Interview with RBG Director, Julie Cohen
On her path to success, what women owe to RBG, and both of their futures.
On May 22nd WOMEN’S WAY will be awarding the annual Lucretia Mott Award to Oscar-nominated RBG directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen. I had the pleasure of speaking with Julie prior to the celebration about her experience making the documentary, and what she thinks of the Notorious RBG.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
MK: I’m curious about your path to what seems like overnight success on the documentary. I read that you worked in a movie theater at the age of 16, and now your movies are in theaters. How does that feel?
Julie: There is something uniquely special about having a movie playing in theaters. I became a documentary person after being in news for a long time; I know what it’s like to have a program that I wrote and produced on live television, or played at film festivals. But it does feel like there is something really different and really special having your movie playing in theaters where people are just going to see it — and not because they know you or are connected to some group that’s screening it. I think it personally hit home when movie posters started going up. I would just be at the movie theater to see another movie and think “Wait a second! That’s our movie!”
MK: Was it always your dream to make movies or was it something you fell into through your path as a journalist?
Julie: I really did come in through journalism; I never thought about making movies. I really liked the story-telling in journalism. I was first in radio and print journalism, and then I veered over to television. Once I got into television I wanted to stay there. I really felt like there was something you could do to tell a story once you put images to it. It can be so powerful. Once I got into that field with court TV I knew I wanted to stay in that medium. Then it gradually evolved.
It was really the subject matter that I wanted to change, not the medium. I wanted to do stories that were a little more upbeat, uplifting, funny, and positive. I was at Dateline NBC for a long time telling stories which I find very interesting and I like watching as a viewer, but the subject matter was actually darker than the kind of stories I would prefer to tell. So, I thought I might take my storytelling skills and apply them to a more positive subject matter, and that’s an easier thing to do with documentaries than in the television format.
MK: You and Justice Ginsburg both found success as Jewish-American women in male-dominated fields. Do you see any similarities in your stories even though they are taking place decades apart?
Julie: We are exactly one generation apart, since Justice Ginsburg is my parents’ age. She actually shares a lot of my parents’ background. My parents also happen to be Jewish-Americans from immigrant families who were raised in Brooklyn, and in my mother’s case actually from the same neighborhood Justice Ginsburg. They are about the same age as her, and my parents went to Cornell. My mom was even a lawyer. Because of this, I truly understand what her background was and what she went through, and I don’t think I could compare my own experience because the years make such a difference.
First of all, on the Jewish question, the strides made in society as to what was accessible to Jews was just enormous. By the time I was coming into the working world it didn’t hurt you to be Jewish. When Justice Ginsburg was, it was a completely different situation. New York law firms were divided into Christian firms and Jewish firms. Jews were basically only welcome in certain fields of law. When I came into the working world I felt zero disadvantage from being Jewish.
As far as being a woman, it had become much, much easier when I was entering the workforce in the 1980s for a woman to find her way in the professional world — largely because of the pushing that women like Justice Ginsburg have done; and in her case also because of the legal changes she had made which opened doors. While we haven’t reached equality for women in terms of pay, the doors that are closed to women are much fewer. I think all women of my generation and later owe a great debt of gratitude to Justice Ginsburg and some of her peers, and that was really part of the motivation in making the film.
MK: You had mentioned in other interviews that you had to pressure her a little to agree to make the film. What do you think her hesitation was, and how did you change her mind?
Julie: It’s wasn’t so much pressure as patience and continuing to persist. When she said she wasn’t ready yet rather than going away, we kept showing how motivated we were to make this film. I think part of what changed her mind was our persistence and how serious we were. We do feel in part that not agreeing to things right away was her testing how serious we were. When she said she wasn’t ready yet, we came back to her with a plan of action and started doing parts of the film that didn’t involve her. We tried to be persistent but respectful, and ultimately she responded to that. We know we’re not the only documentary filmmakers who tried to make a film about her, but I think we were pretty persistent and that helped.
MK: Did you see a difference between the time first time you interviewed her for Sturgeon Queens and the end of your work together on RBG? Were walls coming down to enable you to see a side of her she doesn’t normally show?
Julie: Justice Ginsburg is not an extrovert. As we point out in the film, she is a very reserved person and not the easiest to get to know. But she’s actually a really warm and funny person, and as we learned from meeting some of her friends, she is very loyal. There were dozens of people we talked to who haven’t seen her in years but say they always get a birthday card from her, or a little present when a grandchild is born. She is really keeping track of a lot of things.
We first interviewed her for another film in 2013, and between then and now there certainly is a different relationship between us. When she first saw the film come out at Sundance she really enjoyed it and responded strongly to it. Since then we’ve had a warmer relationship, but she’s still an intense person between her position and her intellect.
People have asked us, “Do you call her Ruth now?” No, we call her “Justice.” There’s just something about her that commands that kind of respect. It was great to have the chance to make her laugh during the film. As her kids point out it’s not easy to make her laugh, but when you do it feels really good.
MK: I was surprised by the success of the film outside of the United States, since this is a very American story. Where do you think this captive international audience is coming from? What do they get from it?
Julie: I think there’s two factors that the international audience is responding to. One is is that it’s not just America that’s been having this new wave of feminism, particularly around #TimesUp and #MeToo. That’s happening in a lot of countries, so women in other countries are relating very strongly to that message. In most cases they were not even familiar with her, in fact the title of the movie had to change overseas because “RBG” doesn’t mean anything. For example we heard from our distributor in Taiwan who said that the title there translates to, “A Strong Judge Who Dissents.”
On the other hand, some people have heard about Justice Ginsburg overseas. There is this symbolic image of her in American life as this long-time judge who has been writing dissents. Internationally there is so much focus on Donald Trump and to what extent there are Americans who represent a different viewpoint from Trump. I think foreign audiences are responding to that — here’s an important American who is very different from Donald Trump and is popular in America. This is something that people overseas who are anti-Donald Trump are interested in.
MK: What do you think of the suggestion that some people have made that Justice Ginsburg should resign now in exchange for having some sort of say in who the next nominee is, rather than wait and risk letting Donald Trump have full control over another seat on the bench?
Julie: I think that would be totally inappropriate; that sounds like a terrible idea. I understand the argument that she should have stepped down during the Obama administration. I don’t agree with it, but I think that’s a coherent argument at least. But no, it would not be appropriate for a Supreme Court Justice to start bargaining with the President about who the next Supreme Court Justice is going to be. After having such a difficult time of the past year with both breaking her ribs and having surgery to remove a lobe of her lung due to cancer, Justice Ginsburg, in her characteristic way, has powered through to get back on that court. She plans to keep on working.
MK: So what is next for you and Better Than Fiction?
Julie: This film was really done by Storyville Films, and that’s most likely the vehicle for our future films. Betsy and I have a couple of documentaries in the works right now, both telling kind of amazing stories of women who deserve much more serious cultural evaluation than they have received to this point. The reception to RBG gave us the mission, and we’re taking that mission seriously. We’re not naming who the next films will be about yet, but that’s the direction we’re going in.
Meet Julie and support organizations that help women at the WOMEN’S WAY 42nd Annual Celebration, on May 22nd. Tickets and information are available online.