‘RBG’: Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen on Capturing the Life and Legacy of an Icon
Julie Cohen and Betsy West faced big challenges in creating a definitive doc on the small but mighty Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
In a box office age dominated by superheroes, filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen have pulled off a feat: a theatrical release for a nonfiction biopic of an unlikely, real-life superhero. Moreover, this protagonist is an 85-year-old grandma, who stands about five-feet-tall, with a soft voice. And yet, her work has spoken more loudly and positively affected more American lives than almost anyone in modern history.
Our hero is Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. You may be familiar with parts of her story as only the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court, or her iconic hipster status as the “Notorious R.B.G.”, but particularly because she has shied away from the public eye and on-camera interviews, you likely haven’t gotten the fuller picture of her personal and professional life. The documentary RBG will change that.
Cohen and West have done an exemplary job of weaving together historic and contemporary footage and interviews with threads of Ginsburg’s own clear-headed but powerful testimony from her Senate confirmation hearing and audio excerpts from several of her famous Supreme Court dissents.
The film also includes modern interviews of former Ginsburg clients, whose lives she irrevocably changed, such as a spirited segment with Sharron Frontiero. Frontiero served as a lieutenant in the United States Air Force and was trying to get a dependent's allowance for her husband (At the time, only military wives counted as dependents). She was the plaintiff in the first case Ginsburg argued in front of the Supreme Court case when she worked with the A.C.L.U.
One surprising aspect of a life—and a film—built on pressing legal matters is that it is fundamentally a love story between Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her adoring husband, Marty Ginsburg, an impressive attorney in his own right. Marty not only supported Ruth’s legal career at a time when entire law firms would only hire a single, token female attorney, but he actively fought for her place on the Supreme Court.
The film premiered to a jubilant crowd at Sundance 2018 to an audience that included Justice Ginsburg, seeing it for the first time. The filmmakers sat near her, and Cohen recalls, “The whole experience of watching it was like nothing I've ever had; we were absolutely just watching her watch it. You could almost see the film reflected in her eyes and she was laughing her head off. She cried at one point.”
West adds, "She asked Nina Totenberg for a tissue!"
Watching RBG is indeed a moving experience, even if you’ve never even met its diminutive star in person. No Film School sat down with the Julie Cohen and Betsy West just after the emotional premiere, to discuss how the production came together, even without a guarantee of an interview with its star.
“She sent us an email and the first paragraph says something like, ‘I think that, maybe, in two years we could do an interview.’”
NFS: At your screening, you mentioned that when you first approached Justice Ginsburg about the doc, she said, "Not yet." Where did you from there?
West: We said to ourselves, "Okay, not yet is not no." Then we really started strategizing with some of her colleagues and friends and just talking about how we might approach this. Then, really, a year later we went back to her with an idea of how we could do it and not impose on her time to do an interview right away, but that we would start interviewing other people. We gave her a whole list of people that we might talk to; former clients and colleagues...
Cohen: We were trying to show her that we were very serious about really giving a comprehensive sense of her legal career and that it wasn't just gonna be like, "Oh, cool, she's the ‘Notorious RBG’ and here's a little something with the family or we want behind-the-scenes. It was like, "We're really gonna show what you did for gender equality in the ‘70s.”
West: The best thing was she sent us back an email and the first paragraph says something like, "I think that, maybe, in two years we could do an interview." This is now 2015. But then the second paragraph says, "And you might also want to consider interviewing..." And she gave us three names.
Cohen: So, we were both on the phone saying, "I'm taking this as a yes."
West: So, then, that's when we talked to CNN Films and we were so lucky that they responded so enthusiastically, even though we didn't have the kind of intimate access that we knew we were going to want for a documentary like this.
Cohen: And we didn't have a promise of an interview in any time particularly soon and, of course, things can change and go away, so, CNN Films raised a fair point, like, "How much access are you going to get and how much time is she going to give you in an interview?" and all these questions.
And we said, "Well, we can't answer that and we think the only way to move forward to more access isn't for us to go back to her asking for more; we have to show her that we're serious about this. Can we have a little bit of money to start doing interviews with some of these people so that she sees that we will want to tell her story before we keep pushing her for more access on something?
And, amazingly, without us having the guarantee of the kind of time and access that you're really gonna need, they said, "Okay, we'll risk a little bit of money for you to [get started].”
West: Yeah, and we thought that once we started the word would get back to her that we were serious. In June or July, we got a list from her office telling us various events that she would be speaking at that we might be interested in filming.
