Kitty Green: So Many Male Hollywood Execs Passed on My Weinstein-Inspired #MeToo Film
The Aussie director opens up about “The Assistant,” her eye-opening film tackling workplace abuse in the film industry.
Harvey Weinstein’s name isn’t uttered once in The Assistant, but his presence looms large over Kitty Green’s fictional feature debut. The story of a young woman, Jane (Ozark’s Julia Garner, in a phenomenally controlled performance), who toils at the production company of a tyrannical movie producer, it’s a portrait of sexist abuse that doubles as an exposé of the systemic forces at play in the entertainment industry, where women are not only subjected to censure, humiliation, ostracism, and worse by their male counterparts (and superiors), but also turned against one another. It’s a vision of the modern workplace as a self-perpetuating nightmare—and thus a damning depiction of the horrific conditions that begat #MeToo.
For the 35-year-old Australian-born Green, The Assistant marks a shift away from documentaries, although like her prior Casting JonBenet, the director’s latest (which she also wrote) is a portrait of innocent individuals at the center of corrupt institutions. Green brings her incisive non-fiction eye to Jane’s saga, using minimal melodramatic action and even less music to deliver a stripped-down, clear-eyed look at the various ways the film business marginalizes and preys upon women while simultaneously keeping them silent, docile, and willing to put up with anything—and everything—in order to get ahead.
Arriving amidst the Harvey Weinstein trial, it resounds as a cry for help and a call to arms, and ahead of its theatrical bow on Jan. 31 (following an enthusiastically received Sundance Film Festival premiere), we chatted with Green about the project’s origins, the research that went into its piercing details, the means by which toxic-masculine structures preserve themselves, and whether things in Hollywood are getting any better.
Did The Assistant come about because of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, or did its story predate that news?
Because I witnessed misconduct in the film industry, I was working on a project about it, but I wasn’t sure how to approach talking about those issues. I started by going to college campuses and talking to college students, because they have a lot of conversations about consent and power and institutional power, and I was interested in those themes. That was the initial research phase. I did this tour talking to students, and then I was at Stanford talking to this amazing theater troupe that deals with themes of sexual misconduct through theater. They were incredible, and while I was there, the first story hit about Harvey Weinstein. I started reading that, and then my phone started blowing up with all my friends telling me stories about their workplaces. A couple had worked at The Weinstein Company, and a couple had worked at other production companies in New York and L.A., and they had similar stories about predatory men at the helm. So I shifted my focus to them, and started talking to them about what they knew and what they’d seen.
But then, in watching all the #MeToo coverage in the media, I was a little disappointed that there was such a focus on the predators—this idea that if we get rid of the rotten apples, the Harvey Weinsteins, then we fix the problem. As a female filmmaker, the problem was so much bigger than that. I’d been on the film festival circuit for 10 years and not been taken seriously, and my self-confidence had been rattled by the way people had treated me and dismissed me at festivals. They’d immediately ask me, who gives you your ideas, is it James [Schamus] or Scott [Macaulay], my male producers? I’m thinking, you’d never ask a male filmmaker that. This idea that I’m not creatively in control of my own work was so unsettling. I was thinking, how can I make a project that tackles not just this misconduct, but these broader themes of a system that’s inherently structured against women? That became the challenge. By telling this story through the eyes of the youngest woman on the desk of a predatory film executive, it opened up this spectrum of issues to talk about. Everything from misconduct to toxic workplaces to gendered division of labor—I could throw them all into one basket.
What did you learn from that initial interview-driven research?
I think it was a similar problem that I had with the coverage of the college campus rape crisis. A lot of documentaries made on that subject were black and white, as opposed to both exploring the complexities and the gray areas (like alcohol) that make the boundaries kind of confusing, as well as the ways we can make consent a bit clearer for young men. To be honest, I was quite impressed with some of them, in terms of the rules they had about consent. At Stanford, they have this board with a consent agreement that people have to read to prove that they’re sober enough to go into a party. Anyone going into a frat party has to read this agreement, verbally, to the security guard, which I thought was incredible.
