Following the finale, ITV Entertainment executive producer Simon Thomas spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about how his team pulled off the last six weeks, from quarantining its “islanders” and keeping backup contestants in nearby hotels to battling scorching Vegas heat and pulling off pandemic-safe dates.
How did you decide to do this on a Vegas hotel rooftop?
Around April, we were sitting down and running through different variations of what the show could be because of everything that was going on. I started with a blank notepad and said, “OK, how can we make the show in a way that actually felt safe?” And I thought to myself, “Well you’d need a whole self-contained, quarantine-able environment like a hotel with something on top.” And that’s where I came up with the idea of a Vegas hotel, thinking there’d be day clubs and the Vegas hotels are closed and maybe they’d be interested in doing that. And then, serendipitously, one of the representatives from Drai’s and Caesars reached out to our president of the company about two weeks after I came up with the idea saying, “Hey, I’ve got a hotel here, is there anything that we can do for you?” And we went, “OK great, yes!”
How did you navigate having people live on a Vegas rooftop in the middle of summer?
It’s a club, right? It’s not designed to have people live in it. We have a wonderful production designer who is on the show, who worked with us back in Fiji last year. He did an amazing job converting it into a very livable air conditioned space, but of course there’s a huge amount of real estate in the sunlight. When we started shooting, it was the middle of summer; it was 110, easy. On the first day of our stand-in rehearsal, one of our stand-ins walked onto the astroturf and her shoes melted. So we thought, “OK, we’re gonna have to change the way that we set up this re-coupling,” and that’s why on the very first episode they were standing in the pool, which I thought looked pretty good anyway. It got better over time and we set up like different things like shady areas and all that stuff. In the end, they climatized pretty well so it worked out. And that giant pool for 1,000 people doesn’t hurt.
How did you have the islanders quarantine before coming in?
We consulted with our chief medical officer here at ITV and with our COVID consultants that we have to help us supervise. They basically determined that along with testing, a two-week quarantine is the best way to deal with it. Anyone entering the bubble in Vegas, crew or cast, had to go through that, and then they couldn’t leave without reentering that quarantine period. So what we actually did is we brought out large batches of cast and quarantined them before we even started shooting. I think it was 25 to 30 people were put into isolation in the hotels in Vegas. Our casting process was halfway through when this all happened, so a large number of the cast we hadn’t met in person — we video called them a lot and had spoken to them a lot but we hadn’t met them. So we brought them all to Vegas, and we sat them down and isolated them and then went, “OK, this is the starting lineup and these will be the bombshells.” So everyone had been out there for at least two weeks before they went in and I think it only added to their fervor when they went into the villa because they were so excited to hang out and have a fun time.
Did you have backup contestants in case someone tested positive or broke quarantine?
Yes, absolutely. For the entire duration that we were there we had multiple islanders — this isn’t that different from what we do normally on the show. Like last year in Fiji, we had a group of people and then some backups in case whatever happens, and then we would ultimately consult with those people. When I say backups, I mean people that we’re planning to use on the show. We would chat with him and say, “Watching the show, who do you like, who you not like,” and that would help us come up with who to bring in as the new islanders. Last year, we would have some people in Fiji and then some people would have been on a flight, whereas we actually just had them in Vegas this year, which allowed us to be more free with that sort of stuff. Not hugely different, if anything it was a little bit easier.
How did you plan COVID-safe dates outside the villa?
We want to simulate a real world experience. Everything that we did with our crew was bubbled. When Kierstan and Carrington went to the horse ranch, they went in cars driven by people in the bubble; they arrived and they were filmed and only encountered people in the bubble. Any sort of prep work that happened on that date location was done by people outside the bubble and then they left so that we could come in. I think the most extreme case was in the last episode, the grand dates, where we had some special guests, or a helicopter pilot — the helicopter pilot was on a testing regime, for example. We wrote out specific protocols for those specific dates and vetted them through our COVID team and made sure that we weren’t really ever breaking that bubble, because it has to be safe.
At the same time, we want the audience to have an experience that feels like normal Love Island, and I think we threaded the needle quite well, I don’t feel like we ever compromised the safety in that process. Anything that you saw that was like a horse ranch or a helicopter flight was a themed location and you know what Vegas is like, it’s a rabbit warren of tunnels and back doors and things that take you get from one place to the other. That’s why Vegas was such a wonderful place for us, we were able to move safely in our bubble to multiple locations that gave us an incredible array of backdrops and romantic places to go. When we first started planning, it was 100 percent shut down and they started to open up while we were in pre-production. But Vegas is designed for tens of thousands of people, so it was no effort for us to sort of move around in a way that we could still have our pick of the litter.
