Making of ‘On the Basis of Sex’: How Felicity Jones Brought “Punk Icon” Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Life
A look into how Felicity Jones and her director, Mimi Leder, raise the bar on Supreme Court movies with Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic 'On the Basis of Sex.'
On a Sunday morning just before Thanksgiving in 2017, the filmmakers behind On the Basis of Sex got a visit from the Secret Service. They were setting up cameras on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., preparing for a three-second shot of a certain 85-year-old justice who had agreed to appear in the film for a cameo. But before Ruth Bader Ginsburg arrived, the men in suits and sunglasses swooped in. “It was crazy,” recalls cinematographer Michael Grady. “Everything got searched, every truck went through these massive sniffing machines. It was pretty nerve-wracking because we had limited time. She was only going to walk up and down those steps a few times.”
Movies about Supremes aren’t anything new — Jill Clayburgh portrayed a fictional first female justice in 1981’s First Monday in October, Andy Garcia put on robes for 1999’s Roe v. Wade drama Swing Vote — but movies about justices who already have their own action figures are a bit rarer. More than any of her peers, Ginsburg has achieved near rock-star status in the pop culture, complete with her own Biggie Smalls-inspired nickname (The Notorious RBG). Her likeness is on dolls, sweatshirts, tote bags, even votive candles. Earlier this year, Magnolia’s documentary about Ginsburg, RBG, was a box office breakout, grossing $14 million in limited release. And now this, her own biopic, with Felicity Jones starring as a young, crusading Ginsburg against gender discrimination during the 1950s and 1960s.
“There are two things you think before you start any project,” says veteran producer Robert Cort, who counts On the Basis of Sex as his 57th feature (earlier ones include Cocktail, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Jumanji, and The Associate). “Does the story speak to you? Will it have an audience?”
Clearly, RBG does have an audience: On the Basis of Sex‘s Christmas Day box office returns amounted to an impressive $14,146 per-theater average. Whether that will translate into the ultimate acquittal — an Oscar nomination — is still under deliberation.
The idea for the film popped into Daniel Stiepleman’s head during a funeral in 2010. Ginsburg’s now-37-year-old nephew was listening to a eulogy for his uncle, Manhattan tax attorney Martin Ginsburg, Ruth’s husband of 56 years when the aspiring writer started to mentally trace out the beginnings of a screenplay. “What kind of asshole am I?” Stiepleman wonders. “I’m sitting at my uncle’s funeral, mining his life for material.”
About a year later, Stiepleman pitched the idea of a movie to his aunt. “There was a long pause,” he recalls, “and then she says, ‘Well, if that’s how you would like to spend your time. …’ ” With Ginsburg on board, Stiepleman started researching, traveling from his home in New York to Washington, spending his days diving into Ginsburg’s college lectures, personal letters and legal briefs, and his nights interviewing his aunt about her marriage and early career over dinner.
Within a couple of months, he’d cobbled together a first draft, which tracked Marty and Ruth’s marriage, from Harvard Law School during the 1950s to their life in New York during the 1960s and 1970s, culminating in a pivotal 1972 10th Circuit Court of Appeals sex discrimination suit — the only case the married couple would ever argue together — that became a blueprint for her legal career. Stiepleman sent the script to Ginsburg and followed up a little later by phone, hoping to get her notes. “Oh, Daniel,” she said when he called, “I am in the middle of reading the Affordable Care Act. Let me call you back.”
Stiepleman had less trouble getting Cort’s attention. “I loved the title,” he recalls of receiving the script in 2012. “I didn’t know what I was getting, but I figured it sounded like it would be entertaining.” Cort was intrigued by the female-led story and thought it had awards potential. He sent a copy to Natalie Portman, his first choice to play the lead. “She’s a Harvard-educated woman, the perfect age, Jewish — it was like stunt casting but with a really great actress,” he says.
