PARK CITY, Utah ― Julia Garner and Kitty Green were tired but giddy when I walked into their room at Marriott’s Summit Watch on Sunday afternoon. They hopped up and greeted me before raving about meeting Glenn Close on Park City’s Main Street during their hectic press day at the Sundance Film Festival, which would host a screening of their somber, quiet film “The Assistant” that evening. They were eager for audiences to see it, but also surely overwhelmed by the weight of responsibility that comes with producing one of the first narrative films to result from the Me Too movement.
“The Assistant,” in limited theaters Friday, details a day in the life of a production company’s low-level employee, Jane (Emmy winner Garner), as she witnesses firsthand the predatory behavior of a top executive, modeled after Harvey Weinstein. Although her boss never appears on screen, his unsavory aura lingers as Jane answers phone calls, organizes work trips, takes lunch orders, prints headshots and cleans stains off his office couch. When he’s angry with her, Jane is coached by the higher-ranking male assistants on how to apologize in order to keep her job. When she gets a call from his concerned wife, Jane calmly lies about his whereabouts.
And when she feels uncomfortable with the hiring of a beautiful young assistant (Kristine Froseth), Jane’s pursuit to report misconduct is cut off by the human resources department. She’s on the fast track to becoming a film producer herself, an HR executive played by Matthew Macfadyen (“Succession”), tells her, so “why are you in here trying to throw it all away with this bullshit?”
Green, an award-winning Australian filmmaker whose work includes “Ukraine Is Not a Brothel” (2013) and “Casting JonBenet” (2017), said her work as a documentarian helped her when it came to interviewing assistants and executives at various studios and agencies, including Miramax and The Weinstein Co., for the film. Her goal? “To explore some really concrete problems of the larger systemic rot.”
Green and Garner talk to HuffPost about the film’s approach, their own upsetting experiences in the entertainment business and how Jane’s story opens up a larger conversation on the abuse of power in the workplace.
This film came about after the Harvey Weinstein news, but how did you come to the decision to approach the story in this way?
Kitty Green: I was looking at all the media coverage after the Weinstein story broke, and I was really frustrated that people seemed to be focusing on these men. Just like, “Oh, if we get rid of Harvey Weinstein, the problem will be fixed. We solved it,” you know? And no. It’s so much bigger than that. It’s cultural. It’s systemic. These workplaces, especially the film industry but most industries, are really gendered and often quite toxic. I wanted to explore that, let’s say, through the smaller details.
Was it always your plan to follow a day in the life of a high-powered executive’s assistant?
KG: It was always the intention. Often I felt, as a woman, when I mentioned something that really shattered or messed with my self-confidence or my self-worth, people would go, “Oh, ignore it! Oh, it’s just a bad day.” I felt like I was always complaining, but something was really getting to me. So I thought, how could I show the emotional impact of what people would see as smaller encounters or events that really had a big impact on my self-confidence as a filmmaker and trying to make it in this industry?
I felt like it [would be good if] you could emotionally identify with someone, which is to really be in their shoes and see something from their perspective — somebody who oftentimes you ignore. People walk into an assistant’s office without even acknowledging the assistant most of the time. So I thought, if we could center someone without much power in this narrative and tell her story, I think that’s a way to get at the larger problem, which is an office where there is misconduct, where there are women being assaulted, but also the assistant is struggling with her own position and the challenges she’s faced in a system that’s inherently structured against her and toward white men.
It’s a complicated situation to examine.
KG: That’s just it. It was all about, how could we get at the complexity of it? Not just make it black or white, men are bad, women are good — it’s so much more nuanced than that.
Julia, how did you feel when you read the script? Did these complexities come out to you?
Julia Garner: Yeah, I thought the script was amazing. But I was a fan of Kitty’s before I read the script and before I knew she was going to do another movie. I saw “Casting JonBenet” the minute it was on Netflix. So, of course, I read [the script] right away and I thought everything translated from what was on the page. It was very clear. Then we met up for coffee, and it was a no brainer. I mean, the first five minutes we were on the same page. You know, you have good meetings, but that was just a special meeting.
KG: Yeah, you were in a pink turtleneck, which sealed the deal. That wasn’t scripted but yeah. [Laughs]
JG: I knew that Kitty was my girl. It was early for both of us, we were both miserable without coffee!
I’m sure you spoke about your own experiences as women in the industry — you, Kitty, as a filmmaker and Julia as an actor. Does this film touch on anything in particular you’ve witnessed or gone through? I know there are different layers to every experience.
KG: Yeah, I’ve seen a lot. I’ve been on the film festival circuit since I’m quite young and because I make independent documentaries, I don’t come with a team of publicists. I get sent to these places by yourself and I’ve seen a lot of bad behavior, honestly. I arrived at my first Sundance a few years ago and was at a press junket-style thing and the first question that came up was, “OK, I want to ask you about what everyone’s thinking: Who gives you the ideas? Is it James [Schamus] and Scott [Macaulay]?” They’re my two male producers. I immediately thought, wow, I can work so hard and put everything into making a movie and people will still assume that I’m not in control and I don’t have any power. To me, it was really heartbreaking that people were just disappointed it was me who directed something.
JG: How did you react? Did you just laugh, like, I don’t know…
KG: I was just shocked, so taken aback. I’d meet like a journalist who’d do an amazing review of my film and then go, “Oh, you directed it. Oh, oh, I get how you did it. Oh, I get it now. You were sweet. You were nice to people.” They’d just write me off immediately, and I got pretty depressed about it. I think “The Assistant” was born a little bit out of my anger of what I’ve seen, not only misconduct but the power imbalance and general disregard for women and their abilities. So, yeah, that all fuels the fire.
