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Interview: ‘Abbott Elementary’ Editor Sarah Zeitlin on Crafting “Mom”

An absolute favorite in the Emmys Outstanding Comedy Series race is the highly-praised, award-winning workplace mockumentary, Abbott Elementary, a charming and hilarious exposition of real life at inner-city schools.

Over the course of the show’s first two seasons, the audience has watched lead character and second-grade teacher Janine (played by the immensely talented series showrunner and creator, Quinta Brunson) allude to her distant, absentee mother. In the penultimate episode of Season 2, entitled “Mom,” audiences finally get to meet Vanetta Teagues (played by the phenomenal Taraji P. Henson) at Abbott Elementary, when she shows up at the school for an impromptu visit.

The episode spotlights the complicated relationship between mother and daughter, putting together pieces of the puzzle of Janine’s quirky personality and upbringing. Awards Radar had the chance to chat with Abbott Elementary editor, Sarah Zeitlin about her role in cutting such an important episode of the show.

What notes did you receive from Ava Coleman (screenwriter) and Ken Whittingham (director) for this episode?

Sarah Zeitlin: I was unbelievably excited to work with both Ava and Ken! I’d edited another episode Ava wrote, “Fire,” which is one of my favorite episodes of the series and directed by the great Jen Celotta, who was a writer, director, and producer on “The Office.” In both “Mom” and “Fire,” the episode stays true to the scripts so the only discussion we had was really about what to cut for time. And, Ken Whittingham is a hero of mine because he directed episodes of “The Office,” and I’ve followed his work for years. Years ago, a different time, I assistant edited for two of the main editors (and directors) of “The Office:” David Rogers, ACE and Dean Holland. It’s not an accident that I’ve ended up working in those circles. I was obsessed and had “The Office” on repeat in my home for YEARS. I was a fan of Randall Einhorn from those days too. The thing about Ken was, he was the most fun person to collaborate with. We laughed a lot, and he told me stories and shared insights from set.

A particular moment that we played with was the scene in the cafeteria where Jacob tries to procure almonds for Gregory. Jacob and the lunch woman, Shanae, clearly have this playful shorthand with nicknames, dance, and song diddies. Gregory tries to convince Shanae to share the almonds by imitating the way Jacob says Shanae’s name. The scene ends with his awkward face holding on him saying, “Shanaeeeeeeeee.” I laugh out loud every time.

How did you approach this episode differently than the other Abbott episodes you’ve done? Is there something that remains consistent throughout all?

SZ: This was the penultimate episode of Season 2, and my last episode of the season, so it was a culmination of everything we’d seen these characters go through. Previously, the show hinted at Janine’s family dynamics, and we got to meet her sister, but in this episode, we finally meet her mom. We learn how and who formed Janine’s kind, optimistic, care-taking, sometimes naïve, and sometimes needy personality. If this was a great mystery series, this would be the episode with the reveal! And, Janine receives the mentorship, love, and warmth from Barbara that she’s craved for so long.

What subtleties of the characters were you able to bring out in the edit of “Mom”?

SZ: The details and nuance were the most fun in this episode. I had the chance to edit three phenomenal actresses: Quinta Brunson, Sheryl Lee Ralph, and Taraji P. Henson. Each actress vocalized their surface dialogue, but there was nuance in their facial expressions betraying that, surfacing their true emotions.

I utilized Vanetta, Janine’s mom, shooting a look to camera in two different scenes. The first is in the hallway after Vanetta reveals to Janine that she has a new job, but that her cell phone is about to be cut off. The blow of the scene is Vanetta looking at the camera and raising one eyebrow. As the audience, we’re wondering if Vanetta’s intentions are sincere, and in that moment, with that eyebrow, we see she knows exactly what she’s doing. Taraji as Vanetta does this again in the classroom confrontation at the end of the episode. Janine calls out Vanetta on her manipulation, and while Vanetta doesn’t admit her deceit and defeat, she shares a quick knowing look with the camera. Vanetta knows she’s caught, but is willing to take what she can get. A moment later she softly tells Janine, “thank you, baby,” and says she loves her. It’s a complicated real relationship.

What was the biggest challenge of working on this episode of Abbott?

SZ: “Mom” needed to show Vanetta as a flawed woman who loves her daughter. We never wanted Vanetta to be a villain. There’s an intimacy and a chemistry between Janine and her mother. Vanetta knows Janine has always wanted to stay in Ocean City, Maryland, perhaps because that’s where Vanetta always stayed. In an aside bit, Quinta walks down the hallway and brags to her mother about the time she fixed the school lightbulb in season one. Vanetta immediately knows that Janine is afraid of heights and had to get up on a ladder TWICE. Janine is proud of herself and Vanetta is excited for her. Later, when Ava insults Janine in front of Ava, Janine’s facial expression shows that she knows her mother is going to have her back (and Vanetta could beat Ava’s a** if she wanted to.) It was so much fun riding that line. Their relationship is far from perfect but it is one where they share this great affection and intimacy.

Can you talk about the relationship between Barbara and Janine, and how that cut compares to Vanetta and Janine?

SZ: Yes! Ever since the pilot, Janine has craved this mentorship from Barbara. While there’s been warming up there, we’ve never seen them like this. During the Earth Day activities in the cafeteria, Janine runs over to Barbara and says, “hi work mom!” Barbara smiled, stood up a little straighter, and fixed her hair behind her left ear. My assistant editor and I, Tana Plaengrawat, would always crack up when she did that. It’s such a small detail but it’s showing an acceptance and joy in this being Janine’s work mom.

Vanetta is selfish, so Janine likely had more of a caretaker role in that relationship. It becomes apparent why Janine may have been looking for guidance. With Barbara, Janine has a role model in someone with the same values and teaching philosophies, who takes the time to do fun no strings attached activities with her like shopping at “The Ross.”

In this episode, Janine overhears Barbara offer to give Vanetta the money that Vanetta had asked Janine for. Janine is being looked after. With this kind of guidance, Janine is growing. She’s taking her first solo girl trip and she’s able to stand up to her mother.

What was your favorite scene to cut?

SZ: Normally the answer to this would be anything with Quinta Brunson. She provides options and they’re all outstanding. She’s an embarrassment of riches. For “Mom,” the scene that had me leaning forward and sitting straighter in my chair was the kitchen confrontation between Vanetta and Barbara. Vanetta is putting things in her purse and paying no mind to Barbara while Barbara is carefully watching Vanetta. Vanetta is ignoring Barbara, insulting Janine’s sister, and each actress is modulating their rising acrimony, until finally they just say what they mean. Vanetta says to Barbara, “I haven’t seen you at any of the family BBQs.” Goodness gracious! She wants Barbara to stay out of her business. Barbara doesn’t get pushed aside so easily, and we see the body language in a wide-shot of these two women standing off. Chills! Barbara makes the ultimate offer, of saying she’ll pay the money so Janine can take her vacation, and Janine interrupts. After the commercial break, Venetta tells Janine that Barbara tried to “square up.” In disbelief, Janine responds, “Barbara Howard squared off?” Janine knows Vanetta is lying and she’s calling her on it. Barbara and Janine have each other’s backs.

I’ve heard Quinta say in interviews that the Barbara character is loosely based on Quinta’s retired schoolteacher mother. I think that’s the reason why the character of Barbara resonates with people so deeply. This is a real woman. Someone who has experience, knows this world, and just like Janine, she leads with kindness.


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Written by Betty Ginette

Oscar Sunday is my personal Super Bowl.

I cover behind the camera artisans, and love to hear about filmmaking magic behind the scenes.

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