The contestants had been living in the COVID world for months, and then they come into the villa where they’re allowed to go mask-less and live normally. Was that a weird adjustment for some people?
It’s interesting, when they came in they were all bereft of dating opportunities and even larger social opportunities. They threw themselves into the experience with gusto in a way we’ve probably never seen because they were just so relieved to know that they were safe. And you could hear them talk about it, I think some of it even made it into the show where they’d just be like, “I can’t believe that we’re living this life, that we’re in this bubble and that we’re safe.” I just heard this morning that some of the islanders who left the villa yesterday have decided to hire an Airbnb for an extended stay in Vegas together for just a little bit longer. And I think that’s a testament to that feeling of being in the bubble and having a good time and knowing that out in the real world it’s not exactly Love Island right now. And if they can extract a little bit more joy from their summer, more power to them.
Were there challenges you hadn’t accounted for as you went through the season?
100 percent, it would be hubris to think that you’d figured it out on day one. Making a show like Love Island, which is a less than 24-hour turnaround, every single day for 40 days, is an incredible thing that I could have spoken to you about on any Love Island any other time, just about all the kinds of problems and craziness that occurs on a day to day basis. And then you throw in a situation like this, and it’s an x-factor, so we were just hyper vigilant. We took everything seriously, treated everything the strictest that we could, because we didn’t want to make anything that wasn’t safe, for our crew as much as our cast. It was definitely a learning experience every day and I feel like we’ve all been learning over the last few months. I think that it just is what it is, where we’re all learning and modifying our behaviors as we understand things better day by day.
The family visits are always a key part of the season, and you did them virtually this year. Did you ever consider actually bringing families into the villa?
Once we started down this path of building the bubble, we knew that we wouldn’t be bringing them in. There wasn’t any plan that thought, “Oh, once things get different in a couple months, we’ll be able to bring people in.” The bubble was going to stay the bubble for the duration of the show, no matter what. I think that what happened with the families was “OK, how do we keep this?” And if anything, I’d actually say that it’s sort of made it — better is a strong word, but it resonated more with people. I spoke to people after the episode and they related to that sequence more because we are all encountering our families over video chat right now, this is how we’re living our lives. And there is a cadence to those conversations, there’s a flow that feels like all of us. I think we’re all living at arm’s length from each other and it felt more meaningful to me.
Justine and Caleb became the clear fan favorites in the last few weeks, did you see that coming?
When they actually got together, it was almost immediate feeling that sort of rumble behind them. And, I mean how could you not, they were just a wonderful couple, there’s such a genuine nature to both of them that you just wanted to see them succeed. Justine obviously had a fan base from day one and I think she really went on that dreaded reality show TV word, “journey.” She had the true Love Island experience, which is it doesn’t necessarily work out on day one and that’s okay; we’re going to root for them and we’re going to hope that it does and when it does, it’s even better. I’m so happy for them and I’m happy for all the couples, I was just thrilled watching the show last night and seeing them together. That’s the way that we approach Love Island — we’re not there to manipulate and construct things to create division and drama. Ultimately, you’re going to get drama along the way, it’s young people dating, that’s fine. But you want to see happiness and I think we all want that.
What was the significance of having the first Black couple ever to win during this moment in the U.S.?
There’s no reason why our cast shouldn’t look like America, there’s just no reason in this day and age. We cast as diversely as we possibly can because we want to see different people on screen. We want to see people on screen of all backgrounds. It’s a wonderful bit of serendipity that it’s happening right now and I think that it’s important. I think you see for at-home viewers, it’s resonating with them and that’s huge, that’s fantastic, that’s all you can ever hope for.
These people have been living in a non-COVID world for last six weeks, how do you think it’ll be for them to come back to real life?
What’s interesting is we’ve seen some of this already with the new islanders and the people who came in later, they’ve gone back home and you see them on Instagram in their masks on flights to go hole up in different parts of the country together. You see Mackenzie [Dipman] and Connor [Trott] together, for example, and I think it’s going to be a hot second to adjust back to normal life. It always is — you come back from the best summer of your life back to normal life, and I think probably even more so this year. It’s going to take a minute but if they can extend their moment of fun and happiness for just one minute longer, good on them because we all deserve a little bit of happiness wherever we can find it right now.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.