“It’s about two young women standing up for themselves”: Kitty Green, who directed The Assistant, returns with a stomach-churning film about two female backpackers who serve drinks in a remote Australian pub
With her incisive 2019 drama The Assistant, Australian writer-director Kitty Green cast Julia Garner as a young woman tasked with navigating misogynistic office politics at a New York movie studio headed by a Harvey Weinstein-esque tyrant. Three years on, Green has reunited with Garner on The Royal Hotel, a stomach-churning thriller about two female, Canadian backpackers who serve drinks in a remote Australian pub and face a swath of vicious, male drunkards each night. It is, then, another workplace movie.
“I mean, they are both sort of workplace movies,” responds Green, speaking in the Soho Hotel during the London Film Festival. “Both hinge on Julia making sense of her environment, and figuring out if she’s allowed to speak up or not. But they’re very different spaces. They’re very different tonally.”
In an Outback town so rural that the phone reception doesn’t work, Hanna (Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) have taken barmaid jobs after running out of cash in Sydney. The dusty, barren environment proves to be less than welcoming to women. Well, technically it’s too welcoming. The pair are greeted by their alcoholic boss, Billy (Hugo Weaving), when they’re in towels and attempting to shower. Moreover, the customers are nearly all handsy, boozed-up men whose pent-up, sexual energy is directed at two female employees who are encouraged to smile for tips.
Together, Hanna and Liv form a double act that would be comedic if the situation weren’t so insidious. Unamused by misogynist humour such as requests for “Dickens Cider”, Hanna is nicknamed “Sour Cunt” by Billy; meanwhile, Liv, who jokes and occasionally flirts with the clientele, insists that “cunt” is a term of endearment and should be taken as a compliment. When Hanna seeks sympathy from a female customer, she’s instead instructed to show more cleavage to win over the male regulars.
According to Green, it was a deliberate move to examine her home country’s drinking culture. “In Australia, we have this way of talking about things, where we’re like, ‘Don’t worry about him. He’s alright.’ Even when someone’s a little funny, we often put up with it. I was trying to highlight that sometimes it’s OK to stand up for yourself and say no. I don’t think it’s unique to Australia. It’s that alcohol-fuelled aggression. That point a little late at night when everything gets a little sloppy, and has the potential to escalate – and how to prevent it from getting violent.”
However, the 39-year-old filmmaker notes, “Americans really think that Hugo Weaving’s character is terrifying from the first moment, whereas Australians think he’s alright. There’s very different reads of the movie. I think Brits are more on the Aussies’ side, and understand that a little more. It’s probably perfect for Brits.”
A US resident who grew up in Australia, Green started out in non-fiction as the director of the bold, confrontational documentaries Ukraine Is Not a Brothel and Casting JonBenet. With The Assistant, Green continued her journalistic instincts by interviewing numerous women in the film industry during the writing process, and for The Royal Hotel she stuck to real-life inspirations again by loosely adapting Pete Gleeson’s 2016 documentary Hotel Coolgardie into a screenplay.
“There’s maybe one line of dialogue that’s in the documentary,” says Green. “It’s not like we copied big chunks of it. It was the setting, really, and the experience of these two women trying to figure themselves out. But we got a lot from our own lives, and just travelling around pubs.”
In her youth, Green couch-surfed around Europe, hanging out in “weird towns” late at night, unsure of where she was. “I feel like their friendship dynamic comes from my own life,” she says. “Generally, when you’re travelling with a friend, one of you has to be more cautious and worry about checking into the hostel or whatever. The other can be looser and more relaxed.”
In the earlier scenes, though, Hanna is the looser, more relaxed of the pair. When Liv breaks the news that her debit card is no longer accepted, she has to interrupt Hanna’s snogging session with a Norwegian stranger, Torsten (Herbert Nordrum from The Worst Person in the World), at a boat party. When Torsten returns later in the film, he unexpectedly – or expectedly – appears keener to impress the male locals, not Hanna and Liv. Ultimately, none of the men can be trusted. Not Matty (Toby Wallace), whose charming demeanour proves to be a façade, and certainly not Teeth (James Frecheville). You never want to rely on someone called Teeth, anyway.
As the microaggressions accumulate and turn macro, Hanna and Liv reach a breaking point. The accelerating plot doesn’t include a rape, but instead questions how these two women should handle the persistent threat of violence – or why they have to put up with it in the first place. Outnumbered by hostile men, the duo would be unwise to physically fight back, and Hanna’s attempt to ban a specific customer is laughed off. Exiting early isn’t an option, either, unless they’re willing to escape before their shady boss writes an overdue paycheque.
Whereas The Assistant found dread within the eerie silences of an office, The Royal Hotel dials up the cacophony of a pub where everyone craves the women’s attention – and, often, their bodies. At times, the camera is placed behind the bar, emphasising what it’s like to have braindead men gawping in your direction. In their drunken state, the men occasionally attempt to break into the premises after closing time, an act that involves moaning, groaning, and banging on the door. Was Green deliberately emulating a zombie movie?
“There’s definitively a lot of horror tropes, zombie tropes, and western tropes,” says Green. “We’re playing around with the genre a little bit.” She reconsiders her answer. “It’s not necessarily a zombie film, but alcohol is infecting everyone. The more drunk they get, the less reliable they are, and it turns into a pack mentality where no one is safe. The zombies infect Liv, too. She falls into that culture.”
In a twist worthy of one of his movies, M. Night Shyamalan is thanked in the end credits. “He watched a cut of the film,” she says. “He gave me a bunch of feedback – a page of notes I scribbled down. I tried to address all his concerns. It made it a stronger movie. I directed two episodes of his TV show [Servant], and learned a lot from him.”
Our conversation is taking place two days after the WGA ended their strike, and Green reveals that she’s suddenly being sent a flurry of scripts. When her phone buzzes and requires switching off, Green reveals it’s Garner messaging about a potential third project. “Things have been filling my inbox, but I’ll probably do my own weird, little things. I want to keep working with Julia, if I can.”
With the film gradually playing around the world, Green is also keen to gauge the different responses, particularly amongst age demographics. “It’s about two young women standing up for themselves,” she says. “I don’t know if older generations do that so much, but young people do.” A critic recently told Green that their mother was left baffled and in disbelief. “The mother was critical of the girls for drinking, and being there. Generationally, it works differently. Younger people are like, ‘No, give it a go! They shouldn’t have to put up with that behaviour!’”
The Royal Hotel opens in UK cinemas on November 3.