Loosely based on the 2016 documentary Hotel Coolgardie, The Royal Hotel is a distinctly Australian thriller. It’s a tense, unnerving watch that keeps the viewer on edge throughout. But if you ask director Kitty Green, that wasn’t necessarily the intention.
Chatting to The Latch over Zoom, Green says she was “really struck by” Hotel Coolgardie. The documentary follows two Finnish backpackers as they navigate life working and living in the remote mining town of Coolgardie, Western Australia. It was the women’s “really gentle, subtle” strength that Green wanted to focus on in The Royal Hotel.
“I felt like I hadn’t seen Australia through that lens,” she says. “Through two young, foreign women who were trying to make sense of not only Australian culture, but drinking culture, and kind of, these aspects of masculinity.”
Green goes on to say that it “took [her] a minute to get the courage up” to tackle the story, partially because she “wasn’t sure [she] was the right person” for the job. With so many male voices in the film, Green soon decided to bring Oscar Redding on as a co-writer, and the rest, as they say, is history.
How The Royal Hotel Differs From Hotel Coolgardie
We won’t spoil the film for you, but beyond the basic premise of following two backpacking best friends who find themselves living and working at a remote Australian pub, The Royal Hotel is very much its own story.
For one thing, in The Royal Hotel, our protagonists, Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) are American — although they tell everyone they’re Canadian. After they run out of money, they accept a temporary, live-in job at The Royal Hotel, a pub located in a remote mining town.
From there, bar owner Billy (Hugo Weaving) and a host of (mostly male) locals give the girls a riotous introduction to Australia’s drinking culture, but things turn nasty when their jokes and behaviour cross the line. Soon Hanna and Liv find themselves trapped in an unnerving situation that grows rapidly out of their control.
The Royal Hotel Trailer
The Second Time You Watch The Royal Hotel, It’s a Comedy
As we chat, I tell Green how much I love the way the film builds its sinister, visceral tension over the film without ever becoming a horror film. I ask her about the process of constructing the sense of imposing dread that hangs over the film, both as a writer and a director.
“It’s funny, I never read it as that!” she replies, adding, “Oscar and I had a great time writing it!”
She continues: “It’s funny at times, there’s jokes in there, you know — it’s quite light at times!”
Green laughs, saying that it’s been funny to read the reviews that note how “terrifying” it is because they never expected it to be “that scary”.
“I think most of it is on Julia’s face,” she says. “I think Julia brings a lot to the role.”
A lot of the tension, she says, comes from watching Garner as she tries to assess the situation she’s in and “gauge the threat level”.
“Is she in danger, is she not? That’s the tension right there, which is harder to script,” Green says. “In the script you’re kind of outlining what she’s seeing, without fully being able to describe what’s on her face. And the camera loves her, so you wanna follow her in that space and see how she’s handling it.”
Outside of Garner’s performance, Green says the sound, music, lighting, “all these bits and pieces” then amplify the film’s tension. Still, it wasn’t “something as intentional” as one might think.
“We definitely needed it to feel sinister at times,” she says, “but I think it plays a little heavier than we expected it to. But often people watch it a second time and go, ‘Oh no, the second time it’s a comedy. The first time it’s a thriller!’”
On the Importance of Developing Nuanced, Realistic Characters
Once Hanna and Liv find themselves at the Royal Hotel, the roles of their friendship become clear. For anyone who’s travelled with a friend, Green says it will likely be a familiar dynamic.
“I feel like when you’re travelling in a pair, it’s often that one of you has to be a little more responsible than the other, and in charge of the bank account, the Google Maps, where you’re going, when you check in and when you check out, and all that stuff,” she says. “I think that often means the other person can kind of relax and be a little looser and have a little more fun.”
Although The Royal Hotel puts Hanna and Liv at the centre of the story, developing the men who frequent the pub as complex, nuanced characters in their own right was equally important to Green and Redding.
“We wanted to make sure they felt like human beings and not like villains, not two dimensional,” Green says. “And I think the fun of the film is trying to figure out who’s on [their] side and who isn’t.”
It’s this “game of trying to figure them out” that Hanna and Liv find themselves in that Green and Redding found “really interesting” to play with. What sells it on the screen, Green says, is the “warmth and brightness” the actors bring to their characters.
“All of the men, all the actors we cast … brought a lot of love for their characters and their roles, and that’s credit to them, really,” she says. “It wasn’t necessarily on the page in the way that they brought it. I mean, it’s there in a way, but it’s this whole other thing when you can see it.”
What Kitty Green Hopes People Take Away From The Royal Hotel
“I just hope people enjoy their hour-and-a-half!” Green exclaims when I ask what she hopes people take from the film.
Outside of that, Green hopes the film will spark conversations “about safety in these spaces”, how to speak up in uncomfortable situations, and how to prevent those situations from escalating.
“Those kinds of conversations are important to me,” she says. In making The Royal Hotel, Green says she wanted to spend time “unpacking [the] little moments that freak us out … and being able to highlight those, and generally show a male audience what it’s like to be a woman in those spaces”.
She continues: “I think women like to see themselves represented onscreen, and a lot of women have come up to me and said, ‘I work in a pub and that was my life’. That feels really lovely, that we can kind of show their experience, and amplify the details that often get overlooked.
“And hopefully people will treat their bartenders a little bit better!” she adds.
The Royal Hotel will be released in Australian cinemas on November 23, 2023. Bookmark this page for tickets.
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