Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s new documentary RBG gets behind the meme-inducing, SNL sketch-inspiring, pop culture icon that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become in recent years, and re-focuses the narrative on her life and work. Most especially her work, which, as the film reminds us, is not only groundbreaking and historic, but relentless.
To accomplish all that Ginsburg has, over the past 85 years, 25 of which have been as a sitting judge on the nation’s highest court, virtually never stopped working. Even now, her schedule is to park herself at her home desk and pore over cases into the wee hours of the mornings (fueled only by a box of prunes), and then sleep most of the weekend to recover.
Given her profession, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Ginsburg’s approach to her work is exceedingly methodical. Even her diction and speech, which the film provides ample examples of through interviews with its chief subject as well as audio and video tapes of her in court and with her doting husband Marty (who passed away from cancer in 2010), is unwaveringly precise–not to mention soft-spoken. One of the nuggets of advice Ginsburg offers up to anyone trying to do what she does, including her law student granddaughter, is: “The way to win an argument is not to yell.”
The filmmakers’ approach to making RBG was similarly strategic and determined. When the women first approached Ginsburg, whom they had both interviewed before for other projects, about making a documentary about her life, Ginsburg’s response was: “Not yet.” But rather than dissuade Cohen and West, Ginsburg’s response gave them hope. As any journalist who’s ever pursued an unwilling or on-the-fence subject knows, anything that is not an outright rejection is akin to a slightly open door that just needs to be jammed open, ideally with graceful force.
Cohen and West proceeded with such grace, and, three years later, it’s paid off. Since premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, RBG–which politely addresses controversies such as Ginsburg’s decision to not step down from the Supreme Court when Trump was elected–has received rapturous reviews, most gratifyingly from the justice herself, who saw the film for the first time at the film festival.
“She did not get an early screening,” says Cohen. “We didn’t offer one and she didn’t ask for one, which is great, because it’s always more fun and just works better for someone to see a film for the first time, especially one that’s about themselves, with an audience surrounding them.”
At Sundance, the women sat across the aisle from Ginsburg and “stared at her throughout the entire film. She was engrossed enough in it that she didn’t seem to notice us seven feet away looking at her. She laughed, she cried, she said she loved the music and afterward she told us and the audience how much she loved the film.” Still, it was an incredibly “nerve-wracking experience,” Cohen says.
Cohen and West recently spoke to Fast Company about how they ultimately got a sit-down meeting with Ginsburg; the surprise discovery of the “feminist romance” between Ginsburg and her late husband; and how the #MeToo movement is giving their film an unforeseen timeliness.
SLOW AND STEADY WINS THE RACE
After getting their “not yet” response from Ginsburg, Cohen and West decided to move forward with their project anyway, even though they still did not have funding. The hope was that if they slowly gathered supplementary interviews and began to build their story, things would fall into place.
BW: “At that point, we were a little disappointed, but we thought, ‘Well she didn’t say no. So we regrouped and made another approach a few months later in which we said, ‘Okay, we don’t have to interview you right away, but we’d like to start on this project and interview many of the key people in your life–former clients, colleagues, friends–and start to put this together.’ And she wrote back and said, ‘Well, I really wouldn’t be able to talk to you for at least two years. However, if you are going to be interviewing people, here are three more you might want to consider talking to.’
“So at that point, we thought, ‘Gee, that seems to be sort of a yes.’ Not quite a yes, but we then set about finding a producing partner. We were very lucky after a couple months to get CNN Films involved to sponsor this. And in the summer of 2015, we began filming without a real promise that we would get the kind of access that we ultimately did get. But with the sense that we would just move forward step by step and push through to do the filming that we needed to do.”
JC: “Once we started doing a little shooting in the summer of 2016, she sent us a list of about a dozen things that she was going to be doing over the next year that she thought might make interesting filming opportunities.
“But it wasn’t the super personal stuff. It was like, ‘I’m going to be talking at a law school. I’m going to be at the opera. I’m going back to the Virginia Military Institute, the first time I’ve ever been there. They’re going to be commemorating the opinion that I wrote opening it up to women.’ So there was some pretty interesting stuff on the list, and stuff that we knew other people didn’t know about.”
