A Chat with RBG Director/Producer Betsy West

Zach Blumenfeld

Justice Ginsburg mid workout routine in RBG, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

At age 85, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is ready for her closeup. It’s probably safe to say that never in history has a sitting member of the Supreme Court become so ingrained in the popular zeitgeist.

“It’s completely ludicrous!” says Betsy West. West co-directed and co-produced the documentary RBG, which tells the story of Justice Ginsburg’s life from her Brooklyn roots to her newfound “Notorious” status. “I mean, the joke is an 85-year-old teeny grandmother is a pop icon, punching and dancing. It’s ludicrous.”

With the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements bringing women’s rights back to the forefront of America’s consciousness in the past year, the timing couldn’t be more perfect for a retrospective of Justice Ginsburg’s career to date. West and Cohen focus their narrative on ways in which RBG has upended traditional power structures and gender roles from the time she was young. The documentary lauds her for breaking the Harvard Law Review’s sex barrier, details the sex discrimination cases Ginsburg argued in from of the Supreme Court in the 1970s, and then tells the stories of the most notable opinions she has written from the bench. “She does say what she thinks in a very straightforward way,” says West. “She has been fighting unbelievable discrimination from early on in her career. She’s a tough cookie!” Importantly, the film also traces the development of Justice Ginsburg’s relationship with her husband Martin, who could serve as a lodestar for any man who says he is a feminist.

JLA spoke with West about how she made the documentary, the state of the women’s movement, and the decision to distribute the film in theaters, among other topics. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 


 

JLA: How did the idea for RBG germinate?

Betsy West: Both Julie Cohen and I had interviewed Justice Ginsburg for previous projects. So we knew her extraordinary story, not just as a justice but the backstory, what she did for women’s rights. So in 2015, her celebrity on the internet was growing as the Notorious RBG for the dissents that she was writing, and Julie and I were talking. We said we bet a lot of her fans don’t know the whole story. She’s such an amazing person, and hey, someone should do a documentary about her, and it should be us. Then of course we had to get cooperation from her, then we had to get financial support for the documentary, then we had to make the documentary.

JLA: Were people interested?

West: No, it took a while. First of all, we didn’t get complete buy-in from Justice Ginsburg at the beginning. We told her we wanted to make a documentary about her life. At first she said not yet. Then we went back to her and her response was, “I really couldn’t talk to you for at least two years, but if you are going to be talking to people, you might wanna consider…” and she added to a list of names we had given her people we’d want to interview. So at that moment, we thought okay, she’s interested, but we’ll really have to put the time in here. We didn’t request at the beginning that we want access to your office, your home, your family, working out in the gym. What he had from her was a promise that she would talk to us several years in the future. And then we started following her around to some of the events where she speaks and filming those events. With that, we started trying to find backers, and some of them didn’t really understand, even though we tried to explain to them how extraordinary her story is, and how popular she is and what a figure she is. And I think also they may have wondered if we would really get the access that we needed in order to do the story that we wanted to tell. But CNN Films got it.

JLA: Did RBG’s reticence come from uncertainty at the role of the justice in pop culture?

West: It may have been that she was testing our seriousness. In other words, why should she agree to do an interview with us, spend her time doing an interview, when in fact we didn’t have the wherewithal to do a documentary? And in fact it turned out to be a good strategy, because we interviewed her kind of at the end of the process, which meant we had already put together a pretty full rough cut, and we knew the areas where we needed to bore down on the interview. She’s given interviews before, plus we had been following her around, so we had lots of her talking about some aspects of her life. We didn’t need her to talk about what it was like being at Harvard in the 1950s, she’s talked about that before. We did need her to talk about her mother, and there were other things we wanted to talk about. So in fact, the whole strategy of waiting to the end to talk to her worked out.

Betsy West and Julie Cohen, directors and producers of RBG, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo credit: Myles Pettengill. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

JLA: I really liked the footage you got of her looking at the old footage and watching [Kate McKinnon portray her on] Saturday Night Live.

West: We did that when we did the interview with her. We said we have some clips we’d like to show you, we didn’t tell her what they were. Obviously she was moved by the home movies. Whenever she talks about her husband or anything to do with Marty, it doesn’t make her sad, it makes her happy. That’s what’s so amazing, she loves to talk about Marty, she loved to look at pictures of him. But we had no idea, the SNL thing, what her reaction would be when we pushed the play button.

JLA: For someone whose husband was described the funny one, she’s damn funny herself.

