The tagline reads Hero. Icon. Dissenter. That’s just what Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is. In a stunning new documentary, Julie Cohen and Betsy West bring her story and her voice to the big screen. Each moment reminds us of her towering achievements from fighting for gender equality to becoming a living legend on the Supreme Court. Ginsburg has been fighting for decades. From private moments with her granddaughter, to working out in the gym, to her passion for opera, the documentary sheds new light on RBG.
Here, West and Cohen talk about capturing the woman behind the cape and her fight.
Why Ruth Bader Ginsburg?
Betsy: In 2015, Julie and I were taking note of the Notorious RBG phenomenon. We had interviewed her for separate projects and we knew her full story. We thought that many of her fans might not be totally aware of the full story and they’d be really interested to hear both professionally what she did, but also her personal life and what she did.
We thought someone should make a documentary about this extraordinary woman so why not us?
Had anyone actually approached her before this? How did you get her to say yes to you?
Julie: We don’t know if she’s been approached. We’d just made our approach. We got this to happen through patience and persistence. In January 2015 we sent her an email suggesting we make a story of her life in essentially documentary form and her answer was, “Not yet.”
We decided to follow her lead of being an optimist and view it as a door cracked slightly open. We approached her a few months later with the thought that she did not have to sit down and do an interview with us immediately but we wanted to proceed with a potential project on her life and we included a list of people that we told her we were hoping to interview. They were people from throughout her life and career to show we had done our research. She responded that time saying she wouldn’t be ready to do an interview with us for two years, but she gave us three additional names. We knew she was giving us a qualified go-ahead at that point.
The documentary screened at that Sundance this year. Did you think that when it screened, we would be in America as it is today with the #MeToo movement?
Betsy: A lot has changed in our country since we started making the film three years ago. Politically, there’s been a big change. Also with the women’s movement. It’s a new reckoning with how far we have to go.
In many ways, we felt both developments made our film more timely.
You tell the story of her fight. You tell about her Harvard days and the facts you highlighted will be new to most viewers. You shown us the importance of what she did.
Julie: The fact of what the environment was like for women in our country going back is surprising. There are some things that many Americans just aren’t familiar with. The fact that a woman often had to get her husband to sign on if she was getting a mortgage. The way that someone could be legally fired from their job for being pregnant or a husband wasn’t prosecuted for raping their wives. It was an environment that’s been fairly quickly forgotten about. Yes, there’s a far way to go, but a huge amount has changed over the past few decades.
Part of the story we wanted to tell was what a huge role that Justice Ginsburg as Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a young lawyer had in some of those changes in making men and women legal equals under the US Constitution.
I love the tone of the documentary and how you show her historic accomplishments, but also the light side where you’re showing her SNL for the first time and her exercise routine. That was a side we never really thought about until Politico ran the story.
Betsy: It was Politico. Asking her to witness and film her exercise routine was not something that we did at the very beginning of the filming. We followed her around for almost a year going to the various events where she speaks and going to the opera. Finally, we asked if we could have more access to her personal life, including if we could go and see her legendary workout routine and she agreed to it. A few months later there we were in the gym and watching her following those marching orders from her trainer and it was extraordinary. We were skeptical about that article and does she really do that workout? Lo and behold she does a workout routine that neither of us could do but inspired us to start upping our game a little bit.
You introduced the film and it’s all female crew. Having a female crew you’re opening doors, talk about that change and that opportunity.
Julie: This is an upbeat interview. I think the film industry is changing slowly. We’re documentary filmmakers and it’s an area where there are more opportunities for women and frankly where women directors are able to get a budget to make a film. The multimillion action films are really hard for women. We had the opportunity to make this film, we are women and we wanted to share the love by bringing in women in top creative positions. As it happens, our executives at CNN Films are women too. We wanted to bring in people and that might not have been easy or possible at all if we were dealing more in the studio system than if we were doing a film that had a budget of two hundred million dollars.
How did Diane Warren get involved with writing such a great anthem,”I’ll Fight,”performed by Jennifer Hudson?
Betsy: We were thrilled to have Diane Warren and Jennifer Hudson involved with the song. We thought it really summed up the spirit of the film and it is a great anthem at the end of the movie. We’re excited for audiences to see it.
Like a lot of these things, it happened at the very last minute. It’s not like we would have been in the position to approach Diane Warren and ask her to write our song. She made the decision to write it after there was a fine cut of the film and loved it. She wrote a song and was beautifully able to get Jennifer Hudson to sing it for us.
It’s incredible what we learn from watching this and all her work. I walked away with a new appreciation.
Betsy: Hopefully this gives a little bit of juice to people fighting for change.
Was Sundance the first time she saw the documentary?
Julie: It was. She did not ask to see it ahead of time which was quite wonderful of her. She trusted us. She sat in the audience with everyone else and watched it.
It was totally nerve wracking. We could not keep our eyes off of her. She laughed. She pulled out a tissue, cried a bit and she laughed again and seemed totally engrossed in the story.
RBG is on release