Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Documentarians Are Still 'Very Scared' of Her (Exclusive)
By John Boone
Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images
"Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whether women know it or not, has had a big impact on all of us," documentarian Julie Cohen explains. Associate Justice Ginsburg was only the second woman ever confirmed to the Supreme Court, of four total, and a pioneer of women's rights and gender equality, long before her scorching dissents launched her into a pop culture icon-dom as the Notorious R.B.G.
Now, Cohen and her directing partner, Betsy West, have a hand in crafting Ginsburg's legacy and introducing more women -- and men -- to her story with their film, RBG, out now, which documents her early days in Brooklyn and Harvard Law School and onward, through landmark court cases to Kate McKinnon's infamous Ginsburn-dropping impression on Saturday Night Live. (The RBG crew was the first to show Justice Ginsburg the sketch.)
"It's an honor to tell her story, frankly. I feel that. I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity," West told me. Seated around a conference table in a Hollywood office suite, the duo discussed with ET why Ginsburg originally turned down the doc, why they are still "very intimidated" by their subject and why RBG is now more relevant than ever.
ET: This is the first documentary that is wholly about Ruth Bader Ginsberg, as far as I am aware.
Betsy West: Yes.
I have to imagine she's been pitched the opportunity in the past. Do you know?
Julie Cohen: You know what, we don't know. We didn't ask her! [Laughs]
West: She's done interviews before--
Cohen: Right, including for us.
West: We had both interviewed her for other projects. I had a big project about the women's movement, and Julie did a film [The Sturgeon Queens] about a Lower East Side fish store.
Cohen: A smoked fish store that she's a fan of, so I'd interviewed her for that.
In your estimation, did she seems protective of her image? Or precious, even, about telling her story?
West: Well, look, she's a very busy woman, to the extent that her time is limited. We wound up spending about 20 hours with her over the filming of a year and a half. She imposed absolutely no limits on what we would ask her about or what we would do -- she didn't try to control it in any way. Beyond just what we knew, which is that if you're a sitting Supreme Court justice, you can't talk about cases or issues that are likely to come before the court. We wouldn't even think to do that. That's crazy! But other than that, there were no restrictions.
Cohen: If anything, her mode in terms of suggesting things to us was to expand things. She was always telling us, "Oh, do you know about this? Do you know about that? Have you talked to this person? Do you know that I'm going to be doing a speaking role in the Washington National Opera?" Her office had mentioned that to us about nine or so months in advance. Her life has been very full and she's got a lot of accomplishments. She told us about all kinds of things, [but] we can't use everything in the film. I actually wouldn't say protective.
Cohen: For someone who's as reserved as she is, she was actually fairly open.
What was your original pitch to her about what the documentary would be?
West: We wrote her a very finely crafted letter in which we said we wanted to do a documentary about her life and what she's accomplished in her life, including her work as a women's rights advocate in the 1970s, and that we wanted to really go into the cases and what she argued and what the outcome was. And also, just take a look at the full breadth of her professional and personal life.
Cohen: Of course, from her perspective, people in her immediate circle all know her history -- they understand what she accomplished for women's rights under the law -- but the general public really doesn't. We made that point: You've become this very well known public figure, but there's amazing story of your life that so many of even your fans don't know about. We just want to tell it as thoroughly as we can.
Was it a yes from her on your first ask?
Cohen: No. Essentially, it was a "not yet."
When was that first pitch?
Cohen: That was in January of 2015.
West: The answer was very nice, very polite--
Cohen: And she answered us at all, which we know a lot of requests that go to her office don't get answered! Because they're busy there.
West: But basically, not yet. She was 82 at that point and we were like, "Oh. If not now, when?" But then we thought, Well, she didn't say no. So, we made a slightly different approach in which we actually outlined a list of the people we were going to interview and we said we didn't need to interview her at first, but that we'd like to start gathering material and talking to these people and, again, quick response. Her first sentence was, "I would not be prepared to give you an interview for at least two years." So, this is now the summer of 2015. We're thinking, "2017? That's a long way away." But then the next paragraph was, "Well, if you're going to be talking to people, you might also want to talk to" and she added the names of three people. At that point, we thought, Wow. She's interested. That was a signal from her that we could proceed, and so we did.
Do you know why two years? What was the significance of that amount of time?
Cohen: We really don't. We suspect that part of it was testing our mettle. Because truthfully, if you're going to do a documentary about someone, it's going to take some years to get it together. So, I think she just wanted to see if we were going to go away or if we wanted to do this badly enough that we were going to proceed according to her timeframe.
West: It seemed like a long way away, but in fact, it really allowed us to get everything in order, to do all the interviews, to do all the archive research and to structure the film so that by the time we interviewed her in the summer of 2017, we already had a pretty finely honed rough cut. We followed her around the country at these various events where she speaks and does interviews and by the time we were getting ready to sit down for the interview, we'd structured a lot of the film. We knew, OK, we need to ask her more about her mother. We need to ask her more about the Frontiero case. These are the things that we want to touch on. It helped us in a way. It worked out.
"The idea of an 85-year-old rock star, yes, it's funny. But also there's something kind of beautiful about it."
Was it one interview total that she sat for? How long was your interview that day?
West: We sat with her for an hour and a half in the Supreme Court.
Having interviewed with her in the past, was there still anything that surprised you about Justice Ginsburg when you got in the room with her? Anything that you weren't expecting?
