To celebrate the release of the acclaimed new thriller/drama The Assistant, which made its debut at the Telluride Film Festival last year, we sat down with the film’s writer/director Kitty Green to discuss the film’s impact, its importance and its impact in a post-Harvey Weinstein scandal world…
Scott J. Davis: Well, first off, congratulations on the film. You must be delighted with the response so far and how people have embraced it and its message?
Kitty Green: It’s been an interesting run. We premiered at Telluride and the first few reviews were kind of critical at the fact that it wasn’t like The Devil Wears Prada. Bizarre criticisms of it. But everything since then has been pretty good. But it was just like a weird beginning where I thought it was the two older white male critics who just did not understand what I was trying to achieve. But it seems like people have got the message and understand what it’s trying to talk about, which is something larger than just Harvey Weinstein.
SJD: Obviously Harvey Weinstein looms over the film, what happened and he’s now been convicted. But I can imagine for you as a filmmaker that the scandals and the Me Too/Times Up movement is just one part of such a larger issue that needs to be to be addressed. Are you hopeful that this is kind of like the first step of a much larger movement beyond Weinstein?
KG: Yeah, exactly. I mean, the film was always a film about something more systemic and cultural and not about just that. I’d look at the coverage of it all and they seem to focus a lot on the men and behaviour but I was interested in how we talk about something that’s a bit bigger than that. We need to tackle this larger kind of cultural problem which has to do with everyday sexism and gendered work environments and a lot of things that are keeping women out of power out of positions of power, that was what I was most interested in.
How can we get more women making movies? And how can we get more women in the film industry? Actually, getting more women into positions of power in general.
SJD: One of the things I loved about the movie was the way that you shot it in the office environment. The reason why The Office – the UK version – works so well is because it captures the mundaneness of that environment. Obviously, you juxtapose that with what’s going on behind her character. How important was it for you to capture that side of the story in such a way?
KG: We started in an existing office in Manhattan that was empty and we were able to build a few stalls in there. I didn’t look at it too much but there was definitely a conscious decision when we were attacking things like the sound design where I didn’t want to fill it with music or surreal kinds of noises. I really wanted to be quite authentic to the experience of being in the shoes of somebody in a position that makes them the least powerful person on the desk of a predatory film executive. And what does it look like? What’s her day like? We wanted the audience to live her day and be very authentic in that sense with location, lighting and the banality of those offices was important as well as the banality of evil and just sort of how ordinary abuse really it’s not sexy at all.
SJD: In terms of the genesis of the film, was this something you were pursuing or did it kind of come from from another avenue? Or did the idea come when the Harvey Weinstein allegations began to become more prominent and became an issue that you thought needed to be tackled? Or was that something that you wanted to tell before all of this kind of explosion happened?
KG: I was looking at something that was more about consent and power structures on college campuses only because if you want to have a conversation about consent, and sexual harassment and sexual abuse that is where they were having them. So I started with that sort of area in mind and then the Weinstein story broke. And I had a few friends that had worked for him and a few friends that have worked for some of the other predators and I started to chat to them about their work environments and what it was like to work with somebody like that.
SJD: I wondered whether you think the movie would have been much, much different if you told it even 5 or 10 years ago, because such avenues like social media platforms weren’t available so people didn’t have those avenues available to speak up in the same way.
KG: Yes, for a bunch of reasons. We didn’t even have the language to discuss it back then. We didn’t have any way to keep people connected about what to do with concerns in the office or at work. I also think it would be impossible to fund a film like this back then that was discussing these things: they were things that we weren’t speaking about at the time. So a lot has changed which is such a good thing. I think there’s change and I hope things are getting better.
SJD: I did just wanna ask you about your lead, Julia Garner: I remember seeing her in Grandma and she was just incredible in that film so I wondered what made you gravitate towards her and why you thought she was perfect to tackle this role?
KG: I’d seen Ozark and I just thought she was great. I was immediately so fascinated with her and she had this amazing cutting edge. I mean, I didn’t have anyone in mind for the role and spoke to the casting agent for someone who was infinitely watchable, someone you could follow and was kind of striking and Julia’s name came up and I thought that would be perfect. I met her and we really got along and it was just one of those amazing things where it all worked out. I’m so fortunate to get to work with her because she’s really incredible in this.
SJD: Finally, the film deals with very delicate issues but it does it in such a kind of profound and thoughtful way. Are you hoping audiences help to continue dialogues with those affected and help to expand the work done already, as well as enjoy the film as it is?
KG: Ideally, I hope it promotes conversations about workspaces and how we can make them safer, fairer and more equitable moving forward. So any kind of conversations about that are happening is a great thing. I feel like we need to interrogate the system that for so long has left women hurting inside and hopefully changes things so that we can get more equality, as well as help get more women into the film industry would be amazing.