Things are improving, but I went to another college in the South that had no sex education, or anything, and it was pretty disturbing. So I found a bit of everything. I had similar concerns with the film industry. I felt we weren’t talking about what was going on—it was just, there are predators and there’s everyone else. And well, in a way, we’re all kind of complicit in a system that’s hurt and sidelined this many women for so long.
Since the film began screening, have more people come forward with horror stories?
I was never that interested in the most horrific or extraordinary stories. When you’re dealing with people with that much money and that much power, there are really crazy stories. But I was more interested in the ordinary, the relatable, the things that are transferable to any workplace. And I think we achieved that. We had a woman who was working for a yacht company tell us that she could see herself in Julia’s character. I’m very proud of the fact that it’s not just a film-industry film—it’s a film that all women in the workforce can relate to.
As a woman making this critical work about the industry, was it tough getting the film made?
It was difficult to get financed, that’s for sure. There were a lot of film companies that were uncomfortable even reading a script about that subject. We had a lot of female film executives who loved it, but their male colleagues did not, and said no. But we found a really great team, and we’re a pretty low-budget movie made independently, and then we got Bleecker Street—who are incredible—to distribute it. So we were very fortunate that we had the right people. It took a little while to figure out who those people were. It’s not all about assault. It’s about everyday conscious and unconscious bias, and gendered work environments. These are things that are still going on; they’re not things we got rid of two years ago.
Did you consciously steer clear of having your story reference, or echo, specific details of the Harvey Weinstein case?
I have no interest in talking about Harvey Weinstein [Laughs]. But everyone wants to talk to me about him! We definitely didn’t want to have a character named Schmarvey Schmeinstein. We were conscious of leaving his name out as a way of not creating a fictional character that everyone would assume was him. It was left out for a reason. I wasn’t interested in talking about him—I think the bad men have had enough screen time. I think it’s time we center women in this conversation and talk about how to make things better for women. That was my goal.
You keep the “bad man” literally off-screen; we only hear his voice during his calls with Jane. Can you discuss your decision to make him something of a specter?
I was uncomfortable with even having his voice in it. I thought we’d do it like Jaws: you never see the shark, because the threat of the shark is more terrifying than seeing the animatronic puppet shark, you know? [Laughs] I was a little scared about putting him in it at all. He’s not in the script, and the dialogue you hear is not in the script. But what happened was, we started shooting those phone calls, and I always assumed we’d shoot them wider and you wouldn’t hear what was coming out of the phone. But Julia Garner has the most incredible face, and when you see her on that phone, you need to be in tight. So we ended up shooting all those scenes in close-up, which meant it was weird that there was no audio coming out of the phone. As a result, in post-production, we hired Jay O. Sanders, and I scripted a bunch of stuff and he took it and improvised and we came up with those little pieces of dialogue. You needed to sense his power over that organization and everyone, so it felt like a good addition. I don’t regret adding it in.
I also liked that he wasn’t totally audible, which spoke to the story’s larger concern with silence.
I definitely wanted to explore the culture of silence. This idea that everyone was silent, and when they saw something that concerned them, they wouldn’t know who to go to with that information, and they would worry about telling people. That was definitely present throughout the movie. Jane often opens her mouth to say something to somebody and is ignored, or the other person walks away. There are all these opportunities to speak, but she’s prevented from speaking up. That’s probably why there is no music, and a very heavy New York soundscape of city and office sounds. I worked with Leslie Shatz, who’s an incredible sound designer who did all of Gus Van Sant’s work, like Elephant. We built this very rich, textured soundscape, because the first cut we saw, there was no dialogue, so it was basically silent [Laughs]. We had to start building, building, building, so we had something to listen to.
There’s also a sense that—as with a fraternity—everyone accepts such abuse as a rite of passage.
Yeah. That behavior is also a cycle. You see Jane almost treat the driver badly toward the end, and I feel like people do see it as a rite of passage: you have to get through this to survive. It’s cutthroat, and every man for himself, and competitive and dehumanizing, but that’s accepted, weirdly. I don’t think that’s the way it should be, which is why we made the movie.
How necessary was it to show that this toxic environment also turns victims into victimizers—meaning that, be it consciously or unconsciously, women are compelled to behave badly too, to survive and get ahead?
