Kitty Green constructs a woman-centric story of office harassment in ‘The Assistant’
In “The Assistant,” the villain of the story — about a young woman who works in a toxic work environment ruled by a predatory movie executive — isn’t given any screen time, save for a shadowy entrance early on where we don’t see his face.
For Kitty Green, the film’s writer-director, white misogynist bullies of a certain age were getting enough attention in the media when she was conceiving her story and the Harvey Weinstein scandal was dominating news coverage.
“The Weinstein story was everywhere, and the Matt Lauer stuff,” Green recalls. “There was so much in the press that we didn’t need to explain or show. We all know what’s going on. I wanted something woman-centric. It was more about what is preventing this woman from getting a position of power. What stops us? What gets in our way?”
Green doesn’t believe in talking down to her audience. Much of her film is told through the power of suggestion — a series of micro-aggressions and slights that underscore the banality of evil. “I was trying to look at how everyday and mundane it is,” says Green. “We weren’t going to slap a soundtrack all over it and turn it into a genre piece. It was going to be quiet and minimal.”
In ‘The Assistant,’ Julia Garner stars as a junior aide to a Harvey Weinstein-type executive, and faces indignity and abuse in the business world.
In the film, the atmosphere of oppression is palpable, but the causes are only hinted at. We hear muffled conversations, and what sounds like the occasional outburst, behind the office door that separates the title character Jane, played by Julia Garner, from her boss. When he gets her on the phone, his voice is menacing, but we can scarcely make out what he’s saying. And Jane — relegated to the dirty work that her male assistant colleagues consider themselves above — is forced to play interference when the boss’ beleaguered wife calls demanding to know where he is and whom he’s with.
“It’s unconscious bias, this gender division of labor,” notes Green, who hails from Melbourne, Australia. “As long as I could demonstrate that this toxic, corrosive power existed, and that’s what ruled this work environment, then I didn’t really need to dive into it any further.”
Garner, best known for her Emmy-winning work on the Netflix series “Ozark,” says that when she first read Green’s spare, 70-something-page script, she “knew that it was almost going to be a silent film.” She adds that Green “wanted this film to feel quiet because the subject [of sexual harassment and gender inequality]is so loud. And I loved that, because I feel any great art has contradictions in a way.”
It’s an oblique approach that’s not uncommon in Green’s work, which was defined by such documentaries as “Ukraine Is Not a Brothel” (2013) and “Casting JonBenét” (2017). The latter film, instead of being an exposé that attempts to solve the mystery behind JonBenét Ramsey’s murder, documents the suppositions and conspiracy theories revealed by would-be actors auditioning to play roles in a reenactment of the case, all from the Ramseys’ surrounding Boulder, Colo., community. It’s more about media obsession and how art imitates life in sometimes creepy ways.
It was while Green was promoting “Casting JonBenét” on the festival circuit that the seeds for “The Assistant,” her first narrative feature, were planted. At Sundance, a festival programmer assumed she got her ideas from one of her fellow producers, James Schamus and Scott Macaulay. And this was just the beginning.
“A lot of press would come in,” says Green, who is 36 but looks at least a decade younger. “They had a 20-minute window to see me. And they’d take a look at me and turn to the publicist and say, ‘Well, I’ll only need 10.’”
It was such a demoralizing experience that Green’s self-confidence was shattered, and she questioned whether she even wanted to continue making films. But ultimately it inspired her to explore the underlying sexism she was exposed to, a subject that initially took the form of sexual misconduct on college campuses but pivoted when the Weinstein story broke. Like a seasoned journalist, she interviewed scores of women who worked for predatory bosses, in entertainment and beyond.
So much of “The Assistant” consists of routine: Jane making coffee, photocopying scripts, arranging travel itineraries, cleaning an indeterminate stain on her boss’ couch, disposing of syringes from his office into a biohazard bag.
“Julia’s character doesn’t have enough information,” Green says. “She’s got the dots but can’t connect them. She’s getting crude hints and evidence but not enough to prove what’s happening. She doesn’t know what she’s cleaning off the couch. It could be yogurt, it could be semen. In that sense, we’re going on that journey with her.”
In Green’s mind, the part required an actress with “a striking appearance, because everything she’s doing is kind of perfunctory. It’s quite a subtle performance in that sense, because you’re watching her being worn down and broken by the system.”
In the film, Jane — whose grinding work schedule has cut her off from loved ones — is barely acknowledged unless she’s violating an unwritten rule. When she shares an elevator with a famous actor (an unbilled Patrick Wilson) or a group of Japanese investors, it’s as if she’s invisible.
“I wanted the audience to experience my feelings,” Garner says, “kind of like my subconscious in a way, so you [sense] a huge isolation from the rest of the people. And there’s nothing more lonely than being around people and still feeling alone. In a way, it’s actually worse than being by yourself.”
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