Director Kitty Green breaks down moral complexities of ‘The Assistant’: “We know what’s going on behind that door”

The Assistant, written and directed by Kitty Green, portrays Jane (Julia Garner) as a young assistant to a powerful entertainment executive who witnesses the abuse from within the company.  This introspective and personal story allows us to walk in her shoes as Jane attempts to wrestle with her stressful job filled with moral and ethical issues. It’s a hauntingly complex film that methodically reveals the mechanisms and underpinnings of the powerful over the powerless.  Both thought-provoking and evocative, The Assistant is a unique look at equality.

Green was recently in Chicago to discuss her film and I had a chance to sit down with her to talk about some of the nuances and key issues behind the film. (Edited for space and clarity)

Pamela Powell (PP):  The film takes place over one day.  Why only one day and not Jane’s first year on the job?

Kitty Green (KG):  A friend of mine … said, ‘Oh, the enablers.’ “Enablers” is an interesting word because it’s much more complicated than that when you have a young woman, a very young woman with no power in [this] position … What she’s doing to help him is only a few tiny things amongst a bunch of other things that she’s got to get done that day. [It’s] demonstrating task by task what her day was like  … so it isn’t like you’re servicing his every need.

PP:  It’s an extremely complicated and layered film.

KG: Yes, so time to me was important and assistants are people who have been invisible to us for so long.  People often walk past them and ignore them. What if you were stuck in her shoes for a day and that became the concept. 

PP:  There’s certainly a moral dilemma in which Jane finds herself.  How did you come to portray this?

KG:  I was working on something about consent and power structure when the Weinstein story broke. I was interviewing college students, so I shifted to interviewing women in the industry but specifically people just out of college. At a lot of those colleges they have a lot of good practices to make sure what people achieve [things] fairly and equally and some good consent initiatives to get people to understand it.  They [then] move into the workforce and quickly you’re in a toxic, abusive environment. And it’s very gendered and not like wherever you went to college. I think women are often quite surprised by how difficult those positions are. I didn’t see it as clearly a moral dilemma. It’s not like, “Oh, my boss is bad, but I also want a job.” It felt like she was stuck in a system that seemed like this is the way things go.  I don’t think she thought she had another choice. She tried to speak up about what she saw and was quickly shot down. 

FF2 Media’s Pamela Powell interviews Kitty Green in Chicago (Photo credit: Pamela Powell)

PP:  What do you hope younger women will take away from this film?

KG: I do think [the film] takes place [before] the #MeToo movement, before we had the language and the space to talk about misconduct.  I feel like, nowadays, we can speak up and she could have found an outlet for her concerns. I think that’s changing, so I think that’s better, but I think the behavior of the boys, particularly the boys’ club, that gendered division of labor— women get the coffee and take care of the children— all that stuff still exists and I think we need to unpick that.  I think if we can highlight that for young women and young men and show them just how incorrect that is, hopefully they can point it out when they see it and hopefully they can be a little more aware. Oftentimes, as women, we judge each other or we don’t look after each other enough or support each other the way we should. Acknowledging that we all have some work to do to make things better for everyone.

PP:  Has there been a gender difference in response to your film?

KG:  Some men kind of miss the point of the film. Some of them were like, ‘This was an issue up until a couple years ago. It’s not an issue anymore.’ It’s that kind of conversation that I get from men only. But women seem respond to it really well.  A lot of women come up after a screening who work in different industries not the film industry … who said that they were that girl. They had exactly that experience. I was hoping to make something that was transferable to anywhere.

(Green continued…)

I’ve had a lot of men come up to me and say, ‘Yeah, I’m guilty of that,” little things that maybe when they thought they were helping maybe that was more condescending than they thought it was. I’ve had bosses, too, that said they came out of it thinking about the way they treated their assistants and maybe they’re asking them to do a little too much for them.  Maybe that line is a little blurry. Maybe they should think about where that line is. If people can think about that line, it’s amazing.

PP:  Did you have difficulty getting this made?

KG: I had two producers who were on board when it was about consent on college campuses and I shifted it to be about workplace environments and gendered workplace misconduct.  … We had the right financiers who understood the project [but] it took awhile to get them because I think men would see themselves and [it would] make them uncomfortable and they’d say no and pass pretty quickly. But the women at these companies would often really like it.  We get the women saying, ‘Yes!’ and the men saying , ‘No,’ but we found the right group of financiers and then screened it at Telluride. Then Bleecker Street came on board to distribute it.  

PP:  Tell me about casting Julia Garner.

KG:  She’s amazing.  I watched her in The Americans and I thought she was great. I knew she had an interesting look [and] because there wasn’t a lot of dialogue, I was looking for someone who was very watchable.  [Someone] who you could just follow through all these very mundane tasks. And Julia’s got that. She’s got something special about her. She’s got a very expressive face so it’s very easy to see what she’s thinking.

We did a month of pre-production … and together we’d interview people who had been assistants, not interviewed but chatted with assistants, about their lives and their feelings.  I think a lot of that helped inform the character and the decisions that we made on set.

PP:  You use no names and only refer to the boss, the predator, as “he” or “him.”  Is that a respect issue?

KG:  She doesn’t have a name, really, either.  No one says it. It’s everyone’s story. There are so many of us who are “Jane.”  So many of us who have had these experiences. Names weren’t important, really. It was much more about behavior and patterns and things I’ve seen again and again and heard again and again.  It was definitely taking the power away from him, that was very clear. We know what’s going on behind that door. We’ve read about it. We don’t need to see that anymore. What’s more interesting is everything around it, the machinery, the environment. 

PP:  You said in an interview in the Chicago Tribune a few years ago that it’s difficult for a woman to get a chance to direct feature narrative films.  Do you think times have changed?

KG: I think it’s getting better, to be honest. I have a lot of friends who are filmmakers who are women and they’re getting more opportunities.  I’m seeing them getting employed in ways they weren’t before. … We’re still not where we are getting everything we need and it’s not equal. If you look at the statistics of who’s directing films, women are still very low.  I think they’re slowly figuring out that we can do it, too. We can make movies like boys can.

Read FF2 Media’s review of The Assistant HERE.

© Pamela Powell (2/4/20) FF2 Media

Director Kitty Green and actress Julia Garner premiere The Assistant at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival (Photo credit: Brigid Presecky | FF2 Media)

Featured Photo: Writer/director Kitty Green, left, and Julia Garner pose for a portrait to promote the film “The Assistant” at the Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP)

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Pamela Powell
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New York native film critic and film critic Pamela Powell now resides near Chicago, interviewing screenwriters and directors of big blockbusters and independent gems as an Associate for FF2 Media. With a graduate degree from Northwestern in Speech-Language Pathology, she has tailored her writing, observational, and evaluative skills to encompass all aspects of film. With a focus on women in film, Pamela also gravitates toward films that are eye-opening, educational, and entertaining with the hopes of making this world a better place. 
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