the real challenge.”
In addition to ABC’s long-running hit franchise, The Bachelor has aired in over 30 countries around the world, with The Bachelorette airing in over 13 global outposts. About one year before Winter Games is set to launch on Tuesday, the producers of the dating franchise came up with an idea to take Bachelor Nation global. Their goal was to recruit one representative from every country where The Bachelor franchise airs.
Graebner, however, says the visa application process, in part, prevented that from happening. Thanks to the Trump administration tightening vetting rules, some dream applicants of minority descent were denied, while others didn’t make it to the show’s opening ceremony due to delays in the already months-long process.
Despite the hurdles, Winter Games will unite American and international stars of the franchise when it launches as counter Olympics programming on ABC. The four-episode spinoff will air across two weeks, running simultaneously with the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games. In total, 26 eligible singles compete for love in winter-themed challenges at a Vermont ski resort. Of the cast, 12 recognizable stars hail from the U.S. franchise; the other 14 participants are stars in their own Bachelor Nations of Switzerland, Japan, Australia, China, Canada, Sweden, Finland and the U.K.
Below in a chat with THR, Graebner details the challenges behind the global casting process while teasing a rose ceremony that “will be talked about for years” and promising international romances. He also responds to critics of Arie Luyendyk’s current season of The Bachelor and offers this warning about how it ends: “Even if people are reading spoilers and think they know? They don’t.”
When did you first plant the seed for Winter Games and how long did you have to pull it off?
I remember Mike Fleiss, the creator of the show, and Rob Mills, head of alternative programming at ABC, coming up with the idea of Winter Games about a year ago. [Fleiss, Graebner, co-showrunner Nicole Woods and Martin Hilton exec produce Winter Games.] At that point, no one had any real sense of what the show would be. We didn’t know if it would be couples from Bachelor Nation — like Trista and Ryan Sutter competing against Kaitlyn Bristowe and Shawn Booth, for example. All we had was this concept, which was to take some of our favorites and see them compete in winter sports. It took us months of banging our heads together to try to figure out: How can we do this in a way that’s fun and different, but that still feels like the heart is in the romance, love and trying to put people together?
When casting from an international pool of Bachelor stars — how do you begin to pull together “Bachelor World”?
We began the casting process early last summer, when we came back from Bachelorette. We knew it would be a challenge because we wanted to pull all of these international people from Bachelor and Bachelorettes abroad. But I didn’t know that getting them into the country would be the real challenge. We did some outreach to the showrunners for these Bachelor and Bachelorette shows abroad. We said, “Hey, this is what we’re doing. Who do you think would be good for the show?” Then we quickly realized it wasn’t that simple.
Mike Fleiss said he wanted more countries to participate, but that President Trump complicated that. What kind of problems did you run into?
We have outside counsel who helped us in the visa process — counsel that has also helped with other Warner Horizon Television shows in the past — and they were surprised at how difficult things were in 2018 compared to 2017. It was shocking. I had a lot of sleepless nights wondering if certain people were going to get into the country. We had real trouble with Germany. There was one guy who was on the German version of The Bachelorette; he was smart and funny, good looking and charismatic, and he spoke English very well. He was also of Persian descent and his visa was denied immediately. That was really unfortunate. There was another guy from Germany who also had visa issues. We had a lot of trouble getting Jordan, the New Zealand Bachelor, into the country. Weeks went by where the embassy would tell Jordan to come the next day and that his visa would be ready, but when he arrived it wasn’t ready and he would call us. It was incredibly stressful. If there’s one lesson to be learned from all of that, it’s that it’s not as easy as it used to be to get people into the country and if we’re going to do a show like this again, we need to start the casting process earlier.
How long did the process take, from when you were submitting visas and waiting for them to clear?
It was months. In some cases, there were a number of people who had to travel hours and hours to go to visa interviews and appointments at embassies. When they finally made it, it almost brought me to tears seeing some of these people in person knowing how hard it had been for them and how much they’d done just to get a visa and get on the show. It wasn’t as simple as just sending in a form and waiting to hear back.
Did any of your top picks bow out over discouragement? And did you have a back-up list?
They were really determined. There was one guy who started to lose faith in the visa process and he bowed out. I think for multiple reasons, but if things had been easier with the visa I’m not sure that he would have. We really felt like we weren’t able to control the numbers when it came to the international cast because of the visa situation coming right down to the wire, but what we could do was add and subtract Americans. I had some people on hold who knew that they were kind of last-minute additions if things didn’t work out. We were quite up-front with them about asking them to stand by and telling them the situation and they said, absolutely. But we ended up with a great cast. These people were really dedicated to making this happen, for them and for us.
How did you go about picking the American cast, was it a short list of favorites?
