Beat Dynamics on Set

The Assistant: Review and Interview

At the time of writing this, Harvey Weinstein has been sentenced to 23 years in prison on charges of sexual assault. For many, this is a sign of progress and prevailing justice. After years of people in power not being held accountable for abuse or misconduct, a man who was once seen as untouchable has been brought down to size. There is still much work to be done; however, considering the extent to which predatory behavior and manipulation have become common practice across nearly every industry.

Writer and director Kitty Green, fresh off the success of her documentary Casting JonBenet, sought to capture the experiences of those negatively affected by the industry in her new film The Assistant. The film follows a female assistant named Jane played by Juila Garner, who works for a powerful executive in the entertainment industry. The film follows Jane as she goes about her work day, talking to clients, printing out different documents and doing whatever her boss asks her to do. 

In an interview with several college writers from the Boston area, Green stated, “I didn’t want to focus on the boss character [or] lean into the sensationalist sort of narrative.” Green had originally been planning to write a film about sexual assault on college campuses but after the Weinstein story broke she decided to change the film’s subject, stating, “it’s the same kind of things I was already looking at but it’s kind of more focused and closer to what I know cause I work in the film industry, so I shifted my research.” Green spoke of her research revealing “all these women were telling me they’d do photocopying, they’d do everything they needed to do, and the seventh thing after doing six boring kind of things, the seventh thing was like picking an earring up off the floor, but you’re immediately distracted by the next task.” 

As Jane goes about her day in a similar fashion, she begins to suspect that her boss might be utilizing his influence to indulge in extramarital affairs with female workers and auditioning actresses. However, there are more issues than a morally questionable employer. Green stated, “I was specifically interested in gender division of labor and this idea that the women have to get the coffee, and look after the children, and aren’t promoted as quickly.” As Jane comes to terms with her suspicions regarding her boss, she discovers the true extent to which sexism, gender bias, and manipulation have been ingrained into her workspace. 

The film’s topics are approached through a realistic lens. Green stated, “I had been speaking with so many people who were telling me these stories and they really felt trapped in those positions and a lot of them left the film industry cause they didn’t see a path for themselves, they couldn’t figure out how they could survive, let alone what they would do or where they would go.” Most of the events that take place in the film can appear very mundane when viewed from a distance, and the film itself is very reserved in terms of its presentation. However, this is the reality for many women in the film industry, and this lack of flashiness in the portrayal not only makes it more realistic, but also allows more attention to be placed on the actions and behavior of her co-workers and higher-ups that demonstrate this systemic sexism. 

Small bits of dialogue or movement from characters are heavily focused upon to show how they affect Jane. There are several instances where male assistants guide her in writing apologetic emails to her boss, and the presentation highlights the condescension in their voices as they tell her to change the way she phrases her sentences. Green stated “there’s a few things I was trying to explore [with the male assistants], like the way they take up space, the way they lean over her chair, kind of their physical space became very interesting.” However, Green does not place full blame on these characters, “I was trying to make it like they’re part of a system that’s dehumanizing, and competitive, and cutthroat, to the point where they’ll sort of trample over each other to get what they need to get or to get ahead.” The film’s dramatic core doesn’t come from moments of heightened tension, but the non-stop feeling of vulnerability conveyed through little moments like those between Jane and the male assistants.

Making the film was not easy. Green spoke about her experience trying to find a production company who would back the film. “We’d often get female filmmakers who loved it and would be like ‘oh yes, we’re gonna do it, we’re gonna be on board, it’s so exciting,’ and the next day they’d test us back or email us back and say ‘I’m sorry, I can’t get my male colleagues to agree.’” Green continued to search for investors and stated the importance of her film as “starting conversations and kind of raising awareness.” Eventually, the film was backed by individual financiers that gave Green the freedom to tell the story how she chose to, which included little to no music. “I really wanted the audience to be in her shoes and in that sense, I didn’t want to fill it with music cause that would have been false somehow.” The film’s presentation was not plain, in any way, however. Gus Van Sant, the film’s sound designer, worked closely with Green to use realistic sounds to convey the film’s story. “[We created] tension with hums [of fluorescent lights] and things by slowly pitching them up.”

The sound design was not all that Green and her team manipulated to turn an office into a space that she described as “banal,” “creepy,” and “futuresque,” while still remaining a period piece. Green and her cinematographer Michael Latham worked together to give the film an isolating atmosphere. Many shots featuring Jane in either her boss’s office or the break room are shot from outside the rooms with the doorway taking up about a fourth of the screen. There is also a recurring theme involving extra space being placed in frame whenever Jane is sitting at her desk; a visualization of her own uncertainty and vulnerability. “We kind of had this idea that she would slowly sink lower and lower in the frame and there’s a point I think right before she goes to HR, where her head’s almost at the bottom and you can see kind of a big space above her and that became some kind of visual metaphor for her kind of being broken down or wore down by the system around her.”

As the titular assistant is featured in every scene in the film, the role would need to be filled by an especially-talented actress, and Garner is more than up to the task. She carries a very quiet demeanor each time she appears on screen, and although the other characters carry much louder personalities she always stands out in the frame. When discussing casting, Green said “I wanted someone infinitely watchable...we seemed to really click…[we had] a special kind of connection that just worked.” When it came to the decision of featuring someone so low in the chain of command, Green explained that in order to investigate what systemically has allowed society to reach this point, “I thought well, why don’t we start with the person with the least power at that company and figure out what her day is like, and figure out why she isn’t being promoted as opposed to kind of concentrating on the few people who somehow survived and got to the top.”

The film is not an easy watch by any means, but its realism only serves to emphasize its message. Green said, “I find a lot of women come out of it and they’re just like ‘oh my god, I’ve never seen myself on screen’...and these are women who aren’t even from the film industry...they’ve all sort of said this similar thing and I’m kind of shocked, like I’m really surprised in a good way that people are connecting with it like that, kind of like they feel less alone.” The film industry, and American society as a whole, is not just flawed because of sexual assault, but because of sexism and gender bias rooted deep in these institutions. The Assistant also partnered with the New York Women’s Foundation and is donating a share of their profits in order to help “create actionable change.” Green sought to give a true-to-life portrait of what it’s like to be in an environment infected by condescension and manipulation, and she delivers a chilling experience that won’t be soon forgotten by those who view it.