I can’t believe it took us two and a half years to make a movie about #metoo, but better late than never. I had the privilege of seeing a director Q and A with Kitty Green last week, a kick-off to the press tour for her harrowing slice of life film The Assistant. The story of a lonely girl suffering through a job a million people would kill for made me, my friend Jeremy, and everyone else in that subway-rumbling theater experience the anxiety that comes with working for an abusive boss. Even more unsettlingly, it put us in the position of one of the entertainment industry employees who is complicit in the systemic abuses that are present at nearly every production company–and left us with an empathetic portrayal of the culture of silence.
One of the most striking things about The Assistant to me was the minimalism–there’s almost no fancy camera moves like an Iñárritu or a Tarantino, and the film only features music at the beginning and in the end credits. One of my fellow audience members noticed this as well, giving Green the opportunity to dig into that creative choice. For one thing, the film had been made on a penny-pinching budget on a shooting schedule of just eighteen days, making parsimony a priority. Green admitted later that it was hard to get funding for this film because male executives were made uncomfortable by its portrayal of office dynamics. It’s easy for a boss to feel like he’s one of the good ones when he can compare himself to Harvey Weinstein, but a film that implicates the bystanders just as much as the predators asks more of people. Tellingly, Green got a lot of enthusiasm from women at production companies, but later would receive emails from them notifying her that they couldn’t get the men in the company on board to sign onto the project. That alone shows how much work this movement has left to do.
The lack of industry support for this film meant that the kind of self-indulgent frills many male directors make into the centerpieces of their films were absent in this one. Tellingly though, I didn’t miss that kind of technical spectacle one bit while watching The Assistant, maybe because of Green’s directive to her crew that “if we look cool, we’ll have failed.” To put it lightly, it’s refreshing to hear a director put earnestness over looking cool. Films like Little Women and Marriage Story have been going that route in the past year, and they’ve produced stories that stuck with me more than The Revenant ever did for all its long takes. Green went on to explain that if they took the audience out of the experience of the film to remind them they were having a film experience, their immersion in the Adderall-like stress haze of this assistant’s world would be broken. The expense of flamboyant “movie magic” is often to break the spell a film holds over an audience.
Green tried not to let her film draw attention to itself, instead filling it with static shots of repetitive actions like a printer spitting out copies of the day’s schedule or the main character bringing everyone in the office their lunches. This slow-cinema inspired approach gives people both the feeling of boredom our titular assistant gets from these office tasks and the continuous pressure she is under while performing such mundane actions. By lulling the audience into immersion in the film with these slow scenes, Green strikes a masterful balance between tedium and terror.
Another deceptively unobtrusive creative choice Green made with this film was never to show the Weinstein-esque executive’s face. The assistant experiences her boss as a voice on the phone, disembodied words in an email, or as shouts from inside his office. Otherwise, all we see is the effect he has on other people: the assistant cries after a mostly-inaudible dressing down from him over the phone, his wife shouts at the assistant when she calls suspecting he’s cheating again, the employees who come in for meetings gossip about who’s getting fired this time before they walk into his office. The girls who we see disappear into his office are also affected by this man, but much life real life we only see the subtle hints that let us know what’s going behind that closed door. Green’s rationale? “Bad men have had enough screen time.”
In the wake of the #metoo movement, Green’s effect on the industry is already becoming palpable after its festival run, with its theater run still ahead. Green recounted emails she had received from high-level industry people she knew who expressed guilt, outrage, and denial about the issues with how they treat their own assistants. When her colleagues have asked her if she planned this film to coincide with the social upheaval around the issue of sexual assault by men in power, she replies “No, of course not!” The film was one of those perfect storms where the right filmmaker is in the right position to tell the right story. Green was working on a documentary about campus sexual assault at the time of the Weinstein story breaking in fall 2017, and she was led to write this script over a period of two months as Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, and others were exposed.
When asked if there’s still more to do, Green replied in the affirmative, though she did consider The Assistant to be a “period piece” of sorts in that it depicts someone who has nowhere to go when she finds out about her boss’s abuse. I raised an eyebrow at that, considering that having people to go to has never really been the problem for people in this assistant’s position. After all, the assistant herself goes to the HR department and is solidly rebuffed by the man she talks to there. Frankly, the main thing I’ve noticed since Weinstein’s story broke was that the #metoo victims who got justice were the ones who had been victimized by famous people. The average person who is victimized by a mid-level executive most likely couldn’t muster the press required for an ousting like that of Weinstein. For that matter, people whose abusers are McDonald’s managers probably shouldn’t hold their breath for the media to show up at their workplace. However, as Green said toward the end of the interview, progress is being made slowly but surely.
Top Photo: The assistant sorts files while her coworkers goof off.
Middle Photo: The assistant fends off her boss’s wife while he’s out with his mistress.
Bottom Photo: The assistant after being rebuffed by the HR department.
Photo Credit: Cinereach.