When the lights dimmed at the Sundance Film Festival for the premiere of RBG, all eyes were riveted on the screen. All eyes, that is, except for those of directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen, who were focused on the Supreme Court justice herself, sitting just across the aisle.
“It’s a sign of what a focused person she is that she didn’t seem to be aware that we were only about five feet away from her, staring,” Cohen says.
RBG follows Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s rise from Harvard Law student to sitting Supreme Court justice and her career-long dedication to fighting sex discrimination. It follows Justice Ginsburg to places where one might not expect to find her, from the weight room to front row at the opera.
Despite the intrusion of the cameras, Ginsburg never batted an eye. “There we are, crouched in the corner of this rather small gym,” West recalls. “There are two cameras, operators, sound person, and she walked in and didn’t look at us. She just looked at her trainer and said, ‘OK, Bryant, let’s go.'”
Rather than start at Ginsburg’s roots, the Oscar contender examines Ginsburg in the 21st century, including her recent “meme-fication” after receiving heightened attention from millennials due to a few scathing dissents. “We really wanted to have Justice Ginsburg be a big presence in the film — her activities today, her work today, and then find ways to go back and forth in time,” Cohen says.
Footage of her testimony during her Supreme Court confirmation hearings and home videos of her family helped bring her past into present conversations.
“That’s the really fun part to me about making a documentary,” West adds. “Trying to make the story flow. Trying to find those transitions, and they don’t always come easily.”
The doc also reveals a new side to Ginsburg’s personality, largely through West’s and Cohen’s willingness to take risks during interviews. In one of West’s favorite scenes, Ginsburg equates her early career to that of a kindergarten teacher.
“It was very funny and very revealing about how she faced this huge hurdle of explaining to the justices that discrimination against women did actually exist,” West recalls of the exchange. “She realized that losing her temper wasn’t going to help.”
The duo spent 14 months filming, advancing from public-speaking engagements to one-on-one interviews and alone time with Justice Ginsburg that give audiences a taste of her vivacious personality underneath the reserve.
“We knew what we wanted to ask her about,” says West. “I felt when we sat down, she came to talk. She came to answer whatever question we had.”
This story first appeared in a February stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.