That was much easier. Having worked on the show for so long, I reached out to a couple of my all-time favorites. Lesley and I have kept in touch for years and we were close on Sean Lowe’s season. She’s a smart, interesting woman who is, thankfully for us, still available. It was a similar situation with Claire; we go way back from Juan Pablo’s season and I didn’t know if she was single but I reached out and she was. As for Ben Higgins, I want him on every version of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. He is one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met and I really do call him a friend. The only issue for Ben was simply, was he emotionally available? And he gave it a shot. Then you want some of your fan favorites. Bibiana is someone who had a real spark on Arie Luyendyk’s current season and even though she was only on for a few episodes, we could tell she needed to spread her wings a little bit more.
What were some of the other challenges in the casting process?
We initially imagined that we would get a representative from every show that we’ve done in every country. But I think the last time we did the Bachelor in Brazil was almost 15 years ago. The only people who were available and still single there, for example, was one guy in his late 40s. We were trying to find people who are still single, who speak English reasonably well and who we thought could handle this fish-out-of-water scenario. We got suggestions from a number of the international showrunners and then we started watching tapes. We started looking at these people and thinking, “Would they mix in with our favorite American castmembers?” Some of it was really entertaining, watching The Bachelor in Swedish or Finnish or Japanese. It’s amazing to see the the Japanese version of Chris Harrison. You see a rose ceremony; you can’t understand anything anyone is saying and yet you know exactly what is being said. I know that guy is the Bachelor and that woman is going to get a rose. It’s really quite entertaining.
How many hours of international footage did you watch?
We watched a lot and sometimes it did influence things. The Swedish showrunners suggested we take a look at Rebecca and Stasi. We immediately thought Rebecca was the one but the more that we went back and looked at Stasi, there was something about her that was magnetic so we added her as well. It was a lot of looking at clips and talking to these international showrunners to get a sense of who these people were. Then we had a weekend where we flew a lot of them to Los Angeles. We had an interview that lasted maybe 45 minutes and put them on tape, a process that is not too different than how we meet people for The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. That gave us a really good sense of how they could handle talking to a room full of people as well as their level of English. There were some people who were great but who didn’t speak English well enough to make it work.
Why did you make exception for Yuki from Japan?
We knew Yuki didn’t speak English but she came highly recommended by someone we worked with for years on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. He said, “You have to meet this woman. She doesn’t speak English but she’s electric.” When she came to L.A. and put her in an interview, we didn’t understand a thing she said, and yet we understood everything she was saying. There is a moment where Chris Harrison comes in to speak with Yuki, in both English and in Japanese, and it is incredibly funny and charming, bittersweet and beautiful. I’ve never seen a moment like it on the franchise.
You have a lot of criteria to hit when casting this show, including being matchmakers. Where did diversity rank and do you feel like you created as diverse of a cast as possible?
I would have preferred more diversity, but that was hard. There weren’t a lot of minority candidates available to choose from for some of the countries. If you are looking at Bachelor Sweden and Bachelor Finland, there aren’t many options. We’ve certainly made an effort over the years to try to diversify our cast and we’re going to continue to do so. In terms of matching people up, that’s what we do on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. We sit there and we think, “Is she going to like him? Is he going to like her?” Sometimes we’re right — and I’m wrong all the time, by the way. As much as I’d like to think I have a really great sense of these things, sometimes you have to just do your best and let the chips fall where they may. As long as people are open and available, that’s the first thing you need.
Winter Games will have rose ceremony eliminations. Will you add new faces as the show goes?
Jordan is a late arrival in the show, but that’s because he didn’t get his visa. This is not Bachelor in Paradise. It really is this global celebration of unity and love and we wanted everyone there from the beginning. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get everyone into the country so he shows up as a late arrival. At some point, I thought he wasn’t going to be on the show at all. It went on for weeks and we were already shooting. We had no idea. Thankfully, we squeezed him in there and he is worth the wait. He had a really traumatic experience as The Bachelor; he infamously flipped a coin between the final two women to decide who he should propose to and that got out in the media. He was quickly villain No. 1 and I was actually shocked he wanted to meet with us. But you’ll see a very different Jordan than people saw on The Bachelor New Zealand. As for the rose ceremonies, they are different every episode. We thought we would have a little fun with them and keep everyone on their toes. What you see in the first episode is not what you see in the second or third. I don’t want to say too much, but I will tell you that what happened at the third rose ceremony will be talked about in Bachelor Nation for years. We laughed, we cried, and things happened that we couldn’t quite believe.
You kept Fantasy Suites around. What kind of culture clashes did that create, especially when you have China, where only one on-air Bachelor kiss has ever been aired?
The cultural differences are something that I don’t think we quite realized at first. While we all speak the same language of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, where we can talk about roses and date cards, a kiss to an American and an American audience means something very different than it does to a woman from China or Japan. Likewise, the Fantasy Suite means something very different in different cultures and that was something we didn’t really anticipate either. There is also what I like to refer to as a Couples’ Room in the house. Men and women are living together so that room was available if they wanted to spend time alone, as long as they both mutually consented to do so. You’ll have to stay tuned to see if anyone spent the night there. I learned a lot, personally, just from seeing how all the individuals from different countries reacted to things.
