The focus of Kitty Green’s quiet, naturalistic narrative debut The Assistant is not the perpetrators of workplace toxicity and abuse, but the surrounding people and structures who help enable it. Told through a day in the life of Jane (Julia Garner), a junior assistant at a large entertainment company, the film takes us through the slow, dreary slog that is her ‘job’ (and then some), emphasising the absurdly banal reality of oft-sensationalised showbiz abuse stories.
Jane’s role involves everything from performing menial chores, like cleaning up post-meeting clutter and making the boss smoothies, to trickier and more uncomfortable tasks like fielding angry phone calls from the boss’s wife — a marriage essentially delegated to Jane, who shoulders its emotional burden. Her involvement in ‘managing’ the personal life of her nameless boss already suggests a workplace culture that disregards professional boundaries — and as the day progresses, these continued transgressions build into a mountain on Jane’s back.
Ahead of the film’s video-on-demand Australian release, Ivana Brehas spoke with writer-director Kitty Green about the film.
Ivana Brehas: There are only a handful of actors in the film, and it’s done in such a low-key, naturalistic way that performance really has to anchor it. Tell me about your casting process.
Kitty Green: The script is very short, and there’s not much dialogue. I knew I needed somebody who you wanted to watch as she went about these mundane, banal tasks. Julia’s name came up, and I’d seen her in The Americans (2013—2018), and I remember when I saw her, I thought, “She’s striking. She’s got an interesting look about her.” So I was excited to chat to her. She read the script and really understood it, and we got along, and it worked really well. I think she anchored it in a lot of ways, and it was about finding others to go around her and to work opposite her.
We worked closely with a casting agent, and she was very aware of what we wanted to do. We wanted good people, people we can trust. We were very clear that the tone on the set had to be very warm, and so it was a very delicate process, but we found the right people. Matthew MacFadyen is amazing, and we had a great group. The two men that play the male assistants are really wonderful — they’re really awful in the movie [laughs], but they’re really lovely. It was a very smooth shoot because of that. We found the right people, so we could shoot it quite quickly and do everything we needed. We were very fortunate in that sense.
IB: I want to talk to you about a scene that I found quite challenging — the scene where the actress character, Tatiana [Bregje Heinen] is waiting to meet with the boss. She’s quite rude and abrupt to Jane, and shoves her things into Jane’s arms. The scene threw me at first. I was so startled by her behaviour. Then I sat with it and came to a conclusion about it – but I’d like to hear your intentions behind that scene first.
KG: Gosh — can I hear your conclusion? [laughs]
IB: I felt it was indicating that — let’s say Tatiana experienced some kind of abuse or mistreatment by the boss — her rudeness and attitude doesn’t mean she’s deserving of that. It was challenging the idea of victims having to be sweet, innocent, lovely people, and saying that no-one deserves to be treated that way, no matter what kind of personality they have.
KG: Yeah, that was sort of the point. It’s complex, but you’d hear a lot about these women who were “asking for it” – this idea that there were women who would use their sexuality to go places. I knew we had to insert a character into this world that people would question the motives of. It’s really tricky, because we don’t know what happens to her. Jane goes and gets lunch. She doesn’t see how Tatiana leaves, or what happens in the end. But the idea that Jane’s a little bit confronted, and she’s a little bit scared of this woman, means she’s not really going to reach out to her.
I was putting in everything that was contributing to the culture of silence in a workplace like that — like, “Why aren’t people speaking up about what’s going on?”. All these tiny moments make it difficult to really clearly present your argument — especially when Jane goes to the HR department. She can’t really express what she’s concerned about. She’s got dots, but she can’t join them. So all of that makes up the fabric of the day — all these bits and pieces of information that she’s receiving that aren’t clear or concise enough.
IB: There’s a lot of ambiguity throughout the film, and the boss’s behaviour is often talked around — but then we hear him clearly yelling at Jane through the phone. Tell me about the decision to have those instances of abuse be so explicit.
KG: It wasn’t written in. Originally, I didn’t have the dialogue that the boss [now] says. I just wrote “The boss yells at her”, or, like, “You hear a rumbling noise coming out of the phone”, but when we got on set, even on the first day, when I realised how expressive Julia’s face was. We were close up on her for a lot of the length of the film, and I knew that it would kind of be weird if you couldn’t hear what was coming out on the other side of the phone. So in post-production, we had to script the phone calls and we brought in an actor who improvised a bit. He was incredible. So it wasn’t actually designed that way, but it was necessary.
IB: I imagine that Julia’s experience of the film might have been an emotionally taxing, or difficult, performance. You talked about the importance of the set being a very warm environment. How did you cultivate that?
