In the midst of all the buzz around big titles like “Marriage Story” and “Ford v Ferrari,” it’s sometimes easy to sleep on some of Telluride’s more modestly scoped offerings. But it would be a shame to leave this notoriously short film festival without falling in love with at least one small and true discovery. This year, that unforeseen breakthrough is Kitty Green’s “The Assistant.” Following a single day in the life of a high-powered film executive’s female, entry-level assistant (Julia Garner), Green’s thriller-esque drama operates in the pre-#MeToo world, as its unnamed, first-in, last-out Northwestern graduate goes through numerous mundane tasks in a soulless office, while slowly noticing her boss’s toxic, predatory behavior.
And guess who the boss in question is? You don’t ever see him, but apart from the predatory behavior on a name-checked casting couch, the clues—a deep voice, multiple homes in the city, messiness with food the assistant has to clean up—leave little room for doubt that it’s Harvey Weinstein. Joining me impromptu following the final screening of her movie on Monday, writer/director Green (“Ukraine Is Not A Brothel,” “Casting JonBenet”) doesn’t exactly confirm that the boss figure is the disgraced film mogul. Instead, what she does focus on is the composite pain of countless assistants that she channeled through the lead character, played by Garner.
While Garner goes through her character’s stressful duties with the precision of Jeanne Dielman (Green’s sympathetic yet unflinchingly objective camera work recalls Chantal Akerman’s movie, too), her deep sense of sadness slowly rises to the surface. Having no allies—not co-workers, not HR, and definitely not her boss—and with a dream of becoming a producer one day, she dawdles in uncertainty. But ultimately, she learns the hard way that there's no easy way of taking on an ecosystem of enablers alone. With the future of her newly starting career at risk, what can she do, if not move on like everything is normal and write humiliating apology emails? Garner is simply astonishing in steering her character’s fragility—she manages to maintain a stone cold professional face, while tears linger on her eyelashes with every subtle male dismissal and condescension.
Perfectly calibrated and increasingly mournful, “The Assistant” is perhaps the first expressly #MeToo narrative feature that elucidates why the movement's arrival was way overdue, as well as one of the most important world premieres to grace this year’s Telluride Film Festival. Below is an interview with Green, which has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.
This is a pre-#MeToo story. When did you start writing it?
To be honest, it all started because I had been in the film industry for 10 years and I had my fair share of bad experiences. I both experienced and witnessed misconduct. I was kind of angry and I didn't know what to do with that anger. I decided to talk to friends about what we can do. I was talking to my producers and I decided I might do some research on college campuses and talk to kids about consent and power structures as a way to get into the topic. I was doing this tour of different universities, and I went to Stanford and saw this amazing performance art troupe there that work with trauma. Then I read suddenly that the Weinstein scandal had broken open. I heard rumors about this, but not too much.
I suddenly got on the phone and started texting a bunch of people. I have a lot of friends in the film industry. I arrived back in New York and shifted focus to just interviewing friends. I started interviewing everybody, but I've found the focus to be more interesting at the assistant level and the entry-level jobs. I kind of was trying to find a way to analyze this whole situation as it was unfolding in the press. Instead of looking at it top down, I was looking at it bottom up.
I think #MeToo would have arrived much sooner if people looked at things from bottom up.
Exactly, I agree. I think in order to analyze why there aren’t more women in positions of power, you've got to look at why we're not getting our foot in the door in the first place. I think all this talk, this gendered kind of system we've created, is really prohibiting women from [breaking in].
Did you talk to any assistants who worked for some recognizable names in the industry?
And would you be comfortable revealing who those people were?
I mean, I started working with people who worked with The Weinstein Company and Miramax, but I also spread out to other companies. A lot of people are still working [with their bosses] right now. I feel uncomfortable mentioning their names.
Yes, of course.
But then I also spoke to people from agencies. I spoke to other people from studios, and then I kind of moved into different [places]. I was hearing similar stories from everybody. Really, no matter where they worked, this kind of gendered division of labor with the tasks that they got versus the tasks that the men got, [happened]. The way the men were being promoted and they weren't. The way they were shut down or silenced every time [they] spoke up about injustice. That was kind of common to all of that. I expanded it to my friends who were architects, my friends in tech, finance, and I was finding the same stories there, too.
I love your visual approach to telling this story. Your lead actress is often pitched in the middle of the screen, doing these mundane tasks. I kept thinking about Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” a lot.
That was the first movie I watched maybe in my late teens or early twenties where I thought, "Wow, this is what a movie can be." I was shocked by that movie. That was the movie that made me want to make movies. I guess that's always been in the back of my mind. When this project started taking shape, I did watch it again, obviously. It is inspired by it, but I'm less liberal with time. So, it's a very different kind of film. The focus on gesture and rhythm and just this idea of labor and showing kind of the mundane—the cinema verite-style of approach I always responded to.
But I felt there was also an uneasy thriller-esque component to this movie. For instance, when she cuts her finger, you do feel something bigger might happen. I watched it on my toes.
