The gym in the basement of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s apartment complex was small and dank, with low-tech equipment and fluorescent lighting, not a promising setting for what we hoped would be one of the most important shoots of our documentary about Justice Ginsburg’s life. After the justice had surprised us by agreeing to our request to film her workout routine, we were told we could shoot exactly 30 minutes of the 60-minute session. We were skeptical that RBG could do 20 pushups or hold a sequence of planks as had been reported, and expected we’d be told to shut off the cameras before the more taxing exercises began. “Until our time is up,” we told our cinematographers, “just keep rolling.”
While we were fretting, our lead character had been preparing for her star turn. RBG entered the gym in an outfit better than any wardrobe supervisor could have dreamed up: her trademark scrunchy, white sneakers, blue sweats and a sweatshirt emblazoned with bold white letters: “Super Diva!” Her personal trainer put her through an energetic workout including TRX pulls, weightlifting and those planks and pushups, executed with vigor. She let us film it all. What she didn’t want on camera, it turned out, was her tying her shoes and warming up — the slow parts. Justice Ginsburg understood that this would read as an action sequence and that’s how she wanted it to play. Needless to say, we used the footage in our film’s open.
RBG had no editorial control over our documentary. We never showed her a rough cut, nor did she ask to see one. But a series of strategic decisions she made over the three years from our first approach to the film’s premiere had a huge impact on shaping our film.
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In January 2015, when we first sent her an email asking if she would be willing to let us make a documentary about her, Justice Ginsburg, then 82, responded that it was “too soon” for such a project. Realizing this wasn’t exactly a no, we spent the next few months researching her life and the friends and colleagues who could make strong on-camera characters before sending a more detailed proposal with a list of people we hoped to interview. The justice already knew us a bit; we had interviewed her for previous projects. Perhaps she was testing us to see if we were serious-minded enough for the task of documenting her life. Ginsburg answered this second request saying she would not be prepared to sit down with us for at least two more years. But she added three names to the list of interviewees. All three were lively, open subjects telling the kind of stories that make a biographical portrait sing. All three made the final cut.
A few months later, Ginsburg’s assistant sent us a list of about 10 “upcoming events you might be interested in filming.” These events, most of them not yet listed on her public calendar, would form the core of our vérité shooting: among them a private speech in memory of her dear friend and ideological opposite Antonin Scalia; her first-ever visit to the Virginia Military Institute, a school opened to women by a ruling she’d written 20 years prior; and the pièce de résistance, a rehearsal and performance of her speaking role as the Duchess of Krakenthorp in the French opera “The Daughter of the Regiment.” Had Justice Ginsburg carefully curated these scenes to make sure we captured wide-ranging facets of her life: an across-the-aisle friendship, a landmark court ruling, a diva-worthy performance? We never asked.
By the time we did sit down to interview Justice Ginsburg in July of 2017 — exactly two years after her “two more years” dictum — we had accrued enough vérité footage, archival material and secondary interviews to edit together most of the film, leaving holes where we were missing insight and details from the justice. We didn’t need to waste her time on anecdotes we’d captured from other sources or chapters of her life that would end up on the cutting room floor. Because of the production schedule she had dictated, we knew exactly what we needed.
A few weeks after the theatrical release of “RBG,” we visited RBG the person, bearing a gift: a framed copy of a Variety story headlined “How Ruth Bader Ginsburg Became a Summer Box Office Avenger.” Our junior editor had illustrated it with an image of Ginsburg’s face photoshopped onto a Marvel comics body. RBG giggled with glee — and we may also have detected a nod of pride. Perhaps the justice knew she was not only the on-screen leading lady but one of our film’s key creative forces.
Julie Cohen and Betsy West are the directors of “RBG.” The 2019 film was nominated for two Oscars: documentary feature and original song for Diane Warren’s “I’ll Fight.”