Even though Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was sworn into office in 1993, within the past few years she’s become something of a cult figure. Little girls have dressed up as her for Halloween and for Superhero day at their school. She’s a popular, sharable Tumblr topic. Her face has made an appearance on many, many hipster t-shirts. Who would have predicated that an 85 year old woman would become such a popular icon and “it girl” for young people? Documentarians Betsy West and Julie Cohen may not have predicted RBG’s newfound spotlight, but they definitely thought that the time was right for audiences to learn more about the woman whose face launched many a meme and clothing item. That desire and a year and a half of interviews, research, and filmmaking became the documentary RBG. West and Cohen each individually interviewed Justice Ginsburg prior to making RBG for their previous projects. Several years later when RBG busted into the pop culture zeitgeist, both filmmakers came together to direct and produce RBG in the hopes of enlightening and inspiring this new fan base.
RBG looks, not only, at Justice’s Ginsburg’s incredible amount of achievements within the law and government, but also at how her personal and family life has shaped her into the formidable and focused leader she is today. Through interviews with family, friends, colleagues, and Justice Ginsburg herself intertwined with home videos and historical background, Betsy West and Julie Cohen create a complete picture of why Justice Ginsburg lives up to and surpasses the hype.
West and Cohen sit in a hotel in Washington D.C. next to a poster emblazoned with RBG’s face (in which she looks equal parts boss and rockstar) to talk about their film and about The Notorious RBG herself.
BYT: How did this particular project come about for the two of you?
BW: In 2015, Julie and I were talking about The Notorious RBG phenomenon. That she’d become a rockstar on the internet among the Millennial generation. Both of us had interviewed Justice Ginsburg prior to all of this in 2011 and in 2013. So we knew there was a lot more to her story. That her life story is just extraordinary. We’re thinking: “Hey, these Notorious RBG fans are gonna wanna hear about that. Somebody should do a documentary and that somebody should be us.”
BYT: When you did those previous interviews with Justice Ginsburg, what were they for?
BW: I was doing a project called Makers, about the modern women’s movement, interviewing many groundbreaking women including Justice Ginsburg and I hired Julie to work on the project and she did some other interviews.
JC: Separately, I interviewed Justice Ginsburg for a documentary I directed called The Sturgeon Queens. That was in 2013. It was actually just around the time Justice Ginsburg was writing the dissents for which she’d become sort of The Notorious RBG. In fact, I was slightly embarrassed to be interviewing her at that time about smoked fish, which was the subject [of The Sturgeon Queens]. She agreed to talk to me in what was an extremely big Supreme Court season that was wrapping up.
BYT: Even though you’ve each interviewed her prior to working on RBG, did you have any preconceived notions about Justice Ginsburg that you felt were dispelled during the filming process?
BW: She is known to be a kind of sober and restrained person and we’d seen that when we’d interviewed her. She thinks before she talks and she’s not Chatty Cathy. And yet, as we were filming over a year and a half, we came to recognize what a great sense of humor she has. She has a great sly, dry wit and she loves to laugh. This explains her 56 year marriage and romance with her husband Marty. He was an extremely funny guy. It explains her friendship with Justice Scalia, her idealogical opposite but also a very funny man. She loves humor. We had the wonderful opportunity to show her the parody of herself on Saturday Night Live.
BYT: That was such a great moment in the documentary (her watching Kate McKinnon’s impression of RBG on SNL). I wanted to know how that idea of Justice Ginsburg viewing that clip came about?
JC: In the interview with her grown children they had mentioned “Oh, mom doesn’t watch television. She’s heard about those parodies but the only thing she’s probably watched on tv is the news hour.” It seemed obvious that her having the opportunity to watch that would be key and getting it on film would be even better. Fortunately, we had the chance to do that. Her reaction… we weren’t sure what to expect. We hoped she would find it amusing. We did not tell her in advance what we were showing her. We showed her various clips during a session with her and she had not been asked or told in advance what [those clips] were going to be. When it got to the Saturday Night Live clips, she was loving every minute of it. The raunchier Kate McKinnon’s dance gets, the harder she was laughing.
BW: Just to set the scene: We were doing an interview with her in the Supreme Court in this very large, august room with the high ceilings and the portraits of all the male justices all around. There were four or five members of the press office of the Supreme Court standing, watching us. There’s all the cameras. It’s all just very hushed.
BYT: That’s interesting, because you don’t get that sense when you’re watching the scene. It feels like a dark, intimate space.
