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[The following story contains mild spoilers from Set It Up.]
While Set It Up writer Katie Silberman and producer Juliet Berman met as Hollywood assistants, they insist they worked for wonderful bosses. But hearing horror stories of other staffers grappling with the unreasonable demands of their horrible employers inspired them to turn those tales into the romantic comedy, Set It Up, now streaming on Netflix.
In the film, Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell play overworked assistants to a powerful sports reporter (Lucy Liu) and investment executive (Taye Diggs), respectively. Frustrated by having to tend to the needs of their bosses around the clock, they conspire to set them up, in hopes that they’ll be able to enjoy some free time when their bosses are busy together.
“You hear a lot of horror stories and a lot of them are true and we thought it would be really fun to tell a story of the assistants who turn the tables on their bosses and it becomes empowering,” Berman told The Hollywood Reporter at a recent special screening of Set It Up. “All of the things that keep them down end up being the things that they use to set their bosses up.”
And they incorporated the stories they heard from their overworked, underappreciated friends into the script.
“[Juliet] and I got to develop it together and pull in any weird stories that we had heard in this industry,” Silberman said. “There are enough in Los Angeles and kind of across every industry. I have so many friends in New York who work in the medical field and the PR field and the journalism field. It’s such a common sentiment to be at the bottom of the totem pole and have to do all of these jobs you don’t want to do to get to what you want to do.”
But that’s not the film’s only connection to Hollywood assistants, Silberman explained.
“Glen and Zoey actually went and rolled calls at CAA and sat with all of the assistants and spent a lot of time with them, hearing all of their horror stories and war stories,” she said.
Deutch added that she, “interviewed a slew of overworked assistants and I asked them all to tell me their craziest stories. They were all anonymous. Some of them were embedded in the script, which was great. I also feel like this movie is in some ways a love letter to my friends who are tortured assistants as well because I’m 23 and a lot of my friends are in the early stages of being an assistant.”
Powell, meanwhile, took his research a bit further, even going method with his hair.
“I went to the talent agency and I took all of the assistants that worked there out to lunch and I let them just vent to me on all of the horrible things their bosses had done to them for the past few years,” he said. “I wrote all of those down and then I worked my agent’s desk for a few days. Actually, I was an assistant for a while, so I had enough horror stories. And then I went to a venture capital firm because my character works there. That horrible haircut that I have in the movie, that came from watching guys in real life actually have that haircut. It’s called the Southern swoop and I wouldn’t tell you to have it. It’s not a good look.”
And Deutch and Powell’s characters aren’t the only overworked assistants in the film. The movie opens with a montage of employees doing menial tasks and dealing with outrageous bosses.
“I think it’s universal,” director Claire Scanlon said of why she wanted to include that scene. “It’s not unique to these two assistants. They’re not special with their workload. Everyone at a certain age has been an assistant, and if not an assistant per se then a waiter or someone who’s had to do something that’s not necessarily the ultimate job that you want to have, but you make it work and you grin and bear it and there’s a reason why you’re paying your dues and you’re learning. You’re in your early 20s and you need to learn somehow and that’s how you do it. You watch someone who’s great at their job, and you are like a sponge and you soak it all up. And it’s just to show that we weren’t specifically picking on sports journalism websites or venture capitalists.”
Scanlon, a TV director making her feature debut, said there were actually more assistants in the original montage. And the director who has helmed episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and other series “called in some favors for some fun Easter eggs” in the scene.
Specifically, she points out that both Tina Fey and Ellie Kemper lend their voices to the introductory montage, with Fey’s voice being the first one viewers here, barking, “Jessica, the phones!” And Kemper’s voice is that of the woman whose boyfriend uses his assistant to break up with her: “You think you can break up with me? I want to talk to Richard,” she says. “Get that asshole on the phone.”
Later in the film, when Liu’s Kirsten apologizes to Deutch’s Harper for being mean, Kirsten uses the C-word to refer to herself. She then challenges Harper by saying, “Don’t be one of those women who can’t say [C-word].” Harper says she’s not but doesn’t say it back.
With the film released after Samantha Bee’s use of the C-word to refer to Ivanka Trump landed her in hot water, Silberman explained why she wanted to include the charged word, which some women, like Bee, have tried to reclaim.
“I feel like I wanted to, ideally, in that scene, show the full spectrum. To some women it’s a nothing word that they use all the time as an adjective and to others it’s so meaningful, it really stuns them,” Silberman said. “So I was hoping to show that people could identify with both sides in that scene. They’re either a Kirsten or a Harper in that moment where they can either say it or they can’t. I was someone who couldn’t say it for a really long time, and I’ve met a lot of women, who having said it so casually sort of changed my relationship with it. I’m not shocked by it anymore. … I liked the idea that a powerful woman like that would take it back and try and use it as casually as she does.”
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