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'RBG' Directors Recall Experience Filming a Legal Icon

By Tracy Schorn

April 24, 2018

Julie Cohen and Betsy West, Directors of RBG.
Photo Credit: Magnolia Pictures

Few Supreme Court justices can lay claim to popular culture icon status, but in a new upcoming documentary, RBG, directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen make a case for exactly what a trailblazer Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is and the obstacles Ginsburg had to overcome in her extraordinary life. The D.C. Bar attended a pre-screening of the film on April 10 at the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington, D.C., and interviewed West and Cohen, who replied jointly.

How did you win over Justice Ginsburg to be the subject of a documentary?

When we first made the written request to Justice Ginsburg in January 2015, her answer was essentially “not yet.” We understood that she chooses her words with care, and we noted that her response did not include the words “no” or “never.” So we kept moving forward and began to shape what a documentary about her life might look like. We started interviewing others who had played key roles in her story, like her colleagues at the ACLU Women's Rights Project from the 1970s and some of her early clients in gender equality cases. We kept her informed of what we were doing, and we think she was hearing back from our interview subjects that we took the interviews seriously and had done our research. In 2016 she gave us a list of upcoming events she would allow us to film, and finally in 2017 she did the sit-down interview and gave us access to film the more personal footage: in her home, on vacation, and with her personal trainer at the gym.

Justice Ginsburg has this popular reputation as “the Notorious RBG,” and yet her personality seems quite measured. For example, she’s known for the friendship she had with Justice Antonin Scalia — a real reach across the jurisprudence aisle. Is she more patient optimist than revolutionary?

While the concept that women and men should be equal under the law was quite radical at the time she began pushing it, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is definitely a patient optimist, not a flamethrower. She paid close attention to the incremental strategy that Thurgood Marshall used so effectively in the 1950s and 1960s to advance racial equality under the Constitution. We think the reason Ginsburg’s legal work was so successful is that she, like Marshall, was playing the long game. In the film, we include one of her great lines from her confirmation hearing: “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”

In a wonderful quote, Justice Ginsburg talks about her early career as a lawyer fighting gender discrimination. She said: “I did see myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in those days, because the judges didn’t think sex discrimination existed.” Do you think the younger audience will have difficulty relating to the obstacles Justice Ginsburg faced?RBG Theater Poster
Photo Credit: Magnolia Pictures

We’re already finding that young audience members are quite surprised to hear the extent of the discrimination that Ginsburg and other women of her generation faced: that she didn’t feel welcome at law school and that there were New York City firms [that] refused to hire women, even those who were superstars.

Clearly, a lot has changed for the better. But at the same time, as the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are showing, there’s still a fair amount of male ignorance about what women experience on a day-to-day basis. As women directors, we feel good about being part of the process of bringing equality issues — past and present — to light.

The film has been described as a romance. Did you intend for it to be that way, or did that part of Justice Ginsburg’s story unfold as you got further into the project?

The Ruth and Marty Ginsburg marriage is the greatest feminist love story we’ve ever heard. We knew it would be part of our film, but every time we got new archival footage of the two of them together or saw how her face lights up talking about him, we expanded it a little more.

How intimidating is it exactly to watch Justice Ginsburg work out?

OMG. She is 85; she is tiny; she has overcome two bouts of cancer. When she agreed to let us film the workout, we did not know what to expect. Sitting in the gym with our camera crew, watching her do a workout that’s beyond what we could handle — free weights, planks, and, yes, the notorious 20 pushups — we were blown away.

Has anything surprised you about the way the film has been received? It must’ve been very gratifying to have Justice Ginsburg at the premier screening.

The top comment we’ve heard from audiences in our early screenings has been, “I thought I knew her story, but I can’t believe everything she’s faced and everything she’s achieved.” Having Justice Ginsburg at the premiere was nerve-wracking, because she hadn’t seen the film before. Watching her laugh and even cry a few times watching our film’s depiction of her life was an experience we’ll never forget.

RBG opens May 4 at the following area theaters: Landmark E Street Cinema; Landmark Bethesda Row in Maryland; AMC Shirlington 7 in Arlington, Virginia; and Angelika Film Center Mosaic in Fairfax, Virginia. Tickets are on sale at www.rbgmovie.com.