NFS: So, she started to buy in.
Cohen: Yes, she was trying to think what would be filming opportunities for us.
West: But, that wasn't really until March of 2017. Then we asked for a meeting with Justice Ginsburg, ostensibly to fill her in on what had been going on and she immediately said yes and we go down to Washington. And in that meeting, we said that we'd like to do some additional, more personal filming. We have a list, we go down the list ...
Cohen: We read down it one by one.
West: "We'd like to film you in your office, working in your office, we'd like to film you at home, in your working office..."
Cohen: "We were wondering if we could get a little with you and your granddaughter..."
West: "A personal moment." And everything she, sort of, said, "Yes, yes." And then finally I just took a big breath and said, "We'd love to be able to film your legendary workout." And she paused, only shortly, and she said, "Yes, I think that would be possible."
NFS: Those workouts are so badass, I was like, "Alright, I need to get to the gym."
Cohen: That's a lot of people's reactions.
West: That was in March and we held our breath until June when we finally filmed this. Her assistant was absolutely flabbergasted that we were filming this, frankly.
Cohen: As was the personal trainer. About two weeks after that I sent him an email explaining the Justice has said that we could film her workout routine and he said, "I got the email and I said, 'Did you tell these two lady filmmakers they could bring cameras in when we do our exercise?' And she said, 'Yeah.' So I said, 'Okay, Justice.'"
West: And similarly, when we went in that day, her assistant turned to us and said, "You realize how unusual this is?" "Yes, yeah, we do."
NFS: What do you think it was about you or your approach that made her say yes to filming the workout?
West: I think it's that she is proud of what she's doing. You go in that room and you see her doing the weights and the planks and the pushups and it's an amazing workout.
Cohen: Right. But that said, obviously, other people have made the request, particularly in connection to the trainer, Brian Johnson, who's an amazing guy and a great character in his own right. He wrote a book about her workout and she didn't let any cameras in to film the workout for that.
We were given a half an hour exactly to shoot in a small gym with two cameras: Our DP Claudia Raschke and Peter Nicoll on second camera. We told them just to roll the whole time, "We don't want to miss a moment."
We watched through that footage when it was done and, like, 96% of it you could have used. And that's with them running around, not getting in each other's shots, the lighting was terrible. We promised we wouldn't bring lights in. She's moving from one exercise thing to the next; who knows where she's going? And they just managed to shoot it in such a way that everything was usable.
"Her assistant was absolutely flabbergasted that we were filming this, frankly."
By the time we filmed the workout, we'd been filming for about a year, so I think she understood that we were trying to put together a pretty comprehensive story of her life, both historically and now, including her toughness, and her exercise skill was making that part of it. She just got it.
Obviously, she's an incredibly intelligent woman and she could put two and two together and visualize, in a certain sense, what we were doing. We're telling her whole life story and telling what she's become now, and part of that is how tough she is and she was proud for us to see it.
NFS: Which is interesting, because it sounds like she doesn't watch a lot of media.
West: No, I don't think she's a big consumer of documentaries. I mean, she certainly watches documentaries and she goes to films. She doesn't watch television, except for the News Hour when she's working out. You heard her kids [in RBG], they don't think she knows how to turn on
NFS: That's really funny. You referred to the trainer’s book, and obviously, there's a lot of books and material out there about her, so how did you differentiate what you were trying to do?
Cohen: Part of that's straightforward because it's one thing to read about something and it's another thing to see it. I think the workout routine's a perfect example of that. Yeah, it's great to hear she does push-ups, but seeing it is a whole different thing.
It's great to hear when she was a young lawyer she was making these arguments in front of the Supreme Court, but it's a whole different thing to hear her voice as it's happening and bring it all together.
West: Yeah, the notable example is how beautiful she was. People have said to me before, "She was beautiful" and you can see a photograph of her, but I can tell you when the DVD arrived in the mail that had these home movies and we put them in and looked at them, we were blown away. To see her with her cap and gown and with Marty. In the footage you saw, they're on their honeymoon, and the romance brings it to life.
It's the medium of a documentary where you can really take the time to fully tell her story, to develop the narrative, that's different than reading the fabulous books that have been written. And they're all fantastic.
Cohen: They're fabulous. And, actually, each one adds something. I'm really looking forward to when the full biography of her comes out, which hasn't been done yet, but the two Georgetown biographers really helped us, as did Irin [Carmon] and Shana [Knizhnik], who wrote "Notorious RBG", which is a great, funny, wonderful book.