West: I think she is very funny, she’s got this sly wit, she’s very smart, she loves to laugh, she loves humor. I think that after Marty died, a number of people have commented that she’s become a little more humorous. When she was with Marty, there was no need to create any of the humor. He could be the life of the party. But now that he’s gone, people say she’s loosened up a bit.

JLA: Justice Ginsburg’s an online phenomenon now. Did you think of putting the documentary online or doing any sort of digital release of it?

West: I think that a theatrical documentary has a power of community, and the festival circuit where you get reviews and you get that kind of attention, if you can do it, is a wonderful way to launch a project. I mean, there’s been so much social media outgrowth from the documentary. Every documentary that comes out does a website, does a Twitter, does Instagram and Facebook, and certainly we did all of that in conjunction with the documentary, but I think there is something still in our world of digital communication, the power of community, the power of people coming together and going to a movie theater, experiencing a film, talking about it with each other afterward, it’s wonderful. And as a filmmaker, for both me and Julie, it was very rewarding to go to screenings and then have reactions from people of all generations. Older women would come out crying because they know what she was up against, and the millennial women just get such inspiration from her. And little girls dressed up like RBG with their hair pulled back and glasses and collars. That’s extraordinary, and you get a real feel for that when you go to the movie theater, when you join that community. So that for us was very rewarding.

JLA: It’s a particularly poignant time for it to be coming out right now, especially with developments at CBS and regarding the #MeToo movement. [CBS executives Les Moonves and Jeff Fager each recently resigned their positions amid multiple allegations of sexually abusive and threatening behavior; West is a former Senior Vice President of News Programming at CBS.]

West: I think the project overall has been really rewarding to have the opportunity to do a film about Justice Ginsburg. The film opened on 57th Street right down the street from CBS, on May 4th, so that was gratifying. I sort of don’t look back about it. I feel that my experiences at ABC News, where I was for many years, and then at CBS have all kind of prepared me to have a different career now, and doing this film was extremely rewarding in and of itself.

JLA: Lilly Ledbetter is featured in the film, and obviously there’s still pay discrepancy in Hollywood. You get the sense from watching RBG that her work isn’t finished. Especially in your industry.

West: Many industries. Obviously the media gets very high profile because of what it is, but I think it’s not confined to the media. And I think that those of us who benefited from the women’s movement, who benefited from an opening up of opportunities in the 1970s, expected things to go more quickly. And I think that #MeToo and Time’s Up are a realization that while there have been tremendous gains, and we can thank Justice Ginsburg and other people for that, there’s a long way to go. And the harassment, violence, dismissiveness…it’s not about sexual harassment, it’s just about being minimalized as a woman and not recognized. All of these things are something that we see, it’s a long road. Things didn’t change overnight.

JLA: You started your career in the ’70s, when Justice Ginsburg was arguing her cases. I remember reading Frontiero v. Richardson in constitutional law as a 1L, reading the concurring opinion of Justice Powell saying, “Let’s see what happens with the ERA.” Why do you think the movement stalled out for 40 years?

West: History is a pendulum. And I think that there was a backlash in the 1980s, and I think that really was the beginning of culture wars, really when the ERA was portrayed as dangerous to the family, and opposition to Roe v. Wade. Both those things contributed to a backlash against the women’s movement that was very strong in the 1980s. I’m really happy that I’ve lived to see, and I think it’s not just been with RBG but kind of in the past six, seven, eight years, where women are no longer reluctant to call themselves feminist. Beyonce did this big concert where she put feminist up in neon. It used to be that feminists were demonized and didn’t have a sense of humor. It was like, “Come on, you’ve got your rights, what more do you want?” It’s been a centuries-long battle for women to be treated with fairness, with dignity, with respect. It still goes on. It’s gratifying to see that now at least we’re talking about these things, whereas before it was just, “Shut up, you annoying, boring feminist women.”

JLA: I saw RBG at the Landmark 57 the other day. In a place like New York, where RBG is from, where you have the epicenter of the movements, it’s resonating a lot. But it’s easy living in New York to forget there are large swaths of the country where all the movements that we’ve seen, perhaps, are falling upon deaf ears. What efforts have you made to get the RBG documentary out in these areas of the country?

