Interview with Betsy West, Filmmaker and Co-Director of “RBG
Betsy West is the co-director of “RBG,” the recently-released documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She has also produced news programs such as “60 Minutes,” and “48 Hours” and films such as “The Lavender Scare” and “Constantine’s Sword.” West teaches reporting, video production, and documentary at Columbia.
The Politic: What inspired you to make a documentary about Justice Ginsburg?
Betsy West: About a decade ago, I worked on a project about the modern women’s movement called “Makers: Women Who Make America,” for which I interviewed 100 groundbreaking women, including Justice Ginsburg. Then, several years later, my directing partner Julie Cohen interviewed Justice Ginsburg for her film The Sturgeon Queens, which is about a Lower East Side fish store which Ruth Bader Ginsburg used to go to as a little girl. So, both Julie and I had talked to Justice Ginsburg, had learned about her story, admired her greatly. When her notoriety exploded on the internet following some of the very blistering dissents she wrote as the Supreme Court moved to the right, a law student started a blog called the Notorious RBG that took off on social media, and she had gained hundreds of thousands, millions of fans for the very strong positions she was taking as a Supreme Court justice.
Julie and I knew that there was a lot more to her story, especially her work as a groundbreaking litigator on behalf of gender equality, and also we knew there was an amazing love story. And she was a singular person. We thought to ourselves, somebody ought to do a documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and it should be us. And that was kind of the beginning of the idea of doing this in January of 2015.
And was she initially excited about the idea?
We approached Justice Ginsburg with an email suggesting that we do a story about her life and career. She wrote back quickly, basically saying, not yet. At this time, she was 82 years-old. So we thought to ourselves, if not now, when? But then we read the email again and we realized, well, she didn’t actually say “no.” So a few months later, we wrote back to her again, and said, “We know how busy you are, we wouldn’t have to interview you right away. However, we’d love to get started on a documentary, start interviewing some of your colleagues, clients, friends. And we made a list of people, just to kind of show her that we were serious about this and the kinds of people we would interview who had interacted with her throughout her life. And she wrote back– again, very quickly– saying, thank you very much, but I would not be able to give you an interview for at least two years. However, if you are going to be interviewing other people, you might want to consider… and then she listed three more people. That was the moment we knew she was opening a door to us to make a documentary, and we just took it from there.
I know in other interviews you mentioned that you only had an hour to sit down with her. I’m curious about the experience of getting to know someone so intimately, but actually only speaking to them for such a short time.
Well, you know, we did our final interview, which was a little over an hour, at the end of a process in which we were following Justice Ginsburg around the country to the various events that she speaks at — law schools, conferences, audiences at opera festivals where she talks about opera and the law. And certainly, in all those instances we had an opportunity to talk to her a little bit, and even a little bit on camera, in a more informal way.
So, we probably had more than 20 hours of time with Justice Ginsburg before we sat down for the interview. The most important thing for us was that we started working on structuring the documentary in March of 2017 and working with all this material that we were shooting around the country– all the interviews we’d done and the tremendous amount of archives that exist of Justice Ginsburg. So, by the time we sat down with her at the end of July for the sit-down interview, we really knew what we needed.
You managed to really capture her sense of humor. Did you know about her sense of humor going into the film, or did you discover that as you went along?
To some extent it was a discovery because, famously, her husband Marty was the great wit in the family and the source of so much humor, and Justice Ginsburg is legendarily a kind of shy and reserved person. However, you can see that she has such a sly wit– such a sparkle in her eye. She loves to laugh. And she also is getting really good at delivering jokes herself. I think some people have even said that in the wake of her husband’s death, she has stepped up and become a little more outwardly humorous. I think she sees a lot of humor in the current situation of her being a kind of internet icon– a meme (I’m sure she doesn’t even know what a meme is).
It’s like she had a choice in a way when the Notorious RBG phenomenon took off. I mean, it was nothing that she generated; she didn’t ask for it. I’m sure she didn’t really understand it at first. But she has enjoyed it, enjoyed the humor of it, embraced it as a way to, through humor and through social media, expand the message that she has about the importance of our democratic institutions and equality under the law.
You’ve obviously mentioned Marty a lot, and in many ways, this documentary is a love story. So I’m curious about when you made that decision and why you chose to highlight that aspect of her life.
The first time I interviewed Justice Ginsburg, he had only died the year before. And when I asked her about Marty, she kind of lit up. And I was nervous to ask her; I’m sure she was still in mourning. But she so wanted to talk about him, she so loved him. And she just came to life talking about what kind of a person he was. So when we went into making this film, both Julie and I knew that the love story was going to play a big role because it was so important to her.
The documentary is only an hour and a half. What were some stories you wish you could have told that didn’t make the cut?
One of the ones that comes to mind that we did discuss several times: when she was a relatively young academic, after she had been rebuffed by the high-powered legal profession, she was given an opportunity to write a book about constitutional law in Sweden. And so for this opportunity, she learned Swedish. And she moved to Sweden for some month to write the book. And that kind of blew us away. This was in the early 60s, and she has talked a little bit about how Sweden’s more advanced view of gender roles affected her a little bit– there were more women at the time who were in the workplace in Sweden, although the women were complaining that they had two jobs; they would go to work 9-5 and then come home and then they had all the responsibility in the home. So Sweden wasn’t a totally liberated place, but it definitely had a very different gender dynamic that influenced her a little bit. Anyway, people are amazed– I’ve never tested her Swedish– but it’s kind of amazing. You know, at the time, her daughter was 5 or 6 years-old, and she left her daughter with Marty to go off to do this.
I just want to end with Justice Ginsburg watching the movie. Were you present for that moment, and what was that experience like?
The experience was almost indescribable. She did not ask us to see the movie ahead of time. She had no editorial control over it. We didn’t ask for her to watch it; we really wanted her to see it with an audience because we thought that would be a better experience for her. However, that was extremely nerve wracking for us. We were at Sundance with an audience of over 500 people. She was sitting across the aisle from us. And the movie started. And there’s music at the top of the movie– you know, the Rossini music, with the voices that start, and she turned to her companion and she said, “Well, I like the music.” And I turned to Julie and I said, “She likes the music!”
For the rest of the screening, we were just focused on her face. She was laughing, and she brought out a handkerchief and she teared up a few times, obviously in discussing Marty, but also was laughing a lot with the Marty stuff. One of the funny places that she cried a little was about ten or fifteen minutes into the film when we talk about her love of music. There’s this scene of her at the Santa Fe opera, listening to “La Via de La Amor,” which we happen to know is her favorite love duet, and she pulled out a handkerchief and just dabbed her eyes then. She was so moved by the discussion of what music has meant to her in her life. I thought that was incredible.