West: We did know a lot about her. I think the extent of her love for her husband, the relationship and our understanding of how important that was to her personal life and her professional life, we got a greater feel for that. We were very lucky that her biographers had come across these home movies which were from Justice Ginsburg's husband's family. That was really a wonderful gift, because you can see the still photos of Justice Ginsburg -- she was a beautiful young woman -- but I think in those home movies you really get a sense of just the closeness, the young romance, which is quite beautiful.
Cohen: Justice Ginsburg is a serious-minded and presents herself quite seriously and quietly and somberly, so any moment of emotion that comes from her almost feels like a surprise. Whether it's her loving feelings towards her late husband, her children and grandchildren, or frankly, her humor. I think both the little zingers that she gives out in her talks -- which we tried to include throughout the film -- and also her reaction to seeing the Saturday Night Live impersonation of herself, which, she's really cracking up pretty heavily. To see her have so much humor and even when it's kind of humor at her own expense, was surprising. It's not like we expected her to dislike that, but I don't think we expected her to get as much a charge of it as she did! [Laughs]
West: She's intimidating as a person!
Cohen: Yes, we're very intimidated by her.
West: [Laughs] We're very scared when we go to see her. Because there's something very regal about her, in a way. And she takes time to gather her thoughts before she talks, so sometimes there's a bit of a pause. That can be intimidating as well.
Cohen: Even her childhood friends said they were intimidated by her!
She says in the movie that [her late husband] Marty was the humorous one and she considers herself "sober." Yet, she also seems to have so embraced this notorious RBG persona, and the first time you see her in the documentary is working out wearing a "Super Diva!" sweatshirt. I think she's hilarious. Maybe she doesn't know it yet.
Cohen: No, I think she knows it now. It's an unusual persona. It's not something that usually happens to -- certainly -- a judge in their 80s. That's not normally when one would become a rock star as a woman, but that's part of the fun of it. She has embraced it. She understands that it's an opportunity to educate young people about more serious issues, but I think she also appreciates that whole idea of in a society where we're usually making celebrities out of people who are not old enough to have any clue what's going on, the idea of an 85-year-old rock star is, yes, it's funny. But also there's something kind of beautiful about it.
Having worked on the doc for so many years, what does it mean to you that it's coming out right now? After Hillary Clinton's loss, but in this moment of Time's Up and #MeToo and the Women's Marches.
Cohen: You know, at the time that we started this project in 2015, one question in our minds was: Are we coming to this a little too late? That turned out to be exactly the opposite. As luck would have it, our film is coming out at a moment where Justice Ginsburg seems -- and I think is -- more relevant than she's ever been, both literally in terms of what she's doing on the court and also as a symbol of speaking out against that with which you disagree, and also looking back to her earlier career, speaking up and making change where there are problems. She's an example for the current generation of activists to follow and I think our film has more emotional resonance than we knew it was going to, because of the environment that we're releasing it into.
West: No question about it.
People spend a lot of time worrying about what we will do when Justice Ginsburg isn't seated on the court. From the time you spent with her, does it seem like that is something she thinks about a lot?
West: I'm not sure that she dwells on it a lot. She gets asked about it a lot.
Cohen: People are saying it to her, yeah.
West: People are always asking her what is her plan for retirement. She has a stock answer, which is that, "I will do this job so long as I can do it full steam." She sent a more subtle sign a few months ago when she announced her clerks not just for next term, but for the year after. She has named her clerks up through 2020. That seems as though it's a sign that [she] intends to be here. And, look, her workout -- which is pretty vigorous and pretty extraordinary -- is an example of her determination to keep herself in shape to do the job that she loves.
I think it's more rigorous than my workouts.
Cohen: Us too.
West: Believe me, we have been inspired and tried to up our game a little bit after having witness that. It was quite a day.
From your time spent filming her and then interviewing her and through this release, do you have a go-to favorite party anecdote about your time with Justice Ginsburg?
Cohen: I think the party anecdotes are really about Sundance. Justice Ginsburg saw the film for the first when it had its world premiere at Sundance. She came to Park City, [Utah] not having seen the film--
West: Never asked to see the film in advance, ever.
Cohen: Which is pretty incredible. I feel like just seeing the way that that whole environment that's used to organizing itself over worshipping the latest young movie star, seeing all of Park City, this Hollywood machinedom, go crazy over this tiny, 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice was just really... [Laughs] Crazy and exciting and fun.
West: It was quiet a day. She arrived, she looked fantastic and it had snowed in Sundance. She had on little flats. She didn't even have boots. Everybody was so nervous! They were sending people out to shovel the snow so she wouldn't have to walk in anything. She gave a talk, a Q&A, with [NPR's] Nina Totenberg prior to the screening and there were people lined up down the block to try to get into this thing. It really was a hot ticket.
Cohen: A big line of people and everyone with their cell phones out, and she gets out of her car with the federal Marshals and everyone is treating her the way you treat a major pop culture celebrity. And you see in this little smile on her face, she enjoyed that!
West: The other thing that happened at Sundance, the other sort of great moment in addition to her watching the film and liking it, was we went in to see her before she gave this talk. It was the little green room and she was sitting in a big chair and we went in to talk to her. We talked to her for five or 10 minutes and then we left, and I was standing across the hallway from the room and all of a sudden, I saw, like, a plaid shirt come by and a blond back of the head and the Marshal opened the door and Justice Ginsburg popped up to attention. It was Robert Redford. He introduced her for the talk and then afterward, several hours later, she did the premiere. She was very generous in that she came down to the front, said that she liked the movie and then somebody asked her, "How do you like Sundance?" And she said, "Well, I think Park City is very beautiful. It reminds me of Switzerland. And Robert Redford is still very handsome."