• Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in 'RBG'. (Magnolia Pictures)Source: Magnolia Pictures
Filmmaker Julie Cohen talks to SBS about the timeliness and importance of her documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Sarah Ward

26 Jul 2018 - 3:39 PM  UPDATED 26 Jul 2018 - 3:39 PM

It’d be easy to say that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is presently having a ‘moment’ however that’s not completely accurate. The US Supreme Court Justice has been having a moment for decades, working tirelessly to secure gender equality as a legally recognised right supported by the US court system. Long before she sat on the court’s bench, she brought cases before it throughout the 1970s, and then sat on the US Court of Appeals during the 1980s. In 1993 under President Bill Clinton, Ginsburg was elevated to the highest tier of America’s judiciary.

A quarter of a century later, the now 85-year-old Ginsburg is seen as the nation’s leading source of judicial dissent. It’s a position that’s becoming more frequent given the Supreme Court’s current conservative majority — one that will only become more entrenched with the recent nomination of Brett Kavanaugh as the bench’s next appointment — and it’s earned the quiet but determined judge a growing and devoted following. At a time when America appears more divided than ever, Ginsburg is the calm and considered yet passionate and crusading voice that US progressives want to hear. She’s a strong woman in a position of power that isn’t afraid to speak the truth or to fight for what’s right, and she has become a hero to the generations following in her footsteps.

Thanks to sketches on Saturday Night Live, the Notorious RBG meme, merchandise plastering her face on everything from t-shirts to tote bags to onesies for babies, and even tattoos, Ginsburg’s fans have immortalised the Supreme Court Justice not only in judicial history, but in popular culture as well. It makes Ginsburg the ideal subject for a documentary about her career, achievements and far-reaching impact, a task that filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West were eager to take up in RBG.

“People are more interested than ever in the idea of someone dissenting and speaking truth to power,” explains Cohen about Ginsburg’s almost cult following, which couldn’t be more potent in today’s #MeToo climate.

As RBG is released in Australian cinemas after proving an enormous success at the US box office, Cohen talked to us about the joys, challenges and importance of making a documentary about America’s most famous Supreme Court Justice…

One of the first things that viewers see in RBG is Ruth Bader Ginsburg working out with a sweater that says ‘super diva!’ It’s an image you return to during the film, and it’s one that viewers mightn’t expect in a documentary about an 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice. How did that come about?

Justice Ginsburg, in the United States, has gotten quite a reputation for her exercise routine. It had been getting quite a bit of attention over the time we were working on our film — a whole book had come out written by her personal trainer, Bryant Johnson, talking about her exercising, and it had been noted all over the place that she could do 25 push-ups and that she planked and all that.

We had it in our minds that we would love to film this for our documentary. We had no idea whether she was going to allow us to or not, and it wasn't until the very end of the process where we got up the nerve to ask her if we might be able to bring cameras into the gym where she was doing the workouts. 

She paused a moment, and then she said, "Yes, I think that would be possible." And so, sure enough, there we were trooping into the gym at the apartment complex where she lives, with our camera crew. We actually met up with her personal trainer first, and then she walked into the room when we were ready to film and she was wearing the sweatshirt that said ‘super diva — exclamation point’.

Obviously she understood that we were going to be there filming, so she chose that as the wardrobe item to appear in the film. We asked about it later, and she explained to us that that was given to her by the Washington National Opera. As we explain in the film, the Justice is a huge opera fan and aficionado herself, and about two years ago the Washington National Opera gave her the opportunity to do an on-stage speaking role playing the Duchess of Crakenthorp in the Donizetti opera The Daughter of the Regiment. At the end of that engagement, as a thank you gift for her brave job in that role, they gave her the ‘super diva!’ sweatshirt.

The Justice has always said that if she could have had any career in life, it would've been to be a diva — an opera singer, a great soprano — but her singing voice is quite terrible, apparently. She never sang for us. She does say that she sings in the shower, but she would not sing for us. And so, while a lot of people think she has gotten about as far to the top as you can go, in her mind what she wishes she could be is a diva.

There’s another memorable image that the documentary gives viewers - Ginsburg watching Kate McKinnon’s impression of her on Saturday Night Live for the first time. What was her original response to the idea?

That was in fact not an idea that we presented to her in advance. That was a little bit of a surprise twist. We had told the Justice and her staff that, after we interviewed her, we wanted to show her videotape of some clips from the film. And we showed her a number of things. We showed her some home movie footage of herself and her beloved late husband Marty, and we also showed her an interview segment including her granddaughter.

Fortunately, we feel, for us, when we proposed this idea of ‘oh we'd like to show her some footage and film her reaction', we were kind of relieved that nobody in her office asked what exactly would we be showing her — because if we had told her that we wanted to show her Saturday Night Live skits about herself, I'm not sure we would've gotten permission. But they didn't ask, and we didn't volunteer the information. 

The day of the interview came, we did our interview and then we started showing her some clips. And we were about out of time actually when we finally switched to that clip. And we weren't sure what the reaction was going to be. The whole court — we were surrounded by a number of staff people and public relations people, and when they saw what it was, I think there was a little bit of moment of stunned silence.

And everybody just looked at this screen like “Okay, this is what they're showing the Justice”. Then she looked, and she said — in the film, she says, “Oh, is this the Saturday Night Live skit?” And we said “Yes”. And she said, “Oh, who is this actress playing me?” And we told her: Kate McKinnon.