But even with Portman aboard, finding financing was challenging. Despite the script’s landing on the 2014 Black List, none of the majors was interested, and the wheels of Hollywood, like justice, ground slowly — until 2016, when Participant Media, the company behind Green Book and Roma, got hold of the script and also saw awards potential. With Participant putting up the budget of about $20 million — and distributing through its deal with Focus — the project picked up steam. Mimi Leder, one of the first women accepted into the AFI Conservatory in the early ’70s, was tapped to direct. “We have each broken the glass ceiling in our own way,” the Deep Impact director and exec producer/director of HBO’s The Leftovers says of how her path parallels Ginsburg’s. “On different levels, we both know what it meant to make change.”
But just as it looked like On the Basis of Sex was ready to get made, Portman changed her mind and bolted from the project. “Sometimes when people sign on early and time goes by, ambivalence sets in and, for whatever reason, choices change,” says Cort of Portman’s exit. Around that time, though, Felicity Jones was popping for her Oscar-nominated turn in The Theory of Everything, and the filmmakers couldn’t help but notice that the English actress bore a striking resemblance to a young Ginsburg. They sent Jones the script, then Cort worried that he’d made an oversight. He quickly called Leder and expressed a concern about casting a non-American. “Do you think she knows who Ruth Bader Ginsburg is?” he asked the director.
“I knew she was a punk icon,” says Jones with a laugh. “I loved the story about a woman who didn’t like the way the world was run, so she got angry and decided to change it.” After Jones signed on, Armie Hammer was hired to play Marty (the actor’s 6-foot-5 height was a factor; Marty was more than a foot taller than the 5-foot-1 Ruth). Then the two stars traveled to Washington to visit with Ginsburg in her chambers. “I felt as if I should bow,” Jones recalls of the experience. The justice invited the actors to her apartment at the Watergate and gave Hammer a copy of Chef Supreme, a cookbook of the recipes often made by her late husband. Hammer, who admired Marty for “being willing to defy the gender norms at the time,” cooked a family-style meal using Marty’s recipes for the cast and crew in the middle of shooting.
To resemble Ginsburg even more than she already did, Jones wore colored contacts and had her teeth capped. She also trained to speak with Ginsburg’s Brooklyn accent, doing extensive work with a dialect coach. Meanwhile, costume designer Isis Mussenden built separate wardrobes for the film’s two decades — the ’50s (A-line skirts, sweater sets) and the ’70s (trousers, oversize lapels) — handmaking the majority of the pieces required for Jones’ nearly 30 costume changes. “I dug for weeks,” says Mussenden of the difficulty in finding a women’s suit that would be Jones’ penultimate outfit. “I would show options to Mimi, and she would go, ‘Oh my God, that is so ugly!’ “
One of the biggest acting challenges was Ginsburg’s final argument in front of the 10th Circuit that won the case, Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, and marked the justice’s first oral argument in court. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Historical Society did not have recordings (or even transcripts) of Ginsburg’s summation, so Stiepleman pieced together the speech from the textbook and lecture notes that Ginsburg wrote while teaching law at Rutgers Law School. In the script, the speech ran about six pages, which Jones recorded and listened to over and over again during long walks around Montreal (which stood in for New York during much of the 34-day shoot) until she had memorized every word.
Leder and the producers had blocked off three days to film the climactic courtroom sequence, which they shot in an abandoned nunnery (“It already had pews!” notes Leder). Early on that first day, Jones approached the director and suggested that she deliver the speech, in its entirety, in one long master shot, with no cuts. Six minutes and 30 seconds later, she had completed the speech without missing a word. “The crew was quiet and then broke into applause,” says Cort. Over the next three days, the actress would recite the speech in full dozens of times as Leder grabbed coverage and reaction shots from all the other performers. In the final cut, the speech runs five minutes and 56 seconds — just a little bit shy of Alec Baldwin’s famously long David Mamet-penned monologue in 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross.
Ginsburg has had a long career of handing down judgment, so when she attended an early screening of On the Basis of Sex, the filmmakers were anxious to hear her ruling. The first few minutes were not encouraging. “Even before the credits started, she stood up and stormed out of the theater,” remembers Stiepleman. As the filmmakers fretted about the justice’s reaction in hushed tones, the writer gingerly approached Ginsburg’s daughter, his cousin Jane, to ask if everything was all right. “Jane goes, ‘Yeah, she just had to go to the bathroom.’ “
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.