Film

Interview: The Assistant Filmmaker Kitty Green on Casting Julia Garner and the Many Forms of Workplace Toxicity

One of the most effective and disturbing films to come out of last year’s Telluride Film Festival (and last month’s Sundance Film Festival) was one that very few people had even heard of before its debut, writer-director Kitty Green’s narrative debut, The Assistant. The movie follows one work day in the life of Jane (Julia Garner), a recent college graduate and aspiring film producer who has recently landed her dream job as a junior assistant to a powerful entertainment mogul who is never named and never seen (but it is understood that he is of Weinstein-level importance, power, and grossness). In addition to her usual tasks of making coffee, changing the paper in the copy machine, ordering lunch, arranging travel, taking phone messages and bringing a new hire up to speed, Jane is also a silent but aware party in a series of insidious behaviors that clearly defines abuse of power and degradations (of the staff and an assembly line of pretty, would-be actresses who go in and out of the office that Jane guards). On this particular day, Jane decides to take a stand, only to discover the true depth of the system into which she has entered.

The Assistant

Image credit Ty Johnson / Bleecker Street

Green comes from the world of documentaries, including the lauded 2017 Sundance hit Casting JonBenet, which featured the liberal use of re-creations, making Green’s transition to feature filmmaking seem almost inevitable. The Assistant feels deliberately staged and carried out, mapping out exactly why it is so difficult for anyone—women in particular—to speak out against such cases of workplace abuse and harassment. And the sequence between Jane and her company’s HR representative (played beautifully by Matthew Macfadyen) is one of the more devastating sequences you’re likely to see on screen this year. I had a chance to sit down with Green recently to discuss her work and her approach to this combustible subject matter.

You’re tackling such a huge issue in such a small and intimate way. Was this approach always the one you were going to go with, or did you consider all of your options?

It’s funny, it feels small, but it’s both small and big at the same time. I’m tackling everything on the spectrum, from gendered work environment to sexual misconduct. It’s all in there, so there’s a lot being explored, but it is one character, one day, largely one setting. The form of it seems small, but I was interested in keeping it very authentic and minimalistic—one day in the life of somebody with very little power in an organization like this.

This isn’t even a 24-hour period, but so much happens in that day. Yet it’s probably not an unusual day for Jane. It’s probably a very typical day for her, which I find all the more horrifying.

But it is the day she goes to HR, so there is something that makes it a big day for her. But other than that, it’s a pretty normal day.

I read that you interviewed a lot of people in the film industry, but also outside of it. Did you learn anything from the people outside the industry that maybe was different or enlightening?

Sadly, not really. It’s all pretty similar to be honest. And I’ve had a lot of women come up to me after screenings from other industries—cosmetic companies, yacht companies—all with similar stories. Also, I was focusing on the ordinary, not the extraordinary, and everything is transferable to any industry. There’s very little specific to the film industry. There are stories I heard from people that were kind of crazy, involving helicopters, money, suitcases full of things, but that was the stuff I left out because I felt that would make it too specific to the film industry, and I felt like this was not specific to that industry; it’s everywhere.

You do tackle a lot of different things, and it’s not even specifically a sexual harassment story. It’s a story of abuse and toxic work environment, which is relatable to both men and women, to a degree.

Yeah, I’ve had a lot of young men come up to me and say they were the assistant to somebody and that they had a terrible time. So yes, it happens. It’s not limited to women, that’s for sure.

Talk about landing on Julia. How did you find her and decide she was your Jane?

I saw her on “The Americans,” and immediately when I saw her on the screen, I thought “That kid is interesting.” And then I was talking to our casting agent, Avy Kaufman, who is amazing, and I said to her I wanted someone who was infinitely watchable, and she came up with a list, and Julia was on that list, and I thought that would be great. So we met for coffee, and she got the script and understood it, and we clicked right away.

It’s feels like it was such a pure, perfect collaboration.

It was weirdly. I come from documentaries, but this is the first actor I’ve worked that closely with, and I’m thinking now, “Is it always this easy or did I luck out?” [laughs] We really worked well together, and by the end, we didn’t even need to say much. We synched up telepathically and figured out how things should go.

I wondered if the two of you worked out most everything before you started rolling.

Yeah, we had about a month of time to chat, and we interviewed assistants together. We went through every task in the film; I wanted to make sure she knew how to use a box cutter, use the copy machine, things like that. We went though everything in the movie and talked through the script, beat by beat, figured out where the character was. That work was done, so that on the set it was very easy to figure out what we were doing.

Kitty Green The Assistant

Image courtesy of Bleecker Street

Large portions of the film are dialogue-free. Again, was that always the idea, to keep things fairly minimal in terms of words? So much of the emotion of the story rests on her face.

Yeah, there wasn’t much dialogue in the script, so we had to concentrate on her face, and Julia is so expressive. It was very easy for us, in that respect, fortunately. She’s got something. A lot of these scenes, I thought I’d shoot in wide shots, but when you get there and you can see the wheels turning, the way she’s got these big, expressive eyes, we ended up shooting a lot more in close-up than we thought we would. There’s so much going on.

