There’s a promo image from new film The Royal Hotel which depicts two girls wearing large travel backpacks standing on the side of a dusty road in the Australian Outback. They appear lost, troubled and vulnerable. “It feels like a horror movie,” says director and co-writer Kitty Green. We’re meeting in a spacious suite at London’s very expensive Soho Hotel. She’s sat in a posh dining chair – and we’ve sunk into a low couch opposite. Back to the film. That specific shot, along with a trail of ostensibly foreboding details, initially appear to be planted to lure the audience into believing that the worst is inevitably going to happen. “[We were] always trying to push it to make it ours – and not ‘that’ – and defy those conventions in some way,” Green explains.
The Australian filmmaker’s new movie – the follow-up to her thought-provoking 2019 drama The Assistant – tells the story of two American friends, Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick), who take jobs in the eponymous bar situated in a desolate mining town. Upon arriving, they discover there’s no wifi, limited hot water and nothing to do besides drink boxed wine and sunbathe in a dried-up swimming pool. Then there’s the punters – rowdy men thirsty for post-work pints and mouthy locals who subject the girls to misogynistic microaggressions, from urging them to smile more to making crude jokes at their expense. It’s a film that will hit close to home for anyone who’s ever slogged away at a local cash-in-hand pub gig.
But, crucially, The Royal Hotel never reaches the climax that decades of thriller tropes have conditioned us to brace ourselves for – namely that women in potentially perilous circumstances will become victims of rape or sexual violence. “It’s about bad behaviour,” Green says. “I wanted to point out the type of behaviour that often goes unnoticed by a lot of people.”
“I want to point out bad behaviour that goes unnoticed”
The film’s unsettling atmosphere builds like a headache (Green rejects the label “slowburn”), creating a similar kind of ambiguous tension to The Assistant, Green’s quietly powerful office drama which NME described as “the first great #MeToo movie”. Marking the start of a powerful collaborative relationship with Garner (best known for Netflix crime saga Ozark), The Assistant follows a junior assistant at a production company who organises the affairs of a Harvey Weinstein-type exec – one whose face is never revealed to the audience.
Just like The Royal Hotel, glimpses of exploitation and toxicity are subtle, yet glaringly obvious to anyone familiar with the signs. As Garner said in one interview, the film is quiet “because the subject is so loud”. The throughline between the two films, Green says, is women navigating a testing culture or new environment. Signalling a powerful new benchmark for post-#MeToo filmmaking, Green’s relentless commitment to the truth has made her one of the most compelling new directors in recent years. “A lot of it is inherently about my fear as being a woman in the world,” she says.
Green remembers being around 11-years-old growing up in Melbourne when she wanted a video camera “more than anything in the world”. With the help of a donation from her grandma, she was able to purchase one and started making mini movies. “It was just always what I wanted to do, and I still can’t really explain it,” she says. She grew up with two artists for parents – her mother a photographer and father a teacher in art and media who also pursued a PhD on the theories of German philosopher Hegel. The latter taught her how to use editing software to help with the post-production of her stop motion films, which featured Barbie dolls suspended on strings going up and down stairs, along with “lots of Spice Girls stuff” she made with her friends.
After studying film and television at the Victorian College Of The Arts in Melbourne, she got a job following Aussie actor Rebel Wilson around on the 2008 TV show Bogan Pride for a behind-the-scenes documentary, as well as working as an editor and producer. After that, it all got a bit serious.
In 2012, around aged 26, she spent a year in her mother’s native Ukraine shadowing the feminist group Femen who are often pictured in the media topless with slogans emblazoned in black text across their chest. Throughout her time shooting the documentary, Ukraine Is Not a Brothel, Green was arrested a total of eight times. One of those was an abduction in Belarus, which she believes was orchestrated by the Belarusian KGB. “It was terrifying, but it didn’t stop me,” she says. The Australian consulate helped to organise a flight home, but Green raised some eyebrows when she chose to go back to Ukraine instead to finish the film. “It was a really hard year,” she says. “But I look back at that as the best year of my life.”
This background in documentary-making proved to be a rigorous “training ground” for Green, before she crossed over into fiction. “I just think I ended up getting interested in other things and other ways of telling stories,” she says. Her factual foundations likely explain why her narrative films are steeped in realism. The Royal Hotel was even loosely inspired by a doc called Hotel Coolgardie, about two female Finnish travellers who work at a pub in (you guessed it) an isolated Australian mining town and are subjected to unwanted male attention. Green was intrigued to witness the woman finding small ways to stand up for themselves. “As Australians, and I think Brits too, we often like to put up with a lot of that behaviour and just smile it off or laugh it off and move on,” Green says.
Garner was crucial in striking that balance between Hanna’s timidity and her bite. “I could throw her anything,” says Green. She also credits her ability to capture those key moments, particularly in the rowdy bar scenes, to having directed two episodes of M. Night Shyamalan’s psychological thriller TV show Servant. “Watching him work was a really big learning experience,” she says. “I got to shoot a big dinner party scene with lots of people in it. And I had to figure out how to cover it in a very technical way.” The master of movie twists also watched an early rough cut of The Royal Hotel and helped out with notes.
Green is aware that certain audiences might come away from The Royal Hotel interpreting it as a comment on toxic masculinity. But she wanted the film to spotlight the protagonists first and foremost, and their journey to “carve out their own strengths and figure out their limits”.
Ensuring the girls’ stories remained the core focus meant Green was meticulous with the casting of her male characters. The Matrix and Lord Of The Rings star Hugo Weaving came in as the troubled landlord, Toby Wallace (Babyteeth) played the local flirt and Herbert Nordrum (The Worst Person In The World) took on a fellow boozy traveller. “We wanted the people who were playing these men to be really lovely human beings, because I felt like that set needed to feel warm,” Green says.
She says the film is already dividing opinion. When we note the careful nuances and vulnerability in the male characters, Green reveals audiences across the pond have not been responding in the same way. “Americans think these guys are villains and can’t see any of the light and shade,” she says. “And we worked really hard to make them all desperate for connection.”
The ending of the film, a bold and blazing statement through which Liv and Hanna reclaim their agency, has also proved divisive. “I didn’t want them to leave and just accept that behaviour and tolerate it and go, ‘Oh well, the system’s fucked’,” Green says. “Particularly because The Assistant had a very bleak ending. The ending is an acceptance of the fact that the system’s broken. And I think [with] this one, I was like, ‘No, let’s do something different. Let’s let these girls say ‘No’, and stand up for themselves.”
“Male critics couldn’t get their heads around it”
She says she’s already heard feedback from male critics who think the girls went too far. “I’m proud of it,” she says. She also had to stand her ground before the film even entered production. When looking to finance The Royal Hotel, she came up against suggestions that there wasn’t enough violence. “We were actively trying to make a film that challenged that. And they couldn’t get their heads around it,” she said. “To them, it wasn’t a movie without ‘that scene’. Which I assume, by the way, is a rape scene. What else are they looking for?”
Green has already said that she’d like to complete a trilogy of sorts with Garner, but it would have to be the right project. “I haven’t been able to really put anything down on paper,” she says. “But I think soon, hopefully, in a month, I can figure it out.” If Green’s last two films are anything to go by, it’s sure to ignite important new conversations.
‘The Royal Hotel’ is in UK and Irish cinemas from November 3