sundance 2020

How The Assistant Became the First Movie to Grapple With Harvey Weinstein

Director Kitty Green and star Julia Garner on how they mobilized to make a movie about the insidiously abusive film industry — and then premiered it to a festival full of their peers. Photo: Bleecker Street

Kitty Green and Julia Garner don’t really want to talk about Harvey Weinstein, but it’s hard to avoid the topic. His shadow looms large over The Assistant, Green’s first narrative feature, which premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival and stars Garner as Jane, a young woman low on the totem pole at an unnamed film-production company coming to terms with the reality that she’s a cog in a machine built to protect predators. Weinstein is never mentioned by name, nor do we see the face of Jane’s boss, who’s his obvious stand-in. But Weinstein’s unmistakable presence is felt nonetheless in the hulking body Jane glimpses leaning over a young actress on his couch, in the gravelly, threatening voice berating her over the phone, and in the palpable culture of fear and oppression that permeates the office.

Though The Assistant is the first film to deal with it directly, Green and Garner have much more on their minds than merely rehashing Weinstein’s sickening tale of sexual abuse and manipulation. As Vulture’s Alison Willmore wrote in her review of the film, “The Assistant shares an understanding that the man himself is less psychologically interesting than the people around him, and how they’ve learned to tolerate, accommodate, rationalize away, or internalize his behavior.” The Assistant is chilling in how it tracks the banality of an industry structured to enable and protect men like Weinstein. It follows a single day at Jane’s job: She makes coffee, she prints out stacks of glossy headshots, she arranges travel, all the while being dismissed and mistreated by her co-workers. But slowly, both Jane and the audience begin to realize that something even more sinister than structural misogyny is at play — and Jane is both unwillingly complicit and powerless to stop it.

I caught up with an understandably exhausted Green and Garner after the film’s festival premiere to talk about how they managed to make such a timely film so quickly, the research they gathered from within Hollywood and beyond, and whether they’re interested in men like Weinstein’s reactions to their movie.

How soon after the Weinstein story broke did you decide to write this movie, Kitty?
Kitty Green: I’d been working on a movie about consent on college campuses. I’d been to Duke, to all these universities. I was at Stanford talking to a women’s troupe who do plays about sexual assault and consent, and I was with them when the news broke. Immediately my phone blew up with my friends telling me the stories they’d heard, and from people that had worked there, and that shifted my focus at that point. I took everything I’d learned about institutional power and consent and moved it over to that subject, the film industry. Which I actually felt closer to because I’d worked in it. I started interviewing people right after the news hit. I probably did about six or eight months of interviewing across London, New York, L.A., and Australia. And then we shot in 18 days.

How many people did you speak to? And how did you get them to open up to you?
KG: Nearly 100. I think after you talk to one person, they recommend you speak to someone else — it’s a domino effect. It was really incredible. The stories I was hearing were very similar, again and again, no matter where I was. That was kind of shocking for me. Abusive environments and gendered systems existed everywhere, which is pretty horrifying. So that became the driving force behind getting the film made.

Were most of the people that you spoke to related to Weinstein in some way? Or was it more general?
KG: No. It’s easier to talk about Weinstein because Miramax is bankrupt, but there are a lot of companies still operating, and I spoke to assistants who still work for these men who are predatory. Well, not necessarily predatory …

Julia Garner: Abusive.

KG: Yeah, there are a lot of toxic workplaces that are still operating. The importance of the film is that it highlights that behavior. And if enough people see the movie, hopefully it will change people’s behavior in some way. They’ll think about the way they’re treating others, who they’re promoting, and how they can make their workplaces more fair and equitable.

JG: The goal, too, is that people outside the film industry [see it]. Right now we’re at a film festival and it’s like, “How can we change this industry?” But no — how can we change all industries? There’s a world outside Hollywood.

KG: I also spoke to people who worked in tech, and the same stuff happens in their offices.

JG: And you hear about it working at a hospital. If you’re working an intense job in an intimate setting, it’s more likely to happen.

Right. It felt very recognizable to me. I think many women have been the intern or the assistant and have been mistreated or seen someone like them being mistreated. Did you guys draw from your own industry experiences while making this?
KG: I was an assistant at ABC, and it was a very — I was treated very well, but I was the youngest person in the office. I didn’t have any power, and I did often struggle with trying to climb the ranks but feeling like I was new and didn’t belong. But my experiences stem from the fact that I’ve been a film director for five to ten years, and everyone assumes I’m the assistant. When I walk into a room, people hand me the coats.

JG: She’s very cute and looks very young. [Laughs.] Kitty, most people would love to have your problems.

