Set over the course of one day, The Assistant is a film confronting the #MeToo era with full force – director Kitty Green unpacks its quiet, stoic power
The Assistant swells with silence. In part, it’s the kind of quiet that comes with being both physically and socially alone at work, broken only by the whistling of a kettle boiling, or the clinking of a metal spoon against a china cup. But it’s also the sinister culture of silence, one that permeates workplaces around the world, and has enabled the sexism and abuse that director Kitty Green captures in one major setting – Hollywood.
We meet Jane (Julia Garner), a recent college graduate and aspiring film producer who has just landed her dream job as a junior assistant to a powerful entertainment mogul. Over the course of one day in her life, The Assistant opens with the monotony of office admin; we watch Jane make coffee, refill the paper in the printer, and take phone messages. But soon, we see her get yelled at by her boss, witness a chain of hopeful young women coming and going, and take a stand against systemic abuse, only to be met with derision.
A movie of the #MeToo era – sparked by the 2017 exposé of allegations against disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein – The Assistant centres not on the sensationalism of accusations of misconduct, but the everyday sexism that shrinks women’s self-confidence and limits their career progression. Its mundanity amplifies its most galling moments.
“I wanted to show the banality of evil,” says writer and director Green, discussing why she set the film over just one day. “I wanted to equally weigh everything she went through, the way she would experience it.”
Inspired by real-life interviews with a number of women, The Assistant pieces together the experiences of many to expose the wide-reaching structural inequalities that enable exploitation. “I had a focus on the ordinary as opposed to the extraordinary,” Green tells Dazed. “We need to unpick all this bad behaviour, not only the gross and disgusting, but the everyday sexism and harassment that women are still facing in offices today.”
As The Assistant arrives on streaming platforms, we speak to Green about silence, the #MeToo movement, and the importance of nuanced portrayals of abuse.
To what extent does The Assistant mirror your own experience of working in the film industry?
Kitty Green: Although some moments in the film are similar to my own experiences, it’s not a direct representation of what I went through. I spoke to a lot of women before making the film, and tried to make it as accurate as possible to what it would be like in an entry-level position at a powerful film production company. It’s a blend of conversations I’ve had with people, my own experiences, and the experiences of Julia Garner, who plays the lead.
I found that some of Jane’s experiences in the office actually reflected my own, despite mine being in the publishing industry. Were you consciously trying to convey cross-industry experiences?
Kitty Green: I spoke to a lot of people in the film industry, but I also spoke to women who worked in finance and tech. More than stories of powerful people, private jets, and helicopters, I was interested in the tales I’d heard across the board – the ones I’ve heard again and again. So I had a focus on the ordinary as opposed to the extraordinary; the administrative duties that could be transferable to any workplace became the focus for me.
“There’s the idea that if we get rid of Weinstein, the problem is solved. But the problem is so much bigger than that – it’s structural and it’s cultural” – Kitty Green
With the film being so transferable to other industries, what does this say about society’s treatment of young women in the workplace more widely?
Kitty Green: It’s pretty bleak. When you look at coverage of the #MeToo movement, it really makes you reflect. You read a lot about these predators, and there’s the idea that if we get rid of Weinstein, the problem is solved. But the problem is so much bigger than that – it’s structural and it’s cultural. We need to unpick all this bad behaviour, not only the gross and disgusting, but the everyday sexism and harassment that women are still facing in offices today.
Why did you decide to set the film over the course of one day?
Kitty Green: There’s a few reasons. The first is that when I said I wanted to make a film about an assistant and a predatory boss, many friends said, ‘oh, the enablers’, and I was trying to convey to them that it’s more complicated than that. If you are a woman with the least power in a company like that, it’s a very difficult position to be in – Jane is a victim of an abusive system and a gendered system. All of that becomes complicated very quickly. I wanted to have the audience experience what her day would be like, from morning to night, every single task. I wanted to equally weigh everything she went through, the way she would experience it. Making the coffee is just as important or dramatic as picking up something strange off her boss’ couch. I didn’t want to sensationalise any of it; I wanted to show the mundanity of her routine, and the banality of evil.
What I loved about the film is the realistic mundanity of Jane’s experience compared to the sensationalism of real-world sexual accusations in the media. You show that abuse doesn’t always come with violence, which is a key stereotype to debunk. Why do you think this nuanced portrayal is often lacking in media representations?
Kitty Green: Filmmaking is sensationalist in its very nature. It was difficult to get The Assistant financed because it’s a pretty quiet film about abuse, and I found that a lot of critics were mad that there wasn’t a rape scene, or some kind of visual depiction of assault, as if that’s what they needed in order to feel satisfied. It was very confusing to me because I feel that, as a woman, we’ve seen enough of that. It’s something we don’t need to see on screen to know it’s going on, or to understand the gravity of it.
It feels as if some people can only acknowledge that abuse is happening if they actually see it. For women who have experienced these kinds of things, you sadly get used to the everyday reality of it.
Kitty Green: Exactly. What I was trying to do with the film was highlight all of these tiny microaggressions, and amplify them so that the behaviours that go unnoticed, that really affect somebody’s self-confidence in the office, could be seen and analysed by the audience. I’m hoping that people will think about that kind of behaviour in their own workspaces, and how to make sure those subtle abuses don’t go unchecked.
“I didn’t want to sensationalise any of it; I wanted to show the mundanity of her routine, and the banality of evil” – Kitty Green
Silence plays a big role in the film, both through the culture of silence that surrounds predators, but also through actual moments of quiet. Why was it important for you to incorporate silence?
Kitty Green: So many people I spoke to who have worked in these sorts of companies referred to silence as a big component of the abuses they experienced. I’m not sure we really understood how to describe certain events or concerns before the #MeToo era, which truly gave us a language to tackle misconduct. The culture of silence is really interesting to me – this idea that people are concerned by what they’re saying but don’t know who to trust with that information, or are fearful of the consequences that speaking up could have on their lives. Silence is a big part of the movie that connects the power structures within an office like that, and allows misbehaviour to continue.
The film isn’t specifically about Harvey Weinstein, but parallels can be drawn. Unlike that story, which has typically been told from his perspective, The Assistant centres on the woman’s experience. Why did you decide to do this?
Kitty Green: I thought it was reductive to make a film about someone specific, say a Harvey Weinstein figure, because that would make it easy for people to go, ‘that happened with Weinstein, but it doesn’t happen here’, when I think these kinds of behaviours are happening all over the world and in different industries. I also thought it was important to centre women in the narrative and make it a story about what is preventing women from getting into positions of power – everyday sexism and the division of labour – as opposed to looking at the men who already have the power.
How do you think men and women might perceive the film differently?
Kitty Green: I don’t think it’s divided along gender lines that clearly. I think we’re all complicit in the system that has, for so long, hurt and sidelined women – we all need to interrogate our behaviour, and think about how we can make our workspaces safer. I do think the film makes some men feel uncomfortable because it’s kind of reflective of their behaviour.
What changes have you seen in the film industry since the #MeToo movement?
Kitty Green: I think it’s getting better slowly. I’ve seen more female filmmaker friends get more opportunities than they used to. But there’s still a lot of things that we need, and the more conversations we have about this, the better. I think the more movies about this subject, the better, and not necessarily about the ‘bad man’, but about these kinds of cultural and systemic problems.
The Assistant is out now on the following streaming platforms: Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player, Mubi, Rakuten TV, iTunes, Amazon, Sky, Virgin, Google, and Microsoft