When documentarians Betsy West and Julie Cohen first approached Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg back in 2015 with the idea of making a film about her life, she didn’t exactly say yes but she didn’t say no either. Ginsburg told West and Cohen that she wouldn’t be able to talk to them for another two years. “She said not yet, even though at the time she was 82 years old, and it was like, Okay. If not now, when?” West tells CR. The pair regrouped and sent Ginsburg another email, asking if they could speak to her former clients, colleagues, and family members.
“We gave her a list, because she wanted to show her that we were serious,” West says.
“Then, she gave us three more names. At that point, we felt she had opened a door for us. We started filming in 2016, and we didn’t ask her for access to film and more personal things until the spring of 2017, after having done many more interviews with other people. In March of 2017, we asked if we could have access to personal moments in her life of her in her office, at home with her family, and of course, in the gym. She said yes.”
Over the past several years, Ginsburg has reached pop culture phenomenon status after a Tumblr blog, aptly named Notorious R.B.G., surfaced in 2013 after Ginsburg delivered a particularly scathing dissent on the Voting Rights Act. Sweatshirts, mugs, and various knick knacks emblazoned with R.B.G. iconography, as well as videos of actress Kate McKinnon playing the Supreme Court Justice on Saturday Night Live quickly took off, exposing a younger generation to Ginsburg’s impressive multi-decade career, spanning from her education at Harvard and Columbia Law Schools to being appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton.
Ginsburg became a natural film subject for West and Cohen, who both interviewed her in 2011 and 2013 respectively. For the documentary juggernauts and video journalists, who both teach at Columbia University School of Journalism, they wanted to expose a new audience to Ginsburg’s many trailblazing accomplishments and full story. Here, CR caught up with West to discuss the documentary’s Oscar nomination, how Ginsburg felt about being filmed, and today’s divisive political climate.
Congratulations on the Oscar nomination! How did Ginsburg react?
“We had the pleasure of telling her ourselves. We talked to her on the phone at around 10:00 p.m. She’s not really an early riser, she often stays up quite late, and when we connected with her at 10 she hadn’t heard. We were able to tell her that the film had been nominated, and that was thrilling.”
Was Ginsburg reluctant to be the subject of a film?
“Whenever we filmed with her, I was amazed, because I’ve done a lot of shooting over the years and I was really amazed at how un-self-conscious she was when we were filming with her. It didn’t matter where we were, if we were filming her rehearsing for the opera, or going to a museum exhibit, or in the gym. She wasn’t paying attention to us, and she wasn’t paying attention to the camera. She just was going about and doing what she was doing.”
How would you explain the Notorious R.B.G. phenomenon?
“She’s a very unlikely superhero, but she’s is in fact a superhero. It started on the internet, and really it started with the power of her writing and the power of the words that she was using to express her opinions about equality under our Constitution. People were upset as the court was moving to the right, and they saw her as a champion for many of the values they believe in. As she became a meme, there’s something just so unlikely about this tiny, octogenarian who is speaking truth to power. It just took off, the idea of the Notorious R.B.G. It’s funny! But, it’s funny in a way that’s reflecting a truth about her, what she stands for, and how powerful her words and her ideas and her actions have been and continue to be. I think that she’s authentic. People just have really gravitated to her, and it’s so creative. Every time you turn around, there just seems to be some new meme or new idea about R.B.G.”
What about her relationship with Marty Ginsburg?
“The depth and importance of her feminist love story with Marty… We knew about the story, but it really only deepened as we got into talking to other people about their relationship, what it meant to her, and how they both supported each other in different phases in their careers. He was a very successful lawyer early on in their marriage and she was really taking on both of the family duties, but as he saw what she was doing in the Supreme Court in the early ‘70s to fight for justice for women, he saw the importance of that work and then he took on more of the home responsibilities. He also helped get people to pay attention to her as a potential Supreme Court nominee. That was really a wonderful story.”
What did she think of the film?
“She never asked to see the film in advance. We told her that it had gotten into the Sundance Film Festival and asked her if she wanted to see it there, and she said she would. She sat in an audience of over 500 people and watched it with everybody else. Like everything else she does, she was incredibly focused about watching a film about herself. She laughed, she cried at moments and she pulled out a tissue. [Cohen] and I were sitting across the aisle from her and I think we didn’t watch the screen at all. We were just staring at her. She seemed to really enjoy it during the screening and then afterward, the very first question from the audience to us was, ‘What does Justice Ginsburg think?’ And she stood up in the audience and came down to the front, and said she had high expectations and that it had exceeded her expectations. She was very generous about it.”
What was the most surprising thing you learned about her?
“Even though Ginsburg is kind of a retiring personality, some might say shy, she has a fantastic sense of humor. She’s got a sharp wit, and we tried to bring that out in the film. We loved her reaction to the Saturday Night Live impression. We didn’t tell her that we were going to be showing this to her. Her public affairs people in the Supreme Court were there at the interview and we said we were going to show some video excerpts from the film, but we didn’t say what they were. The final one was of McKinnon doing a rather raunchy dance as the Notorious R.B.G., and there was a kind of gasp by the public affairs office. And we were like, Oh no. And [Ginsburg] just leaned in and said, ‘Is that Saturday Night Live?’ And we said yes. And she said, ‘Who’s that actress?’ We said Kate McKinnon, and then she just burst out laughing. It was such a funny, genuine moment. As soon as she started laughing, all of the Supreme Court personnel started laughing and it was quite wonderful.”
Her friendship with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was so unexpected.
“I think especially in this era where there’s so much divisiveness, the idea that these two people who have very different ideological perspectives could have a friendship, could actually love each other, was surprising to many people. Some were scratching their heads saying, I don’t understand that. Some people, though, were admiring it and saying, hey maybe we can learn something from this. They had respect for each other’s intelligence, and they shared a love of music and opera. They appreciated the opportunity to sharpen their wit and to engage in the issues. They didn’t shy away from it. They weren’t in separate corners and they were not afraid to engage on the things that brought them together, because they certainly agreed about a lot of things in the law. And if they didn’t agree, they weren’t afraid to discuss it. I think in this era, that’s a pretty good lesson for a lot of people.”
How did you factor in today’s political climate when shooting the film?
“When we started the film in 2015, it was a very different political landscape. We started shooting in 2016 in the middle of the presidential campaigns as the country was getting more and more divided. The election of Donald Trump certainly changed the political landscape. The following year, the #MeToo revelations about Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men, the #TimesUp movement, those things happened just as we were finishing the film. It almost seemed as if every week, there was some development that made Ruth Bader Ginsburg more relevant. Obviously, we had two very contentious Supreme Court nominations [of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh] and hearings, and it just continued. She occupies a pretty central place in the life of our democracy.”
Are you glad that the documentary came out when it did?
“I think that the climate certainly made people receptive to the film and I’m glad that it’s had a strong response, especially from people who don’t necessarily identify as Democrats. I’m glad that we’ve had a number of Republican women say to us, I don’t agree with her on everything but I really admire her so much. Especially many older women really know what she was up against and are thankful for what she did.”
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