‘The Assistant’: Why the #MeToo drama resonates as Harvey Weinstein trial approaches verdict

A private meeting in a five-star hotel. An angry voice yelling on the other end of the phone. A woman’s bracelet and hair tie strewn on the floor of a cushy corner office. 

These are breadcrumbs writer/director Kitty Green leaves for moviegoers watching “The Assistant,” (now playing in select theaters, expands nationwide Feb. 21), a haunting workplace drama based in no small part on embattled movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, now on trial in New York for five sex crimes, including rape. 

Although Weinstein, 67, is never mentioned by name, his presence looms heavily over the 90-minute film. It follows a day in the life of a recent college graduate named Jane (“Ozark’s” Julia Garner) working at a boutique film studio in New York under a powerful, mercurial – and unseen – producer, whose belligerent, predatory behavior strongly echoes that of alleged sexual abuser Weinstein. 

USA TODAY chats with Green about why “The Assistant” is about more than just Weinstein, and her own thoughts on his headline-making trial, which begins jury deliberations Tuesday.

In "The Assistant," Emmy winner Julia Garner (Netflix's "Ozark") plays an aspiring film producer and low-level employee at a production company that closely parallels the Weinstein Company and Miramax.

Question: When you started writing “The Assistant” back in late 2017, you couldn’t have known that it would be released in theaters right as Harvey Weinstein is on trial. Do you feel that’s changed reactions or conversation the film is sparking?

Kitty Green: I don’t know, it’s difficult. This is not something we planned or knew was going to happen. For me, the film is so much bigger and broader than Harvey Weinstein. If the problem was just Harvey Weinstein, we would’ve fixed it by now. But it’s a film about systemic gender inequality, and that’s something that’s unfortunately still very much in place today. That said, I’m doing press about this subject all day and then getting home and reading the news from the trial, and it’s pretty horrific. It’s a reminder of the gravity of the situation and just how awful this is.

More:Weinstein’s lawyer tells jury to use ‘common sense,’ addresses nude photos presented at trial

More:Harvey Weinstein’s sex crimes trial: Your questions answered

Q: So often we forget how many people were in Weinstein’s orbit – complicit or not – helping facilitate these meetings with women and enabling his alleged abuse. Why did you want to focus on one such (fictional) employee, who just tries to keep her head down but wrestles with speaking up? 

Green: I was looking at coverage of the #MeToo movement and it seemed very focused on the bad men, the predators and the idea of the rotten apples: this idea that if we get rid of them, everything will be OK. (In my career) I had witnessed and experienced so much sexism and bias, and felt like that is a bigger problem we need to unpack if we want to make our workplaces safer and get more women into positions of power.

So instead of looking at it from the perspective of the predator, I wanted to look at it from the perspective of the least powerful person at that company and why she isn’t being promoted. By doing that, I can explore everything from misconduct to gendered work environments to toxic work environments.

In a scene from the film, Jane (Julia Garner, left) meets an ambitious new assistant (Kristine Froseth), whose story reflects that of many of Harvey Weinstein's accusers.

Q: About how many people did you speak to while researching and writing this movie? 

Green: Nearly 100 by the end. I started with Weinstein Company employees and Miramax employees, and went wider to other companies that I can’t really speak about, because a lot of them are still running with certain people at the head of them. So I had confidentiality issues. But I also spoke to women at studios, and then went wider into modeling agencies, finance and tech. And I was hearing the same stories about powerful men in those industries, sadly – it’s not just limited to the film industry at all.

Q: Jane eventually fears that one of her female colleagues is being abused by her boss and goes to an H.R. representative who undermines her, saying, “You think a grown woman can’t make her own choices?” It echoes Weinstein’s lawyer, Donna Rotunno, who has continually said it’s “insulting” to insinuate women can’t make their own decisions. Why was that an important moment to include? 

Green: With that scene, I was trying to convey that H.R. departments protect the company and not the employees. I also really wanted to include an example of gaslighting, because so many women describe that (scenario) would happen when they went into H.R., where (the H.R. representative) pokes holes in their argument to the point where they don’t even know if they have one or not. I wanted to demonstrate how toxic and disgusting that behavior is. It’s another part of this system that this predator has in place around him to protect himself. He’s created this kind of machinery that permits his behavior and essentially allows for it to continue. 

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