West: It opened in cities all around the country, which made me really happy. In Florida, in some red states, it was over 400 theaters. So that was gratifying. I think that certainly Justice Ginsburg has her critics on the right, she has critics on the far right who want to just demonize her. But it’s very interesting that conservatives, though they may dislike her dissents, are happy now that they are dissents, that they’re not opinions. That’s number one, and number two, I think there is a respect for what she did in the ‘70s. If you think about it, when RBG suggested in the ‘70s, started saying to the justices that these laws discriminate against women, they’re not helping women. It’s not helping women to not be able to serve on juries. It’s not helping women that their husbands have to be consulted if they wanna have financial independence. None of these things is helping women, women are treated as second class citizens and that should change. That was a very radical idea in 1970. And now, even among conservatives, the idea that men and women should be treated equally under our Constitution is not a radical idea. And she’s responsible for that. When we talked to Professor Helen Alvare, who’s a big critic of her, criticized what she said about Trump, also disagrees with her on the area of reproductive rights, although that’s not really RBG’s focus as a lawyer, but she’s a strong proponent of reproductive rights. Even Helen Alvare says I so admire what she did in the ‘70s. She was brave, she was courageous. Orrin Hatch too!

JLA: That was powerful, to show him at her confirmation hearing [in 1993].

West: And now! He doesn’t back off from it now. He says look, she’s brilliant, and then when asked about the Trump comment, he said look, she made a mistake. She apologized for it, let’s move on. Julie and I were surprised to see that there weren’t a lot of people raising their hands to say negative things about RBG. And we’ve certainly heard from people who have said I’m a Republican but I really respect her.

Photo of the Supreme Court justice, c. 1993 in RBG, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

JLA: One of the artistic parts of the movie that struck me was when you have the scenes of the empty Supreme Court with her words on the screen. What went into developing those scenes?

West: We’re so lucky that the Supreme Court has been recording the audio of all its arguments and decisions since the ‘60s. So there we are, able to hear the voice, for the first time, of the young Ruth Bader Ginsburg making her first argument. And when we were putting the film together, we laid in the audio tracks. It’s so powerful, even without any graphics. And we decided to do very simple graphics to get into the Supreme Court, to just film the place where this happened. You can’t film it in action, but we did get access for half an hour to film in there with a Steadicam. And then we thought the thing that is so important about Justice Ginsburg and RBG as a lawyer is the power of her writing, the words. They’re so simple, they’re so direct, and let’s present them. Let’s just highlight the words.

JLA: On the Basis of Sex [a film in which Felicity Jones plays a young RBG] is due out in December. Such interesting timing! Was there any communication there?

West: They’ve been working on it longer than we’ve been working on RBG. It’s written by Justice Ginsburg’s nephew, the screenplay. We thought that we might be happening at the same time, we thought maybe we’d film on the set, but it just got delayed. One of our distributors, Participant Media, are the backers of On the Basis of Sex. They saw that these two films could complement each other, that they weren’t in conflict. And On the Basis of Sex is about her early, very early career, one of her early cases that we did not highlight. It’s not a case she argued before the Supreme Court, it’s a case involving something she worked on that didn’t get to the Supreme Court. A man was taking care of his elderly mother, he wanted a social security benefit for the cost of hiring care for her, and he couldn’t get it because he was a man taking care of his mother. Had he been a woman taking care of his mother, he would’ve been able to. And Marty brought the case to Ruth’s attention, and they worked on it together.

JLA: I really appreciate that you put a lot of focus on Marty because his role in their relationship seemed very revolutionary at the time. For him to be the one cooking dinner…you see, nowadays I feel like that’s become far more accepted. Was there a conscious decision of how much to focus on it?

West: It was something we discussed in the structure of the film. We knew the marriage was important to her, how she said the marriage was the most important thing that happened to her in her life. We knew we’d be focusing on it. When her biographers gave us the home movies, that was a great moment, because we realized we would really be able to illustrate this romance. Look at these two young people, so obviously in love, so good looking.

JLA: And so accomplished!

West: It was a balancing act. He played a huge role in her life, but on the other hand these are her accomplishments. We didn’t want it to seem like Marty was responsible for all this. Marty is responsible for recognizing that he had a brilliant wife and making it possible for his brilliant wife to do the work that she did. And he was really accomplished.

JLA: We’re the Journal of Law and Arts, so I have to ask if you ran into any problems clearing any footage.

West: We had an archive person, we had extensive clearances. A lot of the footage we paid for. Some of it we fair used, depending on what the lawyers told us. It’s always a big issue, and we paid a huge amount of money for one song, for Janis Joplin singing “Summertime.” That was an expensive piece of music, but we thought it was so effective to show women rising up. And we kept cutting in other songs. Can we use this, can’t we use that. In some cases, we did have to pay, and in others, we made fair use arguments.

JLA: It’s fascinating how arts-focused [RBG’s] family is. Both her children and her nephew.

West: Absolutely! They love music, they love opera. You see the way she is about it, and when she watched the film at Sundance for the first time, the first time she pulled out a handkerchief to wipe her eyes was in the section where she’s talking about the meaning of music to her.