Filming season 11 of Vanderpump Rules was a challenge. In fact, it was the hardest season yet.

“The level of interest was just more fervent than it had ever been,” says executive producer and showrunner Alex Baskin. “There were chants for our cast while we were shooting and that makes it very hard to film the interactions between them.”

Viewers of the Bravo reality series got a taste of that behind-the-scenes chaos when tuning into Tuesday’s premiere. When the ensemble of friends gathers to support DJ James Kennedy for a night out at Tom Tom, the West Hollywood restaurant bearing the names of Tom Schwartz and his partner-who-shall-not-be-named (Tom Sandoval) served as “ground zero” for Vanderpump Rules fandom.

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Ariana Madix — whom Schwartz describes in his confessional as having “exalted status” as queen woman scorned — dances amid a backdrop of blurred, adoring faces in the crowd. “For anyone who thought things might just settle after the scandal last year, that clearly hasn’t happened,” says Baskin, “and she’s riding really high, and that’s just the reality of it.”

Season 11 starts with Madix on top, and her ex of nine years Sandoval — whose secret affair with departed castmember Rachel Leviss sparked the “Scandoval” era — arriving home in the final moments of the episode with his tail between his legs. He and Madix still live under one roof, but they only communicate via a mediator. He’s unwelcome in his home and among the group, which is also made up of Katie Maloney, Lala Kent and Scheana Shay.

Below, Baskin takes The Hollywood Reporter through all of those filming challenges. But first, he goes back to tell how the cast negotiated their returns following a megahit season for the Bravo franchise, explains why you won’t see Leviss at all and shares how pre-season powwows resulted in an 11th run that he says won’t disappoint — even with all the hype.

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You have said there were discussions about firing up the cameras right after the reunion in March, but that you pushed to take a break and not start filming again until later that summer. When season 11 opens, emotions are high but it does feel like the cast is in a different place. Do you feel that was the right choice?

I don’t have any question that it was the right choice. Before the reunion, we were debating internally if we should just keep shooting the next season out of the reunion, but we decided to take a minute, give it a breath. We thought we would see what happened at the reunion and make the determination. And I remember we looked at each other and were like, “There’s no question. We need to take a second before we keep going.” And I think that we were in a very different place in just a few months. Not that everything was resolved or everything had healed, but at least there was an openness to moving forward after things were so white hot.

At this point, the cast’s star-power is bigger than ever. What were contract and salary negotiations like, how different was it this time around after Vanderpump was such a success for Bravo?

The cast has always been really into doing the show, so I think they all went to it with the intention of continuing. But they were aware, certainly, of how well the show was doing. So it wasn’t the usual situation where you just keep going. They understand the other side of the business, too. The cast recognizes that the increase in their profiles and visibility has been really good for business on the whole, so they’re all sophisticated and savvy enough to get that. But obviously they were in a very different position heading into season 11 then they had been heading into season 10. So there were conversations that needed to be had to get them to a place where they were ready to keep going, and at the same time, where the show still made economic sense for the network to keep going.

Are they a united front in those negotiations, or are you going one-by-one?

It’s a little bit of both. They don’t negotiate as a whole. Some of them have the same reps, and there’s an awareness of what everyone else has gotten. We operate under a rate card based on tenure, but then for certain people at the front of the line, that’s a different situation. All the reps talk. Fortunately we’re dealing with very reasonable people who are of course advocating for their clients, but who also want the business to continue. So the conversations are civil and, like any negotiation, they end up getting less than they might want, and the network pays more than they might want. So, we unhappily walk together toward making the next season!

When you started filming, Rachel Leviss (formerly Raquel) was a question-mark. She ultimately said her reasons for leaving the show were mental health-related, being on the outskirts of the group, that she also didn’t get equal pay to Tom Sandoval and Ariana Madix. What were your conversations like and why do you think you couldn’t reach an agreement?

Our first concern was her mental health. We wanted to make sure that if she was going to come back that it was the right thing for her. It seemed like, on her side, there were other concerns. I know that money was at the top end of that, and she felt like she should be rewarded for the previous season. So we had a series of conversations with her, and it seemed like there was a lot of waffling and wavering and things depended on the day. And then she went off and told her story just in a different forum [with her Rachel Goes Rogue podcast]. I think probably based on the counsel of people around her, she just couldn’t wrap her mind around doing the show and so she just went elsewhere.

We were fairly deep into the season at that point anyway, and so at a certain point it would have made less sense; it would have just been [her] popping in. I think it’s too bad. We thought that we were the appropriate vehicle for her to tell her story. We think it would have been the place that had the greatest impact. But at the same time, if she really didn’t want to be around the group, then it makes sense that she wouldn’t come back. It’s a personal decision that obviously only she can make. I hope she made the right one for her.

