Exploring Everyday Horrors in Topical Thrillers: Kitty Green Chats 'The Royal Hotel' and 'The Assistant'
In not one but two exceptional Julia Garner-starring films in succession, the Australian filmmaker unpacks gender dynamics and power imbalances in ominous spaces.
November 27, 2023
Kitty Green doesn't just direct films that demand attention; she makes movies where paying the utmost notice to small moments and details couldn't be more pivotal. With her 2013 debut Ukraine Is Not a Brothel, she deployed her documentarian's eye to explore protest group Femen with revealing and probing intimacy. With 2017's bold and unforgettable Casting JonBenet, Green honed in on the minutiae that can swirl around a crime — especially when true crime has become its own genre, sparking non-stop theories even decades later — all while structuring her picture around holding auditions for a film about the infamous case that shares the feature's name.
The Melbourne-born filmmaker moved into fiction with 2019's The Assistant, and now stays there with The Royal Hotel. The shift has still seen Green unpacking reality. The Assistant is a #MeToo movie set in a film production company's office where sexual harassment at its head honcho's hands has become distressingly normalised. The Royal Hotel sprang to life after Green watched Australian documentary Hotel Coolgardie, about two Finnish women encountering the worst of Australia's drinking culture while working in Western Australia's Denver City Hotel, with the director then inspired to dramatise the situation.
Diving into insidious everyday horrors in topical thrillers: that's Green's fictional niche right now, even with both The Assistant and The Royal Hotel born from facts. Getting three-time Ozark Emmy-winner Julia Garner playing women confronted with problematic gender dynamics and power imbalances in ominous spaces is also her current terrain — as is peering as closely and intently as Green can.
"People keep asking about how my background in documentary helps, and I'm not sure it does really," Green tells Concrete Playground about taking her cues from Hotel Coolgardie this time around, and how her time making docos factors in. "I mean, I think maybe it affects what I watch and my references, and what sort of inspires me."
"I really like the close stuff. I like movies that are about these tiny moments. That's something you can't really do in documentaries, because have to stay wide because you don't know what will happen. But with a fiction film, you can really hone in on a facial expression or gesture or a glance — these kinds of little moments that can make you know that a woman in that space feels very uncomfortable, but often get missed by the environment at large. So I was able to amplify those moments with a fiction film."
The Assistant spends a day in the life of Garner's Jane, lingering claustrophobically in her New York workplace as the junior staffer navigates the impact of her boss' actions, as well as the hostilities engrained in the industry for women in general. The Royal Hotel finds its terrors in an outback pub where backpackers man the bar, with Garner's Hanna and Jessica Henwick's (Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery) Liv the latest arrivals at the titular mining-town watering hole. In both, unsettling men surround young women doing a job, with The Royal Hotel's male cast reading like a who's who of Australian talent. In her first Aussie-made feature, Green enlists Hugo Weaving (Love Me) as the pub proprietor, with Toby Wallace (Babyteeth), James Frecheville (The Dry) and Daniel Henshall (Mystery Road: Origin) among the regulars.
"It's been good to have it back home," Green explains of the film, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, also played Toronto and London, then opened the first-ever SXSW Sydney Screen Festival and the 2023 Adelaide Film Festival. "Honestly, we screened it in the US, in Canada, in Spain and in the UK, and I feel like while they seem to really enjoy it and it seemed to play really well, I think it there's an element, a lot of kind of nuances, that they miss. There's a lot of Australian humour that they don't really pick up on over there."
With The Royal Hotel now showing in Aussie cinemas — and The Assistant a must-see since it first arrived a few years back — we spoke to Green about taking inspiration not only from Hotel Coolgardie, how her two fictional features pair well together and the importance of casting, as well as adopting a female perspective on Australia's drinking culture, working Kylie Minogue's 'The Locomotion' onto the soundtrack and the hope to do a third film with Garner.
ON BEING INSPIRED TO MAKE THE ROYAL HOTEL AFTER WATCHING HOTEL COOLGARDIE
"I was just immediately struck by Hotel Coolgardie, and just the dynamics at play in it. And I had seen Australian drinking culture on film before, but I haven't seen it through the eyes of two young women, foreign women, who didn't understand the rules of it and were trying to make sense of it.
So that to me was really interesting and great territory for a film to take place. It became the jumping off point for our screenplay.
I worked with co-writer Oscar Redding (Van Diemen's Land), who lives in regional Australia. The two of us threw around a lot of the dialogue and figured it out that way.
But mostly it's based on our own experiences of being in pubs and seeing things happen, and stories our friends told us. You basically soak a bunch of things up, it sits in your brain, and then you figure out what you want to use, and what's fun and what works, and what adds to the tension. It's definitely never one thing. It's all come from a few different places, I think."
ON THE ROYAL HOTEL'S PARALLELS WITH THE ASSISTANT
"You always want a challenge with the next project you take on, but I also liked the idea that I could work with Julia again. It was something I knew could work in a similar way — that is, a character trying to make sense of her environment.
But with The Royal Hotel, everything is up. Everything is wilder and weirder and stranger — a lot more noise and craziness. So it was a fun challenge to take on."
ON RETEAMING WITH JULIA GARNER FOR THE SECOND FILM IN A ROW
"We worked really well together on The Assistant. And often we don't get the biggest budgets in the world, so we have to work quite quickly. So there's a shorthand that we have, we have this ability to communicate — you don't have to discuss things at length. We get each other, in a way, so that really works.
So I was hoping to work with her again, and this project, when I saw Hotel Coolgardie, I was like 'ohh this could be a role for Julia which is interesting to me' — putting her in that environment was interesting to me. So yeah, it just fit. I dragged her out here, and she did it, which was great.
