'RBG,' 'Won't You Be My Neighbor?' Producers Talk Importance of Trust, Perseverance

RBG Still - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

The conversation was part of the Producers Guild of America’s Produced By: New York conference on Saturday.

Documentaries RBG, Three Identical Strangers and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? couldn’t be more different in terms of subject matter, but, speaking at the Producers Guild of America's Produced By: New York conference on Saturday, the filmmakers all seemed to agree on the most important prerequisite to making their well-received features: trust.

Three Identical Strangers’ Becky Read and Tim Wardle had to gain it from triplets separated at birth; Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’s Morgan Neville and Caryn Capotosto sought to secure it from Fred Rogers’ wife; and, perhaps the most ambitious, RBG’s Julie Cohen and Betsy West needed to obtain it from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“We had agreed from the start that we didn’t want to do it unless, in the end, [Ginsburg] was going to be a part of it,” producer and director Cohen said of RBG on Saturday.

But when the two initially emailed Ginsburg about being involved with the film, she replied, “Not yet.”

“We know she chooses her words carefully,” Cohen said. “We read that email from her, and two words that were not in it were ‘no’ and ‘never.’ As our documentary colleagues here know, you need a certain amount of either optimism or insanity to get into this job.”

West, also a producer and director on the film, said her and Cohen’s “persistence” is what led to RBG. What went from Ginsburg saying she “wouldn’t be prepared to give an interview for at least two years” eventually turned into the duo not only working with the justice, but even capturing rare personal glimpses of Ginsburg — including her much-talked-about workout routine.

But that part in particular took some work.

Cohen said she and West spent “about a day and a half holed up in a hotel room” strategizing about how to even ask Ginsburg if they could film her with her trainer.

“We learned that the way to get 'yes' from Justice Ginsburg was actually to ask her directly, not to go through the apparatus whose job it is to say, no,” Cohen said. “One after the other, we were asking for things: Can we come to your home? Can we do something with your family? Can we be backstage?”

And when Cohen and West mustered up the courage to ask about the workout, Ginsburg obliged. “We felt very lucky to be able to capture it,” West said.

Three Identical Strangers’ director Wardle described a similar fear, but his seemed to linger throughout the entire filmmaking process.

“When you see this story, you think, ‘Wow, that’s amazing,’ and then the second thing you think is, ‘Why hasn’t anyone told this before?’,” Wardle said. “And we quickly learned that people had tried to tell it before. There had been like three previous attempts by major U.S. networks — two in the '80s and one in the '90s — and in every case, people got a long way through, and then it was pulled by people higher up at the networks.”

This made it even more important for Wardle and Read, a producer on the film, to develop a relationship with brothers David Kellman and Robert Shafran.

“The extraordinary thing was, when they sat down for the interview, they were willing and able to go there emotionally and tap into the emotions they felt when they were experiencing them for the first time,” Wardle said.

Read added that they got to that point — and the film’s completion — thanks to “a lot of time and a lot of trust.”

Trust, along with the importance of gaining it, came up yet again from Won’t You Be My Neighbor? director and producer Neville.

While he definitely had to gain Joanne Rogers’ support, Neville also had to trust the idea that Fred Rogers’ feel-good vibe was desirable at a time when Donald Trump had just been elected president.

“There’s no kindness lobby in Washington,” Neville said, adding that he wanted to “put a megaphone” to kindness, despite living in “a culture that normalizes fear-mongering and division.”