When did you wrap filming?

I would have to check the exact date, but I want to say in September.

So you can confirm she doesn’t make an appearance at all?

I can confirm she does not make an appearance on the show this season.

Would you leave the door open for the reunion or another season?

I don’t think that’s in the cards, no.

Scheana Shay, Ariana Madix and Lala Kent in Vanderpump Rules season 11. NBCUniversal

You had anticipated that the biggest challenge this season would be Ariana and Tom Sandoval living under one roof and not wanting to film together. How did you figure out how to film with them when the season started off?

The biggest challenge is that it’s a show about a group of people who share their lives together. And then you have two people who are at the center of it, who occupy the same space at the same time and who don’t really want to talk to each other. We can’t force anyone to do anything that they don’t want to do. Where the situation is really unique, and I think where the audience will be interested in seeing it play out, is that they happen to live together. So, to your point, they are communicating through a third a party in their shared space at home. And then in the group, they acknowledge each other’s existence in as much as they are mammals who are breathing the same air, but that’s about it. And when you get them all together, how does that not monopolize everything? It’s a challenge for the rest of the group.

We didn’t know what that would mean in the beginning of the season and we didn’t know what that would mean going through the season, and it plays out in really fascinating ways. [Note: Last month, Madix sued Sandoval to force the sale of their San Fernando Valley home.] The hallmark of the show has always been that it’s completely real. That’s where they were in their relationship at the time, and that’s what we documented.

Tom Sandoval doesn’t arrive until the end of the premiere, since he was filming the Fox show Special Forces. Rachel on her podcast has called Tom “self-produced.” As producers, did you notice that when he returned, were there walls up?

I think just the opposite. If he were self-produced, then I think he would have given the obvious, expected expressions of remorse and whatever else to move on. To his credit, like it or not, he says what he thinks. And it’s the reason there’s some turbulence to getting to the other side of this. So I don’t think that’s true at all, actually.

In the premiere, Ariana says Tom and Rachel are still together, because she has seen these lightning bolt postcards and other packages. We know they are not together now. At what point do you start to understand why they fizzled?

Once he hadn’t heard from her for a certain period of time and expressed that, then I think his concern was that maybe other people in her life were advising her to not have communication with him, and he then realized that might be the end of it. We cover that on the show, and part of what you see is this whole crazy set of circumstances. He felt like he sacrificed everything for the sake of what they had between them, and then all of a sudden, it’s for nothing. That’s gone. He was really hurt by that.

They had this hidden relationship that they kept from producers and cast. Recently, your Bravo sibling series The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City also had a castmember keep a big secret that catapulted that show into the stratosphere. After these kind of shock-moments, do you produce any differently? And did anything unravel while filming this season that was an aha-moment for you?

In some ways, it’s helpful not to know. Because then you don’t have the burden of keeping the secret from other people. And also, it plays out in the most unexpected ways. Any chestnut from when you’re a kid about what happens when you lie or keep a secret, and it just snowballs into something much bigger — that’s sort of the lesson in it. What we don’t know, ultimately we, along with the rest of the cast, will find out. And it usually splatters across everything.

Tom Schwartz and Tom Sandoval in season 11. Casey Durkin/Bravo

Going into this season, what was the biggest issue that you hoped to resolve?

We really wanted not to talk about Scandoval all season. My concern was that the entire season could be a relitigation of it. And we could get lost in the weeds of, who knew what and when and all of that. Which, on the one hand, is interesting. But it’s also not forward progress. At the same time, we meet everyone where we are. And if they weren’t really over it, we can’t tell them just to get over it. But we did want to push ahead, and we did get there. That’s why I think it was a strong season. It was hard, but I think we end the season in a very different place than where we started it. Not everyone! But the group did.

The cast breaks the fourth wall in the premiere, fans are everywhere that you film. What were some of the filming obstacles with this mega-spotlight on you, and how did you keep a lid on what happens?

Any time we were out in public, we had to expect that someone would post to social. And then there was the guessing of what was happening between the cast and that spilling out, and the reports about the show. The level of interest was just more fervent than it had ever been. So it became more of a challenge to tune out that noise, let alone shoot every day without being bombarded. You see that in the first episode where, no surprise, when we’re shooting at Tom Tom, it’s ground zero for that; there were just chants for our cast while we were shooting and that makes it very hard to film the interactions between them.

Tom Schwartz mentions Ariana’s “exalted status” and the premiere ends with her dancing to an adoring crowd. Do you worry about Ariana getting too big for the show? She’s very busy now! [Following Dancing With the Stars, she just made her Broadway debut as Roxie Hart in Chicago, for a limited run through March.]