I think the Georgetown biographers were acting at the direction of the Justice. In the same email that she added three people, she also said, "You really need to talk to my official biographers who have been collecting material about me for more than a decade." Again, a signal that she's pointing the way for how we move forward, if we want to do historic.
NFS: With all the different threads of Justice Ginsburg’s life story, particularly with her various clients or plaintiffs, how did you decide what to leave in and keep out of the film?
Cohen: The prominence of her Senate hearing testimony in the story was really encouraged by our editor, Carla Gutierrez. When Carla first raised that with us, we were like, "That's great, but we wanna make sure we don't lose sight of RBG as she is now, RBG in her 80s. We don't want to shy away from her elderly-ness, which is part of what we love about her as a character and part of what we feel gets cut out too much of people's stories. So, is there a way you can combine her now with the confirmation hearing with the stuff that's even more historic?"
And the first scene that she actually put together was the scene about the Marty love story where it starts out in the confirmation hearing, talking about a love story; Then, you see RBG now looking contemplative, thinking about Marty, and Carla managed to weave together the confirmation hearing, with her now, with historic material.
West: Yeah, throughout the film, that's what we were trying to do is make sure that we found thematic ways to go back and forth, to come to some of the scenes that we had shot.
"The tricky thing is that each one of these things is its own little story."
Cohen: The decision to use the plaintiffs was, definitely, a pretty early decision from us.
West: I think we felt, like, "Look, these were real live people who had horrible problems and they wanted them addressed." We felt so fortunate that both Sharron Frontiero and Stephen Wiesenfeld were still alive ...
Cohen: ... And Lilly Ledbetter. Awesome. Really amazing characters.
West: All amazing. And the first interview of a client we did was with Sharron Frontiero. We drove up to Massachusetts and sat down with her. She was fantastic. She was funny, she was feisty, and the interview, you could just feel what it was like for her back in those days. She's like, "What? I can't get the same benefits that my male colleagues are getting because I'm a woman?"
Her first instinct was, "Oh, gee, there must be some kind of mistake. I'll just get someone to fix it." And even after that, "Oh, I'll just get a lawyer to write the letter." And she was just fantastic and we knew then that that story was gonna be great. Major in the film. We just loved that.
Cohen: Yeah, major in the film. And the reasoning for including these, yes, Notorious RBG is famous and that's all great and she's a celebrity and she's a cool character but the cases she fought...This is very serious, fairly dense material for a film. We didn't want to shy away from the legal issues, but these cases are about human beings and her impacting them. Yes, you could say, "Oh, she's fighting for gender equality in these cases” and that could feel very general and very bland, but let's find the actual human beings whose lives she impacted very directly and go back and tell their stories.
West: That allowed us to weave their personal stories with more complex explanation of what it is that Justice Ginsburg was trying to do. How she was trying to convince nine male Justices that, yes, discrimination really exists. And that it's violation of the constitution. A radical idea: women should be covered as well as men by the U.S. Constitution.
Cohen: The tricky thing is that each one of these things is its own little story. You're trying to tell her life story, you're trying to tell the story of all the cases.
Truthfully, Lilly Ledbetter [plaintiff in one of Ginsburg’s famous pay-parity cases] was also such a great character. In the end, we realized by that time we didn't want to get too deep because you've been through these old cases and we ended up somewhat shortening that, just because by the end of the film you needed to move through that a little bit to get where we wanted to be.
We really did want to include a lot of stuff. There's certainly a number of cases we cut out, but not cases where we had interviewed the human beings. The cases that we cut out were cases that are actually fairly important legally, but where we either didn't have a still-alive character and/or Justice Ginsburg wrote the brief but didn't argue in the court.
NFS: You brought up Carla already, who clearly is extremely talented. What was your actual process of working with her?
Cohen: She’s amazing. Particularly with emotional material. She just made things that were unbelievably moving. Sometimes we didn't even know quite how she did it with just a few little changes and then all of a sudden it's like, "How did you just elevate that to what it was?"
West: She brought so much to this project; really exceeded our expectations. We were so lucky to work with her.
Cohen: It was complicated but it ended up working really nicely.
West: It worked really well! First of all, she looked at everything. So she spent three to four weeks holed up in a room watching all the archival footage. And we had already done a whole bunch of interviews and we had them transcribed, we marked them, so she's looking at what we thought was good and she's bringing herself up to speed.
