Australian director Kitty Green’s highly anticipated second feature, The Royal Hotel, continues her lifelong quest to challenge imbalances of power. By Anthony Frajman.

Director and screenwriter Kitty Green

Director and screenwriter Kitty Green.
Director and screenwriter Kitty Green.
Credit: Iñigo Alzugaray / Cordon Press

Kitty Green vividly recalls how her mother, Janina Green, inspired the bold, meticulously detailed cinema that became her calling. Janina brought home VHS tapes of challenging arthouse films and would leave them for Kitty to discover. “My mother got me to watch [Michael] Haneke [and Andrey Zvyagintsev} films very young,” she says. “So, I had a very good education at home as to what cinema was.”

She’s on Zoom in a friend’s house in New York, where she is based. It’s been a busy day for Green, ahead of the American release of her latest feature, yet she still exudes a refreshing mix of detail, warmth and candour.

Green has established herself on the international stage as one of Australia’s most fearless, exciting filmmakers. Her taut debut fiction feature, the #MeToo thriller The Assistant, examined the mechanisms of a system that enables abuse and predatory behaviour. In her new film, the psychological thriller The Royal Hotel – which opens the inaugural SXSW Sydney on October 15 and the Adelaide Film Festival on October 18 – she confronts sexual harassment, drinking culture and toxic masculinity.

Set in a remote outback mining town, The Royal Hotel follows two American backpackers and best friends, Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick). Running out of cash while travelling Australia, they naively take a job at a run-down pub, where they are bombarded by unwanted comments and misogyny from the rowdy male clientele. Though Liv at first shrugs off the vulgarity, Hanna becomes increasingly disgusted. Compounded by the claustrophobic setting, the situation quickly spirals out of control.

The Royal Hotel is inspired by Pete Gleeson’s 2016 documentary Hotel Coolgardie, which follows two Finnish women who experience rampant sexism while working at a Western Australian pub. Green first saw it while on a film festival jury. She began to think about making a narrative feature film set in a similar milieu. The subject also provided an opportunity to make a film on home soil, after five years living in New York.

“I’m an Australian filmmaker, but I hadn’t actually made an Australian film, so there was part of me that felt like I should make something back home,” says Green. “I saw the documentary and I thought that was really interesting and I hadn’t seen the Australian outback presented through a female lens. And I also thought when watching that documentary, it was a role that Julia [Garner] could play. My mother was also saying, ‘Can you come home and spend more time with us?’ ”

If Green’s work has tended towards challenging subjects, perhaps this is due in part to her upbringing. She was born in Melbourne to two artists who met during their studies. Green’s mother emigrated from Ukraine and is a highly respected photography teacher who taught many of Australia’s most prominent art photographers at Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) and RMIT. Her father, Peter Green, taught art and media and recently began a PhD on Hegel.

“My parents are very creative people, so I was around a lot of photography and video art exhibitions as a child,” she says. “My dad can draw really beautifully. He’s got this great eye and I think there’s a lot that I learned from him. Both my parents could see I was interested in filmmaking and they encouraged me.”

After helping her buy her first camera and editing software, Peter taught his daughter to grow her skills. She made her first films at home while transiting from childhood to adolescence. She studied film and television at VCA and then worked for the ABC as a camera operator, editor and producer on Art Nation and Artscape and made behind-the-scenes documentaries on films by her friends.

Although she began with documentaries, her ambition was always to make narrative films. “Fiction work allows you to really home in on the details and the reactions and get these tiny moments that are quite impactful,” she says. “With docs, you just have to shoot what’s going on. You have to almost stay wide.”

Much like The Assistant, The Royal Hotel is a slow-burn experience. The film is permeated by microaggressions which gradually escalate. One of its earliest dread-inducing moments concerns psychological, rather than physical, aggression. It occurs when the intimidating pub patron Dolly, played by Daniel Henshall, enters the employees’ private quarters above the hotel. There is also unease when, following a bit of drinking, Hanna has to fend off unwanted advances from the apparently genial Matty (Toby Wallace).

For Green, these moments lay bare how casual sexism and the harassment of women are deeply ingrained in our society. “The film is about what sort of behaviour should we tolerate or accept and when do we stand up for ourselves, and when do we say, ‘No, that’s enough,’ ” she says. “I think it’s realistic and I think that’s what people find so terrifying about it. No one’s threatening anybody with a knife – it’s veiled and a little harder to distinguish and determine.

“The Australian thing is to say, ‘Oh, he’s all right mate. Just ignore him.’ They say [in America], ‘Oh, he’s harmless, he’s fine.’ But when does that tip into the point where it’s like, ‘No, he’s really making me uncomfortable? Can we speak to him or have a word with him?’ ”

Though The Royal Hotel has a distinctly Australian setting, Green says the conduct it depicts is universal. “I’m using Australia as a setting because I’ve seen that happen out there,” she says. “But I think the behaviour in the film could happen anywhere. You can see the same [uncomfortable situations] at a bar in Manhattan with all those Wall Street guys. It’s more to do with this aggression associated with drinking culture.”