It’s really, really complicated, and people try to make sense of it by saying, who’s the victim and who’s the victimizer? It gets messy really quickly. But I wanted to make sure we weren’t sticking to the “men bad, women good” dynamic. I wanted to make sure there were women who were trying, tooth-and-nail, to keep their jobs, and having to work within a gendered system where they probably faced, for years, the same thing Jane is facing. A lot of that’s layered in. Jane doesn’t know who to trust and, to be honest, she doesn’t know what these other people understand about what’s going on. The whole film is told through her eyes; we only know what she knows, and she knows very little after five weeks of working there—especially when it comes to issues of consent. Nobody knows what’s going on in that office.
You come from a documentary background. Did you always want to move into the fictional realm?
I studied fictional filmmaking, and I fell into documentary filmmaking because nobody wants to hire a 21-year-old blonde woman to make fiction films. So you find work where you can, and I wound up doing a lot of behind-the-scenes documentaries, and what we used to call the “second disc” when DVDs were big. That was my disc! I did that for a while, and then I started making docs because I learned how to use the equipment and I could do it with very little crew and I didn’t need to have the confidence to deal with big crews, and all the equipment—and the men with the equipment was what scared me. Now I’ve just slowly come back. My last film was a hybrid, with fiction and documentary elements. It just felt like a natural progression; it wasn’t a choice.
Do you feel like the stylistic approach you took—a focus on the mundane, very little score or melodramatic action—was an outgrowth of your documentary work?
A little. But the biggest influence was probably Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. I wanted to create an authentic experience; I wanted to put people squarely in the shoes of someone they ignored, and who’s been invisible to them for so long. It was important to me that we didn’t lean into the tropes of montages, and things that would make it easier for people. I really wanted people to live her day as she lived it, which was tough.
You constantly alienate Jane in the frame. How early on did you settle on that visual approach?
I’ve always been obsessed with composition. My mother was a still photographer, and I grew up with her saying, “Composition, darling!” So I was always looking out for that. I worked with a cinematographer, Michael Latham, who I’ve worked with since film school. We used to live together in a share house in Melbourne, so we have a shorthand and he knows inherently what I want to do. I thought we had a shared aesthetic, but it turns out he just knows what I want [Laughs]. The way we divide it up is, I frame and he lights. With this one, the challenge is that it’s all set in one office, basically, and it’s a confined space. There are maybe twenty scenes at her desk, so how do we not make it look the same all the time? The idea of slowly lowering her in the frame, so she’s dwarfed by the system around her, was a visual language that we stuck to; and also, with the lighting, going for an oppressive fluorescent feel. It’s tough, because you have actors that you want to look beautiful, but you also really want it to feel mundane. It’s a tough balance, but I think we got there.
The scene with Matthew Macfadyen’s human resources manager is particularly great, because the way he threatens and shames Jane is so indirect.
That was the important thing: to make it indirect. When I started writing it, he was getting angry, and it was very obvious. I felt it would be more insidious if his argument almost made sense; if what he was saying was rational, and he wasn’t swearing—he was just delivering his point of view, and poking holes in hers at the same time, and gaslighting her and making her feel like her argument didn’t make sense and didn’t hold water. That way, she leaves completely rattled and full of self-doubt. That was the important trajectory there. It was 12 pages, and they did it again and again and again, and phenomenally. I was very lucky to have those two. HR is set up to protect the company, not the employees. That was the biggest takeaway from that scene. He’s not there for her, and she figures that out halfway through it. I think it’s pretty shocking for her.
Compared to when you began the film, do you think these issues are improving?
I think they are. But not fast enough. There’s still a lot of change that needs to happen. I think the more we can have these conversations, about everything from toxic workplaces and misconduct to women in the film industry, it’s important. I’m watching my friends who are filmmakers getting opportunities to direct TV and things they wouldn’t have gotten a few years ago. I think that’s changing for the better. But there’s still a lot of work to be done to make workplaces—especially in the film industry—fair and equitable and safe. We’re partnered with The New York Women’s Foundation; we’re giving 10 percent of the profits to them. They support a bunch of women-led organizations that are working to change things, and correct gender imbalances in the workplace. So anything we can do to help. Because we still have a long way to go.