A Filmmaker’s Fraught Specialty: Women at Work and the Men Who Scare Them

In her feature debut, “The Assistant” (2020), the Australian filmmaker Kitty Green followed an underling (Julia Garner) at a film company run by a toxic male boss, tracking her growing understanding of his harassment. The taut drama was quickly understood to be a prescient take on gender dynamics in the nascent #MeToo era.

Green’s latest film, “The Royal Hotel,” a subversive thriller, follows two broke American backpackers (Garner and Jessica Henwick) as they take temporary gigs bartending in a pub in a remote Australian mining town. The men there are not as powerful, but they can be every bit as menacing.

Green, 39, didn’t set out to direct back-to-back movies about women navigating unsafe environments at work or simply in public. Her gut instincts led her there. “I guess I like to make films about things I’m afraid of,” she said. “And I think as a woman in this world, it naturally becomes about gender dynamics and those kinds of spaces, because I think that’s where my fear is realized.”

She grew up in Melbourne, where her parents, Peter and Janina Green, were both teachers of art and media. Her mother’s work as a photographer and prominent professor helped inform her own creative outlook, she saidin a recent video interview from London, where “The Royal Hotel” was making the festival rounds. “She’d often leave the films she watched outside my room — they’d be in the Blockbuster case, so I’d never know what I was getting. I’d just slot it in and it’d be like Haneke’s ‘Piano Teacher’ or something. It was that kind of film education.”

“The Royal Hotel,” Green’s first movie set in Australia, is based on a 2016 documentary, “Hotel Coolgardie,” that followed two young Finnish women into a similar outback setting. In her feature, Green deliberately didn’t delve into her characters’ back stories — no trauma is unspooled. “I didn’t want it to be like a rape revenge movie,” she said.

“Really, the film is about — no, this behavior is not OK. It doesn’t matter what you’ve been through in the past, that shouldn’t factor in. The discussion is about the present and what we put up with and when we say no.”

These are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Julia Garner in “The Royal Hotel.” Green described the movie as “Julia assessing her threat level at every given moment, essentially.”Credit…Neon

Given all the attention on “The Assistant” in light of #MeToo, did you immediately think, this is fertile ground? Or did you worry about wading into that territory again?

Watching that all unfold, I was surprised by how much of it people thought they could solve by getting rid of Harvey Weinstein, getting rid of Matt Lauer — like, OK, they’re gone now; everything’s fixed. And I was going, no, the problem is bigger than that. I think we need to change the entire structure and blow it all up. It felt like the right time to show the larger, more systemic issue. I wasn’t afraid of it. Maybe I should have been, but I wasn’t.

“Royal Hotel” is based on the documentary, but you also had some personal connection to the setting.

My [paternal] grandfather owned a pub like the Hugo Weaving character in the movie; he was the publican. And my dad actually grew up above the pub in the sort of space that the girls sleep in [in the movie]. On my mother’s side, my grandmother was a Ukrainian immigrant who arrived in Australia, speaking no English, when my mother was very young. They both had to navigate these spaces in very different ways. My grandmother also lived in regional Australia — she could understand what it’s like to be a foreigner but also feel quite at home.

Do you feel at home in those spaces?

Yes and no. And this is the problem — you always feel at home for a minute. And then someone will make a bad joke or say something offensive, and it very quickly escalates and gets a little uncomfortable and scary. I think this is true of Australian pubs, it’s true of New York City bars — [anywhere] people have had a little bit too much to drink and things get a little loose. The film is about that point in the night.

One thing that was hardly shown onscreen until more women got behind the camera was something every woman who has ever stepped foot in a bar has experienced — the extra, unasked-for touch, the hand on the small of the back when a man is walking through a crowd. It subtly defines the power dynamic.

“The Assistant” existed completely within those moments, essentially microaggressions. This film is a little larger and a little louder, and it becomes more about everything that’s coming at me. Like, is that a threat? Is that a joke? How do I make sense of all this incoming? It’s Julia assessing her threat level at every given moment, essentially.

Garner also starred in Green’s debut feature, “The Assistant.” Green said everyone asks her if they’re making a trilogy. Credit…Ty Johnson/Bleecker Street

The boss in “The Assistant” was unequivocally bad. The men who populate this movie are perhaps more of a gray scale.

It’s funny how these men are being perceived — in Britain and Australia, people say to me, you’ve given real vulnerability and warmth to the male characters. In America, they’re like, the male characters are such villains! I can’t figure out why. We tried to make sure — these male characters are struggling for connection, they’re all reaching out. They’re all just failing miserably, because of alcohol, because they’re not able to control their anger.

Why has Julia Garner become like a muse for you?

“The Assistant” was basically silent. It’s not much dialogue and it’s often her just moving through space — cleaning, dusting, Xeroxing things. She had this face, when I first saw her in “The Americans,” I thought was really striking. I was always watching her going, what’s she looking at? What’s her deal? Kind of enigmatic.

We had a coffee and really got along. It just clicked. She doesn’t love to rehearse. She’s done a lot of TV, so she throws herself into things. We don’t have to communicate too much at this point, which is fabulous.

Hugo Weaving as the pub owner in “The Royal Hotel.” Green’s grandfather was also a publican in the outback.Credit…Neon

Both films exist on this precipice of tension, and they’re both fairly short. Is that because the tension is hard to sustain past a certain point? Because audiences need some release?

Honestly, I’ve never been given the budget to make a long movie. I get these very small budgets and I have to pull it off. But tension starts at a writing level, and people read the script with that. Not everyone — a lot of finance people were like, “Where’s the violence? Nothing happens.” Then you know that isn’t the right person to be making the movie with. That’s probably why I don’t have the bigger budgets, because I’m not listening to them. I’m finding money elsewhere, piecing it together.

Is it accurate that pubs in Australia have pickled snakes?

Yeah. They trap them and keep them as trophies. I mean, my fourth grade teacher had a pickled snake in her classroom.

No spoilers, but the ending really takes a big turn.

The ending of the documentary is really bleak. The girls go through a lot and then they leave. Watching it, I was like, I’d never forgive myself if that was the ending. The other thing is, the ending of “The Assistant” is about an acceptance of the system. And I couldn’t make two movies [like that]. I had to go, let’s make a stand, let’s say this isn’t OK. It’s making a few people angry. But we like the provocation.

Will you make another workplace movie with Julia?

Ideally. But I feel like we have to have a bit of fun and mess with the formula. Everyone keeps asking if it’s going to be a trilogy. I was joking about a film about female pilots. We’re going to call it “Cockpit.”

Back to top button