If there’s a theme cutting across Kitty Green’s work, it’s the dangers that lurk in everyday society for young, idealistic women. Whether using the tools of re-enactment in the hybrid documentary Casting JonBenet or a process-focused minimalism in the #MeToo workplace drama The Assistant, she never approaches the shared subject in the same way.
With The Royal Hotel, Green further expands her toolkit by drawing on the conventions of genre filmmaking. She doesn’t overtly tip her hand as to what kind of situation Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) walk into when they gain employment at the titular bar. As two broke Americans in desperate need of cash on a work-tourism trip in Australia, they have little choice but to take a gig bartending at the lone watering hole in a desolate mining town.
The film unnervingly aligns our experience with that of Hanna and Liv. Almost every interaction they have is fraught with the potential for violence. Their work involves navigating the mercurial mood swings of the bar’s alcoholic owner, Billy (Hugo Weaving), as well as placating patrons, from the amicable Matty (Toby Wallace) to the aggressive Dolly (Daniel Henshall). Hanna and Julia often disagree among themselves as to what any given moment means, with the former tending to fret about the possible danger while the other often trying to explain it away.
I spoke with Green shortly after The Royal Hotel’s festival debut at the Telluride Film Festival. Our conversation covered why she flirted with horror tropes, why the film always needed to be in the present tense, and how she feels about the long tail of conversation around The Assistant. But as the first order of business, we had to discuss the news of the day involving an Australian pop star whose music plays a role in The Royal Hotel.
It feels fitting that we speak on a day that Kylie Minogue releases a new album.
I didn’t know that was happening today, but that’s perfect.
Of all her songs to use in the film to teach Americans about Australia…“The Loco-Motion”?!
Honestly, if you’re going to teach someone about Kylie Minogue, I think you start at “The Loco-Motion,” don’t you?
I love that song, I have no complaints! On the note of Australian art, you’ve mentioned films ranging from Wake in Fright to Wolf Creek as informing the backdrop of The Royal Hotel. Were you playing with the idea that the audience has been primed to see outsiders entering the Outback as the basis for grisly horror?
We were trying to subvert that. I think when you see an image of two women with backpacks on in the Outback, you assume they’re gonna die or be horrifically attacked. I was trying to make a film about strength and friendship. They definitely encounter some dark things along the way. But ultimately, I wanted them to walk away not as winners, but alive at least.
I think the audience is always expecting a shoe to drop, and we’ll get that violent scene or attack. It always feels like it’s looming in the background, but the subversion is that it never comes.
I think that people are kind of waiting for that, especially male viewers. They expect and want that, and it’s so bizarre to me that that’s what we’ve been taught makes it a movie. That boiling point. We’re trying to reject all that and say this behavior is bad enough. We don’t need to escalate that far. This is enough for us to say no and stand up for ourselves.
It’s interesting to hear that male viewers feel that way. For them, it’s like the experience of being a woman and not knowing how a tense situation will resolve.
I think all the behavior in the film is sort of dancing on that line. It never really crosses it, but the characters are constantly trying to assess their environment for threats and figure out who’s okay, who’s not, was that a joke, is that not, is that a threat, what is that and trying to make sense of it, especially in a foreign environment? I think it gives us all the elements for a film.
I thought about Matthew MacFadyen’s friendly but shifty HR representative in The Assistant just about any time Toby Wallace was on screen in The Royal Hotel. What are the challenges of directing a performance where there’s often a disconnect between how the character envisions himself and how he behaves?
Those two are such fabulous actors that I honestly don’t have to do much. That’s the beautiful thing about working with Matthew MacFadyen: He comes in and is incredible. I barely had a note to give him. Every time he did something different, and he gave me so much to play with in the edit. And Toby is the same. There’s an energy he’s giving off that’s so wonderful, and he was such a joy to work with. Honestly, if you cast well, the job becomes very easy.
Backstory is strategically vague here, but you mentioned that Jessica Henwick had ideas about what happened to Liv prior to the events of the film. What’s the balance of giving your performers freedom without sacrificing consistency?
I don’t do rehearsals in a strict sense of that word. The way I work in pre-production is that we have a lot of discussion about the characters, motivations, and what they’re thinking and feeling in each scene. Those discussions inform the journey. Some of the actors like to type up and chat about backstory. I love all that stuff because I think it informs the character, but it becomes about being in the moment. Some kind of gut instinct thing that kicks in.
Is adding dimension, if not necessarily excessive detail, something you’re looking to address at the script stage or something you’re trusting your performers to handle so that the characters are more than just archetypes?
There’s a version of the script where the backstory was in there, but it felt like a misdirect in that people would then think, “Oh, they’re behaving this way, because X happened.” What we’re trying to say with this film is that this sort of behavior is not okay. It doesn’t matter where they’ve come from, and their behavior isn’t a response to something in their past. Their behavior is a response to something in the present right now in front of them that they disagree with. To me, it was essential that we were in the present at all times.
