Julie Cohen and Betsy West made their own superhero film this year. It’s one that didn’t make hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, but it’s a film that will be talked about for years to come. RBG. A documentary about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
By now, you’ve probably seen it. If not, it’s by CNN Films and one of the most inspiring documentaries of the year. After all, Ruth Bader Ginsberg is a genuine flesh-and-blood superhero!
Sifting through archival footage, following Justice Ginsberg as she went on talks, and finally sitting down with her, Cohen and West piece together a film that shows us the fight RBG has put on for years, decades, as a young woman in Harvard, through her Supreme Court years. It’s an added bonus that songwriter Diane Warren penned I’ll Fight as the perfect anthem for this.
I caught up with Cohen and West to talk about some highlights in the documentary.
How have things been since the last time we spoke?
Betsy: It’s been really exciting to see people discover this documentary and this inspiring story of Justice Ginsberg. It seems her story becomes more and more relevant every day. We’re gratified that people are responding to the film.
The History of the first case Justice Ginsberg ever argued before the Supreme Court.
Julie: We knew that we really wanted to bring to life the work that Justice Ginsberg did in the ’70s at the Supreme Court. It seemed the way to do that was to focus on several cases. The heaviest focus would be on the first case and surrounding it from all sides, Meeting the character Sharron Frontiero whose life Justice Ginsberg changed. We wanted viewers to meet her and get to know her. Fortunately for us, she was alive and well. We combined that with footage of the Supreme Court as well as the audio of Justice Ginsberg making her argument for the case. We weaved that all together so it felt like a scene in a narrative film. It was something Carla Gutierrez really worked on to make it feel like you were seeing.
The sound design and score were echoy of RBG’s feet walking up the stairs.
Betsy: In this, there’s no film or video when she’s arguing in the Supreme Court but we are so lucky that they were making audio recordings. To us, the sound of Ruth Badger Ginsberg making this very powerful and groundbreaking argument before the justices. We worked with our graphics team to design a backdrop to emphasize word by word the powerful argument that she was making to convince the justices that the discrimination against women that was accepted was, in fact, unfair to women.
Julie: You might have noticed that you’re seeing this historic shot back at the time, black and white footage of the court, that melds into the footage that we were lucky enough to get access inside the court chambers shot with a Steadicam which hadn’t been done before. We combined the recorded in 1973 words of RBG making her powerful argument with a much more modern style graphic we added.
While Justice Ginsberg and her colleague are describing moment by moment everything that happened in that case and how the Justices reacted, that was edited with still photos of the Justices who were on the court at the time, the nine male Justices – so you could get a sense of how imposing and intimidating they were and how stony-faced they were, and what the young lovely young RBG was facing when she stepped up there.
How many hours of archival footage was there?
Julie: You can’t count, but we had over a good 200 hours of archival footage. Some of it was older. She has a long career and did years of public speaking so we had that too.
Betsy: We were very lucky to have Carla as our editor who picked out great moments. She highlighted and suggested we use that as a structural device for the film.
You have a great crew of female filmmakers working on this.
Julie: We made a decision early on that we wanted the key creatives to be women. From us to the editor to our DP, our composer, our production coordinator. It was a whole team of women on this, a female-led team and it was fun to work on.
When did you decide to finally sit down with her?
Betsy: It was Justice Ginsberg who set the schedule. When she agreed to participate. she said, “I’m not going to talk to you for two years.” It actually worked out really well, we spent a lot of time ground through that archive. We followed her to venues on her talks, we went to the opera and we had a lot of footage in hand. We had interviews about her from people who played a great part in her life.
When we sat down in July 2017, we had a pretty good rough cut. We knew the structure of the film. We knew what we needed to ask her about.
She’d already spoken about discrimination at Harvard because she’d already spoken about that in her public speaking. On the other hand, we wanted to ask her about her mother. The interview was targeted and that made it a better experience.
We sat down in a big conference room in the Supreme Court. It was so imposing with all the Justices around. It was a formal setup. It was a little nerve-wracking. She comes in and she sat down. It just felt like she was there to talk to us and really answer our questions.
We hadn’t told her what we were going to ask her in advance, but it was exciting to talk to her as well as moving, and as well as nerve-wracking.
Julie: We had another agenda along with the interview. One was to get her to read for us some of the arguments that she had made along with some of the dissents and opinions that she had written. We wanted to keep weaving the past and present. We wanted to go from an argument in the ’70s and weave in stuff from the present. She seemed to take pleasure in recreating her best moments from the court.
We showed her some footage and some of her and Marty in their younger years, and the pièce de résistance was of Kate McKinnon on SNL. We didn’t tell her what she was going to be seeing, we just told her we had some footage to show her.
It was a somewhat tense moment when that footage began to play and she stared at the screen for the first five seconds and then she said, “Is this Saturday Night Live?” She asked, “Who is this actress playing me?” and then she just burst out laughing.
We played her a compilation of those clips. I think we could have shown her all of it, but we showed about 90 seconds and it brought out the person rather than the legal and judicial icon which was a huge goal of ours in the film. It was a personal moment. You don’t think of RBG watching SNL. She really seemed to love it. It was a priceless moment to be there.
It was such a defining moment.
Besty: She has a tremendous sense of humor. Julie asked her after if it reminded her of herself and she said, “No.” Then she said, “Except for the collar.” It was a wonderful way to end that afternoon.