Interview – ‘The Royal Hotel’ director Kitty Green on reuniting with Julia Garner for Aussie outback thriller

Americans Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) are best friends backpacking in Australia. After they run out of money, Liv, looking for an adventure, convinces Hanna to take a temporary live-in job behind the bar of a pub called ’The Royal Hotel’ in a remote Outback mining town. Bar owner Billy (Hugo Weaving) and a host of locals give the girls a riotous introduction to Down Under drinking culture but soon Hanna and Liv find themselves trapped in an unnerving situation that grows rapidly out of their control.

After a strong film festival run throughout 2023, The Royal Hotel is finally hitting Australian cinemas on November 23, and in the lead up to it’s release, I had the chance to chat with the film’s co-writer and director, Kitty Green to discuss the origin of this film’s story, reuniting with Ozark star Julia Garner, and the interesting international responses to this wholeheartedly Australian film.

Nick: It’s a pleasure to meet you, Kitty. I appreciate you taking the time to chat today! I caught the film at Brisbane International Film Festival (BIFF), and if I correct in saying, you also premiered your very first short film, Spilt, at BIFF too, right?

Kitty Green: I was actually saying that to someone at the festival! Yeah, when I made graduating short film from film school, it was one of the first festivals it was accepted to! It was like, rejected from all the others, like Melbourne and Sydney. And I got into Brisbane [International Film Festival] and I was so excited, and I booked my ticket for a train and the plane and found a little hostel!

I was really pumped and they let me do an intro. I was so nervous! I remember it really fondly because now people come and pick me up, but back then I had to figure out how to get the bus to the cinema. Anyway, it was nice to be there again and it was exciting to have a feature film.

Nick: It almost sounds like it’s a rite of passage for filmmakers. That this is the journey you have to go on.

Kitty Green: It was also so cool because I don’t know how often you make a short film, and you see your friends get theirs into festivals, but you don’t. Maybe you lose a little confidence. So when the festival does accept you, it’s such a wonderful thing. You’re like, ‘Oh, maybe I can do this. Maybe this can be a career path. Maybe that’s not crazy!’

Nick: The Royal Hotel is still quite fresh in my mind, and I was so enamoured by Julia Garner’s performance. I’m interested to know, having worked with her before and the way you’ve spoken about your collaborative relationship in previous interviews, whether you wrote this role with her in mind, or was it a character who was already fleshed out in which you thought Julia was the right fit?

Kitty Green: Yeah, definitely when I saw the documentary that this is based on, I knew immediately that it would be a role for her if I could adapt it. I thought it would be an interesting prospect, or idea. I knew she could play the lead, and I knew she’d be great at it.

Also, I thought it’d be interesting to pair her with some great Australian actors. I immediately thought of Daniel Henshaw and like, putting her up against him would be just great. There was a few people that were in my mind that I thought would be cool.

And also, just to bring her to my country after we spent some time in the U.S. That was probably the biggest inspiration in getting it up and going!

Nick: Speaking of great Australia actors to pit Julia up against, I think James Frecheville is another standout. I think he’s a brilliant actor. At what point did he come on board to the project?

Kitty Green: We didn’t know who Teeth was actually. That was a real puzzle and he was probably the last one cast just because we weren’t sure who should play him. We weren’t sure how old he should be, or how young, or where he should sit in the scheme of things.

And as you’re putting all these men together, you don’t want to pick someone who feels like they have the same energy as some of the others. So, it was trying to find a sort of unique voice. And weirdly, James was in Melbourne for some reason – he’s usually in London – but he just so happened to be in Melbourne. And that worked because I could meet him for coffee and I immediately I knew it would work beautifully. He’s such a lovely soul and was a really great guy. We were very lucky.

Nick: You mentioned earlier about the inspiration for The Royal Hotel being the documentary Hotel Coolgardie. Could you please take me back to when you first saw the doco, and what stood out about it that you felt was right about adapting it into a fictional narrative?

Kitty Green: I was mostly just shocked by it because I hadn’t seen anything like it. I’d seen these sorts of places on film before, but I hadn’t seen them through the eyes of two young women who are serving from the other side of the bar. So, it was interesting to me that this perspective felt fresh.

There’s just a lot of drama you can unpack from those sorts of sets of events. I was just impressed with the kind of dark way it was presented and its lens on everything.

Nick: Coming from a documentary background yourself, did you find it challenging or easier to adapt Hotel Coolgardie into The Royal Hotel? And were there any other sources you pulled from to develop the story?

Kitty Green: I sort of watched the film [Hotel Coolgardie] a few times, and then it sort of sat in the back of my brain as we were writing. It wasn’t something we referred to necessarily during the process, it more just feeds and fueled what we were doing. But it meant that we could keep it fresh, and figure out what we wanted to say.

