Kitty Green began her career as a documentarian and gained attention for her unique examinations into the Ukrainian feminist organisation Femen and the murder of JonBenét Ramsey. But when the pandemic emerged, and new films were at a premium, she broke out when she released her first narrative film, 'The Assistant'. Led by 'Ozark' star Julia Garner, the film followed a day in the life of a junior assistant to a powerful entertainment executive. As she goes about her tasks, she learns the company has normalised a culture of fear and that her boss is likely abusing other women. The film was lauded for its astute depiction of workplace harassment and oppression.
Three years on from that success, Green has returned with 'The Royal Hotel', a triumphant follow-up that traverses similar themes but in a wildly different setting. The film stars a returning Julia Garner along with Jessica Henwick as two strapped-for-cash backpackers. To continue their travels in Australia, the women depart Sydney and accept work as live-in barmaids at an isolated outback pub. But as they become acquainted with the clientele, they have to determine if their misogyny and micro-aggressions are a prelude to legitimate danger. Inspired by the documentary 'Hotel Coolgardie', the film is startlingly believable. Green once again probes the many forms toxic masculinity can take with stinging precision. Its setting and tone draw a correlation to several Australian classics, but the film feels destined to soon be one in its own right.
Before she presented the film at SXSW Sydney and the Adelaide Film Festival, I spoke with Green about the similarities and differences between her two fiction films, how international audiences reacted to the film's Australian personality, and steering clear of exploitation. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This story contains spoilers for the film.
CONNOR DALTON: I was really intrigued when I heard your next film was going to be inspired by the documentary 'Hotel Coolgardie'. What made you want to adapt it?
KITTY GREEN: I was looking to make something in Australia because I'm an Australian filmmaker, but I hadn't made anything here. That was probably the most important thing. And I was on this [film festival] jury, and I saw 'Hotel Coolgardie', and I was immediately excited by the idea and the dynamics in the movie. I hadn't seen a film that showed Australia through the eyes of two young foreign women trying to make sense of the culture - especially the drinking culture. So all the elements were there for what I thought would be something I could be interested in. Plus, I knew Julia [Garner] could play the lead, which is exciting to me because I love working with her. Everything lined up, so I pitched it to See-Saw Films, and they liked the idea.
DALTON: What was the writing process like with Oscar Redding? Was the documentary treated as a sacred text, or was it used more as a baseline?
GREEN: I think we watched it once together, and then we never watched it again. We kind of took the bones of the idea more than anything. Then, we developed our own characters and figured out who these people were and just threw it around together based on our own experiences. Oscar lives out in regional Australia; he has spent a lot of time in pubs.
DALTON: As you mentioned, this film sees you reunite with Julia Garner after you worked together on 'The Assistant'. What was her reaction when you pitched her a second collaboration in the Aussie outback?
GREEN: I'm not sure I pitched it that way; I think we just sent it to her. She read it and was excited. She wanted to do it immediately, which was great. She had a few little notes and things that she wanted to talk about, and we discussed the character at length, but she was up for it. She was game.
DALTON: Jessica Henwick is an actor I've loved for such a long time, and she delivers a really strong performance here. Can you talk about casting her?
GREEN: It was a tricky role to cast because I wanted someone that Julia would get along with because they were going to be stuck together in the middle of nowhere for five weeks. So that was really important to me. I also wanted someone who felt like she would fit in with the two of us - who would make a good trio to our duo? - so I was looking for someone who energetically felt like our people, if that makes sense.
[Jessica] seemed to fulfil all that, and she was goofy, and fun, and weird, and really great. Immediately, I felt like she was perfect. And she had spent a lot of time in Australia. I shouldn't say she drank a lot in Australia, but, you know, she'd been to pubs and had a good time in Australia. She knew that world, so Liv made a lot of sense to her.
DALTON: What was your approach to casting the male characters?
GREEN: We wanted good guys because we wanted a safe set and responsible working environment. [The script has] pretty foul language; we didn't want that to spill into when we weren't shooting. So that was sort of the main priority: who were the nice dudes? And we found a really good group. I selected people I'd seen in other films. I'd seen Toby Wallace in 'Babyteeth', Daniel [Henshall] in 'Snowtown', and James [Frecheville] in 'Animal Kingdom'. I loved them all for their performances in the past. It was great that they said yes because they were the people we hoped to get.
DALTON: I imagine the experience of playing these parts would have been quite gruelling on your cast. What was the atmosphere like on set?
GREEN: Oh, we had a good time. It was a nice energy, and even in those [intense] scenes, it always felt like it was under control. The other thing about the movie is I feel like it's really tense to watch the first time, but the second time you watch it, you can have a pretty good time. So I think once you perform a scene a couple of times, you can kind of see the lightness in it, and it's not as heavy as the first time. So we did have a great time on set. We also had a really great group of people that made for a nice environment.
DALTON: In terms of scale, this is arguably your biggest film. Did that have any sort of impact on you as a director?
GREEN: Well, it wasn't that much of a bigger budget, which is the other thing. We needed more money than we could get. So we had to scale the schedule back, which meant it was a really tight shoot, which meant it was a really difficult shoot. It never felt like a peak of production. It always felt difficult and a very logistical nightmare to fit all these pieces in. Also, because we were in the middle of nowhere, we often had a slim crew. We didn't have all the bits and pieces that we probably needed. We somehow got it done, but it was always a challenge. It was never easy. It didn't feel bigger (laughs).
DALTON: One of your biggest undertakings would have been finding the titular hotel. How did you land on the one in Yatina?
