There are many reasons why Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an inspiration to millions of people, not just in America, but across the world.
At 85-years-young she is still fighting for equality. Ginsburg even visits a gym regularly to keep herself in peak condition so that she can continue her work as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Of The United States.
But Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s inspiring story goes much deeper than that. So it is little surprise that directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West wanted to turn it into a documentary. I recently had the opportunity to talk to the duo about “RBG,” and they had nothing but praise for the incredible woman.
When did you first become interested in making this documentary?
Betsy: In 2015. We just took note of Justice Ginsburg’s rise on the internet, as the Notorious RBG and the “Saturday Night Live impersonations. She was clearly striking a chord with the millennial generation. We’d both previously interviewed Justice Ginsburg, and we knew there was so much more to her story, and that someone should make a documentary about her. So we thought, ‘Why not us?’
Why has she become so popular?
Julie: Her huge popularity seems to be a combination of a few factors. One of them is just the unlikeliness of a very tiny, serious seeming, 85-year-old Jewish Grandmother in a judicial robe speaking up and saying some things in her curt opinions and dissent that a number of young, liberal activists find relatable. So there’s an irony factor there. But behind that there is a seriousness and appreciation for the important work that she has done for many decades.
What was the process of getting her to take part?
Betsy: In January, 2015, we wrote a carefully crafted letter to Justice Ginsburg asking if we could make a documentary about her life. And we got a response that in effect said, ‘Not yet.’ We were disappointed but she hadn’t said no. So a couple of months later we went back with another proposal saying we would interview her former colleagues, clients, family and friends. So we didn’t have to talk to her right away. She said she couldn’t talk to us for at least 2 years, then gave us a list of people to talk to. At that point we began working in earnest on the film. We were filming a lot of the events she was speaking at, talking to those close to her, and then we got to interview more personal moments, and then her working out scenes, and we were very happy to verify that she does do all of the push-ups and planks that have been discussed.
What was it like to interview Justice Ginsburg?
Betsy: It is intimidating to interview Justice Ginsburg. Because she is a very thoughtful person, and she doesn’t answer things glibly. Once you understand that rhythm that makes it a little easier to interview her. We already had the structure of the documentary, so we knew exactly what she wanted to talk about.
What do you think today’s generation can take from Justice Ginsburg and what she has achieved?
Betsy: There’s a lot to learn from how Ruth Bader Ginsburg has approached challenges throughout her life, both personal and professional. As a brilliant young lawyer coming out of Columbia Law School at the top of her class she couldn’t get a job. She became a professor and moved into the area of women’s law at a time when discrimination against women was widespread and just generally accepted, not at all questioned. She devised a brilliant legal strategy to take this on. Not yelling and screaming, ‘Sexism! Sexism!’ But by slowly showing the nine male justices on the Supreme Court that this kind of discrimination was unfair under the constitution. I think people can take a lot from her approach to facing adversity and to using her brains and her talent to oppose it and overcome.
The opening scene features various disparaging comments about Justice Ginsburg, what was your thought process behind that?
Julie: There’s opposition to Justice Ginsburg. She faces opposition now and she’s faced opposition throughout her life. When you get to the scene in the gym working out, you can see that she is fighting and fighting back. The ongoing condescending voices of opposition is what she has been fighting back against her entire career.
Has she seen the film?
Julie: Justice Ginsburg saw the final film at the Sundance Film Festival at its world premiere. She had wonderfully agreed to see the film without having seen it yet. Betsy and I sat right across the aisle from her, and just watched her face the entire time. It was nerve-racking. But she was just so engaged by it. She laughed, she cried a few times, she seemed particularly moved by scenes about opera. She told us and the audience afterwards how much she loved it, so it was really a fun experience for us.
What was the most inspiring moment of the film for you?
Betsy: It was inspiring to be in the gym when she was doing her workout routine. Just to see the level of dedication that she puts into it. She wasn’t paying any attention to us or the cameras. She was just listening to her trainer, Brian Johnson, and doing everything that he told her. She was just determined to stay in shape and do the job that she loves. That was inspiring.
Did you talk to her about the current state of politics?
Julie: We are aware as filmmakers and as citizens that there are constraints that the Justice can talk about. We didn’t attempt to have any off the record conversation. Every conversation was on the record. What she had to say was what was in the film. She did make the case for why she’s absolutely capable of ruling fairly what comes before the court in the current administration.
Betsy: She’s an optimistic person. At one point she says, ‘We may be in tough times, but look at how far we’ve come.’ She takes the long view of the world. She has a tremendous belief in our legal institutions.
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“RBG” is released in cinemas on May 4.