In Kitty Green’s The Assistant, Jane (Julia Garner), works for an unidentified and breathtakingly heinous movie mogul: He’s so venomous, so malicious, so abusive, and so lascivious that the film earned the distinction of “the Harvey Weinstein picture” immediately on its release. He uses his power to coax young women into bed (or onto the casting couch) with him, and woe betide the employee who displeases him. The man is a monster, and Green never shows the audience his face, so it fits that critics would jump to the Weinstein comparison as the best (the worst) frame of reference we have.
But of course, Weinstein isn’t the only predator stalking the movie industry, and that’s part of what drives The Assistant forward. Green isn’t interested in turning Hollywood’s problem with sexual assault and gender inequity into Weinstein’s alone. There are other men out there guilty of the same offenses, and treating The Assistant as only a Weinstein parable gives those men an accidental pass. There’s more to what Jane sees and experiences than that.
So when Paste sat down to talk with Green about her work, we drilled down and talked about the far-reaching implications of the behavior Weinstein exhibits and which pervades so many corners of the filmmaking world.
: What do you think the limitations are that are imposed on art when art is about something like what The Assistant is about, but tied to something literal, a literal world event? If this was actually about Harvey Weinstein, how would that hinder the movie?
Kitty Green: Yeah. I don’t think it would hinder the movie so much. It probably would be a similar film if I’m making it. [laughs]
I would say it’s reductive to me to say that it’s a Harvey Weinstein problem. I feel like the biggest thing is, people would come out of it and go, “Oh, that was a problem at The Weinstein company, and not more of a global issue.” They’d be looking at him as opposed to the systemic and cultural problems, which is what I’m trying to highlight through these tiny examples of microaggressions that are symbolic of these larger systems of power that keep men in power, and keep women out of it. It would hurt the movie, I guess, or at least it would be easy for people to walk out of it and go, “Oh, well that’s not us.” Whereas the way we’ve done it now really implicates everybody. It makes us all feel complicit, and that was what I was ultimately trying to get at.
: I felt a little bit of that myself. To talk to you now, I feel a little bit more of that. You’re right to say that it’s reductive to see this as, maybe not the Harvey Weinstein movie, but a Weinstein movie. Do you suppose that that’s maybe why this is a sharper way to approach subjects like this, by being less specific?
Green: I think we’re being very specific, even though we’re not specific. Do you know what I mean?
: Yeah, the movie is about a very specific problem.
Green: But also about very specific details, too. That’s why I think they would be similar movies, but I think people’s perception of them would change. It would alter the way people are viewing what they’re seeing as opposed to actually altering the film itself. This way, we get more conversations about how to make our workplaces safer and more fair and equitable. The other way it would just be like, “Eh, well.”
: “Weinstein was a bad guy!”
Green: “We fixed that problem!” Yeah, exactly.
: This way, the audience isn’t let off the hook. To hear you speak that sounds really important, the element of not letting people off the hook, even the people who you want to come see the movie.
Green: It’s funny. I keep getting questions about the ending, and people worrying it’s bleak, and it doesn’t have that uplifting message that they were hoping for.
: ...what were they expecting?
Green: Yeah. I mean, this is a film that takes place pre-the rise of the MeToo movement, and even though it’s only set a few years ago, it’s a period piece, essentially But I feel like times have changed. I feel like there are spaces and language now to speak up about misconduct, and only a few years ago it was maybe not impossible, but pretty difficult.
That’s why I’m saying it’s sort of pre-#MeToo, when there was no escape and people were trapped in these positions. I spoke to a lot of people who left positions not just at The Weinstein Company, and they felt like there wasn’t a place for them. After chatting to a lot of people, I felt very pessimistic about everything. So I guess that’s why the movie is everything that I heard as opposed to this hopeful optimistic thing. If this was Bombshell, she’d rip her lanyard off and throw it in the trash. [laughs]
: It’s definitely not that kind of movie, but that’s because we haven’t had the happy ending in real life yet either. We may be developing better language for talking about sexual assault and sexual misconduct and sexual harassment in workplaces, but we’re still not there yet.
Green: No. And a lot of the behaviors depicted in the film are still in place. There’s a lot going on that’s still relevant today. It’s funny, some critic wrote, “Oh, this film is about a problem that only existed until a few years ago.” I was like, “Oh my god, really?”
: My hope for the movie is that it teaches people in my profession how to think differently, but that’s a really hard thing to do. And besides, how can we put all that pressure on any one movie?
Green: Yeah, exactly. I don’t want all that pressure. We’ve partnered with The New York Women’s Foundation, and we’re giving ten percent of the profits to them, and they have all these initiatives. They’re supporting these women-led organizations like Tarana Burke’s #MeToo, the organizations that are actually creating the change and doing the work. It’s really incredible to be able to at least have conversations with them about how we can help and what we can do. And that’s been good.
: Do you feel like that’s gotten a lot of spotlight in the press when talking about the movie? Because I feel like that’s probably something that doesn’t get talked about either.
Green: We’ve done a lot of screenings with women’s organizations, so we do talk about it in those spaces. I feel like I’m talking about it a bunch, but it probably isn’t in the Chicago Tribune or something. Or actually, I might be in there!
: That feels like a great way to affect change. Could you speak to what those screenings have been like as spaces for discussing and for engaging with the subject?
Green: We’ve had some interesting panelists, like women-led organizations, that are working to make workplaces safe and fair and equitable, and being able to discuss the film in a forum like that is great. I’ve had really interesting reactions, actually. I knew that I was making a film that I hoped women would connect to, and I knew I wasn’t focusing on the extraordinary, but the ordinary, because I really wanted it to be transferable to any workplace. But I didn’t expect people to really feel so seen by the character, and really hold onto my arm and say, “That’s me in that film,” when they work in a yacht company or something completely different from the film industry, and they still feel connected to it. So that’s been really exciting to see it resonate.
: For me, it’s not about the nameless bosses—I’ve always known men like that exist—it’s the the isolation and crushing loneliness that [Jane] feels, like when you’re like in rooms with people and you’re utterly alone.
Green: It’s interesting, you’re saying she’s so lonely, and I’m like, “Is that reflective of my life?” A few women have said, “Where’s the female friendship? Where are her friends?” When I had a position like that, I always pushed my friends aside a little bit to get my work done, because we needed to work such long hours. I knew that I really wanted it, and I was very ambitious. You end up calling your parents a lot. Julia actually said the same thing. She and I were like, “We both call our parents all the time.” All the cool kids are like, “Why doesn’t she call her friends? Why’s she calling her parents? That’s lame.”
But yeah, I did want to represent the kind of isolation they have in those positions. You are working so hard that it’s very dehumanizing and it’s very isolating. All of that is baked into the script. I guess it was the culture of silence, this idea that people aren’t communicating, the fact that there’s barely any dialogue people. There’s loneliness in that, in knowing something and being uncomfortable with what you know and not knowing who to trust.
: That baked-in element is, to me, reflected in the aesthetic you created for the movie: that stifling stillness.
Green: I said to Michael [Latham], my cinematographer, that it’s Jane’s story. It’s her story. It’s gotta be really simple and really beautifully, and really sensitively, and delicately told, essentially. I didn’t want us to be flashy. I wanted it to feel very authentic to a lived day. So the whole thing along the way we used no tricks, no camera tricks, barely any movement; we would move the camera every now and again because it was useful or because we got bored on the set. But I think it was very still for a reason. If we made this about how cool we are as filmmakers, then we’d have failed. That would be completely wrong. I wanted to make sure I was telling the story I needed to tell—no bells and whistles.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.