Randall Einhorn interview: ‘Abbott Elementary’ director
Randall Einhorn is no stranger to the world of mockumentaries. The cinematographer-turned-director spent seven years on the format’s standard-bearer, “The Office,” and now he’s lending his expertise as a director and executive producer on the acclaimed ABC sitcom “Abbott Elementary.” Focusing on a group of teachers at an underfunded elementary school, the show makes great use of the mockumentary style, from talking heads to expertly-placed looks to the camera. “It certainly lends itself to a documentary format,” says Einhorn in an exclusive new video interview for Gold Derby. “I would make a documentary about this, I just happen to be making a mockumentary about this.”
What gave Einhorn the confidence to invest in “Abbott Elementary” was the strength of the writing, led by showrunner and star, Quinta Brunson. Each of the characters, from Janine’s unbridled optimism to Barbara’s tough-but-fair pragmatism, is well-defined as early as the pilot episode, with very few adjustments needing to be made in subsequent episodes. “It’s very reassuring, very comforting when you read a script and you don’t need the title of the character to know who’s talking,” the director praises. He adds that each of the main actors, including Brunson, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Janelle James, had a strong sense of their characters from the start. Thus, “Half the work’s already done.”
Einhorn incorporated some of the techniques he learned on “The Office” into “Abbott Elementary,” though as he argues, they now have the benefit of audience familiarity with the format. “I think shows like ‘The Office’ and ‘Parks and Recreation’ have certainly laid a lot of groundwork for viewers’ understanding what they’re watching,” he observes. As he did on “The Office,” the director likes to use his persuasive skills in the talking head interviews, which has a meta element that allows both the actor and the character to open up more. He also employs the trick of “backing up, getting away,” which is when the mockumentary crew spies on a character, allowing their true feelings to come through when they don’t think they’re on camera.
“Abbott Elementary” has found a loyal audience and near-universal acclaim from critics, which Einhorn credits to the authenticity of the storytelling. “Everything feels truthful and earnest and doesn’t feel like a joke,” he notes. “That, I think, is what’s going to help the show last the distance.” He knew there was something special about the show from very early on, forming real bonds with the cast and crew over the course of the first season. “We’ve only shot 13 episodes and it feels like we’ve been going for ages.”