Oh wow, that's great. I heard so many crazy stories from people and I didn't really want to go there. I wanted to focus on things that were relatable. It was more about the ordinary than the extraordinary. I got everything I needed about how toxic this system is from just hearing kind of the simple stories about the daily office routine.
How did you design this production office space? There are also all these fake movie posters around. It was a believable film office.
We just found a building in New York City and shot in it. We rented an office building basically. That was great. Then we had an amazing production design team who gave it that kind of look. I feel like the interesting thing is, when you talk about the film industry, people assume it's so glamorous. And you actually go into these offices, and they're really kind of dingy.
Kind of grimy, yeah.
... and small and pokey. I wanted to reflect that a little bit, but still have a sense of how powerful these people are. It is a fine balance to get that.
OK, let’s talk about the unnamed and unseen boss. There is no mistaking that voice—he really sounded like Harvey Weinstein. How did you make that voice happen?
I've never met Harvey Weinstein. I don't know what he sounds like. But I [imagined] he also sounds like a lot of bosses, that guy. But we just found a really great actor. To be honest, it wasn't in the script. It was, she picks up the call and it wasn't scripted what he would say. It was a process in post where we brought in the actor and tried a bunch of things and he's great, Jay O. Sanders. He would just ad lib a little and he's been in the industry forever. He was like, "I know these guys. I know what they're like," and sort of would riff on it and he did incredible things. It terrified me, by the way. I was terrified listening to it.
I mean that voice is terrifying because it felt unmistakable to me. And I loved that he was unnamed.
We needed to sense his power over everyone. But it wasn't like the assistant had a lot of face-to-face time with him. Her role is to do the administrative duties for assistants. She's one of them. I just put him so that we could sense his power and control. I just wanted pieces of him so we could see that everyone was tense because of the power. That kind of toxicity, it trickles down from the top. And as soon as you give him a fake name, like if you call him Barry or Jones, it would have pulled people out.
And I guess when you don't name him, it could be anybody and that’s a much bigger idea.
Yeah, and she’s not named either. It is this idea that I wanted to have a sense that it could be anyone, in any workplace. It is sort of all of us in some way.
How did you work with Julia Garner?
As soon as we met her, she understood the script, which was great. She understood the character, and who she thought the character was. Then the two of us in pre-production had spent I think three or four weeks—the script doesn't have much detail about who this girl is.
We brought in people who worked as assistants in various companies and Julia spoke to them. She went to her management office and watched how they answered the phones. We did a lot of just roleplay and playing around to figure out who she is and what she wants and her aspirations. I think that was really helpful.
I also love how you captured just tiny details about male behavior and entitlement, which is what’s really damaging on a day-to-day basis. For instance, this one scene in the elevator, it sticks with you. Where they're trying to step out at the same time, he slowly touches her shoulder. There are so many moments like that in the movie.
I've been in the industry for a while and it's the little things that really affect your self-confidence. People dismissing you in a way that's very subtle, but it really hurts. I notice every time I told my friends, "Oh, he did this." It sounds like I'm complaining or it sounds like nothing. But I really wanted to try and demonstrate that for an audience, and try and get them to emotionally understand how hurtful some of those tiny actions are. I was really concentrating on the microaggressions and [little looks and gestures] that can really wound you. It does affect your ability to do your job well. I feel like it is all part of this such toxic culture we've created.
Then the crazy thing is, after the Weinstein story broke, we all realized that there's a big ecosystem of enablers. You portray that system of silence so sharply in this movie.
A lot of things in there are part things I've experienced, the little tiny things. I've experienced all sorts of different things. I don't know, the industry is a mess. I interviewed about 100 people. There is a lot of collective kind of pain that goes into this film.
I am wondering what you want people to take away and do after they watch this movie?
I feel like if the film was set today, she would have more avenues and pathways or she would have more support. But I still don't think that anything has changed. I still feel like this is going on all over the world in different workplaces. I think we're getting there, but any kind of interrogation of the subtleties and smaller things get overlooked. We got rid of Harvey Weinstein, but everything's not fixed.
That's just the tip of the iceberg.
That's it. The whole iceberg is left. "How can we make workplaces equal, fair, just for women and safe spaces?" It still needs work.
The HR scene, when doors get closed on her face, was too painful to watch.
Well they're there to protect the company, that's their job. Their job is to protect, not the employees, but the company from the employees. I think she goes in thinking he's on her side and quickly, she figures out that he's not, which is terrifying.
I hated him when he said, "Oh, we need more women producers. You know what it takes.” He sounded belittling.
I hate that. That line makes me cringe still and I've seen it thousands of times. But Matthew [Macfadyen] was the sweetest. I'm pretty sure he wasn't that comfortable saying it, but he was great.
We only hear music—this really heartbreaking tune—in the beginning when we see the New York City cityscape go by, and in the end. You’re scoreless the rest of the time.
A lot of it is about showing the kind of reality of working in those office spaces and what it's like to be the youngest woman on the desk of this predator. I felt like if I had filled it with music, it would have been easy for the audience. I wanted them to empathize with her discomfort. In some ways, making the audience just as uncomfortable was kind of part of the goal, which doesn't sound that great.