Written, directed and co-edited by Kitty Green, The Assistant intently follows a day in the life of an assistant at a film production company, Jane (played by Julia Garner).
“Unfolding over one acutely distressing workday, The Assistant is less a #MeToo story than a painstaking examination of the way individual slights can coalesce into a suffocating miasma of harassment,” writes That funk is breathed by everyone in a movie that strikingly pairs the executive’s demeaning actions with the stifling moral vacancy of the power structure that shields him.
“In one virtuosic scene, Jane haltingly complains to a seemingly welcoming human resources representative (a marvelous Matthew Macfadyen). The turn taken by their conversation will hit you like velvet-covered shrapnel,” To read the full review, click here.
“There are powerful figures in the film industry, and other industries, whose behavior inspired this,” says Green. “The women I spoke with all discussed their frustration with the machinery that surrounded these predators and the culture that supports violence and discrimination against women. I believe challenging the system that allows these predators to thrive is an important step in bringing about the change that the #MeToo movement is focused on.”
Back in October of 2017, Green was developing a documentary exploring the complexities of sexual misconduct on college campuses, when she realized that the topic for her next film lay closer to her own metaphorical backyard.
“Suddenly the Weinstein story was everywhere,” she remembers. “As a female filmmaker, I was very familiar with sexual misconduct, some of which is easy to talk about and some of it more difficult. I like to funnel my anxieties and fears into my art, so I decided to turn the focus of the film toward Hollywood.”
“When I began drafting this film, I saw it as a work of scripted nonfiction based on the specifics of the stories that women had told me,” says Green. “Eventually the script began to evolve into a composite of the thousands of stories I’d heard, seen through the eyes of one woman. While the goals of the project remained the same, it took on a life of its own. I guess now I would define it as a fiction film that had an intensive documentary-style research process.”
“I had friends who had worked for the Weinstein Company or Miramax so I started chatting to them and then talked to more and more women who worked in the film industry about their experiences,” Green says.
“The NDAs had been lifted when I began my research, so there wasn’t anyone who was still bound by those agreements,” she tells Chloe Schama. “There was already a lot of material online about what had happened, which freed me up to probe the emotional experience of being a woman in an office with no power.”
Weaving together elements of the stories she heard, Green crafted a day-in-the-life tale told from the point of view of an idealistic newcomer. The subtle and not-so-subtle aggressions and micro-aggressions women encounter each day in the workplace can contribute to the acceptance of misconduct and assault, Green explains.
She decided to focus on the minutiae of a single day in the office, where the overwhelming repetition of trivial details defines the main character’s work life: “I wanted to explore an environment that would be relatable to most people, but that was still rooted in the very specific details I was hearing again and again. Condensing the action of one day in the life of someone at the lowest rung of the power hierarchy into an hour-and-a-half cinematic experience allows audiences to walk in Jane’s shoes for a short time and see this world from her perspective.”
Unlike other #MeToo era dramas, such as David Mamet’s Bitter Wheat or Fox News exposé Bombshell, The Assistant makes the decision to keep its predatory boss offscreen and unseen: “I wanted to be able to demonstrate his power and how toxic and corrosive it was,” Green explains. “[The assistant] was working for him and that relationship was an important part of the story, so I found ways, mostly from phone calls, to demonstrate just how toxic his character was.”
This decision has the important effect of shifting the focus onto the title character, whose experience is widely shared but usually neglected. “Centering on the person with the least power in the narrative was really important—someone you almost ignored,” Green says in an interview with Vox. “I try to treat everyone well, to be kind, but sometimes I walk into these offices and just ignore whoever’s working at the desk, answering the phones. Hopefully we can shake that off a little bit.”
Shot in an office over 18 days, the movie aims to convey the “banality of evil” through its naturalism and cinematography. “It’s a film about monotony, but I didn’t want it to be too monotonous,” Green tells /Film. “Julia has the most amazingly expressive face, so we could stay in close-up on her forever. But sometimes you switch to wide to get some work done.”
That also meant eschewing music in favor of office noises, buzzes and hums. “We were able to create a lot of tension with that,” says Green. “There’s also a musicality to it – you can really get tones out of the hums and buzzes that you can play around with. We had a lot of fun in the production process.”
Green’s interview with Chloe Schama notes the clothes, phones and computers that place the drama in the mid-2000s. “I definitely wanted the film to have a pre-#MeToo feel,” Green explains. “I think the look of the film was in part just the props department getting as much as they could as fast as they could. And I wanted the film to be set in New York, but a lot of the aesthetic choices were determined by the budget. As long as the place had the right feel, we went with it.”
The studied shabbiness of the film’s fictional media company offices may surprise audience members who imagine Hollywood-style opulence, but producer James Schamus says anyone familiar with the entertainment industry will recognize the authenticity of the setting. “We have seen a lot of actual offices, and I assure you that this is absolutely what you see,” he says. “That became central to the design we ended up with, right down to the fabrics on some of the furniture. The office vibe will create uncomfortable associations for many. But one of the things the film does is debunk the myth of glamour that surrounds filmmaking, especially for lower-level employees.”
That said, the film intentionally avoids passing judgment on its characters, says Schamus. “Part of what this film is saying is that none of us are paragons of virtue. It takes a network of human beings to create, sustain and enable this kind of predatory behavior. And it’s so easy to get caught up in that system. That’s one of the important things we are trying to show. We are all vulnerable to the invisible structure that permeates every aspect of these workplaces.”
Green says she finds it hard to distill the film’s messages into one key thought. “Not everyone has been comfortable with us diving into this subject matter in this way,” she says. “Julia’s character is in such a complex situation, and so are the women and men around her. I guess I’m hoping that by seeing this machinery in action the audience will come away thinking about their own role in this—because we’re all part of it.”
This is not to say Weinstein’s sentencing in March marked any kind of solution to the issues raised in The Assistant. “If it was just Harvey Weinstein that was the problem, well, then, it would be fixed. We’d all be fine. But it’s not. The system is rotten,” Green tells Vox. “But ‘system’ is a word that sounds so broad and vague, and what I wanted to do was highlight these concrete examples of what that system is—everything from who gets paid what and mysterious checks that get sent through to HR, to different layers of machinery that support specifically white men being in power.”
Vulture calls the film “the first great movie about Me Too.” For Green, this was a project made possible by the movement. “This film was hard to make, but it would have been almost impossible a few years ago,” she states. “Nobody would have financed this. But we also wouldn’t have been able to make this particular film four years ago. Now everyone knows what happens in those back rooms; we didn’t have to show it.”