Julia is that wonderful combination of vulnerable and very brave, and you really see that in the HR scene. It would take massive amounts of courage to walk into that room in the first place. And that scene in perhaps the most sinister of all because there are words, which are twisted and corrupted by Matthew Macfadyen. Talk about staging that sequence.

It was always the scene that stood out from all the others. It’s a 12-page scene, and the script was really short. In that sense, it’s a big part of the script, and in that sense, we broke all the rules. We hadn’t done any shot/reverse shot standard coverage. We shifted the way we shot it when we got there because we figured “This is the scene where we can do whatever we want.” We did move things around a bit.

With that one, there were a few things I was trying to achieve. I wanted to make sure it was an example of gaslighting—this idea that he can poke holes in her argument and leave her confused about why she came in in the first place; that was really important to me. And this idea that HR is there to protect the company and not the employee—that was a point I was trying to make. So there were a bunch of things packed into that sequence. And then there are bigger issues about women in the film industry and trying to dangle some carrot in front of her. The two of them were so great together and did it again and again, and it was so great to watch them work.

She walks out of there, and I’m thinking that the worst thing that comes out of that discussion is that it doesn’t help. But when she gets back to her desk, and it’s clear everyone in the office knows what she did. That’s such a violation.

Matthew is so good.

You don’t give the executive a name or face, and you barely give him a voice. Why did you choose to do that?

Originally going into it, I was saying that I wanted to make a film that was centered around women. It was about women, and I didn’t want to make another film about a “bad guy.” We’ve had too many films about bad man, and it’s really boring. So I wanted to be on the other side of it. We know what goes on behind that door, we’ve read about it, we get it. I want to be on the other side of that door and try to figure out the machinery surrounding a predator. What do people know? The culture of silence, the toxic work environment that allows this kind of behavior to continue. That was definitely the idea. His voice wasn’t going to be in there at all, but we shot those calls in close-up, and it felt weird not being able to hear a voice, so we ended up having to add his voice in post and script a few things for him to say.

One thing I kept thinking as the film got going was that you don’t answer the question “Why doesn’t she just leave?” And then you give us that scene where she gets the email from her boss where he says something like “I’m going to make you great.” That’s the validation, that’s the carrot that he dangles in front of her to keep you loyal and quiet and around. He is someone in a position who can elevate someone else in that industry, and it’s a horrible position to put someone in.

In my first draft, I had too much stick and not enough carrot. I added in things like that email, because I did feel like she needed reason to stay. Also, I don’t think she has much choice. If she stays in this job five weeks and quits, she’s going to feel weak. There’s external pressure that maybe isn’t in the film, but job security is a powerful thing, and you have all these kids with college degrees who really struggle to find a way forward or upward in this industry or any industry.

Because most of the film takes place basically in just a couple of rooms in the same building, did you have the luxury of shooting chronologically?

Not really. It’s shot over one day, so the light is really important and there are big windows everywhere, so we’re very locked into shooting at certain times of day, which meant that every day we had to shoot a night scene, a day scene, so we were locked into that. We were on the eighth floor of a building, so we couldn’t stick lights outside. It didn’t make things easier [laughs].

Did you want part of your message to be about how there should be more women in positions of power in the industry, and how did you find ways to incorporate that into the film?

For sure. These predators are only able to do what they do because the system is so disgusting. It keeps women out, especially out of positions of power, and it dehumanizes. So I really wanted to unravel the whole thing. We really have to get rid of this gender division of labor, this idea that women have to get the coffee or take care of children when they come in. All of those things need to change in order for us to create safer work spaces. I was throwing it all into one film.

In terms of the office environment, were there things you did with the production design or lighting to emphasize that feeling of being trapped or otherwise oppressed?

A little. We were conscious of the fact that this is a dull office—that’s the setting for the entire movie. We were trying to make sure it felt oppressive and was representative of her state. The fluorescent lights, making it so drab, all contributes to the tension. It was very strictly controlled by my team.

Was there any extra effort on your part while you were shooting to make sure everyone involved in the production knew that the environment was a safe space?

For sure. We were a women-led set. The first AD was a woman. We made sure we hired the right people who understood what we were trying to do. We tried to make it a safe and loving and warm environment. I feel like it was, so I think we achieved it. It was a nice place to work even though we were exploring these darker issues, we were conscious of making the crew feel supported.

There are a couple interesting moments where Jane has to compose apology emails, and the other guys in the room come over to help her because they know what language the executive is looking for. It’s weirdly supportive, but then you consider what it is they’re supporting.

It’s interesting you bring that up because I witnessed a very big argument about that last night, where men think they’re helping, but women think it’s completely condescending. It’s a bit of both. It’s them trying to help, but they’re trying to get her to stick to the company line, not rock the boat, and that’s kind of gross in itself.

Was this a tough film to get off the ground financially because of the subject matter?

Yes, for sure. I think a lot of female executives really liked it, but then they’d show their male colleagues and they wouldn’t like it. So we got a lot of pushback. But we found the right team eventually and those partners who believed it what I was trying to do and didn’t make me fill it with montages and music. The supported the quietness and what it needed to be to look at this kind of culture.

Thank you so much, Kitty. Best of luck.

Thanks for the lovely chat.

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