KG: Julia’s normally playing bigger characters — on Ozark (2017—), she’s swearing and screaming — and so much of the character of Jane was internal and quiet. I think it was a different experience for her, but she was such a trooper. She’s in basically every scene, almost every shot. So it was a big job for her, but she was on board, she understood the message, she understood what we were trying to say, and was excited to be there. And such a lovely presence, always, on the set. A really warm, wonderful human.
IB: Did you have any rehearsals?
KG: We had almost a month of rehearsals, because the shoot was so short. We had a limited budget, so we only shot for 18 days, which meant that we needed to really be ready to go. I think it was nearly three weeks of Julia and I just having conversations about the text, and we met some assistants together and chatted to them, and Julia went and studied her manager’s office to see how people went about their day. We did a lot of that leading up to the shoot. That was really essential to get through each day — we had to have it down and ready to go.
IB: In terms of your pre-production and research, were there any films influencing you?
KG: Yeah, so many. Jeanne Dielman (1975), the Chantal Akerman film, is the biggest influence on it, in its routine, gesture, rhythm, but we also looked a lot at David Fincher in terms of production design and lighting — things like Zodiac (2007) and Mindhunter (2017—). And then a mix of things like Full Metal Jacket (1987) in terms of dehumanisation, 9 to 5 (1980) and women’s office films. It’s a real mixed bag.
IB: Are you the kind of person that tells your actors to check these things out, or are they just for you?
KG: Not really. It’s a very lonely performance, so I think Julia and I watched a few things that were quite quiet — like Lost in Translation (2003) and Shame (2011). Films that are one character’s story, where they’re quite alone within the narrative.
IB: Talking more broadly about the issues this film is dealing with, do you consider yourself an optimist about how things are going?
KG: I don’t know. Right now, definitely not. Nobody knows what’s going on. It’s a confusing time. Everyone’s asking me why the film’s so bleak, and I think it’s because when I was chatting to all these women in the research process, it was really depressing, because it didn’t feel like there was a way forward for us. It felt like so many of them had left the film industry because they felt like there was no place for them. After the release and the last six months or so, it felt like things were getting a bit better, and these conversations were being had, and more women were getting career opportunities in the industry. But who knows now.
IB: Yeah. I wanted to ask you about that because I’m still starting out, and I had some uncomfortable experiences of my own at film school. That happening at the same time as the ‘Me Too’ stories really took a toll, and created this strange feeling of not wanting to even begin in the industry. I had just graduated, and I felt like, “Why would I want to start working here?”
KG: Yeah, I get it. It’s really tough.
IB: It’s good that these stories are coming up, but not many people are acknowledging the toll they’re taking on women, and I’m really curious about how other women in the industry are coping emotionally.
KG: I’m not even sure how to answer that. It’s really tough territory. It’s a strange one, because we do need to have these conversations, and people are often — and specifically with this film — people were sort of saying, “Oh, well, Harvey Weinstein’s in prison, it’s fixed now.” And this film is bigger than those guys. It’s so much about our everyday work environments. The question I was asking from the beginning was “How do we get more women into positions of power?” That was my line of inquiry, and the questions I asked anybody [during pre-production] were centred around that. Like, “How many women are in your office? Why don’t women get promoted as easily as men?” I think these are things we need to ask, even if it’s quite painful to deal with. In order things to change, these conversations need to be had. It’s really tricky, and I don’t know, but I think the more we can support each other through it, the better. And I think we’re getting better at that. Women are listening to each other more, and there are spaces and avenues to speak up about our concerns. It’s still not perfect — it’s far from perfect — but I feel like we’re moving in the right direction. It’s just going to be tough.
IB: There are little implications in The Assistant of other, unseen people who are suffering and stressed, too. Jane speaks to someone on the phone who has an accent — they might be an immigrant — and there’s an implication of different layers of disempowerment going on at once.
KG: Yeah, completely. That’s the idea — exploring the system and the machinery around it. Because we’ve seen what goes on behind the closed doors, but what I found interesting was, what’s on the other side? What’s supporting this behaviour? What’s allowing it to continue? Who’s getting hurt and sidelined in the process?
The Assistant is now available to rent via Foxtel on Demand, and will be available via Google Play, iTunes, Fetch TV, Telstra Bigpond, Sony (Playstation Network), Microsoft & Quickflix on 24 June.
Ivana Brehas is a writer and filmmaker living in Naarm (Melbourne). She has written for Dazed, Bright Wall/Dark Room, The Big Issue, 4:3 and more. She also makes lil videos. Contact her at www.ivanabrehas.com.