GREEN: It was the first one we looked at, which is wild. We wanted to shoot in South Australia, we knew the landscape was interesting there, and it worked for us. We knew we could get the tax credits; it'd be cheaper to shoot in South Australia. So we went on a scout with a location scout - Jess Goninon, who I adore - and she pointed out the first pub on the right, and it happened to be the one in Yatina. We parked out there and had a look around, and it was perfect, and the rest is history. We kind of took over that town, and everyone there were really lovely and warm and accommodating. We were able to shoot exteriors for two weeks, and then the interiors were built in a studio in Adelaide.
DALTON: Once inside the pub, I was quite impressed by how authentic your slang and banter was. How did you make sure it felt organic?
GREEN: I think it was just Oscar and I throwing things around that would make us laugh. Everyone thinks it's improvised, but it was very scripted. We didn't have enough time to improvise. We were so tight on time. Everything was really mapped out quite well, so it became a credit to the writing, I guess, and the actors being able to lift that off the page and make it feel buoyant and fresh.
DALTON: When I saw 'The Assistant' a few years ago, I was engrossed by how much dread you generated through a lack of sound. You really suffer with Julia's character in silence. 'The Royal Hotel' is equally discomforting but done in an opposite fashion: it is so noisy in that pub. How did you go about orchestrating that soundscape?
GREEN: I mean, even though 'The Assistant' seems quiet, there's a crazy big soundscape in there. We did a lot of sound effect work - a lot of libraries, buzzes, hums, Xerox machines, photocopiers, and things like that. We created this tension out of that environment, and we wanted to do the same thing here. So we just pulled in all these bar sounds and music and tried to play with things in a way that would give the space and scenes that tension we were looking for. It seemed to work out quite well.
We had a lot of sound effects, actually. Jed Palmer, my sound designer, and I worked on my Ukrainian documentary ['Ukraine Is Not a Brothel'] back in the day, and we had a sound effect library of Ukrainian sounds we ended up using for this film. It was this creaking and groaning of pipes and all these kinds of strange sounds that we thought would be interesting in terms of showing the [pub's] decay.
DALTON: And whereas 'The Assistant' probes into what is happening behind closed doors, 'The Royal Hotel' is a bit more visibly confronting. One scene that comes to mind is when Julia's character has to repeatedly assert that she has rescinded consent. What was that like to direct?
GREEN: That was a strange scene, and I think it was awkward. I remember Julia saying she felt awkward at the end of it and Toby saying that the scene's awkward. We were all trying to make sense of it because it just was an odd feeling to capture. But the two of them are so good. They have a lot of trust. They get along really well, and I think that made them feel - even though it felt strange to do - very safe with each other. I think that made it feel okay.
We all knew what we were trying to achieve, and we also knew it was tricky. And we ran out of time that day, and we got kicked out of the space, so it was kind of truncated. I think that's partly what was leading to that awkward feeling. Did we get it? Did we not? Does it feel unfinished? Is that how it should feel? There were a lot of questions. But Julia's the best, and Toby's the best.
DALTON: But something I appreciated is that the film was incredibly stressful and unnerving without resorting to anything exploitative. Many films of a similar ilk feel it necessary to do otherwise.
GREEN: Well, I didn't want to shoot or watch that scene, quite frankly. I think we've had enough of them in films, and we don't need them to have the conversation that I want to have about where we draw the line with bad behaviour and when we stand up for ourselves and say no. That conversation is within the film. All the behaviour in it is the entry point to sexual violence. To me, you don't ever need to see it; you just want to start that discussion.
DALTON: Even though I have highlighted their divergence in tone, 'The Royal Hotel' does share a lot of themes with 'The Assistant', such as gender dynamics and workplace misconduct. What is it about these themes that compels you as a storyteller?
GREEN: I don't really go at it thinking about the themes. I go at it as a woman in the world, and this is what I'm interested in. I'm interested in female characters and their experiences. I think the work kind of becomes political, but it's not like that's the intention going in. It comes from some gut instinct stuff, which is, I think, what makes the films work - the things that I find terrifying and that are really personal to me often are quite universal. Most women have felt that way. So I just kind of gravitate towards subjects that I feel a connection to.
DALTON: The film has been released in the United States and has played at some big overseas festivals, including London and Toronto. What has the response from international audiences been like, considering the film has such a distinctively Australian identity?
GREEN: I'm surprised a little. They seem to get what we are trying to say, but I think they miss a lot of the light and the shade. American audiences miss a lot of the humour and the warmth in some of the characters. As soon as Hugo [Weaving's] character says the "C" word, they kind of can't forgive him, whereas Australian audiences accept that, move on, and still give him a chance. So it plays quite differently, but it still seems to be doing quite well. It seems to be getting reviewed quite well.
DALTON: What's next for you? Is another project already on the horizon?
GREEN: I just want to get through this little press tour, get this movie out, get people to see it, and then at the end of it, I think I'll take stock of how it went down, what I can learn from the experience, what I can do differently next time, and then figure out what's next. It takes a minute to figure out what you've made.
DALTON: I bet! I'll end by saying your final shot is incredible! It's been a while since I've seen one that good.
GREEN: (laughs) That's cool!
DALTON: What was the idea behind it?
GREEN: Well, it's VFX -
DALTON: So you didn't burn down the pub? (laughs)
GREEN: Yeah, we didn't burn it (laughs). We couldn't afford that. But we spent a lot of time making sure it looked good. We worked with a VFX house in Sydney, and they were very dedicated to it. There was a lot of discussion about the simplicity of it and trying not to overmilk it. It took a minute, but we're very proud of it, and the girls love it. It's cheeky. Some critics don't agree or think the girls went too far, but there's going to be a bit of that no matter what. We feel proud of it.
'The Royal Hotel' is currently screening at the Adelaide Film Festival. It opens in cinemas nationwide on the 23rd of November.