Contributing Writer Anahit Behrooz sits down with The Royal Hotel writer and director Kitty Green to unpack her sophomore feature.
It’s the start of a sleazy joke, maybe: two girls walk into a bar in the middle of the Australian Outback. Or the establishing shot of a horror film, as our protagonists hike their backpacks higher and walk across a deserted landscape into the bar’s dingy interior, suspicious eyes fixed on them. But in Kitty Green’s The Royal Hotel, the Australian director’s taut and unrelenting follow-up to workplace harassment thriller The Assistant, the spectre of male violence and drinking culture finds no relief in punchlines or final girl tropes. Instead, we are left to contend with the creeping dread of lewd jokes and wandering hands, and two girls at the mercy of a workplace and its patrons.
Starring The Assistant’s star Julia Garner and The Matrix Resurrections’ Jessica Henwick, The Royal Hotel adapts the 2016 documentary Hotel Coolgardie, about two Scandinavian women who find themselves working in an Outback pub. In Green’s hands, the social realist story transforms into an increasingly claustrophobic thriller, deploying and subverting generic horror and coming-of-age tropes to interrogate what kinds of pervasive violence we make visible, and how we might respond in the face of this seemingly unshakable climate.
We sat down with Kitty Green to discuss resisting horror, the politics of depicting violence, and why The Royal Hotel could be set anywhere.
Girls on Tops: The Royal Hotel is based on the 2016 documentary Hotel Coolgardie – what made the narrative form feel right for retelling this story?
Kitty Green: The documentary is about two Scandinavian women working in an Outback pub, but there was something about the way they handled themselves… I felt that as an Australian I would behave differently, I would put up with more. These women were just like: “No, you don't get to speak to me like that.” That carving out of strength is an interesting idea for a film, especially because The Assistant is about weakness in a lot of ways – accepting a system is rotten and just becoming part of it. Here, I felt we had an opportunity to say, “Hey, the system’s rotten, but let's stand up for ourselves. Let's say no.”
You’ve talked about this as a film about strength elsewhere – I’m curious what that means to you?
I guess people come to it and go, “This is a film about toxic masculinity,” and you can view it that way. But to me, it's about these two women trying to figure themselves out and trying to figure out when someone is a little creep but they haven't actually done anything wrong. What do you do with that fear? When do you communicate?
The fear the girls experience feels very specific to the setting of the Australian Outback as a remote and lawless space. But it struck me how familiar an experience it also is – it’s the same bullshit we see everywhere. How did you want to navigate that tension?
Anything in that interior could happen in any bar here, in New York, anywhere. What adds another layer of tension is just how isolated they are, and how if they wanted help I'm not sure where it would come from. It gives the movie an extra layer but the behaviour in it is universal, something we've all seen and put up with and gone: “Oh, he's a bit drunk, but maybe he's alright, I'll let it go.”
Regarding this idea of fear, you’ve talked about how you resist the genre of horror when it comes to your films. At the same time, it’s incredibly striking how tension structures both this and The Assistant. How did you want to experience fear, and what differentiates it from horror?
When you put two girls in backpacks into the Outback and you put a camera on them, it naturally looks like a horror movie, but we were trying to work against that. We don't want them to end up dead, which is what everyone assumes will happen. So how can we make a movie that's not going to abuse these women, and instead show their journey as they try and make sense of the environment around them?
There's certain aspects of human behaviour or culture that I find interesting that are often ignored. The Assistant is about that. It's about moments I had in my life when I've said something and someone's been dismissive of it, and this one, too, is about how some little remark or glance can feel demeaning and destroy you. With narrative filmmaking, the thing I can do is use the close-up to amplify these moments and show the world the way I view it.
Can you tell me more about the friendship between the two women? Was there something particular about that dynamic that you wanted to explore?
It was a direct reaction to people on Twitter asking why she didn't have any friends in The Assistant.
People said that? She's busy!
Yeah, because she's busy! It was a little bit of me going, well, I'm going to give her a friend and what does that dynamic look like? The documentary had these two people who were very close and that was interesting to me. On those big trips, I've always got a friend with me ,and either they're the one drinking too much or I'm the one…
I really loved that Hannah has this friendship but she also has romantic relationships with men. Parts of this film reminded me of Jane Campion, and the ways that female desire and intimacy with men can be a vulnerable and often dangerous thing.
I like the Campion reference. I worked for her, actually, I did research on Top of the Lake. She would send me to do little tasks, I learned so much from watching her work.
Those trips when you're that age are partly about meeting new people, and a charming Aussie boy who likes Kylie Minogue sounds like a fun time. But this idea that these men feel entitled [to] more than what we want to give and the awkwardness of all that was an incredible thing to explore. I remember in that scene, particularly, Julia leaving and saying, “I feel awkward,” and Toby [Wallace] saying: “Well, isn’t that what it is?”
What are the politics behind what violence is depicted in your films? It’s another kind of mechanism of fear, in a way, that your films often centre around this unknown and unseen spectre.
I just really don't think you need that scene. We've seen enough of it. I don't want to watch a movie when it has that scene in it – I frankly think it's upsetting. This movie is about behaviour that is the gateway to behaving like that. You let them get away with x then next time they might get away with y. How can we prevent it from ever getting there?
Do you think, culturally, we are at a point where we shouldn’t be showing gendered violence?
I can't speak for every film, but a lot of the time it's pretty gratuitous. Who thinks this is a good idea? How much agency does the female lead have over it? It's murky territory.
One of the things I love most about your films is that they don’t centre on acts of violence, but more on the structures.
As soon as you show the violence, everyone watching it can go: “I'm not like him because I don't do that.” Whereas if you never show the violence, everyone's forced to look at their own behaviour and go: “Maybe when I made that joke, it wasn’t appropriate.” It forces people to examine their own behaviour a little more.
The Assistant was released in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, which meant it got swallowed up as a “#MeToo” or “Harvey Weinstein” film. Do you think this film allows for a broader, more culturally expansive approach?
It's funny, I did an interview this morning and straightaway, they were like: “This is a film about Australia.” I was like: “Well, not really.” It's about drinking culture here, too. People are very quick to label it an Australian problem, which I think is fascinating.
Especially here in the UK.
Exactly. You're always going to have people trying to pin it on something – it makes them feel safer, I guess, about their own environment. But I'm trying to highlight the culture everywhere really. It's terrifying how many women write to me to say it's reflective of their experiences. That's the scary part. It's so prevalent everywhere; not just here, not just in Australia, but everywhere.
The Royal Hotel is in UK cinemas now.