KG: [Laughs.] But it does mess with your self-confidence. I had a very lovely male assistant who worked for me. He was six feet tall. So they’d give me the coats and turn to him because they thought he was the director. And then he would grab the coats from me, and say, “Kitty, what are we doing?” Every time someone walked into the room, it’d happen again and again. And you think, Is there something about me that isn’t right? Do I belong in this industry? People would question whether I was creatively in control. At Sundance a few years ago, someone asked me which of my two male producers “comes up with my ideas.” And I was like, “You would never ask a male director that.” At the end of the day, you lack confidence and self-worth going into it. Does anyone really believe I can make a movie? All of those emotions are baked into what I was doing.

What about you, Julia?
JG: I’ve been very lucky that I’ve worked the sets that I’ve been on. My environment has been really nice and not abusive. But I’ve heard stories from many colleagues and friends and … I don’t want to say it’s experience, but I think being in this industry, being a woman, you have to put yourself out there all the time — you have to be really wary. You have to be careful. But every woman has to be careful.

Have you seen Leslye Headland’s play, Assistance?
KG: I’ve read the script, but I haven’t seen it.

I’m interested because there have been smaller projects like these percolating, and I’m sure more will continue to come out. Why and how do you think you managed to make the first film to deal directly with Harvey and this issue?
KG: For me it was a frustration in seeing the headlines reporting on the men, and — what’s his name — Matt Lauer, Louis C.K., all these names. Everyone wants to report on that but not the larger issues, like, why aren’t there more women in power? I wanted to shift focus quickly. I wanted to change the conversation to “How can we improve the situation moving forward?” Let’s start now. This shouldn’t take ten years. I dove in. And I just got going, and we pulled it together very quickly.

What were the legal implications and considerations you had to keep in mind while making this? Were you worried at all about Harvey being litigious? Though the movie isn’t just about him, he’s a specter.
JG: Yeah, it’s not about Harvey.

KG: We had a good legal team from day one. They never put any restrictions on what we could do. It was definitely an artistic choice [not to show him]. It was a moral choice not to make it a film about Harvey Weinstein. If the whole problem was Harvey Weinstein, we wouldn’t have a problem anymore. The problem is so much bigger than Harvey. It’s cultural. That became the focus: the system around the predator. The machinery.

JG: You have bosses who are the same sex as their assistants, and they’re abusive. Or you have a male boss being abusive to a male assistant. It’s about respect.

I thought it was really brilliant the way that you had each layer of marginalized people oppress the layer below them. At one point even Jane snaps at her boss’s driver.
KG: I forgot about that moment.

JG: I did, too! You’re absolutely right.

KG: We wanted you to see how those cycles of behavior perpetuate.

You’re at Sundance, surrounded by people in the film industry, putting out a movie that’s highly critical of the film industry. How has that been for you? Is it nerve-racking? And what have the reactions within the industry been? Has anyone recognized themselves as enablers?
KG: A lot of people are uncomfortable. But I think a little bit of discomfort is a good thing, if you want things to change. You need people to recognize that behavior in themselves and their colleagues, and point it out when they see it. You also get women grabbing us and being like, “Oh my God. I feel seen. That character is me. I’m so glad I’m seeing it depicted onscreen.” A girl at the screening in Salt Lake City told me that she’s tried so many times to tell people about how she was being treated and everyone would say, “Oh, you just had a bad day.” But watching it play out, an entire day, and with someone like Julia who’s so expressive and emotional, it can be really overwhelming to people.

Julia, I do want to talk about your face! There are a million emotions flitting across it at any given moment in this movie. It’s fascinating because your co-workers don’t notice it, but the audience does. How did you approach that?
JG: [Laughs.] That was exactly it. Kitty early on told me that her goal was a quiet film. It’s an internal film rather than an external film. The situation is very loud, but the film is quiet. When I was prepping, I kept in mind that I wanted it to feel like Jane was very small. When you feel small, you feel very alone. I wanted it to feel like the audience was Jane’s subconscious, if that makes sense. They knew exactly what she was thinking and feeling. They were experiencing every single thing that happened in that day with her, like they were part of her. And that it’d make the audience also feel isolated from the people in the office, who didn’t acknowledge that something was wrong or how she felt.

Did you feel that sense of isolation on set or when you’d go home? You’re by yourself for most of the film.
JG: Luckily Kitty does an amazing job running a set, so everyone was super sweet. If that wasn’t the case, it’d be really hard. But the other actors would [come and go] like day players. And that was hard. I was, for the majority, by myself, and then I’d go home and feel really small. The hardest part about my job is that I feel what my characters feel. I’ll be like, Why do I feel this way? And then I’m like, Oh, that’s what Jane is feeling. I’d be in that mind-set for so many hours a day and then get stuck in there.

