EXCLUSIVE: This does not promise to be a very good holiday weekend for Harvey Weinstein. Ursula MacFarlane’s scathing documentary on the Weinstein scandal, Untouchable, debuts on Hulu on September 2, while on Friday a new movie, The Assistant, a fictional narrative film clearly inspired by the revelation of Weinstein’s widely reported sexually predatory ways, will have its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival as it also looks to firm up distribution.
In order to push his numerous Oscar-season movies,there wasn’t a film festival that Harvey Weinstein didn’t covet, but you can bet The Assistant is not a movie he would ever hope to see at Telluride or anywhere else, even if there is no direct reference in the film to the disgraced movie mogul.
Kitty Green, a writer-director best known for documentaries such as Casting Jon Benet and Ukraine Is Not a Brothel, turns to “fiction” with her first narrative effort, which was shot largely in secrecy in the February-March period over the course of just 18 days. The story follows a day in the life of Jane — as in Doe — (Ozark Emmy nominee Julia Garner), a recent college grad and hopeful producer who got a dream job as a junior assistant to a powerful entertainment mogul in a New York City production office. As she goes about the mundane business of being an assistant, she soon encounters various moments of abuse and degradations, as well as seeing unqualified young women hired in the office, or have to make arrangements for a female intern to stay in a swanky NYC hotel, that lead her to take a stand only to discover the deck is stacked against her.
The entertainment mogul for whom she works is never seen in Green’s film, and only once heard berating her on the other end of a phone call. He is never mentioned by name by anyone in the office — largely only referenced as “he.” Even though all the movie posters adorning the rather drab looking office are fictional, as is the film itself, there can be no doubt that Weinstein heavily inspired this scenario.
Green, who I spoke to yesterday, says though that it originally sprang from a hybrid non-fiction project she was researching with students on consent and power at college campuses when the Weinstein story broke.
“I was on my phone the whole time just reading all of this stuff,” she said. “I mean, I felt like I have a close connection to people that worked for him (Weinstein), and people that have experienced misconduct in the film industry, so immediately I shifted my focus to Hollywood, I guess, and the film industry, and that’s sort of where it began, and then I started interviewing and the research process.”
Green says she spent about six months speaking to people across the industry, including those who worked at The Weinstein Company and before that at Miramax, and knew the stories she was getting from her friends in the film industry were similar to those she knew from other industries. She says she went quite broad with her research but did a lot of specific interviews with movie-industry employees. She doesn’t want to pin it all on just one person or one company, though.
“I feel like it would reductive to say it’s about The Weinstein Company or any specific one because it is a problem everywhere in industry and it’s global, so the idea that it’s specific to one company, no I don’t think that’s true. But I do think there are a lot of details that I’m sure people that worked in Weinstein’s company will recognize — here’s details that everyone will recognize. It’s a bit of both,” she says. A brief visual identifying the fictional office as in the Tribeca section of NYC (where the real Weinstein Co. was headquartered) was in the version I saw but has since been scrubbed in final VFX, I understand. Green wants to keep the focus on her lead character, not a guessing game as to how close any details might be to real-life comparisons.
In terms of the larger picture, Green says she had much more on her mind. “There’s been so much coverage in the press about these issues and the rise of the MeToo movement,” she says. “I didn’t want to just give the audience more facts. What I was interested in was giving people an emotional understanding of what it’s like to be a young woman in the workplace, so that was kind of the first goal of the project was to have people identify with the youngest woman on the desk of a predatory boss, and how complex that situation is.”
Through the character of Jane, and the extraordinary, often silent performance of Garner, Green wanted to put a human face to it and go beyond the sensational headlines. For an audience, Jane also acts as our eyes, too, as events unfold. It is a portrayal completely devoid of artifice.
“When I was reading everything in the media, I noticed the people were quick to call the people that worked at those companies enablers, and I thought it was more complicated than that,” Green said. “I don’t think somebody in Jane’s position is a bad person. I think that sometimes she can be kind of drawn into a complicit position over time unwittingly, so I wanted to explore that, so time was a really important part of this screenplay. Getting the screenplay right. Yeah, it was depicting how banal the job is sometimes.”
Green said she is exhausted after trying to get the film finished in time for its Telluride debut (so far the only fall festival where it has been entered), but she didn’t want to rush it out because of headlines. “I think it will still be as relevant next year or in 10 years time than it is today. I wasn’t too worried about the timeline. I guess it was just the way I like to work.” She added that this will be the first visit for her at Telluride even though the festival had accepted and shown a short film of hers a few years ago.
“I didn’t understand that it was an important festival, so I didn’t go,” she said. “I actually stayed in Australia, and I remember meeting Barry Jenkins a few years later and he was like, ‘Why weren’t you there?’, and I was like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know.’ I’m just this naïve Australian sitting at home watching TV. So yeah, I’m excited to finally go. I’ve heard amazing things about it.”
The Assistant’s producers include Scott Macaulay, James Schamus and P. Jennifer Dana and Ross Jacobson. Green had worked with Macaulay and Schamus (former head of Focus Features) on a Netflix project and pitched this idea first to Macaulay who then brought it to Schamus. She says they are brilliant and work well together as a group. The movie comes into Telluride in the rare position (for this fest) of also being a sales title, so it will be interesting to see the reaction from buyers and just how fast they can get a theatrical release, as the topic remains a hot-button one.
I did ask Green if she ever considered having the mogul as more than an unseen presence, only briefly heard yelling once through the phone speaker. “The first draft didn’t have the boss in it at all because it was all about the system and the culture around the predator, but slowly you realize in order to depict that you need to show his power in some way. You need to make sure audiences understand who’s in charge, and depict his power over and control over Julia’s character. It’s finding ways to do it sensitively so that it’s not his movie and it’s still her movie,” she said. That also comes through in a fascinating key scene with the human resources director, played by Succession’s Matthew MacFayden.
So as Green hits the road to Telluride this weekend, what does she hope these first responders to her film take away from the experience?
“I think if the problem was just with Harvey Weinstein it would be solved by now, but I think it’s a lot bigger than that, and I think in order to see change and to have equal workplaces, fair and equitable, and just workplaces for women we do need to overhaul the structure in a way,” she said. “We need to look at everything. How we’ve treated younger employees, and our female employees, and women of color. We need to kind of interrogate ourselves and figure out where did we go wrong and how can we correct this moving forward. So I guess my only hope is that audiences will come out and see this issue from a different perspective and be able to think through their own part in it, because we’re all kind of, in some way, involved in this. We’ve all been helping this. There’s a reason this has gone on for so long.”