Ruth Bader Ginsburg is famous for more than being the second woman to join the Supreme Court and building a foundational “legal landscape” for gender equality. In recent years, the 85-year-old justice has been transformed into a pop culture icon: Notorious RBG. (“We have a lot in common,” she’s said of the reference to rapper Notorious B.I.G. “We were both born and bred in Brooklyn.”) There’s little doubt you’ve been able to escape the rise of Notorious RBG tote bags, blogs, diehard fans, Halloween costumes, and memes.
And Ginsburg doesn’t seem to mind. Pop culture fame—and her embrace of it—is front and center in RBG, a new documentary about her life and career. But directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West say that for all her popularity, many people actually know surprisingly little about her legacy as a lawyer and a justice on the Supreme Court. “I think it’s actually not a coincidence, especially when you’re going back into history a few decades,” Cohen tells Mother Jones. “Women’s stories, we’re all coming to the realization now, just haven’t been recognized the way that they should be.”
Mother Jones recently spoke with the directors of the film, which premieres across the country Friday, about what it was like to spend time with the legend, what her legacy means to the #MeToo movement, and the things that didn’t make it into the film—including a confession of love from one very prominent conservative.
Mother Jones: You first conceived of this film around 2015. What inspired it?
Julie Cohen: Betsy and I had each interviewed Justice Ginsburg for other projects—Betsy in 2011, me in 2013. It was over the next couple years that she was suddenly emerging as this big rockstar figure. It was like a documentary waiting to be made—the story was there and not a secret. People who are familiar with the story know this, but just the general public [didn’t know as much]. That’s the reaction we’re getting from pre-screenings, which are all these festival screenings, and people that are into politics, and they are all like, “Wow! I never knew any of this.”
MJ: Once you had the idea and you reached out to her, was she immediately open to it? What was that process like?
Betsy West: Last night I was at a screening, and there were a bunch of women lawyers there like, “I was in law school in the 1970s. I had no idea this was going on.” I think that’s what I felt. I had no idea that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was arguing these cases and having such a tremendous role in changing our society and making things more fair for women. I didn’t know. And the past few years, we were seeing a great opportunity because of her outsize internet persona. You take that, and unpeel it, and then tell people this real story.
BW: Well, the process started with us writing a very carefully crafted letter. Justice Ginsburg is known as a writing, grammar, and spelling stickler of the highest order. So, we labored over a letter, which we sent off to her. Pretty quickly we got a response, which, in effect, said, “Not yet.” This is 2015, she was 82 years old. You could say, “If not now, when?” Then we also thought, “Not yet is not no.”
Then we started to consult with some of her colleagues, former colleagues, and friends. We crafted a new approach several months later. We made a list of all the people we were going to interview—we’d done quite a bit of research to know who were key figures in her life. We sent that off and got a quick response basically saying, “Well, I wouldn’t be ready to give you an interview for two years.” Which seemed like a long way away. But she wrote: “If you’re going to be talking to people, perhaps you’ll want to talk to…” and then she listed three people, and also mentioned the names of her official biographers who’d been working for seven years on a book. Then we thought, “Okay. She’s in. Let’s go ahead.”
MJ: So it was a gradual process.
JC: It was. We joke that we were sort of following her step-by-step approach [to social change]. You’ve got to play the long game. We tried to just move forward and show her we were serious. We did interview her former colleagues and plaintiffs in the cases that she had argued early in her career, before it was even clear what access we were getting, just to show that we were taking this seriously. We wanted to make it clear it’s not like we’re going to do an hour and a half of, “Oh! She’s a big celebrity. Isn’t that cool?” We were going to tell that fun story, but we’re really going to use it to educate people about her history and about the struggle for women’s equal rights under the law.
MJ: Once you did get access and sat down with her, how much time would you say you spent with her?
BW: 20 hours?
JC: But a lot of that is her in front of audiences.
BW: Audiences, and some of it was following her around at the opera and with her family when she was on holiday. In those cases, we were just observing what was going on and, occasionally, we would have some interaction with her. “Hello, Justice Ginsburg!”
JC: “Here we are with our cameras! Here we are!”
BW: To everyone that we asked for an interview, we’d never get an immediate answer, and that was because we knew that they were checking with her. “These young women say that they’re doing a documentary about you?”