Kitty, what was your direction like to the actor who played the unseen boss? How did you work out that performance, which is so disturbing even though we barely see him?
KG: This is a strange thing. There are two actors that play the boss. One is the body and one is the voice. In the script, there was no dialogue for him. He was totally absent. I hired an actor who’s a friend to be a body double and pass the camera, basically. When Julia’s on the phone with him, you were not supposed to hear what he says, you were just supposed to see her face. I was going to shoot it wide, but then I got in there and saw her face and realized, Oh, we have to be in close-up. But if you couldn’t hear him in that close-up, it’d be bizarre.

So in postproduction, we added the voice of the boss, and that became an extra element. We went to Avy Kaufman, our amazing casting agent, who was like, “I know who we need.” And he came into the room and was like, “Oh, I met a bunch of these guys. I know what to do.” I was in the voice booth and I had my headphones on, and it was so scary. I was terrified. At the end he came out and was like, “Hug?” And I was like, “No!”

So Julia, when you were filming the phone scenes, there was nothing on the other end? What was in your imagination?
JG: Those are always weird scenes to do. It’s usually an AD or a script supervisor sitting on an apple box, reading the lines. I know every scene and do the work before I start filming — my intentions, my motivations behind every line. But it’s still hard. It’s like [affects a robot voice], “You’ll never work in this town again!”

What’s so fascinating about this movie is that it’s full of really banal details, but it’s riveting. The tension doesn’t let up. How do you make the mundane so compelling, from both an acting and directing perspective?
KG: There’s a tension that’s partly Julia’s incredible face and body and everything she’s doing with her performance. But it’s also the situation and the environment that she’s in. As an audience, we have an idea of what’s going on behind that closed door. But she doesn’t. We know more than the character does.

You were assuming that the audience would be coming in with that knowledge?
KG: Yeah, with some understanding of what that boss gets up to. We were playing with that tension the whole time. Even the scene where she’s printing headshots; women’s faces are popping out of the printer. To her, it’s just headshots. But as you see more and more women — some people referred to it as “lambs to the slaughter” — you don’t know what their futures hold, or why they’re coming into the office, or what will happen to them. We were careful with those layers.

The scene with Patrick Wilson in the elevator, when he totally ignores Jane, is he playing himself?
KG: He’s supposed to be playing a famous actor. Wandering in and taking up a lot of space. It was funny, one person who saw the film, a crew member, said, “I cannot stop thinking about that scene. The way white men take up space.” It was amazing that such a tiny little moment in the movie means a lot to people who’ve been in that position, ignored or not acknowledged by a male in the same space.

JG: There are a lot of little details like that.

There are. We hear these little snippets from the boss, like, “At the Hotel du Cap,” that are clearly hints and references about who we’re dealing with. How did you decide which of those sorts of details to include?
KG: A lot of that dialogue was ad-libbed. It was like, “Okay, now talk about festivals.”

JG: Honestly, those were really funny. Because it was so close. You’ve heard these things before. When Kitty was picking what the execs should talk about, everyone was laughing.

KG: Someone came up to me at Telluride and was like, “The Fruit Loops. My God, how did you know about the Fruit Loops?”

JG: Wait, what?

KG: This guy was an employee at Miramax, and he said the only cereal they had was Fruit Loops.

JG: That’s a coincidence! That’s very weird.

KG: I think the props person brought bran originally, and I was like, “No, we need something more colorful.” But these coincidences feel accurate to people.

From these conversations you’ve been having post-screenings, and from your own experiences, does it feel like things are changing?
KG: I think things are changing. Definitely it’s more open. We can at least talk about things now and we have language about these topics now. Before there were barely any avenues for these sorts of conversations. It is getting easier for women to get into the film industry. Film schools are accepting more women into their programs. But it’ll take a while. And I’m getting offered things — I see it in my own life. I see my friends who are women getting opportunities that we didn’t get before. Even two years ago. We’re seeing a shift. But the idea is to make sure it’s tackling the larger, more systemic issues and not just ticking a few boxes.

Will Harvey see this? Do you know if he has?
KG: I have no clue.

Do you care? Would you want to hear his reaction if it were available to you?
KG: No, I don’t care. I’m so disgusted by that situation. It’s tough for me to weigh in.

JG: I’m more interested in what other people watching it think.

KG: We’ve had a strong reaction from people who are the heads of companies saying, “Oh, wow, tomorrow I’m going to treat everyone a little nicer, and think about what I’ve got my assistants doing for me. Maybe some of these tasks are inappropriate.” Any little shift in thinking helps, and I’m proud to be part of that.

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