It’s a little over two years following the culture-shifting reporting that sparked the #MeToo movement, and we’ve finally gotten the first truly great movie about the culture in need of dismantling. Kitty Green’s The Assistant follows a single day in the life of Julia Garner’s Jane, a new employee working for a Harvey Weinstein-like bullying boss. We inhabit her state of mind not through what she says or thinks but rather through what she does – primarily, dreary office tasks. But through the simplest of labor, Green brings to light a number of complex systems of gender, sex and power that undergird all workplace behavior yet remains unspoken.
The film represents a remarkable step forward for Green, who previously made waves for her 2017 documentary film Casting JonBenet. In that film, Green visited the hometown of the slain child pageant queen and used the pretext of a film based on the murder to explore how the event continues to make ripples in the community. She’s our most humanist “true crime” filmmaker, if one can assign her films to any genre at all, because her concern lies less in wrongdoing itself and more in how a community responds to it. In my interview with Kitty Green, we discussed how she found the film’s unique rhythm as well as how her research led her to emphasize the mundane over the sensational.
Routine and process play such a large role in dictating the experience of the film, and there’s such a variety of how you convey it. How were you determining factors like how long to let a shot play out or how close to put the camera to Julia Garner?
Those are two very different processes. I was very focused on the rhythm of it, and time was the big consideration in making this movie. When I first pitched it to friends, I would say she’s an assistant to a predator. People would say, “Oh, the enablers,” implying that was all she was doing. I wanted to make sure the representation of her workday was accurate, that we went through each task as she would. The photocopying scenes had as much weight and were as long as when she’s doing something that might be seen as a little more sensationalist or lurid like cleaning the couch. It’s meant to unfold realistically like a day would for a woman in that position. The monotony, the banality of evil, I guess is the overarching theme that we were looking at task-by-task in a workplace like that.
Shots … we had to shoot everything in an office, a lot of it at her desk. It really was about getting some variation in what we were shooting so we didn’t feel like we were seeing the same thing again and again. It’s a film about monotony, but I didn’t want it to be too monotonous. She kind of sinks lower and lower in the frame, that was something we were playing with in terms of the cinematography. Julia has the most amazingly expressive face, so we could stay in close-up on her forever. But sometimes you switch to wide to get some work done.
Were you establishing the rhythm at the script stage, or did you shoot a lot of coverage and play around with it in the editing room?
We shot in 18 days, so there was no time to play around! We had to shoot what we needed and then cross our fingers. There are a lot of scenes that are one-shot because we didn’t have the coverage to cut to anything else. Any playing around would be with the length of the shots. We did a few test screenings with audiences to see when people started shuffling in their seats, and that informed the time and length.
Something that really stood out when I rewatched the film was the crispness of the sound design and how jarring it was to hear a commonplace noise like a humming light, the rumbling A/C, the coffee pot, the blender … in a lot of ways, it’s your film’s version of a score. At what point in the development process do you start realizing how the sonic landscape of the film is going to take shape and affect the audience?
I knew I didn’t want music. It’s a realistic portrait of being in that position, and that means no music and montage. Early on, we knew that we needed a really great sound designer. We looked at Elephant [Gus Van Sant’s 2003 film about a school shooting] and a bunch of films that have a really incredible soundscape built into them. [Our sound designer] sent out a bunch of people to record office noises, buzzes, hums of lights. We were able to create a lot of tension with that. There’s also a musicality to it – you can really get tones out of the hums and buzzes that you can play around with. We had a lot of fun in the production process.
It feels like an amplification of the culture of silence we’re observing around the characters. You hear the silence more than you hear them talk.
Exactly. It’s about all the things that are going unsaid rather than are being said. There’s barely any dialogue, but there’s lots of tense sound work.
Why did you shift to some non-diegetic music at the very beginning and end of the film?
We needed something to get her to the office in the morning and something to get her home. I feel like bookending it with music was ok. There’s no music in the office, but once you leave the office, we can break the rule. It was probably more just that’s the convention. Normally, over the credits you’d hear music. When that music does come in, how do we keep our very minimalist, quiet feel while incorporating end credits music? We got an amazing composer, Tamar-kali, who created something that was quite subtle and elegant.
There are some things and experiences in this film that are, sadly, probably common across industries beyond film and media, and because The Assistant does not go deep into industry jargon or inside baseball, I presume it has wide resonance for people. How did you balance opening the film outwards without losing the specificity of the film business?