JC: Young women, whatever. [Laughs.]
BW: “These women, they’re doing a doc.” We knew that she was hearing from people that we were talking to them.
JC: She was giving them okays to talk to us. In some cases, we even saw email exchanges like, “Should I trust these women to come interview me?” And she would say, “Yes, you can talk to them.”
BW: Then we did sit down with her for an interview in the Supreme Court. And before that, we spent some time with her in her office and at home with her granddaughter, and then in her gym, which was an extraordinary day. We will never forget that.
MJ: Why do you say that?
BW: First of all, we were kind of surprised that she said yes. We’d heard a lot about her routine. She’s talked about it a lot, but nobody had ever really seen it. Could she really do real boy’s pushups and planks and everything else? As soon as we got in, we knew why she said yes, because she’s proud of it.
JC: We had said to our two camera people, because we had two people shooting, “Whatever happens, just keep rolling.” We didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t think we were going to see a full workout routine. We were just completely wrong. She attacked her workout with so much persistence, so much strength, and did more than both of us could do. You might be in slightly better shape than I am.
BW: I will confess I started to workout [after this].
JC: I will note that we are both planking since then.
MJ: So she inspired you.
BW: Both of us. Both planking and lifting weights. [Laughs.]
MJ: On that note, one of the things that comes through in the film is what an insane schedule she has, and has had, for such a long time. Did you get a sense of this as you were filming?
BW: Totally. She is a very busy woman. The court is demanding, and she’s known for doing all her homework, for being one of the most prepared justices. She reads everything, she’s always asking incisive questions—that’s what we’re told by the people who know. She also keeps an active schedule around the country speaking to law schools, organizations, and makes time for music concerts and operas.
JC: She just loves arts and culture so much, and she loves to travel. This is the really busy time at the court. They’re writing the big opinions and dissents, by extension, come down at this time of year, and yet, when they have a week between arguments and an opinion date, she’s actually going down to Argentina to speak at a judicial conference of women judges. “Oh! International [Association of] Women Judges? How am I not giving the keynote there?” So she is. For six days in May, she’s going to Buenos Aires.
BW: We had one instance where we were filming her in Chicago, and we were going to film her two days later in Washington. Unbeknownst to us, she stopped off in Indiana to give another talk.
JC: We couldn’t keep up with her. It was crazy.
BW: It was crazy. And the night owl thing is totally true. When we were at the opera in Santa Fe, she went to four operas in a row, four days in a row. The first night we went to scout, the second night we went to shoot. I skipped the third—nope, she was going to the third. We were talking to the marshals, because sometimes these operas go on and on, they’re so long. The first one went until 11:30. So I said, “Oh, it’s a short opera. It’s over at something like 9:30. Early night for the marshals.” He was like, “Oh, no. Justice Ginsburg said we’re going out to dinner afterwards.”
JC: She just doesn’t want to miss major cultural activities. At Sundance, in a Q&A that she did with Nina Totenberg, Nina asked her, “Name some of your favorite modern movies.” She was like, “This week, I’ve seen …” and she named Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Call Me By Your Name.
She is a serious and intimidating person, though.
BW: She’s very straightforward. “You’re here to film me working in my office. I’m going to be working on this decision.”
JC: There was a gleam-in-her-eye aspect to her. She carries around her own little “I dissent” bag. We were having a photo taken with her for an official photo shoot, and one of the assistants tried to move the bag away, because it was getting in the way. She was like, “No, no, no. That’s my ‘I dissent’ bag!”
BW: She has a great sense of humor. During one of the interviews, we showed her the Saturday Night Live clips of Kate McKinnon’s impersonation of her. We didn’t tell her in advance and we didn’t tell the Supreme Court PR people either.
JC: We just said we were going to show some clips to her.
BW: Then we showed this. It was priceless, just priceless. She’s like, “Oh! Is that Saturday Night Live? That’s that thing I’ve heard about?” And then she just let go, laughing and laughing. The Supreme Court press people, eyes wide. That was a moment.
MJ: What didn’t make it into the film?
JC: Senator Orrin Hatch told Betsy that he finds Justice Ginsburg very cute. I believe he used the word “cute.” [Laughs.]
BW: And he said, “I love her.”
