Writer-director Kitty Green on The Assistant: It made a lot of people uncomfortable
Starring Ozark's Julia Garner, The Assistant is an exploration of abuse and exploitation in the workplace, told via the story of a junior assistant to a powerful entertainment mogul. Writer-director Kitty Green talks to Georgia Humphreys about why it is an important film to make
AFTER winning an award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, director Kitty Green had a few interactions with the press that she found "slightly sexist or misogynist".
"My confidence was feeling a little shaky and I was a bit unsure if I wanted to continue in the film industry," recalls the 35-year-old Australian film-maker.
"It wasn't anything terrible, but it was just some things that made me feel a little rattled."
So, she asked some female film-maker friends about their experiences, and together they discussed some of the sexist behaviour that goes ignored.
Notably, this was before the #MeToo movement – against sexual harassment and sexual assault of women – rose to prominence in 2017, following allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, which were first published in The New York Times.
Originally, Green's idea was to do a film about consent on college campuses, "because, at the time, that's what people were having conversations about; power and social dynamics and things like that".
But when the Weinstein story broke, her focus shifted.
"I had a lot of friends who worked in the film industry for men like him," she says. "And so I started interviewing my friends about their work environments and whether these work environments were supportive of women, how many women were in the offices, how were they treated, how were they promoted, how gendered were these environments."
And that's how her new drama film, The Assistant, which she wrote and directed, came about. It centres on Jane (Julia Garner), a recent college graduate and aspiring film producer, who has landed her dream job as a junior assistant to a powerful entertainment mogul.
As we follow a day in her life at work, we see how abuse impacts her workday – and how she decided to take a stand against the degradations.
An interesting angle of the film is how it looks at the people in the orbit around the never-seen producer, and how they don't do anything about the behaviour they see.
Green explains this is because a lot of the media coverage surrounding the #MeToo movement was about the "bad men and their bad behaviour", and the idea that getting rid of them would fix the problem (in March, Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison for rape and sexual assault).
"The problem was bigger than that for me," she continues, pointedly. "We know what happens behind that closed door in offices – we've had a lot of stories in the press about that – but what's on the other side of that door; what kind of machinery is supporting a predator like this, and what kind of environments are those workplaces?"
She also reasons why she decided to set the film across a single day.
"I was in London at the time, and I said to a friend, 'I'm making a film about an assistant to a predator, and he said, 'Oh, the enablers', in this way that implied that she was guilty or somehow evil.
"I had spoken to a lot of young women who have no power in the positions they're in, and were victims of a system themselves that was gendered and abusive, and so the complicity of that is what I wanted to explore, which meant that I kind of wanted to show her day as it would play out – one authentic day in the shoes of a female with no power, in an organisation like this."
She adds passionately: "It was important to me that every task had equal weight, whether she was making the coffee or she was picking something strange off her boss's couch; those two things for her were part of her routine, so the mundanity of all of that was really important to me."
Was she reluctant at all to make a film that's so on-the-nose?
"Yeah, trying to get it financed was really difficult because it made a lot of people uncomfortable," she reveals.
"Some people think it's not a problem anymore; 'It's a period piece, it's over now, we've fixed the problem'. But some of these behaviours are still going on at these film production companies, a lot of them have terrible HR departments that aren't protecting their employees, and I think a lot of them know that.
"So I think some people are uncomfortable, but to be honest that's part of the point of making it, so we can shine a light on that kind of behaviour which I think needs to change.
"Making people a little uncomfortable is hopefully a good thing in the long run."
The film is full of observational details. They're what Green calls "micro-aggressions; these tiny moments, gestures and looks and glances, the way somebody leans into her personal space. All of that I wanted to highlight.
"That, to me, was important, because all those little moments often go ignored, and I think they can affect somebody's – especially a young woman's – self-confidence."
Green – who previously made documentary Ukraine Is Not A Brothel, about the country's feminist sensation Femen – originally studied fiction film-making.
But, she notes candidly, she found work in documentaries because "that's where you can get employed as a woman, rather than making fiction films, coming out of film school".
And she agrees that there's an "observational quality to The Assistant which probably comes from my background in documentary".
Discussing how things are changing in the film industry – and the idea her new film could be seen as a "period piece" – she suggests we now have the language and spaces to discuss misconduct, which we didn't have before.
"The social media aspect of it didn't exist back then. You didn't know who you could trust when you had a concern about something going on in a workplace, so in that sense, it's reflective of that period," she says.
"And maybe if The Assistant was set today, Jane would have somewhere to go, or an avenue for her concerns.
"But there is a lot that has remained the same and that's what we are trying to highlight; we can't just get rid of Harvey Weinstein and a few of these people. We have to address this more cultural problem."
:: The Assistant is available to download now.