Documentary Filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen on cultivating successful creative partnerships, the nuances of female leadership, and the immense importance of telling stories that matter
The documentary film RGB, an intimate portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was released in May of this year—a timely and inspiring elixir for an inarguably tumultuous time. Award-Winning filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen tell RGB’s story with fierce conviction, highlighting Ginsburg’s tireless fight for female equality as the driving narrative of the film. We asked West and Cohen about their journey in making this film together, how they kept calm during moments of adversity and sexism in their careers, and whether they’d be willing to share their favorite scene from RGB (spoiler alert: they did).
Like a marriage, business partnerships often begin with enthusiasm and high expectations. What did you learn from your creative partnership while working on RGB?
BETSY WEST: Embarking on a partnership—personal or professional—is a leap of faith. Julie and I had worked together intermittently on projects over the past decade, but when we came up with the idea of making a documentary about Justice Ginsburg, we knew it was a leap. At the beginning, we set one important ground rule: that we would be equal partners. Over the next three years, we divided and conquered some of the logistical and practical aspects of the project, but kept to our promise to make all important decisions together.
The commitment to be equal partners didn’t address the challenge of what to do if and when we had creative differences. We didn’t discuss this inevitability in advance. We wouldn’t have embarked on this project if we didn't respect each other’s work and trust that we had similar sensibilities about documentary storytelling. And, in fact, we never had an instance of real disagreement, a time when one of us loved a particular scene or approach and the other hated it. Occasionally in the edit room, we would both agree that a scene or transition wasn’t working, but disagree about how to fix it. In those cases, we would work on both solutions, wait a day, and look at the possibilities with fresh and objective eyes.
One note about partnerships: it helps to have a sense of humor. We and our team—most of them women, by the way—had a lot of fun and a lot of laughs working on this film.
JULIE COHEN: I second everything she says. I'll add one thought and one procedural tip. The thought: a big bonus of this process was that over the three-year course of making the film, we moved from being friendly colleagues to being good friends. The tip: we tried to move forward on areas where there was broad agreement first, and then tackle trickier parts where we had differences.
“One note about partnerships: it helps to have a sense of humor.”
Justice Ginsburg plays homage to several trailblazers who inspired her along the way. Who were the most notable in your own careers?
BW: I came of age in the wake of the women’s movement, and was keenly aware that I had career opportunities once denied to my sex because of courageous women who broke barriers on my behalf. Some of them were well known, like Gloria Steinem and Billie Jean King, and some of them less heralded at the time, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
After many rewarding years working as a network news producer and executive, in 2008 I had the opportunity to develop the MAKERS digital project about the modern women’s movement. It was eye-opening to learn more about Gloria, Billie Jean, and Justice Ginsburg, along with so many lesser-known groundbreakers who challenged centuries of discrimination like civil rights pioneer Diane Nash, artist Faith Ringgold, and labor activist Karen Nussbaum.
This experience led me and Julie, who also worked on the MAKERS project, to come up with the idea to make RBG. The reception to the film has been gratifying. In the 80s and 90s there had been a backlash to the F-word, feminism. Now it seems that feminism is having a resurgence. Men and women are hungry to hear the stories of women like RBG who envisioned a better, more equitable world. For filmmakers like us, it is an opportunity to tell stories that have been ignored for too long.
JC: Working on this project has made me think a lot about the importance of representation. When I was eight years old, a forward-thinking teacher took all the girls in our class to see Shirley Chisholm give a Presidential campaign speech (the boys went to the local fire station!). The image of someone who most Americans would count out—because she was a woman and because she was black—speaking with grace, pride, and force, made a huge impression on me. The next year, when Billie Jean King beat the pants off Bobby Riggs in the famed "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match, that felt like a personal victory. My parents often played Carole King's Tapestry album, and I used to listen to all the creativity and soul that poured out of King and stare at the cover image of this small, frizzy-haired Jewish woman—in other words, a woman who looked like me. In the era of a the "Long and Silky" girl, it was a revelation that this, too, was a way to be beautiful.
“It takes a fair amount of self confidence to become a leader…that’s often a particularly tricky trait for women to develop, but we need to develop it.”
What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership—do you think it is societal or personal?
BW: In the 80s, when we and so many other women were being hired for jobs once reserved for men, we thought that we’d work our way up the ladder, and that by now women would have taken their place in leadership positions. Back then we would have been shocked to hear that forty years later there are still so few women at the top.
Yes, some women have taken themselves out of the running for reasons that are varied and complex. But from our experience working at large media institutions, where the leadership is still largely male, bosses are often more comfortable hiring people like themselves. That, to us, is often a bigger barrier to advancement than personal or societal pressures.
We also know from experience that it helps to have a supportive partner. Just as Justice Ginsburg is quick to credit her husband Marty Ginsburg for supporting her career in countless ways throughout their long marriage, we are both lucky to have extremely supportive, feminist spouses: Oren Jacoby and Paul Barrett.
JC: I would add that it takes a fair amount of self confidence to become a leader at all, let alone a good leader. That's often a particularly tricky trait for women to develop, but we need to develop it.
What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of filmmakers behind you?
BW & JC: To adjust to changing technology and find audiences. And an age-old challenge: to tell stories that matter.
There’s a viral, almost cult-like community that has developed around RBG, from memes to tumblrs to hashtags. Do you think this level of excitement will continue?
BW & JC: Justice Ginsburg was a rock star before our film was released and we don’t see that abating. There is something wonderfully engaging about a tiny, elderly, cancer-surviving grandmother who is, at heart, a fighter—someone who has devoted her prodigious legal talents to fighting for the rights of all American citizens and is determined to keep at it.