At what point did the pub owner’s girlfriend, Carol, come into the story? She feels like a secret weapon you can deploy at key moments to help make sense of both the masculine and feminine perspectives on a moment.
The film is loosely based on a documentary, and her character isn’t really represented in it at all. You can make vague links between [characters]—not that we based any of them on the documentary characters, but there are archetypes, essentially. Carol was an invention. I think Oscar Redding, my co-writer, had worked with Ursula Yovich on a theater project in Australia, and really adored her. I was a fan, so we thought having that presence would help. We thought it might soften the character Bill, played by Hugo Weaving, to show his more human side. I wanted a way to get those girls into the pub that didn’t feel so terrible. If a man picks them up, I think immediately you would have thought, “Uh oh!” But there’s a woman there to get them, and that helps soften the journey a little bit for people as they enter that world.
You’re an Australian native, but your work so far has taken you to other countries. Can you see yourself on either side of the bar, then, in The Royal Hotel? Both in the position of the native barflies and the outsider workers?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, I was brought up in Melbourne in the city, but my granddad ran a pub like Hugo Weaving’s [in the film]. My dad grew up in a pub like that, and my mother is a Ukrainian immigrant who moved to Australia from Ukraine. Between the two parents, they each have a very different perspective on a place like that. So I think that helps me be both Julia Garner and also the woman sitting at the bar having a Sauv Blanc.
The film isn’t unlike The Assistant in their attention to workplace noise, although in vastly different directions. How did the soundscape of this film come together?
I’m not a big fan of using a lot of score because I feel like it’s emotionally manipulative and tells you how to feel. A lot of my feelings exist in this space that’s throwing up questions about behavior. In that sense, there’s more ambiguity if you throw in a lot of sound. You can create a lot of tension out of sound effects without it feeling like it’s pushing you in one direction emotionally. I love building all that stuff: the whirrs of the fridges, the fans, and all the strange sounds we could use like beer taps, pipes in the walls—anything we could use to create some tension. I had this library of sound effects, which I’d actually recorded in Ukraine for a documentary, that was all rattling pipes and things that felt like a really decaying place. That was a really great resource for us when we were sort of trying to build this hotel that was once a grand place but has since sort of come into a state of disrepair.
Was it challenging to do the mix, especially whenever it’s getting really loud and rowdy? I loved that sometimes it was very difficult to pick up the dialogue because miscommunication is often part of the bar experience.
I never know though how much Americans are missing because the Australian dialect is pretty thick. We didn’t hold back to make it more decipherable or anything. I think Australians pick up most of it. A set like that, to be honest, we found when we were shooting if the extras were loud, the performances were really dynamic. As soon as the extras dropped down and were quiet to get the performances, we lost something. We did have to do a lot of ADR because we did have to try and fill in some gaps that weren’t audible because of our very noisy background actors.
I want to tread lightly here to avoid spoilers, but your most recent two films come to very different conclusions about how to handle institutions propped up by abuse and misogyny. Should we see The Royal Hotel as just another way to think about this question or a more up-to-date point of view from you?
The Assistant was about an acceptance of how rotten the system is. I think the character has to just accept it. That, to me, was very bleak. It was a hard film to screen and watch. With this one, it’s a little cheeky, but we wanted to put more of a point of view into the final moments. We’re presenting all this behavior, and then we’re telling you it’s not acceptable, essentially. That’s the way we’re choosing to do it. Yeah, it’s gonna make a few people mad, but I felt like it was an important note to end on. I couldn’t let them go through all that and just head home. It would have been really hard and bleak. I think our heroes deserved something a little more than that.
Is dealing with angry people just part of making movies that confront these systems of power in the first place?
Just releasing our movie is so wild. Critically, The Assistant did really well. I’m not sure audiences were as thrilled. It’s a hard film. This one, audiences seem to be more excited about it, so we’ll see what happens critically. I just make something that I think’s interesting, throw it out into the world, and see how people accept and discuss it. I can’t really predict what that will be, so all I can do is just hone in on what I find interesting.
You’ve said you felt there was a small wave of people rediscovering The Assistant after She Said came out last year. Do you think it’s finding its audience now?
It’s funny, when I released it, I was at Telluride with it, and I don’t know whether it was such a hard movie to watch or it was so fresh at that point because everyone was still dealing with the whole #MeToo thing. We were very quick to get that movie out, and I think it was hard for people to discuss. I didn’t really know it was having an impact because no one would really discuss it with me. It felt quiet, and then the pandemic happened and everyone had a different focus. I’m amazed that, even now, releasing this one, all these people—especially when I arrived in Telluride—were coming up to me talking about how great The Assistant was. I was like, “Where were you when we had The Assistant here?!” It seems to live on. A lot of films get forgotten, but people keep talking about The Assistant, which I think is a really great thing.
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