I spoke to a lot of people who worked in the film industry, and they would tell me these crazy stories. Since these people [who they worked for] were very powerful, there’d be stories about Cannes or yachts, those kinds of crazy things. I was more interested in the stories that were ordinary and relatable to anyone, that were transferrable to any workplace. I picked those over the extraordinary ones. I was hoping that all women could relate to being in Jane’s position. The focus was what would be relatable to anyone. I think that’s working because a lot of women come up to me after screenings who worked in modeling agencies, cosmetics companies, boating companies even, who said they identify with her and that’s what happened where they were.
The idea that entry-level employees are replaceable is not singular to film, but it’s a particularly pronounced and unspoken pressure in the business because it’s so competitive to get in. Companies know they can instantly find someone to do the same job for peanuts.
Yes. But even though we focused on these ordinary tasks, you can tell the things she’s doing are related to film. There’s a lot of dialogue in the background about festivals, that’s what makes it specific to the film world. But everything she’s doing, she could do in any workplace.
I’ve been so struck by the thematic parallels between The Assistant and your last film, the documentary Casting JonBenet. To me, both are about the impact of a crime everyone knows happened, but people didn’t see and how people project their own experiences with the criminal behavior onto the incident in order to fill the gap of missing facts. Do you see the two as connected?
Interesting! That’s a nice way to connect them. I’ll take that … no, kidding! Both of them are about the exploitation of women, which is the more clear connection. We’re looking at the press – the way they attacked Patsy Ramsey [JonBenet’s mother] was part of the reason I was interested in the JonBenet case in the first place. But every time I find a subject, I find a way into it that’s somewhat different than what someone would normally do with that issue, hoping it will open it up or broaden it out more.
I know you don’t really want to talk about Harvey Weinstein specifically, but there’s one moment in the film that really stood out to me as an unconventional parallel between the two. Late in the film, Jane is preparing her boss’s office for a meeting with other company executives, and as they enter, one of them says, “Never sit on the couch” as a laugh line because it’s assumed they all know about the mythical casting couch.
It reminded me of how, when the #MeToo reporting broke, a lot of people replayed Seth MacFarlane’s old jokes about Weinstein. In interviews, he explained that he made these oblique joking references because he was powerless to make any actual change but wanted to express his frustration and anger. Is resorting to a kind of nervous laughter and gallows humor something common you found when researching the industry? Do you have any theories for why it’s so pervasive as a coping mechanism?
It’s connected to the idea of a culture of silence rather than just talking about it. Rather than trying to figure out what’s happening, let’s joke about it, it’ll be easier. That’s a way for them to deal with something they feel powerless to stop. There’s a few examples of that, they’re joking around. The character, Jane, reaches out to someone and they just walk away, shut her up. That behavior can only continue if it’s not addressed. That’s what we were playing with.
What’s the backstory on the other male assistant that’s closer to Jane’s stature and age? I worked in the industry a little bit when I was younger, and that person, in my mind, is totally there as a nepotism hire. He feels insulated because of some kind of personal connection to the boss and has been fast-tracked with more important business tasks.
Noah Robbins plays him, and he’s incredible. It probably wasn’t written as gross as Noah plays him. Noah took it to another level. I don’t know what his story is. The boss does yell at him at one point and throws him out of the room. He looks white as a sheet. I guess I was picking up on the power dynamics of if this young boy is abused, perhaps that behavior will perpetuate and that’s the way he thinks he should treat others. That was the inspiration. But I was also trying to demonstrate what it’s like to be a young woman and have a “boy’s club,” essentially, in the office that you’re not a part of. There’s a few things going on.
It’s striking to watch them giggle over the phone while she’s off doing “office housework.” The time she spends there helps contribute to her not being a part of that club.
Those are the tasks that are generally given to women. I’ve heard time and again that women were forced to get the coffee. I’ve even been forced to get the coffee! We seem to unfairly divide up tasks around gender lines, and that’s something I was trying to highlight.
The HR representative makes that off-handed remark to Jane when she mentions doing these tasks that they have janitorial staff, and she can’t really say anything to that. It’s an unfortunate assumption that women get those tasks on top of their regular duties.
Yeah, “keep it neat, keep it tidy,” I think she says is her job.
One last question that’s maybe a little lighter since we’ve hit on some heavy stuff: Patrick Wilson in the elevator. We’re supposed to assume that’s him as a cameo, right? Not playing a character?
He’s sort of playing a famous actor. That’s how it’s scripted, and he agreed to do it. He just came in for the day and helped us out. He was so kind and loving. I really like that scene. The way he takes up space in the elevator and ignores [Jane] is amazing. There’s no words, but it says a lot.
You observe so much from the body language and how she feels she can interact with a famous actor.
Exactly. And him oblivious to the fact that she’s even in the elevator with him.
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