I’m so sorry you experienced that. It truly angers me.
KG: Yeah, it’s devastating.
Julia, have you experienced similar situations? I know you started out in this industry years ago as a young woman, which couldn’t have been easy.
JG: Yeah, I started when I was 16. I mean, that happens, too, where people are abusive to teenagers, but I’ve been really lucky that I’ve worked with wonderful people. I’ve never been abused — physically, verbally, any kind of abuse. But I will say, being a woman in an industry, especially an industry where you have to put yourself out there, you do have to be just wary about different things, you know? You have to be careful, but you have to be careful always.
What was it about Kitty’s approach to this Me Too story that interested you?
JG: Well, it was already very scary when I read it. I had a ton of thoughts running through my head — “I love this script. I love Kitty. But should I do it?” — because it’s a scary movie to do. And if it wasn’t Kitty, I don’t know if I would’ve done it, just because she’s so talented but she’s also smart and I knew she was going to take this heavy subject and do this movie in a tasteful way that doesn’t feel like she’s exploiting anyone. That’s not what I was looking for — doing anything that exploited people — but I do want to make people connect and be conscious, in a way.
This movie addresses the toxic culture of these production offices — from the fellow male assistants to the women in the workplace to the HR department. Did you explore those storylines by interviewing actual people in those positions?
KG: Yeah, we did research. But I think a lot of the lines in the HR office we’ve all heard, like [when Wilcock says], “We need more women producers.” It makes everyone in the audience groan.
JG: Even as simple as the line, “Do you know how many other people want your place? So, don’t complain.” I mean, I’ve had that said to me before. So I guess I’ve experienced that, but it’s such a norm that you don’t even notice that’s happened to you, right? Until you see this movie.
Right, it’s a mind game.
KG: It’s gaslighting, yeah. It’s an example of that.
Talk about that HR scene a bit more. You use it as a way to not only address the executive’s gross behavior but also the ecosystem that protects him.
KG: It was important to me when you’re showing a work environment that is headed up by a predator that we show what kept that predator in power and the machinery around him. If you speak to a lot of women who had experiences in offices like this, the HR department is essentially there to protect the company. It’s not there to protect the employees, and that’s something that really needs to be looked at. There are people doing great work in trying to change that system, but, to me, it was really important [to address]. Although Julia’s character comes in with these concerns, this HR representative manages to completely rip away any kind of confidence she had, and her logic seems to fall apart in front of him.
JG: He makes her feel like a fool.
KG: Yeah, and she feels, kind of, broken. When you look at the past and other assistants, people say, “Well, why didn’t she speak up about what she saw?” But if you experienced something like what Jane did, you realize she had no one to report this to. Where was she supposed to go? I think that was important.
JG: I also think people are so quick to judge when it’s not happening to them. It doesn’t have to be a predator boss, but think about how many times when something really terrible happens, you hear something terrible or you see something terrible, and you’re just so shocked from it that your first initial reaction is you don’t know what to do. And then you walk away from it like, “Why didn’t I do this and why didn’t I do that?” It’s a trauma in a weird way. It’s an out-of-body experience where you’re there but your presence is sort of on the side. You’re viewing it rather than being present and saying what you want to say.
We’ve probably all been in some type of situation where we should’ve spoken up…
JG: And Jane did. She spoke up as much as she could.
KG: But she’s completely shut down.
JG: She doesn’t want to get fired. It’s the type of thing where, if she quit, maybe she’d try to get a job somewhere else and that big company would say, “Don’t hire this girl because she doesn’t keep her mouth shut,” or something. But she still wants to work!
I think 'The Assistant' was born a little bit out of my anger of what I’ve seen, not only misconduct, but the power imbalance and general disregard for women and their abilities.Kitty Green, director of "The Assistant"
That’s a whole other aspect of it, too, is retaliation. She’s in a dream job for a newcomer in this competitive industry, but it comes at a major price.
JG: Right. Everybody was in that place at one point.
KG: Even her parents saying they’re so proud of her, it’s just heartbreaking…
I was going to bring up Jane’s parents and how you use phone calls with her family to expand on why she stays in the job.
KG: A lot of people I spoke to said they couldn’t tell their parents what was going on. How do you explain that situation to your father? It’s really difficult. And, back a few years ago, no one had the language to really talk about this stuff.
There’s been a lot of incredible Me Too-inspired films at Sundance this year, from this to “Promising Young Woman,” helmed by female filmmakers. And it’s sad to think that these stories might’ve never been made if Weinstein’s accusers hadn’t come forward.
KG: I know. I definitely don’t think we could’ve had a film like this made before the rise of the Me Too movement. But it’s really heartening to see that there is a shift and we are seeing these films being financed and being watched and making money — I don’t want it to sound like that’s all that we’re in this for, but it’s a good thing for the industry if those films are doing that. Women are behind the camera, women are leading the charge. It’s great to see.
Julia, have you seen a difference in the projects you’re seeing or scripts you’re reading?
JG: I think it’s still a new thing, this subject. This film is like the first script I’ve seen tackling it. In terms of the industry, though, I’ve worked with a lot of female TV directors, and I love it. It’s definitely getting better.
“The Assistant” is now showing in limited release.