One Step at a Time: Betsy West and Julie Cohen on “RBG”

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April 30, 2018
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Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s new documentary, “RBG,” is a bonafide crowd pleaser honoring the trailblazing legacy of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, it is impossible not to admire the intellect and persistence of this extraordinary woman, who at age 85 has no desire to retire anytime soon. She has been demolishing stereotypical gender roles throughout her life, finishing law school while taking care of her family, as her husband, Martin, successfully battled cancer. Her career came first, and Martin wouldn’t let her in the kitchen (they both agreed he was the better cook). 

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Ginsburg’s genius at illuminating inarguable truths can be witnessed in various historic cases, such as 1975’s Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, where she utilized the persecution of her male client to illustrate the depths of gender discrimination. Perhaps most impressive of all, Ginsburg has achieved what modern Americans would consider impossible: she has remained true to her convictions while somehow managing to forge enduring friendships across the aisle. When dealing with men who had deluded themselves into believing women were inferior to them, Ginsburg maintained the composure and patience of a “kindergarten teacher,” shaming their prejudice with her mere existence.

Prior to making its Chicago premiere at this year’s DOC10 Film Festival, Cohen and West spoke with RogerEbert.com about their views regarding the importance of the Supreme Court, the discoveries they made while making the movie and the lesson that could be learned by studying Justice Ginsburg’s temperament. 

What role did the popularity of the “Notorious RBG” meme among young people play in your framing of Ginsburg’s life story?

Julie Cohen (JC): Betsy and I each knew Justice Ginsburg’s story from earlier work that we had made, and we were both aware that her story was not widely known. It was the boost of attention that she was getting as the “Notorious RBG” that prompted us to realize that she has these young fans and has become a huge star, which is quirky and interesting in itself. But behind all of that is this amazing story that people don’t know. All we needed to do was get in there to tell the story and we’d have a great film.

Betsy West (BW): It was certainly important to us that we reflected her persona as the “Notorious RBG” and also that we got access to filming her in the gym. Her work out regiment is part of the legend. She had talked about it and other people had reported on it but we hadn’t actually seen it. So for a while, we were thinking, “Well, gee, is this true? Does this 84-year-old woman really do push-ups and planks?” When we were able to get in there and show that she actually does that, we knew that the footage had to be close to the top of the film. It does inform the spirit of the picture.

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Your approach to allowing Ginsburg’s words to literally fill the courtroom was particularly effective.

JC: From pretty early on in the process, we decided that we were not going to shy away from using that great audio of her arguing cases in the 1970s, even though it puts us, as filmmakers, in the dangerous situation of portraying scenes that exist only as audio. Just because there weren’t images for us to use of Ginsburg delivering these speeches wasn’t going to stop us from including her words, because they are strong and powerful. Even when we played the audio over a black screen during pitch reels, it was so powerful just listening to her. 

The question then became, “What do we then do to accent it?” We considered doing things that were a little bit more complicated, but eventually we decided that simply having the words on the screen would be the best approach. A group of fantastic graphics guys in Paris created something out of that, and it worked. It’s not the kind of audio that you need to subtitle. Her voice comes through quite clearly, and you can hear what she’s saying even if we didn’t have the words. But rather than distract viewers with other images, allowing the audience to simultaneously see and hear her words seemed to double their impact.

This film will likely challenge the perspectives of viewers who feel cynical about the Supreme Court, and disagree with the law allowing justices to remain on the Court indefinitely.

BW: The Court plays a very important role in our country, and that role is occasionally overlooked because so much time is spent on partisan fights in Congress or in the Executive Branch. The Supreme Court is there to enforce the rule of law and to interpret our Constitution. Presidential elections have been won and lost because of the Supreme Court. A single vote in the court can decide which candidate is elected, and the next day, the American people accepts their decision and says, “We are going to move forward.” It’s an extremely influential part of our democracy, and I think you’re right, a lot of people don’t completely understand how important it can be. 