It was clear from the way she asked that she was appreciating her performance. And then she just started to crack up. You know, the justice has a reputation of being a serious and sober person — and a reserved person — and she is those things. But she has a great sense of humour, and when she finds something funny, she really lets loose. I mean she just laughs with a real sense of high joy and enthusiasm, and luckily for us that was her reaction to seeing Saturday Night Live.

You filmed RBG prior to #MeToo — but how do you think the movement has influenced the response to the film, particularly the considerable box office result in the US?

[Since SBS spoke with Cohen, the film has surpassed $13.1 million at the US box office since its release in early May.]

That's a very good question. Truthfully, a lot of the feeling of extreme relevance of our subject matter is just completely coincidental. You know, we started working on this three and a half years ago.

We became aware when we premiered at Sundance this past January that we are releasing the film into a very different environment to the one we started it in, and that it was an environment in which people are more interested than ever in women's rights, in the idea of a tough woman standing up for her own rights and the rights of other women, and also of the idea of someone dissenting and speaking truth to power.

We don't get gender breakdowns on who's watching, but anecdotally we know that there's a heavily female audience and they seem to be reacting quite emotionally to the power of Justice Ginsburg.

The Saturday Night Live clips speak to Ginsburg’s status throughout popular culture — she has become more than a Supreme Court Justice, as the Notorious RBG meme also makes plain. How did that inspire the film?

It was almost like that opened a door for us to tell this more serious and important story. Betsy West and I — my directing partner in this project — really wanted to tell this important women's rights story and wanted to tell it as a theatrical documentary. I'm not sure that would have been possible for us if we didn't have the good fortune of our subject Justice Ginsburg becoming a very unexpected rock star among particularly young women on the left in America. 

It's a little bit hard to explain how the phenomenon evolved because it's not only that she's an 85-year-old intellectual, but she's also actually this quiet person, so not the kind of person you would expect that young women would be all wearing t-shirt with her face on them or even — as we show in the film — getting her face tattooed on her arms. I guess we're slightly concerned that as a result of our film that there will probably be more RBG tattoos.

As we mention in the film, she actually does not like the tattoos. She feels like it's too permanent and she doesn't understand why someone would want to have her face tattooed on their body. But it is happening, and the appreciation for her in that sense is growing. And I think there's a humour and irony to the emergence of her as a pop culture icon. People get that it's kind of funny to make an 85-year-old woman judge who is also a grandmother, to make her into a rock star.

But there's also something more serious behind it – her decades of achievement in securing equal rights for women under the law. And in more recent years, she has become quite well known for writing dissents —the opinions that disagree with the court's conservative majority ruling. She'll write the dissent in fairly plain-speaking, non-lawyer language that has a real appeal for young liberals in America.

Was there a side of Ginsburg that you wanted to convey to the audience — something that they mightn’t have already known?

We had two goals. One thing was to convey the historical sweep of her career, and everything that she has achieved for women's rights in the US. And the other part was to bring out more of the human side of the Justice. I mean, the Supreme Court in the US is such an honoured institution, but also an institution that is not well known or understood. There aren't cameras in their proceedings, and I would say that it's the most mysterious of the three branches of government — the judiciary in general and the Supreme Court in particular.

So the idea of really feeling like you're getting to know a Supreme Court Justice, and particularly Justice Ginsburg who has become the subject of so much fascination among Americans over the past four or five years, just seemed like a fun thing to do — to get people to see her at home with her granddaughter, or to see her watching an opera or performing in an opera, or even working out in the gym. We just wanted people to feel like they were getting a little bit of a sense of the human being behind what has become something of an iconic figure who is really, greatly respected and admired and even sort of worshipped by some of the liberals in America. And on the reverse, just not worshipped at all, and disliked and disrespected by some of the far-right in the US.

How did you get Ginsburg involved?

Both Betsy and I had interviewed Justice Ginsburg for two separate prior projects several years before that. We took note of her rising stardom and thought “oh wow, this woman would make a fantastic character to build a whole documentary about”. We sent her an email raising the idea. Fortunately, we had the access to at least do that because we had interviewed her in the past, so she did know who we were.

But her answer at the time was basically “not yet”. Which was disappointing at the time — I mean, she was actually 82 years old when she sent us that response, and we weren't sure whether she was going to continue working for years ahead. But we realised that “not yet” is different from “no”, so we just sort of kept at it and kept trying and persisting.

We basically, a few months later, got her permission to start working on a project even though she wasn't participating in it yet — to start interviewing people who had known her throughout the various phases of her idea, going back to a friend from law school in the '50s, and through her career in the '70s, and her federal judgeship in the '80s. We started doing a lot of interviews that didn't have to take up her time and energy. Then when she saw us moving forward and saw that we were serious, she started giving us access to film some public events that she was speaking at, and gradually she agreed to let us do more and more, and that she would give us a sit-down interview in summer of 2017, which she did.

It was then towards the very end of the project that she started giving us the access to the more personal elements of the story. To go into her home, to go with her family on vacation, to go into the gym — all that stuff came at the very end.

Much of the film focuses on specific cases from the 1970s onwards… how did you choose which cases to focus on?

We wanted to focus on the cases that had made it all the way to the Supreme Court and that she herself had done the oral argument. There were actually some very important cases that she wrote the briefs on, but then she didn't argue in the court — but because the court has this amazing archival audio where you really get a sense of her and you hear her voice, and it's so powerful, we chose to just narrow it down only to those cases. And also where there was a plaintiff who was both a great character and was still living today so that we could make their story part of the overall story.


RBG is in cinemas now.