What do you think is RBG’s superpower?
BW & JC: No question: her SuperBrain! Bigger than most of ours, with a laser-like focus that she deploys to overpower her adversaries. With that SuperBrain comes a level of confidence that allows her to let most of the small stuff go, often avoiding unnecessary battles.
Kathleen Peratis recalls her boss RBG telling her of the Supreme Court "don't ask them to go too far too fast, or you'll lose what you might have won.” Should we apply this to social change in general?
BW & JC: There are many different approaches one can take to creating social change, and the most effective way to behave in a courtroom legal challenge isn't always the same as what works best in a march on the streets. I think for the context she works in—appellate litigation—RBG’s "one step at a time" plan was clearly the best and smartest way to go, and remains so today.
It appears that RBG learned from her mother how to keep her composure and remove emotion during sexist exchanges throughout her career. This strength enabled RBG to educate others on important issues. Can you think of a time in your life when you kept calm in the face of adversity?
BW: Working as I did in network news for several decades, there were many times of stress when I had to keep my cool. One memorable moment came at the beginning of my career.
As a young producer for ABC News, I was in Springfield, Illinois in 1980, covering the battle to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. The amendment needed three more states to become law, and it had come down to a critical vote in the Illinois Legislature. Late in the afternoon, the vote was pulled, but my correspondent and I did not understand this meant the amendment had failed. It was effectively the end of the ERA, which was the lead on the CBS and NBC nightly news programs that night, but not on ABC.
When my executive producer realized our mistake, he called to tell me that my correspondent and I (also a woman) were the reason why there shouldn’t be an Equal Rights Amendment.
I was of course humiliated and devastated, imagining the end of my short-lived career, and fighting back tears until I could retreat to my motel room. Then the phone rang. It was the executive producer of the late-night program Nightline, which wanted me to produce a half hour program about the ERA’s demise.
I swallowed the tears, got down to work, and pulled together an eight minute background story and live interviews that aired five hours later. The post-broadcast phone call from that executive producer was much more encouraging, and when I finally got to my motel room in the early morning I was in better shape for having kept my cool. In a few months I was hired as a full time Nightline producer, one of the big breaks of my career.
JC: I think RBG's strategy of keeping her composure is good in some contexts, but I also think we as a society tend to put the onus on women too often. On my first big story as a network news producer, a male correspondent made a "joke" that entailed describing in graphic detail an imagined scenario of him and me having sex. He did this in front of our all-male camera crew, all of whom were a good 15 years older and a foot taller than I (as was he). I stood there in stunned silence, feeling very small and deeply ashamed. It seemed very important at the time to be calm and not to cry. When I look back on that incident (and a number of others) now, in light of the recent #MeToo revelations, I think I was too concerned about my own behavior. So what if I had cried? And why was I the one to feel shame when he was the one behaving like an idiot? I felt I couldn't complain to my male supervisor, who was otherwise a terrific mentor, because he had warned me I needed to "be careful" of this correspondent before we went out into the field. I think the lesson to be taken from all this now is not that women need to keep calm, but that men need to behave better and that we all need to hold them accountable when they don't.
On overcoming obstacles: There are always roadblocks that pop up when completing a major project. Were there any roadblocks in the making of this film and how did you overcome them?
BW & JC: The big obstacle was the one at the beginning: getting Justice Ginsburg to participate in a documentary about her life. We proceeded cautiously but persistently, taking a page from the Justice's own "step by step" playbook. Once she agreed to let us interview her, film her public appearances, and eventually document more personal scenes like a visit with her granddaughter and her workout with personal trainer Bryant Johnson, we knew we were going to have a special movie.
A few quickies…
If you could pick another rock star like RBG—dead or alive—to follow and create a documentary about, who would it be?
BW & JC: We’re working on one, but not ready to talk about her yet!
Did Justice Ginsburg's workout routine inspire you to hit the gym?
BETSY: Yes! I have always loved to exercise, but after witnessing the Justice planking and pumping iron last summer, I began working out with a trainer who is almost as tough as her trainer Bryant Johnson. But I’m not ready for anyone to come and film my routine just yet.
JULIE: Me too. In an interview just before our Sundance premiere, Betsy revealed she had started planking as a result of our work on the film. Shortly thereafter, I started planking too!
Favorite scene in the film?
BW & JC: The scene built around the incredibly powerful audio from Ginsburg's first Supreme Court argument in the Frontiero v. Richardson case. On the lighter side, we love watching her belly laugh when she sees Kate McKinnon’s Saturday Night Live impersonation of her.
Were you surprised by the success of the film?
BW & JC: Yes and no. When we filmed her talks around the country, we saw firsthand that Justice Ginsburg is a rock star, attracting huge crowds who come just to get a glimpse of her. Her story is epic and we’re happy that it has been inspiring to so many people across the generations.
Is there anything you wanted to share that was left on the cutting room floor?
BW & JC: As a young academic, Ruth Bader Ginsburg moved to Sweden for a while and even learned Swedish in order to write a book about Swedish civil procedure.
Books you are currently reading?
JULIE: Run by Ann Patchett (I'm a big fan; she's written ten very varied books and I'm on my ninth!)
What are your favorite documentaries?
Favorite podcast you are listening to at the moment?
BETSY: The Daily
JULIE: Broad question so I'll narrow it down to two great podcasts about movies: Switchblade Sisters and the No Film School podcast