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JC: Truthfully, looking at the philosophy of the founding of the country, life tenure is part of the point of the Supreme Court, and it’s part of how the system works. While other people are subject to the whims of change, judges and Supreme Court justices don’t have to have those same worries. They’re not concerned about either being up for reelection or being kicked out of office when the next party comes in. That’s a good system. It might trouble people if there is someone in power at the time— 

BW: Not naming names! [laughs]

JC: —who might be in a position to appoint a bunch of new people on the Court. I guess you might not feel so good about that. At the same time, our whole system has been deemed the least bad system of government there is. It’s not like there aren’t dangers, but the system is good overall.

BW: Justice Ginsburg faced criticism herself when she refused to step down during the Obama Administration. A Democrat would’ve had the opportunity to nominate her replacement, but Ginsburg said that she didn’t like the idea of politicizing the court to that extent. She believes that she should serve on the Court as long as she is capable of doing so.

Though Ginsburg apologized for speaking out against Trump during the 2016 election, I personally found her actions understandable, considering how the current president’s penchant for breaking the rules has inspired others to break their own.

JC: Certainly, there are people on the Left who would agree with her criticisms and wonder why she can’t just make them. But judges play a different role in our system. I’m siding with her own self-criticism that the best idea would’ve been to just say nothing. She admitted that it probably wasn’t a great idea to speak out and that she should’ve stepped back from it.

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BW: It was important to us that we included that chapter in the film. We could not shy away from what happened. She made these comments, she was criticized for them—including by some of her own supporters—and she apologized.

What could we, as a society, learn from Ginsburg’s temperament, formed by her mother’s advice about not giving in to “useless emotions” like anger?

JC: I think there is a lot to be said for her “one step at a time” philosophy for being strategic, for being determined and for just pushing forward even if the world seems like it’s pushing back against you. That’s what she has done throughout her career, even to this day. It’s a lesson not only for women but for all people.

BW: Her belief instilled by her mother that anger is really a waste of time is a very important lesson. When you face adversity, you have to figure out how you’ll be able to overcome these challenges. As her granddaughter says in the film, “Getting angry, yelling and screaming isn’t going to bring people to your table.” She very much believes in civil discourse.

Speaking of civil discourse, there’s no question an entire documentary could be made about the friendship between Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia.

J: Yes, I agree with you! If Scalia had still been living when we were in the process of filming, I think that could’ve been one possible direction we could’ve taken. However, Ginsburg and Scalia each have such an incredibly full, interesting life that it might be hard to put all that in one movie. Their relationship was so fascinating and so counterintuitive. It’s another aspect of Ginsburg’s life that we knew about going into the project, but we weren’t certain about how genuine it actually was. Now having watched so much footage of the two of them together over the years and heard her speaking about him and his son speaking about her, there’s no question that what they had was a real, lifelong friendship going back to when they were both on the Court of Appeals. It was the real deal and another thing for us to aspire to, that kind of friendship across party lines.

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When Ginsburg was among the 2% of Harvard law school students who were female, she said that she “felt she was letting down all women” if she didn’t personally do well. Have you felt similarly unfair expectations as female directors? 

BW: I relate to her words when I think of my earlier career as a news producer. Oftentimes I would be the only woman on the team among all the correspondents, editors and camerapeople. I did feel a lot of pressure to perform well because I didn’t want to have people say, “Oh that stupid girl, she doesn’t know what she’s doing.” Julie and I made a deliberate effort to hire mostly women to work on this film—we had a female cinematographer, a female editor, a female composer—and they’re all tremendously talented. It was a wonderful atmosphere for us to work within, while bringing together a whole group of women to do something really worthwhile. We had a lot of fun doing it, and we didn’t feel any pressure that if the film failed, it was going to look bad for women. We were having a great time telling a wonderful story about an amazing woman.

JC: It’s not a coincidence that the place in the industry where women are represented and granted the opportunity to play top creative roles is the low-budget, low-paying world of documentaries. It’s only when big money is involved and budgets start to number in the tens of millions that people suddenly don’t want to bring women into their project. In some ways, Betsy and I being in this position is great, and in other ways, it shows part of the problem. Yeah, women can direct documentaries and low-budget indie films, but nobody wants them to do the next superhero movie, although that’s starting to change too.

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