MJ: In the film, it comes across that he is a big fan of Justice Ginsburg!
BW: The interview with him was half an hour long. He started out as an admirer—explaining his role in the Senate Judiciary Committee, meeting her, and how intelligent she was. As the interview went on, he just got more effusive, and then he just stopped at the end and he said, “I love Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” She’s single now!
JC: I think he’s married. [Laughs.]
BW: No, I’m sorry, he is. Even a lot of conservatives actually do admire Justice Ginsburg. It is true.
MJ: That comes through with the friendship with [Antonin] Scalia, too.
BW: Yeah. We really wanted to include that. A lot of people think it can’t be true, that they can’t be friends. But in fact, they were genuine pals, partly because of the humor, partly because they respected each other’s intellect, and they liked sparring, debating. They just admired each other.
MJ: When you were starting to structure the film, how did you decide what decisions or cases to highlight?
BW: I think the narrative was clear to the extent that we were looking at the cases she argued for gender equality. That has been her major contribution. We’re lucky that we have the Oyez audio recordings, because you can hear the young lawyer Ginsburg arguing those cases.
JC: Or they hadn’t made it up to the Supreme Court, although there were important cases in that line of law. We just made a decision to narrow it down. First of all, we were like, “This isn’t going to be everything she’s done in her entire career. We’re going to really try to focus in on the gender equality.”
MJ: One of the things that you mentioned earlier is that we’re in the midst of an RBG moment. The film is well-timed—considering the #MeToo movement and everything that’s been going on in the past year and a half. You didn’t ask her directly about #MeToo in the film, but I’m wondering if you ever spoke to her about it.
JC: It’s the context that we’re releasing our film in, but it’s not the context that we were filming it in.
BW: In some ways, Justice Ginsburg couldn’t even get in the door in the beginning of her career because of harassment, because in the early 1960s, she couldn’t even get a job in a law firm. She has, subsequently, talked about some harassment that she suffered as an undergraduate at Cornell. I think she’s very sympathetic to the movement, and to women talking about experiences that people just took for granted, or thought were the price of entry to the working world.
I think, also, there are some lessons for women who are involved in the #MeToo movement from Justice Ginsburg’s career. Not only how much she had to overcome and how bad things were. A lot of young women don’t really understand that women in the 1960s and ’70s were totally second-class citizens, and there were hundreds of laws that discriminated with the backdrop of, “You’re being protected. These laws are good for you—to not be able to work overtime,” or whatever it is.
She is the person who changed that. That’s a recognition of positive change that was made not so long ago, and then to look at the strategy that she employed. She’s not a yeller, she’s not a screamer. “Never in anger,” she says. That’s what her mother taught her. She picked cases that she knew were going to appeal to the nine male justices. That was her primary focus, and then build one case on the other. She basically, as I understand it, was patterning this on what Thurgood Marshall did for the civil rights movement. Similarly, slowly bringing the justices along, and also, as she says in the film, talk like a kindergarten teacher: “I am teaching them that discrimination exists.”
JC: And I think watching her fight for even some pretty basic gender equality and women’s rights in the ’70s has a very different feeling in the context of #MeToo and Time’s Up, which is actually more closely aligned with the kind of work that she was doing. In this time, when we’re all recognizing the ways in which women aren’t given their due, particularly in the workplace, to see her strongly fighting that fight, and winning, from this vantage point is very moving.
And when she’s speaking back to the justices who were being condescending to her, I can’t listen to that stuff, and hear them laughing and chortling at her making her argument without literally, to myself, flipping the bird at the screen. I have a really emotional reaction to it every time I hear it.
MJ: That is one of the most remarkable things about that audio: You can hear how they respond to her, not just how she argues the case.
BW: The condescension and what they think of as jokes, the sexist remarks that they’re making. Here she is making a serious constitutional argument, and they’re just knocking off a few jokes to amuse themselves. That said, she won those cases.
MJ: Overall, what are you hoping people will take away from this film?
JC: We hope people who admire the justice and have been interested in her recent image will learn more about her. We were trying to create an emotional experience. It’s not that common to come out of a documentary feeling pretty good. We feel like a lot of people, a lot of women, particularly, are going to leave the theaters feeling pretty good.
BW: And maybe they’ll start doing planks.
JC: A new movement!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.