Film

Kitty Green’s ‘The Assistant’ reveals an ecosystem of abuse

The Australian filmmaker tells us about the casual sexism and workplace horror stories that compelled her to create her latest feature.

For a long time, nightmarish work experiences were broached in culture through the medium of comedy but, in a post-MeToo world, humour no longer cuts it. Now, films such as the Charlize Theron-starring Bombshell have waded into the fray to expose the culture of sexual harassment and gender bias experienced by women at Fox News. And whilst we’re unlikely to ever see a big budget feature tackling the Weinstein scandal, Kitty Green’s The Assistant whipped up a quiet storm on the festival circuit with its depiction of a day in the life of Jane (Ozark’s Julia Garner), an assistant at a Hollywood production company. 

Practically invisible in her workplace, Jane wades through mundane humiliations in an environment dominated by a high-powered boss who, despite not being present on screen, has shaped the office in his image. Drawing on a background in documentary (Ukraine Is Not a Brothel and Casting JonBenet), Kitty depicts the stranger-than-fiction reality of being a small cog in an abusive machine. Being patronised and gaslit by male superiors, serving as a human buffer between her employer and his aggrieved wife, and trying to save a young girl from exploitation are all in a day’s work for a woman at the bottom of the Hollywood food chain.

We spoke with Kitty over the phone to hear about the real-life sexism that inspired and informed the film. 

 

The first thing you notice about The Assistant is that the atmosphere of the film is pretty oppressive – what kind of movie influences does it draw on?

I really just watched a lot of workplace dramas and films about offices and work. I also really liked Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman: it was a big visual and tonal influence in a lot of ways. I’m such a fan of that movie, it’s brilliant.

 

Jeanne Dielman and The Assistant both take place over a condensed time frame but another of the similarities is a studied use of sound. How did you approach the sound design?

I worked with Leslie Shatz who is a sound designer that’s collaborated with Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant. He hired a team of people to go out and record a bunch of office noises and we created a soundscape out of all those sounds. You can create a lot of dramatic tension out of hums and manipulating those sounds. That’s also more authentic than laying a music track over the top of the scene.

 

What really interests me is that up until now, films about abusive power dynamics in the workplace have always been packaged as comedies — I’m thinking of The Devil Wears Prada or Horrible Bosses — why was it necessary for you to unpack these issues through drama?

I think it’s just after everything we read during the rise of the MeToo movement. A lot of women were speaking about misconduct and some of those stories were horrifying. It no longer seemed like something you could make light of. It was a time that we started telling those stories truthfully and as authentically as we could. That became my mission essentially with The Assistant.

Definitely. What’s striking about The Assistant is that it doesn’t just lay the blame at the feet of abusive bosses. Instead, it depicts a workplace culture which normalises and facilitates the kind of behaviour that we’ve come to scrutinise with MeToo. Why was this important to show?

The press coverage of MeToo was focussing on a few bad men and was based on the idea that if we got rid of those men then everything would be fixed. I felt like it was a cultural problem and was more based on behaviours that had gone on for so long that people didn’t know they were wrong. I wanted to point out all these microaggressions that can really affect someone’s self-confidence and can also be really manipulative but that often go ignored. The film really does show misconduct but also harassment and toxic work environments. By telling the story through an assistant’s eyes I was able to touch on a lot of themes. 

 

Exactly, when you’re at the bottom of the work food chain you’re really exposed to the brunt of everyone’s unchecked behaviour. Have you had any professional experiences like that?

I’ve definitely had the experience of being the person with the least power in an organisation but the film isn’t just influenced by those kinds of stories. I’ve been a female filmmaker on the festival circuit for ten years and through that I’ve witnessed a lot of strange behaviour and bias. I think all of that influenced the story too and, on top of that, the research process involved interviewing hundreds of people who worked as assistants, not just in the film industry but in other industries as well. 

 

You mention “strange behaviour” you witnessed on the festival circuit. Are there any concrete examples that stick out? 

I remember arriving at Sundance with my first feature documentary and the first question I was asked by a journalist was about which of my male producers gave me my ideas. I was really shocked that they thought I didn’t come up with the ideas myself, especially as I directed, wrote and partly produced the movie. I was beginning to realise that the system was more gendered than I had been aware of and that became a concern. So then I started asking my female friends about what they had experienced and armed with all those stories I set about to make this movie.

What would you say it’s like for women in film now, post-MeToo?

I think it’s getting better. Friends of mine who are female filmmakers are getting more opportunities than they were a few years ago. Things are slowly improving but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done and we still need to be having these conversations – not just about getting more women in film but also changing the culture within the film industry.

 

And how do you feel about your film being labelled as a “MeToo” drama? 

I’ll take it as a label but I didn’t set out to make a MeToo movie necessarily. I just set out to make a movie about a topic I thought was important. It’s not just a MeToo movie — young men come up to me who have watched the movie and see themselves in the lead character — but it is covering a lot of issues that came up in the MeToo movement.

 

As our last question, what’s next for you?

I’m not really sure, just wrapping everything for this project up. Right now it’s a complicated time for everyone so I’ll figure out what’s next as I go forward.

 

The Assistant is now available to buy and rent digitally.

5 May 2020