The film doesn’t only challenge pub culture and gender dynamics, but also conventions of genre. As Green notes, most outback films, such as Wake in Fright or Wolf Creek, have male characters and often violence at their centre “Often in these movies, two young women take a trip out to the outback [and are assaulted or killed]. We wanted to make a project where those two women not only didn’t die but were able to find themselves and their own strength.”

There has been some online backlash from male viewers. “There’s geeks out there that are reviewing my movie that think we forgot the rape scene, and they’re mad about it,” says Green. “That sort of stuff really makes me angry. There’s a lot of people out there who expect violence and have been almost conditioned by the film industry to want it.”

The Royal Hotel is Green’s second collaboration with three-time Emmy winner and Ozark star Julia Garner, following Garner’s role as Jane, a junior assistant working for a powerful male executive, in The Assistant. Released days after the Harvey Weinstein trial began, it was hailed as the first film to deal with #MeToo. She says the extremely delicate subject matter, as well as a cinema release torpedoed by the pandemic, means she still trying to process the experience.

“It was a confusing time and I still haven’t fully made sense of it,” she says. “We premiered the movie just before the pandemic and then the world sort of shut down on us. No one really discussed it with me that openly. But I got a lot of messages on Twitter where people wrote to me about their own experiences, so I knew it was resonating.”

In The Assistant, Green boldly bucks Hollywood convention by keeping the movie’s predatory mogul off-screen, focusing instead on the subjugated young woman and her menial tasks. “A lot of the challenge with The Assistant was just being sensitive to [the victims] and trying to present a project that didn’t feel exploitative, that felt like it was saying something important, that it was contributing to the conversation in a productive and useful way.”

That scrupulous level of detail was applied to her research. Before making the film, Green interviewed more than 100 assistants in Hollywood, Melbourne, New York and London, as well as workers in engineering, finance and architecture, to get a broader picture of workplace abuse and harassment.

She was no stranger to taking on a patriarchal system nor to polemic projects. In 2012, Green moved to her mother’s native country, Ukraine, to make a documentary on the feminist activist group FEMEN, after she passed one of their protests and asked if she could film. She initially intended to stay for a short period but remained in Ukraine for 14 months, living in a cramped two-bedroom apartment with four FEMEN activists. At one point, Green was arrested by Russian secret police officers in Minsk and deported.

What began as a film focused on FEMEN and their ideals quickly morphed into an entirely different movie. Ukraine is Not a Brothel (2013) revealed the movement was at the time controlled by Victor Sviatsky, a shadowy figure who selected the women based on their appearance, and who abused and mistreated them.

Green followed this with her 2015 short documentary The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul, in which young girls are auditioning for the part of their idol, the figure skater Oksana Baiul. This film won the Short Film Jury Prize at Sundance in 2015, which allowed her to move to the United States.

In 2017, Green’s provocative hybrid-documentary Casting JonBenet used the circumstances of the unsolved murder of six-year-old beauty pageant contestant JonBenét Ramsey to examine society’s obsession with true crime and the impact of the incident on locals’ lives. Seamlessly combining nonfiction with fictional elements, Green auditioned local actors from the Ramseys’ hometown of Boulder to play her family, using their portrayals and interviews to build a narrative.

Though Green has shown films at the Venice, Berlin and Sundance film festivals, she still faces frustrating sexism in the industry. When premiering The Assistant at Sundance, Green recalled how often she had been mistaken for an assistant to her two male producers or handed people’s coats.

“I’m always fighting this perception that I don’t know what I’m doing. Even with crews, I always have to over-explain to prove I know what I’m doing,” she says. “I think a dude can walk in with a leather jacket on and people think he’s the director, but I have to do all these magic tricks to prove I am.”

The Royal Hotel is released in America by respected distributor Neon after receiving acclaim at Telluride and Toronto. “We tested it with Australian audiences and it’s playing quite generally,” says Green. “I think the pub itself and the men in the film aren’t as scary to Australians. They don’t feel immediately threatening. To Americans, it’s almost like they think it’s a horror movie straight away. As soon as Hugo Weaving opens the fridge, they’re like, ‘This place is crazy.’ ”

Green hopes the film creates discussion on misogynistic behaviours. “I think the more we can pinpoint that kind of conduct earlier and stop it, the less chance of it spiralling into something really awful or becoming a gateway to sexual misconduct.”

She has her eye on multiple future projects, and a third project with Garner is likely. But she doesn’t plan to rush into another film and won’t be swayed by expectations. She plans to evaluate the response to The Royal Hotel and then will decide what feels right. She is, however, determined to continue to make narrative features. “I like the close-up, I like the control,” she says. “I’m a geek for the technical stuff, figuring out a scene and plotting out the shot. I love all that stuff.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 14, 2023 as "Unsettling truths".

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