On day one, we all felt it. We all felt something really special here,” says Abbott Elementary executive producer and director Randall Einhorn of the ABC sitcom. In its first year, the freshman series won two Emmys for creator-showrunner Quinta Brunson and supporting actress Sheryl Lee Ralph (respectively, they were the second Black women to win in their categories: best writing for a comedy and best supporting actress in a comedy). The second season has earned the show five more Emmy noms, for best comedy series, actress (Brunson), supporting actress (Janelle James and Ralph) and guest actress (Taraji P. Henson).
Einhorn has been there from the beginning, after Brunson sought him out for his groundbreaking mockumentary style of cinematography seen on The Office, one of her favorite shows.
He says he learned one important thing from Greg Daniels, the Office creator who transferred the British hit across the pond: “Greg said to me, ‘I can’t be bothered with what other people are going to think is funny. I can only think what I’m thinking is funny,’ ” says Einhorn, who also has built a solid career directing such other fan favorites as Parks & Recreation, Fargo and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. “It’s hard to predict what other people are going to like. You just need to be true to yourself. If it feels right, and you have a good judgment, then other people are going to like it.”
Einhorn, who has directed 16 episodes of Abbott, spoke with THR about the important work of world-building in the pilot, the incredible talent of James and the absolute joy of breaking rules on television.
When Quinta Brunson reached out about directing the pilot, how flattered were you that she wanted you based on your work on The Office and Parks & Rec?
Quinta was familiar with my body of work. In terms of mockumentaries, I suppose I’ve done quite a bit. Was I flattered? Absolutely. You’re always flattered to get every offer. But once I met Quinta … I thought, “Oh, golly, gosh, this is going to be fun.” She just pops. You can really see what’s going on behind her eyes. She’s just a pleasure to shoot.
What’s in the creative water at Abbott? Because right out of the gate, the series has been recognized by the Television Academy with multiple Emmy nominations and wins.
I’ve done a lot of pilots. What’s interesting about a pilot is they’re world-building … These characters were all drawn with such specific voices. Right out of the gate, you knew who they were: Jacob’s lines could not be Barbara’s lines. Melissa Schemmenti’s lines could not be Tyler [James Williams’] lines. The characters are all very clearly drawn. Keep in mind, we [had] never met — we had only all Zoomed together. It was the very first day that we met each other on set. Auditions were great. We got exactly who we wanted to play our roles. But you never know what the chemistry is going to be until you put it on at speed. But from the very, very first day, when we put it on speed, all those characters knew who they were, what their points of view were, and how they were going to bounce off of one another. Doing pilots, you need to figure that out. But everybody coming with such well-informed, highly developed characters, half that work was done for me. This feels like we’ve been working together for ages. That’s what I think the chemistry is, that’s what’s in the water to make the show feel so lived in.
Talk to me about directing breakout star Janelle James, who plays principal Ava Coleman. She earned her first Emmy nomination as supporting actress alongside Sheryl Lee Ralph last year, and received a second this year.
When we started out, Janelle hadn’t really done a lot of acting, and she was up front about that. The way Janelle approached her acting was arms open. She said, “Just tell me everything I need to know, tell me exactly what you want. I trust you to help me look good.” That’s empowering when somebody says that to you. It’s nice to be trusted like that.
Janelle makes everything better. Janelle is super smart, really clever. She’s the real deal. Not every comedian-actor always knows exactly where the joke is, or where the intention of the joke is, but Janelle does. Sometimes she’ll find it where you didn’t expect it to be, and that’s really delicious.
You’ve said that one of the things that makes Abbott so special is that you all draw from the experience of having had a teacher. What are some the other connective threads that this team shares?
We’re all empathetic and appreciative of the opportunities that we’ve been given. I think about my career and about the opportunities that I’ve been given. A lot of that comes from teachers, a lot of that comes from mentors, a lot of that comes from people who are your bosses. All of us really appreciate those opportunities and the wisdom we’ve gleaned from others.
You’ve directed 16 episodes during the first two seasons. What have you seen as your growth as a director that lends itself to the show’s success?
What I felt early on, from writers Patrick [Schumacker], Justin [Halpern] and Quinta, and the rest of the cast, is trust. When I’m saying something, people believe me. On most shows, there’s always somebody behind you. But on Abbott, there’s somebody right next to me: my partners Patrick, Justin and Quinta. Directing a mockumentary is way harder than directing a sitcom or traditional TV show. We have so many rules that I brought with us that I think make our show better. I learned on The Office that everything that made it harder made it better and more authentic.
With The Office, you broke a lot of cinematography rules that are considered standard and brought this unconventional style to Abbott. Clearly it works, because both shows have been very successful. Are there any rules you continue to break?
We have a lot of rules that keep the show honest and keep the show structure honest. I probably break rules all the time, just from not knowing any better. I always say my greatest asset is not knowing any better, and my greatest motivator is my laziness and my desire to go home. We do things in unconventional ways. On a normal show, when you need to shoot a phone call, you shoot one side of the phone call, and then you shoot the other side of the phone call. On Abbott and on The Office, which I did the first time, I’m said, “No, we’re going to shoot both sides of it.” If we have one stage over here, and one stage over here, we have a video village in the middle that you can see both for one set over here and one set over here, but so that the actors know that they’re always on. That’s a really cool thing about Abbott, the actors are always on. We shoot three cameras at once, so they know what they’re giving: The other actor is the juice that they need for that actor to be great. Nobody is just off camera reading a line. They’re giving it 110 percent. I think it really excites the actor to know that this is it. They all feed off one another in the most beautiful way, which is kind of a cool thing about the way we shoot the mockumentary. It’s really fun.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.