Kitty Green’s fictional feature debut The Assistant follows a day in the life of a junior assistant to a powerful entertainment mogul. Here, director Kitty Green reveals the sexist interaction that inspired the film
This article is published as part of our #CultureIsNotCancelled campaign:
Kitty Green’s first feature-length film, Casting JonBenet, was a remarkable debut. Her documentary examined the murder of beauty pageant princess JonBenet Ramsey, looking at the ongoing ripple effects the child’s death, and subsequent media circus, had on the residents of small-town Boulder, Colorado. It would go on to be heralded as “enticingly original” by Variety, “profound” by Time Out and as a “magnificent provocation” by The Guardian. The film was accepted into Sundance and shortlisted for the institution’s most prestigious award – the Grand Jury Prize — but it was while at the festival, that things began to take an unfortunate turn for Green.
During a drinks reception, a lead programmer for a different festival approached the director, ostensibly to congratulate her on the documentary’s success. “He said, ‘I’m going to ask you the question that everyone’s probably asking you’,” remembers Green. “‘Who gives you your ideas? Is it James Schamus or Scott Macaulay?’ My two male producers.”
She was floored. “I was like, ‘who gives me my ideas?’” Green recalls. “It was insane to me for someone to think somebody else was in charge of my ideas. I felt immediately like, even if I work really hard, I won’t get the credit for it. That was really disheartening. It was undermining to both myself and the movie and it messed with my self-confidence.” That experience, and others like it, inspired Green to start work on her latest feature. “The Assistant is definitely a response to those kinds of attitudes,” says the director. “I funnelled that confusion and anger into the film. That’s where film is created from in some sense.”
Her fictional feature debut, The Assistant, follows a day in the life of Jane (Emmy-winner Julia Garner), a recent college graduate and aspiring film producer, who’s recently landed a job as a junior assistant to a powerful entertainment mogul. We watch as Jane makes coffee, schedules flights, arranges hotel bookings and delicately fends off unwanted calls, gradually becoming aware, task-by-task, of the abuse that insidiously colours every aspect of her working day. Grippingly tense and soberingly real, The Assistant catalogues an accumulation of degradations which expose the crushing tedium of patriarchy.
Drawing on her documentary experience, Green began her research for the film by interviewing friends and former employees of the Weinstein Company and Miramax. Eventually speaking to more than 100 assistants across film, tech, banking and production, she focused on the ordinary and everyday, over the absurd. “You hear the craziest stories about yachts and private jets and briefcases full of money and helicopters and things like that,” says the director. “I tried to not focus on that. What was interesting to me were those experiences which any woman in any industry could relate to. I wanted to explore the idea that abuse is utterly ordinary. There’s nothing sexy about it. We wanted to focus on the banality of evil.”
Throughout each interview, the same small injustices would repeat themselves. “I’d hear the same stories again and again,” says Green. “Male colleagues being promoted while the women were left behind. A lot of gendered division of labour, men getting assigned certain tasks, women getting assigned others.” The further Green progressed with her research, the more the stories she was hearing would diverge from the prevailing narrative of assistants as ‘enablers’ of powerful and predatory men. “I would often read in the press about assistants [and] they’d always be called ‘enablers’,” says the director. “I wanted to unpack that because I didn’t think it was that simple. A lot of these people, especially the assistants, are the least powerful person in that institution or organisation.”
The film’s realism hasn’t gone unnoticed by audiences. “A lot of women who’ve seen it come up to me and say they haven’t seen themselves reflected on screen in that way,” says Green, “and that the film is important to them.” In rare cases, those in positions of power are also recognising some of the behaviours they’re seeing on screen. While she was finishing the final edit, Green sent a draft of the film to a respected filmmaker, the type of person who, if they don’t like her work, “definitely lets me know”. Several weeks went by, Green knew that the filmmaker had seen her film, but still no response came. “I was surprised that I didn’t get a response,” she remembers. “You can get a little anxious about the way someone’s responding to the work.”
Eventually, an email landed in her inbox. “‘I’ve got an assistant sitting next to me who’s doing far too much for me,’” it said, “and I have to rethink that relationship a little bit. I’m wrestling with that.’” It was just the kind of response Green had hoped for. “I like that it’s lingering with people,” says the director. “That shows somebody is really thinking about the film, about what it means and about their own choices. That’s the best response you can have from a film like this. The more conversations about this the better. It’s not just a case of getting rid of Harvey Weinstein. There’s a bigger problem that we need to address.”
The Assistant was due to be released in cinemas this April. The film will now receive a widespread digital release from May 1, 2020 on iTunes, Amazon, Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player among others.