By Ali Moosavi.
I knew that I didn’t want to see violence. I feel like I’ve seen enough sexual violence in cinema…. I was like how can we make a movie about the threat of that. And the threat of that should be enough to feel scared.”
The young Australian writer-director Kitty Green started her film career by making challenging, thought-provoking documentaries such as the feminist themed Ukraine is Not a Brothel (2013) and Casting Jon Benet (2017) about the unsolved murder of a 6-year-old beauty queen. Green came into prominence with her first feature film, The Assistant (2019), centering on a young assistant in a Harvey Weinstein like film company, which tackled the issues raised by the Me-Too movement in an effective and assured manner, with an impressive central performance by Julia Garner. She has followed that with the psychological thriller The Royal Hotel, focusing on two young American girls (Julia Garner and Jessica Henwick, both terrific) backpacking to the Australian outback to do a summer job in a pub, but not counting on the rowdy, violent and sexually aggressive manner of the Australian men, after they’ve had one or two drinks too many. The way Green depicts the plight of the girls in such a hothouse environment while gradually cranking up the tension to almost unbearable limits is very impressive.
Film International talked to Kitty Green at the 71st San Sebastian International Film Festival where Green was both promoting The Royal Hotel and giving a talk on the transformative power of the cinema.
In both The Assistant and The Royal Hotel you’re dealing with patriarchal environments. And in this one, the people who ultimately take power are the girls. Have you experienced this sort of environment yourself?
I don’t like come to it with like some kind of political agenda. I just come to it with something like I’m a woman in the world and I’m always terrified. So I guess that terror fuels the films in a way. The Assistant was about the film industry and in some ways was very personal and it was the things that I’d experienced in the film industry and moments like that made me uncomfortable in that environment. This one is about an Australian pub and about times that I’ve been uncomfortable in an Australian pub, or in a bar, anywhere where it’s a little too late, there’s a little too much alcohol and it feels a little scary. So there’s a lot of tension in that. I just look for subjects that I think would be interesting in a film. And then there’s the kind of politics of it and a discussion is what comes second.
I’ve read that this film is based to some extent on a documentary.
Yes. It’s true. I was on a festival jury and I watched ten Australian films. And the seventh one was of these two Scandinavian girls who were backpacking and they ran out of money and they work in a pub in the middle of nowhere. It just follows them trying to figure out the culture and deal with all these Australian men. And I hadn’t seen the Outback represented that way before, not just through the female lens, but foreigners there trying to make sense of it, and it felt like an interesting dynamic for a screenplay. So I pitched it to a company, they liked it and I started developing it.
It’s interesting because you started as a documentary filmmaker.
Yes, I think I learned a lot from it. It’s mostly useful because I graduated from film school when I was 21 and who is going to hire me to direct a fiction film? Whereas I can go and take my little camera and I can make little documentaries and I can do it myself, I can do it cheaply and can cut them on my laptop. So it’s a nice way to learn the craft and the aspects of what makes a movie interesting. It taught me a lot in that sense.
Was it always your ambition to make features?
Yes, because I did fiction filmmaking at school. And then I was trying to get into fiction, but I had to kind of prove myself a little bit. Then I made a documentary to get into the Venice Film Festival and that changed my career because then I could get a bigger budget, or get a budget all, and get a bit more collaborators who I like to work with.
After making The Assistant, and its success, was it easier to make your second feature, or was it still difficult?
Yes, it was difficult. Maybe it’s the subject, I don’t know. I was really proud of the script and we took it around and I thought it would be easy to finance, but it was really hard. We had a lot of people that would say to me (this is very much from The Assistant): Oh, we’ve funded three female films this year and they didn’t do very well. So we don’t want to fund the fourth one, as if a female film is a specific thing. So that was challenging. Also I think a lot of men control the finance. And a lot of men didn’t think there was enough of a climax, or they wanted more violence or, you know,
Yeah, exactly. And I wasn’t giving them any of that intentionally. And I think that makes people a little angry or a little confused. So essentially there were a lot of people that didn’t get what we were doing. Eventually we found the right partners. We would have liked a bit more money to play.
You have shown admirable control over the horror and the violence while maintaining the threat and the tension.
The behavior in the documentary is actually worse. I knew that I didn’t want to see violence. I feel like I’ve seen enough sexual violence in cinema. I don’t want to put that in my movies. I don’t want to film it and I don’t want to see it. I was like how can we make a movie about the threat of that. And the threat of that should be enough to feel scared. You don’t have to see it happen to get scared.
The Royal Hotel reminded me of one of my favorite Australian movies, Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971). I take it you’ve seen that.
Definitely. I mean that’s a masterpiece. We’re big fans of Wake in Fright of course. We’d say we’d like to tip our cap to Wake in Fright. At one point our bar was a little too green or blue and we were like this is too close to Wake in Fright, let’s make it cream because we just didn’t want to look like we were ripping it off.
At the start you think that the Jessica Henwick character will be the more rational, while Julia Garner, who seems very footloose and fancy free, is going to be the one who is more likely to get into trouble, but you do kind of a role reversal.