BW: I know! Then as Julie said, we did show her a few clips we wanted to show her. But I must admit, I’m thinking “Oh my, how is everybody going to react to this?” Because nobody knew what we were going to show. And [when the parody clip started] there was a pause, and [Justice Ginsburg] said “Is that Saturday Night Live?” And then when she burst out laughing everybody was just [letting out a sigh of relief]. I looked over at the press officers and they were all very surprised. Look, this woman has a tremendous sense of humor about herself. What does it say that she can look at this and see the humor in it?
BYT: I was really impressed by how the documentary melded the personal and professional in her life. There are so many great home videos featured. How did you get access and find all the material?
JC: The big breakthrough came from Justice Ginsburg’s official biographers [Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams], two professors at Georgetown Law School, who’ve been working for 15 years on a very comprehensive biography about her. They’ve done tons of research. They very casually mentioned to us one day, “There’s some great home movies that we’ve seen, any interest in those?” And of course we said, “Yeah!”
BW: A few weeks later an envelope appears in the mail and we put it in and there are a lot of home movies of Marty Ginsburg’s family and people we didn’t recognize, but at the very end there’s this precious footage of a young Ruth Bader from her graduation at Cornell. There’s young Marty Ginsburg and her on their honeymoon. Them with their infant daughter. It’s just so moving.
Many people have said to us “Yes, I knew she was beautiful.” You see a still photo and you see that she was a very beautiful young woman. But to see her in those home movies how striking and how poised she was. There’s a kind of sereneness to her that all of her friends from childhood describe. This quiet charisma that she had. I think you see it in those home movies.
BYT: The film gets structured around many of her court cases. How did you choose that format?
JC: We knew pretty early on that we didn’t want to shy away from the substance. This is a person who’s accomplished really important things for the law. A lot of that is substance and cases. There are, of course, more cases than we include in our film, because there’s a limit to how much you’re going to get into. We chose the cases to make central by picking the ones she had actually argued in court so that that audiotape would exist. And [we chose ones] where there were living, fantastic characters so we could bring the stories home. To bring them to life for people who might not be lawyers, who might not love every arcane point of constitutional law.
BYT: Do you have an ideal audience for the film?
BW: I think we’d like many people to see this. Obviously, she has her Millennial fans and her fans of her dissents. There are little girls that come to the theater dressed up as RBG. But we’ve also had, from early screenings, young men come and older men. We think what she accomplished for our country is extraordinary. It’s not just for women, it’s for men as well.
BYT: I think you highlight that point well in the film. That it wasn’t just about women’s rights for her.
BW: She recognized, when many people didn’t, that the hundreds of discriminatory laws in our country were hurting not just women but men.
BYT: Do you think there’s something about that message that speaks to our current political time right now?
JC: We think there’s a lot to RBG’s message and to her methods that speak to our time right now. A lot of it is her spirit. Her thinking “I’m looking at the world around me and I don’t like how things are. Let’s think through how am I going to change that.” She does that in a thoughtful, non-visceral, not getting freaked out, step-by-step way. She came up with a path to change. I wish more activists in every generation acted the way she did because maybe more would get done.
BYT: Has Justice Ginsburg seen the documentary yet?
BW: She saw the documentary for the very first time at the Sundance Film Festival, sitting in an audience of about 500 people.
BTW: Were you both watching her the whole time?
BW: We were sitting across the aisle [from her]. Julie and I did not watch the film. We had our eyes trained on her. Luckily, she was so absorbed in the film, she didn’t notice that we were staring at her.
JC: She was quite engrossed. She particularly was moved by any scene that involved music. Classical music in any way, because she loves it so much. The court cases. The love stories. She laughed a lot. She cried. We can’t imagine having had a more deep experience than watching Justice Ginsburg watching her own life unfold as part of this project.
BW: Afterward, we were called up to do a Q&A. The very first question from the audience was “What does Justice Ginsburg think of the movie?”
BYT: Did some people not realize she was in the audience?
BW: No, they knew she was there but she was not scheduled to do the Q&A but up she hopped and down she went to the front. She was very kind and said that it exceeded her expectations and we were kind of speechless. We were just so relieved.
BYT: You can’t get a better review that that.
BW: That’s the review we cared about.
BYT: What’s the message in RBG that you hope audiences will take away from the film?
JC: I think we like the message from her, carried from her mother: “When you see things around you that you don’t like, don’t respond in anger, because that’s a useless emotion, respond with a plan. Respond with action, carefully and deliberately, activated and played out.”
RBG will open in selected theaters on May 4th. For more information go to the RBG film’s website.