She was excited about the project. I think landing here, we drove them [Garner and Henwick] straight out to the middle of nowhere, and I think they were a bit freaked out for a moment there.
We kind of had to live the movie a little bit. We put them up in pubs nearby our shooting location, so they really had the full experience — which, I think they had a great time, but it took them a second just feel comfortable in the place and figure out who the people were. Yeah, it took a minute, but they really, honestly, they had such a good time, the two of them. They were so happy."
ON CASTING THE ROYAL HOTEL'S MEN
"The set was a pretty warm and loving place. When you call cut, it feels very safe. That was something we intentionally tried to create, which was making sure we cast the right men, essentially, to play those roles — who understood the sensitivity of the material. I think we got the right people and it was able to feel good for everyone.
We wanted them all to feel a little different. We wanted them all to have their own energy. They all bring something something different. And they're all wonderful and warm and kind lovely people, which was great, too.
We knew we needed someone cheeky and young to play Mattie, and Toby Wallace was available and a sweetheart, and understood what we're trying to do. Then James [Frecheville], I'd loved in Animal Kingdom, so it was exciting to get to work with him.
And Dan [Henshall] was in Snowtown and was absolutely terrifying, so I knew that he could deliver in terms of Dolly. We have fun with that because I think Australians come to it with that understanding. Americans don't, but they still find him really intense. He's not like that in real life, though.
Somehow we convinced them all to say yes, and put ourselves together a lovely group."
ON SEEING AUSTRALIA DIFFERENTLY BY EXPLORING THE OUTBACK AND COUNTRY'S DRINKING CULTURE THROUGH THE EYES OF WOMEN
"That became the agenda, I guess, in a way, but it wasn't a political thing. It was more just this is a story I want to tell, and this is something I have experienced in ways, and it felt real and it felt honest.
It was about getting the right collaborators who understand what you're doing. I know that when we were pitching it around, people wanted more violence, they wanted Wolf Creek, but we weren't going to give them that.
You have to just find the right partners that understand the project, and the mission statement, and once you've got the right collaborators, it should fall into place, really, from there."
ON AVOIDING TURNING HANNA AND LIV'S EXPERIENCES INTO WOLF CREEK
"We were looking at the type of behaviour that's the entry point for sexual violence — like how do we prevent it from ever getting to that point?
And so the film is about trying to figure out when you can speak up for yourself, when you can say no before the behaviour crosses the line — just when it's dancing on the line.
So the aim of it is to prevent that sort of behaviour from ever happening. If we can be a little more responsive a little earlier, then maybe we can create safer spaces for everyone. Essentially, this is the conversation that we want to have."
ON PUTTING THE ROYAL HOTEL'S AUDIENCE IN HANNA'S SHOES
"That's what they do really have to. They do that with The Assistant, too. I think a lot of these, it's about the behaviour that gets missed in big spaces like that where there's a lot going on.
It can be someone creepy, but other people wouldn't really notice it — but Hanna's character would. So it's giving audiences a glimpse of what it's like to be that person behind the bar who's a little worried and feeling a little uncomfortable and not sure how to express it."
ON A QUINTESSENTIAL AUSSIE PUB AS A SETTING, BACKDROPPED BY THE AUSTRALIAN LANDSCAPE
"When you're coming to a project, it's about what's the right environment for some drama and some tension, and I think an Aussie pub is a great one. Not only is it for the interior of this pub, and the claustrophobia of it and all these men — there's 60 miners in that pub and two young women serving them, just that kind of dynamic is interesting to me — but also the exteriors, and this idea that they're in the middle of nowhere in the remote setting adding to that tension, and the isolation making it feel a little terrifying. It just was a really great starting point for a story.
The isolation really adds to the tension. It's nice to keep a lot of the action in the bar, and to feel that claustrophobia of being kind of trapped in there. But also the idea, that even though they're not claustrophobic outside, it's somehow just as terrifying but for very different reasons. The contrast of the two spaces was really interesting to play around with.
I haven't made an Australian film since film school, so it was nice, if I'm going to make an Australian film, to take advantage of the uniqueness of the landscape and play around with that."
ON GETTING KYLIE MINOGUE'S 'THE LOCOMOTION' ON THE SOUNDTRACK
"It was about going 'if you're going to teach some foreigners about Australia, where do you begin?'. And so Kylie Minogue, swimming in a water hole, seeing a kangaroo — ticking a few of those boxes."
ON POTENTIALLY MAKING A THIRD FILM WITH GARNER TO ROUND OUT A THEMATIC TRILOGY
"We would love to do a third one. We've just got to figure out what that should look like and how to get that done, and how to make sure it's a little different. If we're going do it again, we need to play around with it.
I mean, hopefully we get to get a chance to do it. It'd be great to work with Julia again."
ON WHAT GETS GREEN EXCITED ABOUT A PROJECT
"It has to feel like something — often it's something like a gut instinct, and it's something that I feel in my bones, like a story that needs to be told. And often it's because I haven't seen it elsewhere, or it's something that I want say.
With The Assistant, we were looking at the larger picture — the news was focusing on Harvey Weinstein and we were saying that we want to look at something wider, like at the systemic problem, sexism in the industry, and how that creates an unsafe workspace and contributes to all of that sexual violence.
So then with The Royal Hotel, it was looking at, I guess, just looking at my own discomfort in some of those spaces and how we can voice our concerns a little more, and kind of ripping that apart.
Generally, it's just something that gets me interested in something [where] I feel like 'oh, I want to say something here'. That's the starting point, and then there's a lot of people involved. It takes a village to get a movie to the screen, so it changes as it goes, but often I go in with the kernel of an idea that I think is interesting."
The Royal Hotel opened in Australian cinemas in November 23. Read our review.
Images: Neon / Transmission / See-Saw Films.
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