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Julia Garner appears in The Assistant by Kitty Green, an official selection of the Spotlight program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. | Sundance Institute

Director Kitty Green on how she made the first great movie of the Me Too era.

It took two years for a truly great movie about the Harvey Weinstein case to come out, and The Assistant is it. (The lag time is no big surprise, since Weinstein’s close association with most of Hollywood left much of the movie industry reeling and uncertain about individual complicity in giving the alleged predator cover for decades.)

Instead of addressing the sexual assault allegations head-on, Australian director Kitty Green turned to fiction to explore what made Weinstein such a powerful, feared figure in Hollywood. Green is best known not for fiction features but for her documentaries, which explore the way bigger systems impact the lives of ordinary people. In her most recent film, 2017’s Casting JonBenét, Green looked at how the media, and cycles of violence and abuse, affect the way people think about the notorious 1996 murder of 6-year-old JonBenét Ramsey.

The Assistant covers some similar ground, albeit in a very different way. The Americans’ Julia Garner plays Jane, a new assistant in the Tribeca offices of a high-powered movie studio executive. The Assistant follows Jane through one long workday, which begins before dawn and ends late at night. Jane makes coffee and copies, takes calls and endures light ribbing from her colleagues. She also witnesses, to her slowly growing horror, what she thinks might be her powerful boss’s inappropriate behavior toward a young woman who shows up unexpectedly, saying she’s been promised a job in the office.

The genius of The Assistant (clearly modeled on Chantal Akerman’s 1975 feminist masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels) is that we don’t see the “Weinstein” character directly. Instead, we hear his voice and see his back from a distance; we also see the fear he provokes in his subordinates. He isn’t the point of the story, though. The point, as The Assistant makes blindingly clear, is that the movie executive gets away with his behavior because of the complicity of the people around him. They joke about and roll their eyes at him and make excuses for him, rather than speaking up or stepping in.

I caught up with Green at the Sundance Film Festival, where The Assistant was playing after a strong premiere at the prestigious Telluride Film Festival last August. We talked about the movie’s attention to detail, the reasons she chose to obscure the “Weinstein” figure, and the way economics affect the systems that protect predators.

Alissa Wilkinson

I keep hearing from people who have worked as assistants, especially in Hollywood, that this movie is eerily accurate.

Kitty Green

Yeah, but it’s strange. Someone came up to me at Telluride and said, “How did you get the Froot Loops right? We had Froot Loops in the Weinstein Company. That was all we ate.” I just picked Froot Loops because they’re colorful! Someone brought bran, and I think the props person was like, “No, no, no, let’s get Froot Loops.” So a lot of these things are accidental. But it’s weird how a detail like that can really have an emotional effect on somebody. Being in an abusive environment, those details stay with you. I did a lot of research, but not to the level that people assume I did.

I did interview maybe a hundred people. I started with a friend of mine who had been with the Weinstein Company, and a few former Weinstein Company employees. Then I went to Miramax. Then I did studios and agencies and other production companies. I can’t really name the other ones because their boss is still their boss. From there, I went to assistants in other sectors. The same stories came up again and again, patterns that cross the globe.

Alissa Wilkinson

Patterns like what?

Kitty Green

Both film and other fields have very gendered systems, where you see your male colleagues promoted before you. You see them getting opportunities that you’re not getting. There’s a gendered division of labor, so they are given tasks that you’re not given.

There were lots of stories of going to HR and feeling completely unsupported, or stripped of any kind of self-worth upon leaving, because HR exists to protect the company and not the employees. Those are the kind of stories that I was getting again and again. We were focused on how the larger systems sideline women in particular.

Alissa Wilkinson

That hierarchy is noticeable in the film. And it also plays into one thing I thought about a lot, which is that The Assistant shows how people are sort of trained to not notice when bad things happen, because it’s part of their job to look away and just do what they’re told. I was reminded of stories I hear about governments committing atrocities and “ordinary” people who become complicit in them, even if they argue that they’re “just” doing their jobs.

You don’t focus on the “Weinstein” character so much as people who work at the company — junior executives, receptionists, human resources people, just regular workers in that environment. How did you start writing them into the story?

Kitty Green

Well, here’s the thing. In the original draft, I gave the men too hard of a time. I sent the original draft around to people for feedback, and a lot of people said, “Listen, women are guilty of this kind of behavior as well.” The film is from Julia’s point of view completely, so you don’t really know what anyone else’s day was like, what they’ve been through, how much they know about what’s going on. […] You’re only given as much information as Julia has, which is not a lot.

Alissa Wilkinson

All you can see is that everyone kind of knows something sinister is going on, but they don’t come right out and say it.

Kitty Green

Some people assume their boss is sleeping with a lot of women or having extramarital affairs. But you don’t know how much they really know, especially consent and what’s going on back there in his office.

Alissa Wilkinson

Although we definitely can see how his temper rules the office.

Kitty Green

Yeah, it’s definitely an abusive work environment.

 Sundance Institute
Matthew Macfadyen in The Assistant by Kitty Green, an official selection of the Spotlight program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Alissa Wilkinson

I’ve been reading about how Hollywood’s assistants are making a move toward unionizing for more fair pay and humane work hours. Even if your boss isn’t outright abusive, the job kind of just wears you down until you do whatever is asked of you without questioning.

