Art Talk with "RBG" filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West

By Paulette Beete
Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her granddaughter sitting at a table
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with her granddaughter in a scene from RBG, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Working in broadcast journalism, over the years Julie Cohen and Betsy West both found themselves more and more drawn to long-form storytelling. In the mid-2000s, after leaving her news job, West developed the documentary series Makers: Women Who Make America, for which she interviewed, among other notable women, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Cohen, who initially met West while working on another story for Makers, later had her own encounter with Justice Ginsburg while making The Sturgeon Queens, a documentary about a Lower East Side smoked fish store of which the justice was a life-long customer. Realizing that their interests collided and noticing how Justice Ginsburg had become a hero to a new generation of politically active young women who had affectionately dubbed her the Notorious RBG (after the late hip hop artist Christopher Wallace, a/k/a the Notorious B.I.G.), Cohen and West decided the time was right to tackle a documentary project that would deepen public understanding of how a shy young woman from Brooklyn had become such a powerful voice for justice. Constructed over three years using archival footage, interviews with Justice Ginsburg’s family, friends, and colleagues, and interviews with the justice herself—including a peek at her daily workout routine—the Magnolia Pictures film RBG shines a light on Ginsburg’s groundbreaking work as a crusader against gender discrimination, her lifelong romance with her late husband Martin, and her continuing influence on new generations. We spoke to the filmmakers about what drew them to their subject, what it’s like to make a portrait of a living subject, and what learning about Justice Ginsburg taught them about themselves.
NEA: You both jumped into this whole process without having a firm “yes” from Justice Ginsburg that she would participate, and I know it took a good long while before you did finally get to sit down and speak to her for this film. How did you keep the faith that the project would work? JULIE COHEN: I think your question is really an important one for how a documentary gets made. Because it almost never happens that you have an idea in mind, approach the relevant people that you’re really going to need, and they just automatically say, “Great. Yes, let’s do it.” That’s just not how the process works. Being part of a documentary is a long and fairly involved process and commitment, both for the people that are making the film and the people who are subjects of the film. Having some patience and some appetite to strategize and figure out how you’re going to move forward and faith to keep pushing through in the early stages when it's not clear whether you’re going to get your subjects to fully participate or give you as much access as you really want to have, when you’re not sure what you’re funding is going to be is a huge part of the process. BETSY WEST: Once we started filming and interviewing Justice Ginsburg’s former colleagues, former clients, her long-time friends, I think we were pretty committed to this film come hell or high water. But we knew that in order to make it as good as it could possibly be, we were going to obviously need an interview with her, which she had said she would give us. But the timeframe was a little scary because she told us in 2015 she’d talk to us in the summer of 2017. She’s a woman of her word, and we had a lot of confidence that she would give us the interview, but we didn’t know how much access we would get to the rest of her life, which we knew would really enhance the film. So we just kept pushing forward to try to gather those elements that would make the film as good as it could be. There is a fair amount of [archival material] so we started going through that and then we had the opportunity to start following her around the country to the various events that she participates in—speaking to legal audiences or attending an opera festival and also the wonderful visit that she made to the Virginia Military Institute on the 20th anniversary of the decision she wrote that opened up the school to women. We were slowly gathering our elements and just hoping that, yes, she will allow us to film in her office and at home. The ultimate ask really was to go with her into the gym, because that’s a pretty personal and intimate moment for her to share and we were very excited that she saw the importance of that. NEA: As we saw in the film, there has been a lot of interest in Justice Ginsburg in the past few years, particularly from young people. In a way, she’s already started becoming mythologized. How do you find the person inside the myth? How do you figure out what’s “true”? WEST: In a way her notoriety was a great entry point for us, and a lot of fun with all of the “Notorious RGB” memes and images, and she herself makes fun of it. She makes the joke about her and Notorious B.I.G. having a lot in common so that provided a contrast for revealing who she is and the kind of person she is. As her son said, the Saturday Night Live impression of her is funny because it’s so much “Not like mom,” as he said. She is and has been her entire life a shy and somewhat retiring person. So to have this public persona as being so fierce and tough is an interesting contrast. I also think there’s a greater truth in the public persona, because even though she is shy and retiring, there is something so steely and determined about this woman that comes through and, to me, it just makes a more layered and complex portrait of an eighty-five-year-old woman who’s lived quite an extraordinary life. COHEN: I think one thing that we tried to do that presents her as a real fully fleshed-out three-dimensional human being, not just a myth, is to show her in a lot of different contexts, whether you’re listening to audio of her arguing before the Supreme Court as a young lawyer in the 70s or standing before an audience of a couple thousand people at the university or at home making coffee with her granddaughter or rehearsing to perform in an opera…. Each of those things is just bringing you a different context of her. When you mix them all together you start to see a full human being. I think the person that comes through in our film—as much as she’s amazing in many ways, particularly her work ethic and determination—is also a real human being.