TEASING OUT THE SURPRISE NARRATIVE
One of the most touching threads of the film is the relationship between the Justice and Marty Ginsburg. The couple met as undergrads at Cornell, and though back in the day Ginsburg was a portrait of 1960s decorous grace and beauty, Marty fell for his future wife’s brain. The film shows how Marty’s gender paved a relatively easy road for him: Upon graduating from law school he landed a job at a Manhattan law firm. Meanwhile, his wife, who’d landed a coveted spot on the Harvard Law Review and graduated at the top of her class at Columbia, where she transferred to be with Marty, couldn’t get hired. But the romance takes on a feminist twist when Marty subjugates his own career for his wife’s as it begins to take off, and is even her chief lobbyist when her name is floated for a Supreme Court appointment. The film makes the argument that Marty is ultimately the reason former President Clinton considered her. At home, he also takes on the role of chief caretaker, and cook, for the couple and their two children.
The Cohen and West wisely make this story the emotional heartbeat of the film, as well as a source of levity to balance out the more sober story of Ginsburg’s rise.
JC: “We knew that the Ginsburgs had a famously happy marriage for many decades, but we didn’t understand going into the project the extent of the impact of that relationship on Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career and her whole being. So much of what she became had to do with her husband’s extreme enthusiasm for and support of everything about her, including her brilliance. The home movies [shown in the film] came via Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s official biographers at Georgetown University Law Center, who’ve been working on a biography of her for close to 15 years. They happened to mention to us at one point that they had some home movies that had been in Marty’s family for a while, and we were like, ‘Oh my God, please, please. Can we have them?’ And ultimately, with the Justice’s permission, they sent them to us. Obviously, they were spectacular and expanded that part of the storyline all the more.”
BW: “We knew there was a good story there, but we didn’t know the depth of it. So its role in the documentary expanded as we found out about its importance and as we got that great home movie footage, which really allowed us to illustrate this wonderful romance.
JC: “I think Ruth Bader Ginsburg takes kind of an unusual degree of pride in the amount of household duties that were performed by Marty so ably. Basically, they were raising the kids 50-50 with him doing all the cooking and some of the other stuff around the household. That certainly is not the common marital set up now. It certainly wasn’t the common marital set up in the ’60s and ’70s. But she seems pretty comfortable with that. And she also seems quite comfortable with the characterization of everyone, including her own grown children, that Marty was the funny, light, and fun one of the couple.”
CAPITALIZING ON A CULTURAL MOMENT
Part of what makes RBG such a timely film is the rise of the #MeToo movement and the debates that are taking place over gender equality in the workplace and other women’s rights. Ginsburg admits in the film that she was never interested in protesting or taking to the streets–she preferred to fight her battles with her pen. But her own experience both as a woman striving to get ahead in a male-dominated world and as a professional working to reshape policy and attitudes about women, provides a kind of historical context to where the women’s debate is now, as well as inspiration: dogged determination coupled with rational reasoning and a soft voice (and, yes, brilliance) can effect change.
The #MeToo movement hadn’t started to take off by the time Cohen and West wrapped production on RBG, but they say the current climate gives their film an even greater resonance.
BW: “We kind of wrapped shooting when the #MeToo movement exploded. So I think we feel that her life story in a way provides an interesting context to the #MeToo movement. To see, yes, there are many challenges for women in the workplace and many serious problems that they’re facing, but look how far women have come and look at the challenge Ruth Bader Ginsburg was facing when women really were second-class citizens and couldn’t even get a shot. So we think it does provide a context. She’s been asked about the #MeToo movement when she came to Sundance to screen our film, and she talked about an example at Cornell University when she went to a professor for some help with something and realized that he was actually giving her answers to a test and then expected something in return. She faced an awful lot of challenges in her life, and I think she’s extremely supportive to women who are continuing to fight adversity.”