Kitty Green

Yeah, completely. The complaint is that the wages in Hollywood are so low that you can only work there if you have another source of income, where you come from a rich family, which completely prevents a whole section of society from getting into the film industry and getting those jobs. They’re trying to change the way people are brought into the industry.

Alissa Wilkinson

Right. There’s an economics at play in who gets put into those jobs and can afford to stay in them. The economic factors definitely show up in The Assistant in various subtle ways.

Kitty Green

If it was just Harvey Weinstein that was the problem, well, then, it would be fixed. We’d all be fine.

But it’s not. The system is rotten.

But “system” is a word that sounds so broad and vague, and what I wanted to do was highlight these concrete examples of what that system is — everything from who gets paid what and mysterious checks that get sent through to HR, to different layers of machinery that support specifically white men being in power.

Alissa Wilkinson

Which is interesting, because about 10 minutes in I realized that The Assistant bore some strong resemblance to one of the greatest films about women, power, and economics — Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman [23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles], from 1975.

Kitty Green

It’s one of my favorites, too.

Alissa Wilkinson

In both movies, our protagonist is doing all of these simple, almost rote tasks to get through her day, and then there are moments of intense emotional stress.

Kitty Green

When I started working on this project, I’d say it was about assistants, and people would say, “Oh, the enablers. I know who these people are.” I thought, I don’t think you fully understand. People don’t really understand who these people are, or the work their jobs consist of. I really wanted the film to be clear about how [Jane] spends her time at work. It’s not like we only show her having all these crazy, dark experiences. A lot of her work is very mundane and routine. So I wanted to focus on routine.

Jeanne Dielman really influenced my filmmaking career. I saw it when I was very young, and I was like, “Wow, filmmaking can be this?” It blew my mind.

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s a feminist classic, and it’s very much about how gender and economics are intertwined within a particular system.

Kitty Green

Completely. I wanted to echo that.

2020 Sundance Film Festival - “The Assistant” PremiereIlya S. Savenok/Getty Images
Kitty Green and Julia Garner before a Sundance screening of The Assistant.

Alissa Wilkinson

How did you decide not to actually show Weinstein?

Kitty Green

The character is actually just “The Boss” in the movie.

Alissa Wilkinson

But he looks and sounds unmistakably like Harvey Weinstein, even though we only hear his voice kind of muffled and see him out of focus, from the back.

Kitty Green

Yeah, but interestingly, that’s just because a particular actor happened to be free. Here’s something strange, actually — the voice and body are different people. In the script, you weren’t really supposed to hear the boss’s voice at all. But I filmed all of these close-ups of Julia on the phone. I was going to use wider shots, but when I saw Julia’s eyes, I wanted us to be right there with her. Then it was weird if a voice wasn’t coming out of the phone — you needed to hear something

So we ended up casting a voice actor to play that voice in post-production. We went to Avy Kaufman, who’s an amazing casting agent, and she was just like, “I know who you need.” The actor came in and was like, “Oh, I know who this guy is. Let me do it my way.” I was like, “Sure!”

It was so scary and terrifying listening in the booth. I was shivering. At the end he came up to give me a hug, and I was like, “No!” He’s a lovely guy! I was just so terrified by what I’d heard.

Alissa Wilkinson

Yes, and I think everyone’s worked in a job where just the voice of your boss on the other end of the line sparks huge anxiety. Everyone’s had a boss they didn’t know how to please.

Kitty Green

And colleagues that you’re trying to impress too, especially when you’re new.

It’s interesting how much the movie is affecting people. I’ve made movies before, and I’ve been to festivals with movies before. But I’ve never made a movie where people grab my arm and are like, “Oh, my God. Let me tell you …” That’s been incredible. Or, people don’t even want to talk. They just want to stand near me. That’s happened a few times, where women just came and stood by quietly. It meant a lot to me.

Alissa Wilkinson

They feel like someone saw them.

Kitty Green

Right. Centering on the person with the least power in the narrative was really important — someone you almost ignored. I try to treat everyone well, to be kind, but sometimes I walk into these offices and just ignore whoever’s working at the desk, answering the phones. Hopefully we can shake that off a little bit.

It’s funny, I had a filmmaker friend who took three weeks to respond when I sent a cut to them, and I knew they’d watched it. They normally write me right away and will be very critical and unfiltered. But it was three weeks later. Finally, I got this response. They said, “I’m sorry, I felt really guilty, because I have all these assistants who I ask to do too much for me, so I’m still processing my role in this.”

That’s incredible, the idea that someone will treat someone differently after seeing the movie.

Alissa Wilkinson

Usually you’ve made documentaries. Did anything carry over from your documentary work into this fiction film?

Kitty Green

I feel like I read a lot about this subject before making the movie, […] for instance, having to clean up your boss’s couch after he has a “visitor.” But the actual lived experience, provoking the feeling of emotionally identifying with somebody in that position, really seeing what her day is like, the highs and lows, being stuck in her shoes for 90 minutes — that was something I could achieve. I’m very meticulous about research, so there’s a connection with my documentary work there. And I’ve watched a lot of observational documentaries, and there’s an observational component here.

But all my films are about women and the media, to be honest, and I feel like this one sits squarely within that as well. And I’m trying to explore an issue in a way that the media aren’t really covering it. Trying to show it in a different light.

The Assistant played at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and opens in theaters on January 31.

Author: Alissa Wilkinson

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