photo of filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West
Julie Cohen and Betsy West, directors of RBG, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo by © Myles Pettengill, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
NEA: I know that Justice Ginsburg has a team of biographers that are compiling a record of her work and life. I’m interested in that difference between a biography and a documentary and what film can do with that same biographical material that you wouldn’t get from reading it. WEST: One of the great finds in the process of doing this documentary happened when we sat down with those biographers and they just happened to casually mention, “Oh, yes, and we have a box of material. I think there’s a DVD of some home movies.” Both Julie and I were like, “Home movies?” A couple of weeks later, in the mail comes this manila envelope and when we put the DVD in the computer, we were blown away. Because you can talk about how beautiful she was as a young woman or you talk about the origin of the Ruth and Marty love story, but when you see them as a young couple in love together, there’s nothing quite like that. I remember Nina Totenberg, who has covered Justice Ginsburg and known her for over forty years, when she saw those home movies, she was just astonished, because there is something about seeing that image that brings home a full picture of the person. So, I think that’s one of the differences. Obviously, the biographers have been working on this for years. They’re going to do a complete and very serious analysis of all aspects of her life and her legal legacy and they will include so much more information, exponentially more information than we could possibly get into a 97-minute documentary. COHEN: You can just accomplish so much in just a few seconds of film format in some cases that, I think, puts up an advantage over the printed word. I think the thing that stands out for me from this film is there’s a number of times in the film where you see RGB’s sly smile. If she’s enjoying something, she has this way of sort of looking down and smiling to herself. Claudia Raschke, our camerawoman, caught that many, many times. And even for moments when we were there [in the room], I find it so moving to see the close-up moment of [her smiling] when a crowd is going wild or enjoying one of her jokes or when she’s performing at the Kennedy Center and her line goes over well. Seeing her sly little smile is an example of what film can do, and it just brings so much fun and so much emotion to a person’s life story. WEST: And that really highlights the role of the editor in the process of making a documentary. Carla Gutierrez brought so much to this process. When I think of a moment [from the film], one that I love is when Nina [Totenberg] says to her, “What was it about Marty?” And Justice Ginsburg pauses, and then she does do that smile to herself. You can just see she’s thinking back to this man who she adored and it’s just a lovely moment. She doesn’t actually say anything! She just smiles and everybody in the audience laughs, because they’re appreciating her thinking about him and a moment for her to reflect on her late husband. It’s a beautiful moment that Carla saw and captured. NEA: Ultimately, what do you want the audience to take away from watching RBG? COHEN: I would say two things. One is learning of the bigness and importance of this woman’s life and career, and what she accomplished for not only herself, but other women—and men, too, she would argue—in creating a legal legacy for women and men being equal under the Constitution. There’s a big educational, constitutional law message to our film, but, to me, the bigger thing is the feelings. From the time we started showing at festivals and going into our theatrical run people have been coming to us having come out of theaters saying that they felt really rejuvenated and boosted and energized and inspired by the experience of sitting in the theater for an hour and a half. To me, that’s the biggest compliment of all. What better thing to do than work on something that puts people in a better mood? WEST: I totally agree that her story is inspirational and the audiences seem to get a lot out of it. In addition to understanding the history of what it is she accomplished, I also hope people take note of how she accomplished it, when she faced challenges—and as we show, there were enormous challenges in her life—how she moved forward, her strategy [when arguing before the Supreme Court] of not getting angry, of thinking very carefully about how to move step-by-step to convince the justices, in some ways, the most powerful men in the land, that discrimination exists, that discrimination is unfair, and that it’s actually illegal under our Constitution. That’s some incredible, careful thinking. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment. I love hearing her granddaughter [in the film] talking about the lesson that she took from her grandmother, that getting angry and raising your voice is not going to bring people to your table. It’s a good thing to remember. NEA: What did each of you take away personally from the journey of making this film? WEST: Hang in there! Really, her determination is extraordinary. I mean, look at her now. She’s in a position where she is more frequently in dissent than in agreement [with the other justices] on the hot political issues of our time. Certainly, with the Supreme Court, there’s a lot of consensus on many cases that really are not controversial. But on some of the more ideological cases, she’s writing in dissent and yet she keeps going. She is determined to fight the fight and just have faith and confidence and keep going. I’m inspired by that idea. COHEN: I think there is a big lesson to be learned from RBG’s fierce optimism, that she has shown from her childhood to the present. It’s not always something that I feel like I’ve been able stick to in life. And, frankly, part of our job as documentary producers and directors is to constantly anticipate things that may go wrong. So you can’t always be optimistic. There’s a background level of anxiety and girding for disaster that I think actually does serve us well in some cases. But her strategy is a good one. I mean, one of my favorite moments in the film is when she’s reflecting on the experience of having these two brutally serious bouts of cancer, colon cancer and pancreatic cancer, both extremely serious and painful conditions, both in the illness and in the treatment. Her take-away from that is, “Having had these two bouts of cancer gave me an enhanced appreciation for the joys of being alive.” That was a beautiful and a really smart way to deal with the adversity in your life. I don’t think we can all get there, but I think that attitude is something to aspire to.