With each of the male characters, we were trying to figure out how we could separate it from any real people or associations in that way. But the girls in it [the documentary], I was really impressed by their strength and their ability to say no to things. And that was interesting to me. I think as an Australian in that space, we often just go along with things and go, ‘Yeah sure, mate!’. So it was interesting to see foreigners and the way they handled seeing that kid of side of our drinking culture.

Nick: With developing the fictional narrative, it to me felt like this story about a really pressing issue in society played out with sort of an unsettling ‘horror’ lens. Was there any intention behind that?

Kitty Green: The problem with that is that it wasn’t set up to do that. I think, you put young women in the outback, with backpacks on, everyone assumes they’re just going to die. And we’ve sort of been against that since the beginning. It seems that even though the horror tropes are present, we’re trying to work against them. We’re trying to challenge them, kind of the entire film.

Historically in cinema, the girls die. And that’s something we’re playing around with, I guess. Mostly, we’re actively working against it, but it’s interesting because I’m also not setting it up to disappoint horror fans. But, that was never what we were doing. We kind of played with the genre in a way to tell our story, I guess.

Nick: I can definitely see how you played around with the tropes in the film! There are some confronting moments with the characters, and that unsettling vibe does linger throughout the film. Do you find there is a balance for filmmakers to make something that is going to challenge audiences, but also be, for lack of a better word, an entertaining film?

Kitty Green: I don’t know. I guess the idea of adapting this story… I knew that I didn’t want any sexual violence. I didn’t want that in the film. So it’s then about how do we set up a movie where it’s about two young women trying to figure out their own strength in this environment, on almost like a rite of passage trip that we all take, backpacking here and there.

And then building up this world was a really fun exercise. If it comes about by looking at their narrative first, and foregrounding the women in this story, it kind of tears apart the conventions, because the conventions are quite misogynistic, and the conventions often lead to the death and torture of these women. So by simply refusing to do that, it’s somehow a radical act for us! It’s funny, it’s warmer that a horror movie. But there is a lot packed in there, so it’s really hard to know what genre it is.

Nick: I feel like playing with audience perceptions is always a great thing to do! But, this movie also feels so inherently Australian! Especially with some of the jokes in the film. Have you found that the film has played differently with international audiences?

Kitty Green: Oh, it’s interesting. The Americans don’t really get the humour. I can always tell when there’s Australian’s in an audience in the American screenings because they’re laughing! And as soon as the American’s here the ‘C’ word, which is, you know, pretty early on in the film, they’re terrified by that! It’s almost like they then get in this ascendant state of fear and tension, and they can’t get out of it.

Essentially, Australian’s relax a little bit. The Brit’s had some good screenings. They seem to understand it. Yeah, it’s interesting. The American’s still have a good time with it, but it’s been interesting seeing them kind of wrap their heads around it. The Q+A’s have helped to provide a bit more context to understand the place and people. Even just the idea of what a mining town is, and who these people are.

Nick: I want to touch on the production design, because when Julia and Jessica [Henwick]’s characters first enter The Royal Hotel, I could feel the textures of the walls and carpet of a place like that real vividly through the screen. What was the collaboration with the production team like the bring that set to life?

Kitty Green: Yeah, I mean we had to build the set because to shut down a pub for three weeks was probably more expensive than to build a set. And we definitely didn’t want to upset the locals. But, we shot exteriors of the pub up North, and then we tried to replicate that vibe of the exterior location in the interiors with how worn down it was, and how it needed to feel lived in. It had a sense of history. Once the grand old place that seems to have fallen into some financial ruin, let’s say. That was a lot of fun.

I worked with Leah Popple, who I’ve worked with before and I trust her. She’s so great. And she had a great team of people who cared about the detail in the set. In fact, I never got enough time to shoot close ups of all things I wanted to. There’s so many details in old photos and strange trinkets and so many beautiful things that were scattered around and you could really sense the history of the place, for sure. Which I think helped the actors a lot as well!

Nick: I’d like to close out on the fact that as an audience member, it’s so exciting to see Australia really killing it with genre films this year. With your film, Talk to Me, Birdeater, Monolith – it’s been such a stacked year. Does that excite you as a filmmaker who works in both Hollywood and the Australian film scene?

Kitty Green: I mean, yeah, it’s great! I actually saw Talk to Me in New York with a whole bunch of friends who aren’t Australian, and they asked me to go along because they love watching A24 stuff!  But it was nice, you know, with that many people, watching an Australian film. It’s cool to see that these are getting talked about and moving around the world. It’s a great thing. A lot of good things are being made right now. And the crews are good, and I think that means that there’s a craft level which is on par with things that are being made in America. That’s exciting.

Thank you so much to Kitty Green for her time, and to TM Publicity and Transmission Films for organizing our chat! The Royal Hotel opens in Australian cinemas on November 23.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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