Co-director Betsy West on making a surprise box office hit out of her Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘RBG,’ presented by Theatre Aspen
Where: Isis Theatre
When: Tuesday, July 3, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $8-$10.75
Tickets: Isis Theatre, aspenfilm.org
The new Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary “RBG” has earned more than $10 million at the box office in its limited theatrical release, making it a bona fide blockbuster for a documentary and poising it to become one of the biggest hit profile docs ever made.
Yes, this nonfiction film about the tiny 85-year-old judge with the huge intellect and the long list of progressive battles has been embraced — like its subject — by an adoring public desperate for a hero in these despairing times.
“We had high expectations for the film because we knew her story is fascinating,” co-director Betsy West said. “But we’ve been pleasantly surprised by what a big hit it’s been in the documentary world. It’s very exciting.”
Aspen Film will host a special screening of “RBG” on Tuesday night at the Isis Theatre. The screening quickly sold out after it was announced, so the nonprofit film society has booked a second screening room.
West sees the film’s resonance with the public as an outgrowth of the #MeToo movement and the mobilized resistance against President Donald Trump’s agenda.
“Justice Ginsburg paved the way for many of today’s activists and is still standing up for these principles that many people support,” she said.
The film tracks Ginsburg’s life and career, beginning with her Brooklyn childhood as the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants and her time as one of the few women at Harvard and Columbia Law School in the 1950s — beginning law school with her 14-month-old daughter in tow. It chronicles Ginsburg’s legal advocacy for women’s rights via the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1970s, into her time on the U.S. Court of Appeals and through her tenure on the Supreme Court — now in its 25th year — and her current reputation as “The Great Dissenter” and “The Notorious RBG.”
Discussing her crusade for equal rights, Ginsburg quotes the women’s suffrage movement leader Sarah Grimke: “All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
On the personal side, the film delves into her long marriage to Martin Ginsburg and their radical-for-its-time co-parenting approach, along with her love of opera and her deep friendship with the conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.
Some of the most illuminating sections of the film are those devoted to Ginsburg’s arguments before the court, as a young attorney bringing cases on gender discrimination in the workplace and Social Security benefits for widowed men. She won five out of six cases she argued before the court.
The U.S. Supreme Court, much to the frustration of American journalists, does not allow its proceedings to be filmed. This, of course, limits a documentary filmmaker’s ability to tell the stories of the court’s cases. “RBG” effectively makes use of audio recordings of Ginsburg’s arguments — her first was in 1973 — played over footage of the empty courtroom and text of her on screen to bring them to life.
“The audio was so powerful, we realized we didn’t need any fancy animation, we didn’t need to do a recreation, we didn’t need some kind of cartoon thing,” West recalled of the creative decisions around those early cases. “If we just presented the words themselves, that would be the most powerful thing.”
West and co-director Julie Cohen first approached Ginsburg about making the film in 2015. The justice’s response, West recalled, was “not yet,” and said it’d be at least two years before she’d sit down for an interview, but she did suggest some friends and associates they might speak to. So the filmmakers got to work.
“Eventually we got more access to her personal life, at home with her family, going to the opera — eventually to the gym,” West recalled.
(Indeed, the scenes of Ginsburg — notoriously diligent about her exercise routine, in the Klaus Obermeyer mold — is seen in the film working out in a “Super Diva!” sweatshirt with her personal trainer, who says, “She’s like a cyborg.”)
Once Ginsburg agreed to allow West and Cohen make the film, she set no ground rules for their questions and gave them intimate access to her life. She even let the cameras roll as she watched clips of Kate McKinnon’s “Gins-burn” routines on “Saturday Night Live,” which Ginsburg hadn’t seen before.
“We had no idea how she was going to react,” West recalled. “It was so fantastic to hear her belly-laugh. She has a wonderful sense of humor about herself.”
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The 30th annual Aspen Shortsfest will run virtually from April 6 to 11. The festival announced its 80-film lineup on Monday.