I think she stayed remarkably grounded. Even recently, where she flew out for the Emmys [Vanderpump Rules was first-time nominated] and she flew out for the premiere party and then back, because that really is still her friend group, and so I think they all keep each other grounded and keep them accountable. But for anyone who thought things might just settle after the scandal last year, that clearly hasn’t happened and she’s riding really high, and that’s just the reality of it.

How do you handle the pressure of so many more viewers watching this season?

As a production and network, we very much feel that pressure. Our job is not to let that impact what we do and stick to the principles that we’ve always applied in making the show in the first place, which is telling the real, authentic story and still documenting the cast’s experiences and not playing to what we think the audience wants. Because what the audience wants may change and the truth is, what they really want to see is real life playing out. But do we feel the pressure? Absolutely. Because the last thing we would want is to put out a season that doesn’t pick up where we left off. And the expectations are really high.

We had a number of conversations about that as a group. Before we started the season we had a meeting at [Bravo parent company] NBCU and we were just like, “OK, we’ve gotten a lot of attention, there’s been a lot of adulation, and guess what? We have to do it again.” We stayed really focused, but it was hard. If I can say, it was the hardest season that we have had to make, because we had challenges all over the place. To your point, we had extra attention and scrutiny, we had a cast that was still picking up the pieces. And so we really had to work as hard as we’ve ever had to work for what I think is a great season and a worthy successor to last season.

The trailer bombshell about Tom Schwartz and Scheana Shay allegedly kissing in Vegas already has the fans in a stir. Scheana said it’s not exactly what Tom says and will play out. What can you say about it?

Just the idea that look, no one’s hands are completely clean. And that there is always another revelation in this group. And that they’re continually learning about each other and what some of them might have done. And I would say that just when relationships start to settle, which in that case is Katie and Scheana, who have been at odds, then that’s revealed. That’s the thing that keeps us on our toes making the show and I think it will keep the audience on their toes watching it.

Lala Kent starts to send an olive branch of sorts to Rachel in the premiere. At what point does the cast start to let Sandoval back into the fold?

It takes a bit of time. There’s a trip they take and that’s when you start to see some movement; that’s when they are foced to talk to each other. There are steps taken there and that gives you a sense of hope. And then that isn’t as straight-forward as it might look, either. If anything, it would be easier if things just played out in some natural, easy, obvious order. But they just don’t. It’s fits and starts, in a really interesting way. But that trip gives a hopeful note before even some of the progress gets complicated with other factors.

Now that you’ve wrapped, how confident are you that you have another season in you? Can you see this going on for another year… or 10 years?

(Laughs) My God, 10 scares me! I thought heading into this season that it might be the last. We’re kind of starting to think about [the future of the show] at this point, but we were really just focused on doing our job and putting out the season. I think there is more life left in this show, I really do. And I think everyone around it thinks the same thing at this point. I think there’s more story to tell. There have been a bunch of developments since we stopped shooting the season. I definitely think there’s more ground for us to travel.

In between seasons there was talk of reality TV unionizing amid the writers and actors strikes. Do you feel there is a dialogue happening or changing around unscripted working conditions and terms of employment?

Independent of any of those formal, official conversations, we always try to make sure that our productions are treated well. So I think that the conditions are really good and fair, but to the extent that there’s anything we could ever do better, we always want to know about that and make sure to make any accommodations that we can. We’ve always had by and large really happy crews that have then done great work.

NDAs are a big topic. You have Rachel on her podcast talking a lot about her show experience, very quickly after her departure. Is that something the cast can do, and are you getting wind of anything she’s said that you wanted to respond to?

No. I think NDAs exist for various reasons. One of them is that there is confidential information that just by virtue of being a part of a show that castmembers or crewmembers are privy to. I don’t really care to get into the specifics of what she’s said. I haven’t honestly listened. I’ve just seen reports of it. Some of it seems pretty contradictory to me, some of it I would certainly have a different viewpoint on. But I think, look, let her speak her piece. Isn’t that the name of her show?

Rachel Goes Rogue.

Yeah, so she’s going rogue.

Lala and Scheana open up about their own anxiety issues on the premiere, separate from cast drama and personal to them. Have you provided more behind-the-scenes support this season?

The relationship between production and cast is pretty close. We’re certainly well-aware of a lot that is going on in their lives. When you are aware of castmembers who have a bunch of stresses, you apply whatever support that you can, and that can be through additional resources and also through just being there for them. We really don’t want to push them past certain points of comfort. We want to capture that life experience but at the same time, it’s definitely not our intention to create additional stress beyond that what exists from being a part of something where you’re showing your own life and interacting with people in ways that can sometimes be tough. But we’re constantly checking in on them and talking to them. At least one person talks to them every day, even in the offseason. We’re there for them.

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Vanderpump Rules releases new episodes Tuesday at 8 p.m. on Bravo, streaming on Peacock the following day.

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