The topic of giving consent was addressed this summer on Bachelor in Paradise after the temporary shutdown. Did that practice carry over to Winter Games?
It carried over from Bachelor in Paradise and I think you’ll continue to see it be a staple of all the shows. We pride ourselves on being really respectful and careful about these things and have always treated them with sensitivity. I think that everyone who was there on the Bachelor Winter Games would agree.
Why only do four episodes of Winter Games?
I would have preferred to have done another couple of episodes. It felt short to me and it was also a little sad. It was like I got all my friends together and then they went away. There were such strong relationships that were moving quickly and I wanted to keep watching those relationships and see them develop, and I couldn’t because the show was already over. I think in the future, I would hope that we would do more. Another couple of episodes and another week, especially, would really allow those relationships to breathe even more.
At this point, have you begun conversations — official or unofficial — about turning Winter Games into a series?
I think I speak for all of the producers when I say that we had so much fun making this show. All we can talk about is: Can we do it again? That’s a decision for the network and I hope they say yes, because we had a blast and I think the cast had a blast. It would be fun to get the gang back together again. Airing up against the Olympics is a tough one. The sporting events are really fun and silly, but ultimately, it’s a Bachelor show where all your favorites are back with all these people who you have never met before, and the moment they move into the villa it heats up. Relationships start and tears start to flow, and that’s what I want to watch.
Chris Harrison called Winter Games possibly the best TV you guys have ever made. Do you agree?
I was speaking to some pretty high-level network executives yesterday who called it the high watermark for the Bachelor franchise and I thought that was really flattering. I hope they are right.
He also said more than one couple will come out of the show. Why do you think these spinoff formats work so well and do you worry about what putting people who live on different continents together might do to the couple success rate after the show?
I think Winter Games and Paradise work because there are just so many more options. On The Bachelor, if a woman doesn’t like the guy, that’s the end of it and she’s probably going home. But if a woman comes on Paradise or Winter Games and doesn’t like one guy, maybe she’ll like another one and that really opens up the possibilities. As for the international romances, I feel the same way as I do on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. If the relationship is strong enough and the love is real, the distance won’t matter. Especially in this day and age.
Do any relationships get to the point where someone is talking about picking up and moving?
The reunion show will answer some of those questions for sure, but yes. You’re going to see people from very different parts of the world decide that they should be together.
Arie Luyendyk Jr.’s season of The Bachelor is currently airing. To borrow a Bachelor phrase, in what ways is he in it for the “right reasons”?
That line of “the right reasons” we all think is a little over the top, but there’s some truth in it and it’s a broader casting challenge. Sometimes, you really have to question if someone is coming on The Bachelor or The Bachelorette because they do believe in it and are interested in a relationship and finding love. Or, do they just want more Instagram followers? Because that is what we ultimately do not want. Arie has taken some heat and I think, unfairly. People have criticized him for being “boring.” But the truth is that he’s really genuine and part of it is that he has no interest in the TV side of things. If it were up to him, he would just sit on a bench and talk to the women all day. To say that comes across as disinterested, I think, is unfair. He’s a really, really sweet and genuine guy.
Chris Harrison also really pumped up the ending to his season, calling it “phenomenal.” What can viewers expect?
I’ve worked on the show for 10 years. The finale will be something people haven’t seen before. And even if they are reading spoilers and think they know? They don’t know.
After this many seasons, does it surprise you that The Bachelor can still deliver a surprise ending?
I think that’s the key. You’re making a show that people are very familiar with, but you can’t give them the same thing every time. The only way to do that is through the people on the show. You make the show different every season by bringing in people who have different stories to tell and different energy. In a strange way, you have to cast it right and let it happen. You need people on who are going to be vulnerable, put themselves out there and who won’t be afraid of spilling their emotional depths with 10 crew members standing by. If you do that, you kind of just let it all take care of itself.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a column on how Arie was perhaps not the right Bachelor pick to be airing in the #MeToo era. It’s worth noting that the season was cast pre-Harvey Weinstein. But, what did you think about what he had to say?
I didn’t read Kareem’s article, though I did read his article that he wrote a year ago before we did [Rachel Lindsay’s season of] The Bachelorette and that is what inspired me to call him up and see if he would come on the show. He did end up coming on the show and he was great. I think part of what makes this franchise successful is that we’re always adapting. The world changes and so do we. We recognize that and we’re going to change with it.
Bachelor Winter Games premieres Feb. 13 on ABC at 8 p.m. and airs its consecutive episodes on Feb. 15, Feb. 20 and Feb. 22, followed by a World Tells All reunion special. The Bachelor continues to air Mondays at 8 p.m.