The Assistant, out in theaters, follows Jane (Julia Garner of Ozark), an unimposing Northwestern graduate who secures a prized job as the assistant to a film production company’s head boss. Chronicling a single workday at her new job, Jane witnesses her employer’s emotional and assumed sexual abuse of young women. Though she is never sexually harassed — and even told not to worry by HR because she’s not his type — Jane finds loose earrings on his office carpet, books hotel rooms for the afternoon and prints out headshots of eerily homogenous actresses. It’s clear what her boss is up to.
But The Assistant is fictional. It’s not directly about Weinstein. “Everyone assumes that I’ve timed it somehow with the trial, which is absurd and insane,” director Kitty Green tells MEL. She wanted the abuse-of-power narrative to be transferable in any workplace. “I have women at screenings who work in all different industries come up to me to say, ‘That’s me. I can see myself in her.’”
The imposing figure is never seen onscreen. Dark shadows of a man hurriedly walking past Jane loom large; a raspy, threatening, Weinstein-esque voice can be heard through the phone. Green initially didn’t even want to depict the boss at all. “I have no interest in him, but when we were shooting, Julia Garner’s face was so amazing that I needed to be really close and really tight to frame,” Green tells MEL. “It does show his power over not just her but that entire kind of organization.”
Best known for her documentaries Casting JonBenet and Ukraine Is Not a Brothel, Green is proficient in covering the media’s mistreatment of women. This time, she focuses on the culture fostered by an abusive leader, forcing employees to become complicit in his acts in order to survive. “We call it death by a thousand cuts: Every task is somehow a little bit degrading,” Green says. “Quickly, your dreams are crushed by a system that supports these powerful men and leaves everyone else in the wake of it.”
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Given the film is about a Hollywood mogul, why did you set it in New York?
I started my research here by chatting to people who worked for the Weinstein Company and others. I can’t really name the other companies because they’re still up and running, but [they’re] a lot of New York-based production companies. It just made more sense for us to shoot here. The glamour of the buildings, the lights, this idea that New York represents hopes and dreams and you could make it here. All of that was built in.
How did you research a story like this?
I was working on a college campus documentary first. So I started with college students, talking about consent and power. Honestly, their stories were not that dissimilar from the people in the film industry. I interviewed people from the Weinstein Company, Miramax and [other] production companies. I went from L.A. to London to Melbourne. I then moved on to women in tech and finance. Strangely these patterns were emerging. [The women were] not being taken seriously.
How did you come up with the many small details about surviving in a low-level position? Like when Jane gets only a muffin from the deli for dinner…
I worked as an assistant at ABC, which is like the Australian BBC. I looked forward to the place I got my coffee and a sandwich because it was the highlight of my day. My day was so banal and so boring. A lot of the stories I was told from people were graduating from a good school and getting the dream job and then realizing, Oh, this isn’t what I thought it would be.
How much of the film is your own experience?
As a female filmmaker on the film-festival circuit, a lot of people immediately would meet me and dismiss me because I look younger than I am and I’m a woman. There was one guy who gave my film a five-star review. Then I met him. He was like, “Oh, you made it?” He was so disappointed, saying, “I thought you’d be older. I thought you’d be more ballsy.” What does that mean? It messed with my self-confidence in the same way that the women I spoke to who worked in those positions felt very small and insignificant, as if their voices didn’t matter.
Do you remember what film you were working on when the critic made that comment?
It was on Casting JonBenet. I got a lot of comments on that trip. That press circuit was just filled with strange comments that made me feel very uncomfortable and did make me question whether I wanted to continue making movies. I hate that. I hate that this industry isn’t as supportive of women as it should. It’s getting better to be honest. I was just at Sundance, and all the events I went to were female filmmakers. I met only women, which was amazing.
The Assistant isn’t about platitudes. You show specific, everyday details that lead to this abusive workplace culture — like Jane having to apologize for talking to her boss’ upset wife.
When I do press for this film, I’ve been talking about the system and the structure. That sounds very vague. The idea was we would have concrete examples of why women weren’t being taken seriously, why women weren’t being promoted, why women were losing their confidence and feeling unvalued in the industry. So that became everything from having to get the coffee to getting paper cuts.
I also noticed the two male assistants were also verbally harassed but still complicit.
I was conscious of making sure that they didn’t come off as just being purely evil. You see one of them get yelled at. They’re struggling with the abusive environment themselves. People get unwillingly forced into complicity by the system. It’s so cutthroat, competitive and dehumanizing that you end up with behavior like that, even if they’re good kids. They’re trying to help Jane write the email apologizing. They’re not trying to step on her toes, but for every woman watching, it feels really excruciating to watch them lean into her space.
What was your experience working with The Assistant’s producers who saw a depiction of their own environment?
We went around to a lot of film companies. Often the female executives would love it but [say they] wouldn’t be able to get it past their male colleagues. We were shut out of a lot of places. In the end, we got a really great group of independent producers.
Did you assume it would be difficult to get financial backing?
I assumed it would be difficult but didn’t think it would be this difficult. It happened again and again where funding would just drop because somebody wouldn’t want to tell the story.
When funding was dropped, were you given reasons?
Never, but you can assume.
Well, I’m curious exactly how much of the film’s storyline affected your journey in creating it.
You hear gossip about someone’s HR department being a bit iffy, but you never know what the reason is. It was tough, but we got there.
The Assistant has been labeled the first major film about Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo.
I don’t know. I would rather not have that label — not #MeToo but the Weinstein of it. #MeToo covers such a broad spectrum of issues. We definitely are part of that conversation. But we’re also talking about general workplace behavior and toxic environments. So whatever. I’ll take the label as long as people go see the movie.
The film is coming out during the Weinstein trial.
We knew the case would eventually come up, but the idea that we’re releasing it the same week was not an intentional choice. It’s really — I don’t know — it’s scary. Because it’s a reminder. The details are so horrific of what was going on behind that door. It’s been very unsettling to kind of read all about that at the same time [as the film is released].
Your previous film was Casting JonBenet. Did you see parallels between the two stories?
They’re both looking at the media coverage of an issue and kind of subverting the way something is covered. The same with Ukraine Is Not a Brothel, which is my first feature. It was about women in the media.
As you’ve done more films about media, are people more understanding of your vision?
I’m not sure everyone understood Casting JonBenet. The more movies I make, maybe people go back and kind of figure it out. Because I feel like people didn’t take it seriously or me seriously at the time.
As a director in a position of power, what was it like to do a movie about power?
We were just very careful about who we hired. We had a female first assistant director who ran our set incredibly, generously and lovingly. And we did have a lot of young women production assistants that we tried to encourage to be part of the conversation. We tried to treat people with respect and, hopefully, everyone got something out of the experience.
What are you hearing from the Hollywood circles who’ve seen the movie?
At the premiere, we had women handing out hors d’oeuvres, and everyone was like, “Oh, we better treat them nicely.” The idea that you should acknowledge people around you who you would normally ignore is kind of incredible.
How about responses from men?
A few male filmmaker friends have watched it and kind of taken a while to respond to me. When they finally got back to me, they’d be like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve realized I do maybe give my assistant too much. Half the duties I’m giving them are a little over-the-top. I should think about that.” They’re sort of wrestling with that, which is a good thing.