It makes sense that the Julia Garner character would feel safe on that boat and have a good time and happy to make out with the Norwegian backpacker. But then when she’s put in the environment of that bar, she doesn’t trust as much and her radar goes up. I feel that in those friendships when you travel, when there’s two of you, somebody has to look at the map and figure out how you’re going to get home and how much money you’re spending and Julia’s character ends up being that person who’s taking care of things so that Jessica’s character can drink and have a good time and enjoy herself. That felt pretty natural.
As soon as you see the girls with backpacks on, everyone started writing about it as a horror movie all over the Internet and it’s not. But that’s the assumption. I was playing a little bit with people’s expectations and you set it up like that and then you challenge those expectations and give them something a little different and that makes some people angry.”
Have you personally done much backpack traveling?
Yes, I did a lot of it. I did it like my entire 20s; backpacked through Europe, and a lot of times in Asia with friends.
What was that experience like?
A lot of that silly stuff and lots of getting into risky situations and thinking, what am I doing here? Like, we could die here. I think that trip is like a rite of passage. I think it’s really important to go off into the world and figure yourself out, figure out what your limits are and try things. It’s funny, people often come to me about the men. To me it’s a story about strength and then figuring themselves out and standing up for themselves and growing and gaining strength.
Though The Royal Hotel has some elements of the horror genre, I don’t thing it can be categorized as horror.
As soon as you see the girls with backpacks on, everyone started writing about it as a horror movie all over the Internet and it’s not. But that’s the assumption. I was playing a little bit with people’s expectations and you set it up like that and then you challenge those expectations and give them something a little different and that makes some people angry. Some people get on Letterboxed, and write nasty comments! But other people can hopefully enjoy the ride of it.
Did something change while writing or filming the movie?
No. It was specifically designed to challenge the tropes of the horror genre right away. We were setting it up and then subverting expectations to be like, no, this is what you get. You don’t get the fright scene. You get a story about women and strength and threats we face every day. It was definitely intentional.
Was there much improvisation, especially with the guys in the pub?
No, it was all scripted. I didn’t have a big budget, so we had a very limited shoot time. Often for some of those scenes, like the scene where she comes out with the cake and lights it, goes over, drops the cake, she sees the Norwegian backpacker making out with someone, firecrackers go off, she runs around, kicks everyone out, and we had five hours to shoot it, so there’s no room for improvisation with the schedule like that. You have to be so specific about the beats and what you need and the shots; five hours, six shots, potentially with 60 extras. It’s a lot of people and trying to coordinate where and how is like a very technical, mathematical exercise and the actors bring a certain level of energy and they surprise you. But it was very well scripted because there were so many beats we had to hit and we didn’t really have time to mess around too much with that.
Do you see yourself making movies in Australia or the US?
Probably in the US. I needed to make one in Australia, but we’ll see. I’ve been sitting in these meetings and everyone says what do you want to do next? I’m like, can I just have a bit more budget?! I’m tired of being trapped with these tiny budgets. I’d like to keep working with Julia. We have a great relationship. I don’t know how long we can do that before people get sick of it or it feels too repetitive, but ideally we want to be working together again. It was nice to spend some time in Australia though. My parents are there.
How did this collaboration with Julia start?
I just thought she was interesting looking. The Assistant is basically a silent film and didn’t have much dialogue. So it needed someone with an interesting face and the moment she stood in front of the camera at the audition, I could just see how expressive that face was and how much she could do with it. And both films hinge on her perception of events. It’s all on her face. It’s the way she reacts to it, and it becomes very much about her performance. So for some reason it works. We don’t have to communicate too much; it feels like we understand each other and it feels like one of those very unique bonds that I’m very lucky to have found.
How was it to have all this big Australian cast, including many famous names such as Hugh Weaving?
They were great. Since the material is quite sensitive, we didn’t want bad dudes. So the main thing was they needed to be able to act; but also can they be good people that are good to have on set, that understand the film and respect the process? My casting agent was specific about who we should go to and those people luckily understood what we’re doing. We had a lot of fun, so I think they were excited to just hang out with each other and drink a lot. We were living in a pub and shooting in a pub. We were kind of living the movie. They had a good time for sure.
You were all staying and shooting in the pub and drinking. At the same time, the film kind of indicates drinking as the root source of the problem.
We don’t want to criticize drinking because we liked to drink when we wrapped the movie. But it was more about the aggression. It’s about that time of the night in any bar, anywhere in the world, where everyone has had a little too much to drink and things can escalate very quickly and become violent very quickly. And it’s sort of sitting in that space and it’s about that side of the drinking culture. We’re trying to be specific about that. We’re not condemning drinking. It can happen anywhere. I had people watch the film at Telluride and Toronto film festivals and they were saying to me that they worked in bars and pubs and it felt very much like their experience.
You’ve done a few documentaries and now two features. During that time, what kind of evolution have you seen regarding women in the movie business? specially in this post Me-Too era.
I think it’s getting better. I read that half of the competition in San Sebastian this year are women, which I think is amazing. The idea that you can see a little more of that is a good thing. A few years ago, when I said I was a filmmaker, no one believed me. And now I think it’s getting more common to see people like me directing a movie, which I think it’s a great thing. Let’s hope that it keeps getting better and it’s not just this quick shift and then shifts back. I’m hopeful.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).