Cohen: There was a whole different section where she was stringing out these long, 40 minute segments on certain things, and we were basically on paper editing those around. We're used to working on paper with scripts and we did that. There were particular sections that we would just divide up and one or the other of us would script it on paper, and then Carla would get that and we'd go back...It was, sort of a mish-mash of things, but it really worked.
Also with three people, that can be really hard. I think we were fortunate that it wasn't like there were two people in agreement about everything and one that saw it differently. Betsy and I had an extremely strong agreement on what was working and what wasn't. When something wasn't working, sometimes there would be bickering, but happy bickering. Like, we argued but in a good way; over how to proceed but there was never a part where Betsy was like, "Oh, I love this part" and I hate it. We always had the same reaction to everything.
West: It was how to fix something that wasn't working. And both of us are used to working with scripts. Just because I've done this a lot, I have the ability to watch a rough cut and we would often watch the rough cuts with Carla, and then look at the script and be able to imagine the rough cut in my head and make some of the changes.
We put different colors for each other; I would be yellow, she would be green, and then we'd give that to Carla. Sometimes, Carla would come up with her own ideas and wouldn't exactly do what we said and then we'd come back together and look at, "Okay, here's the new version of this scene."
Cohen: There's also a stage that we left out somewhere in there between the series of six, 40-minute chunks, where we were deciding what we liked and what we didn't like, and the part where we were doing paper scripting and we did the thing with the cards. The three of us just sat there for, like, two days discussing "What if we put that there and ..."
West: We had the cards, sticking things up on the wall.
Cohen: And, also, with the cards, there were different codes to colors to code stuff that existed versus stuff we were hoping to get. Some of these things we were imagining; we were still shooting throughout this.
West: Carla started in late February. We were still filming interviews; we didn't get Justice Ginsburg until July. I mean, we got the filming with Justice Ginsburg but the sit-down interview; not until July.
“We had exactly one hour and fifteen minutes [for the interview]. And a team of court personnel were literally sitting there, pointing at their watches.”
NFS: Was that actually good thing because by then you knew exactly what you needed from her?
Cohen: It was particularly useful, because the court gave us such a strict time limit, that if we had done it earlier in the process, we could never [have gotten what we needed]...There was a part back in her chamber's office, but the in the room, we had exactly one hour and fifteen minutes. An hour worth of interview and 15 minutes of her reading the old cases and her watching footage. And a team of court personnel were literally sitting there, pointing at their watches.
NFS: For this entire documentary, you had one hour sit down with Justice Ginsburg?
West: Call it amazing. We had a tremendous amount of previous interviews in archive that had been done, so we knew, "Okay, we have this thing covered, we have this covered. What do we really need? We have to talk about her relationship with her mother. We have to talk about the rise of the Women's Movement."
We needed to talk about some of the points that we needed to hit, but in some cases we had some pretty moving material already from the Senate Confirmation Hearing ...
Cohen: ...And from all the talks that she gave. Especially with the funny material, she really perks with a crowd. She just brought so much extra energy to it [when we filmed her telling the story in a public talk] so there's really no need to have her retell the story about what it was like to be at Cornell with four men to every women. She had told that and fed off the energy of a crowd. We knew we had it.
West: We had it. And we also were shooting [public talks] with fantastic long lenses so we were able to really get close up. So, okay, yes we were in an auditorium with a bunch of other people, but it feels pretty intimate. So it's misleading, in a way, to say that we only had an hour and a quarter because there were so many other things that we had access to.
Cohen: And for, basically, the whole day before that interview, we were both in Washington already and we sat there in a Starbucks just to think, "How are we going to efficiently get everything that we need?"
West: "What do we really need?" Because, already, the film was in a pretty advanced stage. There was a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the order was kind of there.
Cohen: And we'd showed it to CNN without the interview in it because we wanted to hear from them if there was something that they were like, "Oh, we feel like we're missing this part of the story." Better to find out now, cause this is not the kind of character where we're gonna go do some pick up interviews with later.
West: Yeah, "Oh, Justice Ginsburg, would you go to the studio, please? We wanna ask you..." No. The same way that she said to us, "Oh, I'll do an interview in two years" which, in fact, is exactly what she did. She said in 2015, "I'll do an interview in two years, the summer of 2017." And that's what she did.
Cohen: And in fact, at some point in 2016, we were like, "Oh, we were wondering if" ... You know, you say two years, but who knows? "Oh, we were thinking, maybe, in a few months?" And the answer came back, like, "What are you talking about? I told you I was going to talk to you in the summer of 2017."
NFS: And it all worked out.
Cohen: It all worked out.