“I did so much backpacking, especially through Europe, and some of that is in there. I’ve done my fair share of drinking in weird bars in weird places,” laughs Green on the eve of her latest film, The Royal Hotel’s premiere at the 71st San Sebastian Film Festival where it’s competing for the prestigious Golden Shell.
This creeping thriller with its portents of violence, features Julia Garner and Jessica Henwick as American friends, backpacking around Australia. After running out of money, they are forced to take a temporary live-in job behind the bar of the titular pub in a remote Outback mining town. Bar owner Billy – portrayed magnificently by Hugo Weaving – and a host of locals give the girls a riotous introduction to Down Under drinking culture until they soon find themselves trapped in an uneasy situation that grows rapidly out of control.
Green is not so sure how her film will be received by Australian men. “I don’t know – some of them will be mad, and some of them will like it,” she tells us.
“It’s an interesting film, because there’s no overt violence in it. And I think people get a little mad because they’re waiting for the violence and when the violence doesn’t come, I think they’re forced to look at their own behaviour a little bit more and that makes people a little uncomfortable,” she says.
“When you look at the film, and if you actually examine the behaviour, nothing has happened that has broken the law, so it’s all about these things that are sitting in that space where it’s technically not a crime… So, it’s looking at how to talk about the type of behaviour that isn’t criminal but it’s very unsettling and can lead to criminal behaviour if it’s not prevented,” she adds.
The Royal Hotel also features keenly observed performances from Daniel Henshall, Toby Wallace, James Frecheville and Ursula Yovich.
If the film’s striking poster of the two women leads some to believe that this might be a horror film, then Green merely teases with that genre while presenting something much more subtle.
“I think I just explore things that I find interesting. I look at behaviour that I find interesting in life, and that’s generally what sparks the idea for a film.
“If I’m given this platform and I’m able to make a movie and to show aspects of our culture to others to see, I think it’s a duty to examine the parts of culture that often doesn’t get seen or addressed. This idea that these small moments – they call them micro aggressions – can really affect somebody’s self-confidence or self-worth and that can also make them feel terrified. If I can highlight those kinds of moments and show how, in general, behaviour affects people and how we can maybe rectify or change things in small ways, then hopefully I’m contributing in some way to doing whatever I can, politically, with my cinema.
“I don’t know if I want to make a horror movie. I’m just interested in what I’m interested in and it’s a gut thing more than anything. And then I think the genre comes second. I work out what I’m trying to explore and then figure out where to fit it within genres. But often with genres, there’s a lot of expectations. But with this, we’re trying to correct here and change up, I guess. There’s a history of cinema that has been violent towards women and doesn’t often treat its female heroes well,” she offers.
Addressing those who might feel disappointed by her film’s lack of actual violence, she says, “I think we’ve seen enough violence against women on screen and cinema and I really wanted to make something that is specifically not that. So, immediately that was the first goal in adapting the film and thinking, ‘Well, how can we explore this sort of behaviour?’ It’s a complicated thing to describe, but we’re basically looking at the type of behaviour that is a gateway or entry point to sexual violence and violence against women. So, trying to stop that behaviour from ever getting too bad or too far. If you say no earlier on, then it never escalates. It’s a weird sort of behaviour where you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m uncomfortable, but I’m not sure. Should I stand up for myself? Should I not?’ So, it’s about dancing on that line without ever really crossing it, which was always the goal from the beginning.
“I’ve never said it was a horror movie. It’s only an audience that thinks it’s a horror movie. It’s a wild thing, where they look at that image and think they’re going to die. It’s crazy. We’re always saying, ‘No! They’re not going to die. They don’t die!’
“I don’t know if I should spoil it, but we’re trying to teach people that there’s a different way to make that kind of film, which is about women being strong in the outback,” she says.
Green, 38, has emerged as a fearless feminist voice in the ten years since she directed her first feature documentary, Ukraine Is Not a Brothel, premiering out of competition at Venice Film Festival and screened at over 50 festivals internationally.
Having attended the Victorian College of the Arts, her short film Spilt screened at the Brisbane International Film festival, prompting her to travel to Europe and the US where she would direct several award-winning documentaries.
In 2015, her documentary short The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul won the Non-Fiction Jury Prize at Sundance, a subject to which she returned with the hybrid documentary Casting JonBenet (2017).
In 2019, she directed her first narrative feature, The Assistant, which premiered at Telluride.
Certainly, Ozark star Julia Garner has become something of a muse for Green since she first directed her in The Assistant and one might argue that The Royal Hotel is a companion piece to that earlier film, where Garner portrayed a film production assistant navigating a sexist workplace culture, working for a Harvey Weinstein-esque boss.
“Both are sort of about behaviour and attitudes that are a little gendered and sexist and they’re both looking at sexual harassment in the workplace, essentially,” says Green.
“They’re very different films, although Julia Garner clearly links the two of them. Both films are kind of about her processing her environment and her trying to figure out if she’s safe; if she can stand up for herself, how to navigate a culture. And the first film was like the workplace culture and here is something more of an aggressive drinking culture in Australia. There are links in that way, but they’re very different, I think tonally.”
Shot in the Outback, outside of Adelaide in just 25 days, Green is grateful for her cast.
“We brought a lot of the main cast in from all over Australia, but the locals who are sitting at the bar – a lot of them were cast out of Adelaide. And actually, we found in that process when you’re casting locals, that you get more real characters, they were naturally ‘oddballs’, and all very sweet, kind people. It was a lovely group that came together.
“And I’ll credit some of the actors like Dan Henshaw, who plays Dolly, for taking a bunch of them under his wing and took them out for a drink and explained things to them and made it fun,” she says.
Co-writing the script with Oscar Redding, they were inspired by documentary Hotel Coolgardie about two Scandinavian backpackers.
“I was on a jury for documentary films in Australia and saw this documentary about two Scandinavian women who went backpacking in Australia and took a job in this pub to get some money and they ended up in a town very similar to the one in the film. We used that as a jumping off point for the screenplay, but obviously nothing is the same. There’s no dialogue or anything taken from the documentary but the kind of vibe of the place is similar,” she says.
The Royal Hotel is in cinemas 23 November 2023