Director Kitty Green wouldn’t call her first narrative feature, “The Assistant,” a #MeToo movie, even if everyone else is.
The film, which Green directed, wrote, produced and co-edited, focuses on a day in the life of Jane (“Ozark” star Julia Garner), an assistant to a powerful film producer who she suspects is a sexual predator. We watch her make copies, wash the dishes, pick up a stray earring from his office floor, disinfect his “casting” couch, calm down his concerned wife, babysit his kids, put away his erectile dysfunction medication, and escort a young woman to a hotel that her boss booked.
The similarities to disgraced film mogul Harvey Weinstein are there, but the movie isn’t specifically about him, even if the reports of Weinstein’s alleged sexual misconduct, which kick-started the #MeToo movement in late 2017, inspired it. Green never shows Jane’s boss; he doesn’t even have a name. He’s just a shadowy figure that looms heavy over the office. Instead, the film is about the culture that allows predatory bosses to thrive.
“You look at these gendered work environments and harassment is kind of an entry point for misconduct,” Green says in an office conference room not unlike the setting where “The Assistant” takes place. “I think we do need to take care of these bigger issues as well as get rid of these men.”
It was important to her, Green says, “that any woman in any workplace around the world could feel seen by the movie and relate to the character.”
More than two years after Green started working on “The Assistant,” Weinstein is standing trial in New York City, where he’s facing five felony counts that include rape and predatory sexual assault. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
“I have mixed feelings about it. It’s a strange thing,” Green says of her film’s Jan. 31 release coinciding with the trial. “I’m just hoping justice is served.”
She spoke with The Lily about toxic work culture, microaggressions and whether she thinks Hollywood can change.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The Lily: Before writing the film, you interviewed 100 assistants in Hollywood and outside of it, including those who once worked for Weinstein. You’ve said that there were shocking similarities in their stories. What were some of them?
Kitty Green: This idea that the women get the coffee and make the lunches and look after the children came up again and again — women feeling like they didn’t see a path forward up the corporate ladder that they saw clearly for the men in their office, who were given the more important tasks. I met lots of women who left the film industry after being an assistant because they didn’t think there was a career for them.
TL: Were there aspects of your own experience working in Hollywood that you wanted to include in the film?
KG: I found my self-confidence was shaken up by really small microaggressions. I remember I went to a radio interview and the journalist had already reviewed my film and gave it five stars. When I met him, he went, “Oh, you made the film?” He just looked so disappointed that I was the director. He said, “Oh, I thought you’d be older. I thought you’d be more ballsy.” Then I spent an hour trying to prove to him that I knew what I was doing. By the end he was like, “Come back, we’ll do another segment!” But it took me an hour to prove my worth, whereas a male filmmaker would have walked in with his leather jacket and his beard and the journalist would have been like, “Yeah, cool.” Whenever I tell that story, people say “Oh, ignore it, oh, he’s an idiot,” but these things made me doubt myself and whether I could make movies. These little things were what I wanted to make the movie about.
TL: You’ve said you didn’t want the movie to be about Jane’s boss.
KG: I definitely didn’t want the boss in it at all. I wanted it to be a woman-centered narrative. The thing I’ve been saying time and time again is bad guys have had enough screen time. We’ve read about what’s gone on behind that closed door. We don’t need to see it anymore. I think women, frankly, are tired of seeing that depicted on film. How could we talk about the machinery around him and the toxic and rotten culture that is really structured against women and toward men? That became the focus.
TL: We don’t see Jane’s boss, but we do hear him occasionally.
KG: I feel like you do need to sense his power over her. Not only her, but everyone in that office. So the idea that you can hear that voice rumbling, even though kind of muffled, was important. Scott [Macaulay], my producer, kept saying, “Let’s make sure it’s not ‘Charlie Brown,’ like wah-wah.” The idea was “Jaws” — the idea of the shark is more terrifying than the actual animatronic shark.
TL: Did you have any concerns about making a film that takes on Hollywood’s toxic culture? Were you afraid that there could be some kind of retaliation from those in power who didn’t like the message?
KG: Yeah, a little. It will make people uncomfortable and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. The more authentic we make this experience, the harder it is for people to push back against it.
TL: We see a powerful moment of pushback in the film when Jane goes to see an HR rep, played by “Succession” star Matthew Macfadyen, to file a complaint about her boss’s suspected sexual misconduct. His ability to so calmly poke holes in her complaint shows why people stay silent on these issues.
KG: It would have been very easy to make [Macfadyen’s character] angry and to make him yell at her and be mad. I felt like it was more insidious and more disgusting if his argument kind of made sense. If he presented a coherent argument. If he was able to shoot holes in her complaint. We’re looking at gaslighting. That he can make her think she’s judging the woman instead of being concerned for her and sort of flip the whole situation on its head is important. I structured it so that I could pack in all these ideas, as well as my favorite line, “We could use more women producers.”
TL: That scene is full of good lines, not only that one, but his final line to Jane: “I don’t think you have anything to worry about. You’re not his type.”
KG: It was in the media coverage a lot, that line. Not just associated with Weinstein, but a lot of those men, so it was, I guess, ripped straight from the headlines. We almost took it out because it felt like it was a little too on the nose, but it came up again and again so it just felt natural.
TL: Along with being called a #MeToo movie, “The Assistant” has also been described as a pro-union film, since it shows why we need better workplace conditions for assistants and others with little power.
KG: [Producer] James Schamus likes to joke that the film’s real working title was “Capitalism.” To be honest, the best reaction I’m getting is bosses that come out of the film and say, “Wow, I’m going to rethink the duties I have my assistants doing.” We’ve had that a few times. The idea that people see our film and can think about how to make our workplaces safe, fair, equitable — I love that.
TL: You’ve said that you’re hopeful Hollywood can change, but it’s hard to find hope in “The Assistant.”
KG: Yeah, it’s not a very hopeful movie is it? I do have hope. I do think things are changing. I just think it was so bad for so long that there was part of me that didn’t want to let people off the hook [with this film], you know? I didn’t want to give people the satisfaction of thinking, “Oh, pat ourselves on the back because it’s all fixed.” It really isn’t, and we really have a long way to go. I wanted to keep those conversations going to shift focus away from the men and toward the women. The more conversations like this we can have, the better.