A version of this article appears on the Adobe blog.
How do you tell the story of an icon of the Women’s Movement and powerhouse behind the fight for women’s rights? You assemble a team of talented, creative, and passionate crusaders in their fields to direct, produce, and edit the documentary. You include professionals who bring a depth of experience as well as newer associates who add cutting-edge technical skills — all women, all impassioned by the inspiration of the woman herself, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.
We talked with the executive team of RBG — the documentary that explores Justice Ginsburg’s life and career — co-producer/directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West; cinematographer Claudia Raschke; film editor Carla Gutierrez, associate producer Nadine Natour; and associate editor Grace Mendenhall — to find out more about the development of the documentary, and how Justice Ginsburg’s life story inspires them.
The women on the team have varied backgrounds and are at different points in their careers, yet they shared a common desire to use their talents to imaginatively, accurately, and empathetically convey Justice Ginsburg’s story, and they had a great time doing it.
How They Came Together for the Project
Betsy: About a decade ago, I helped develop the MAKERS digital archive about the modern women’s movement for which I interviewed a series of groundbreaking women, including Justice Ginsburg. That’s how I met Julie, who also worked on MAKERS. A few years later, as Justice Ginsburg began to attain pop-star status for some of her strong dissents as a Supreme Court Justice, Julie and I realized that many of her millennial fans didn’t know her full story. She was the legal strategist behind the women’s movement, the pioneering litigator who redefined gender equality and changed the world for American women.
Julie: We both thought her story should be told and that we were the ones who should tell it. We pitched the idea to CNN Films and they took on the whole film. Then we started hiring people. We made a spreadsheet of talented women cinematographers and editors and started asking around. Nadine has been working for me for four years on various projects, so that was a natural progression for her to work on this project, too. Then Grace came along. We also made a list of other people we needed.
Working with an All-female Team
Nadine: It was a unique experience to work with all women, it was really empowering. There was an atmosphere of everybody excelling at their craft and working together.
Carla: I have been described as opinionated in the past. As an editor, you are hired specifically to give your opinion. But it’s different with women directors or female crews, instead of “opinionated,” the word used to describe my collaboration was “confident.” I like that better.
Betsy: I’ve worked in a lot of situations where I was the only woman in a group of men on productions. In fact, that was kind of the norm when I first started my career in the ’70s and the ’80s. I worked in news and often I would be the only woman on a shoot. This was very different — it was very collegial.
Claudia: You find yourself surrounded by so much competence and you don’t have to wait your turn until there’s a big enough pause — until the men have said everything they wanted to say — so you can finally step forward and make some suggestions. It’s an equal playing field. There’s an eagerness to listen to each other because we all are filled with mutual respect because we already know that you know what you’re talking about. There’s such appreciation for having done the best you can do, and enabling each other to do their best. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any troubles along the way or barriers, but you appreciate that you’re all in the same boat and you’re working really hard for the same goal.
Collaborating with Justice Ginsburg
Julie: It was amazing and intimidating. She’s tiny, but a giant, and you feel that in her presence. She’s not somebody who just jumps right into a conversation. She has a very deliberate pace. When you ask her a question, she stops and thinks, and considers everything. She also has an encyclopedic memory for every case she’s argued or heard. If you tell her about a case from 1973 and get a detail wrong, she’ll correct you. She has a great sense of humor and she’s very witty.
Betsy: She faced all of this opposition in her early career and she just kept plowing on. I’m amazed by her strategic brilliance in figuring out how to challenge the discriminatory laws that were a part of our government. She understood they could be challenged constitutionally but she had to do it step by step, very strategically. To learn about that was brilliant.
Nadine: We really know her today as this ferocious defender of women’s rights and minorities’ rights, but the thing about her story is that she is consistent — that’s been the way she has worked ever since she was a young woman, and I just like that her way of fighting was very true to her personality.
Claudia: We were making a film about RBG — this magnificent civil rights worker who devoted her entire life, against all these odds, to hold that flag of equality up. When you make a film about such a luminary, you’re already in awe and inspired, and that gives a lot of energy to anybody who joins the team. Then there’s Julie and Betsy, these amazing women who have withstood so many challenges in their own careers, and here’s RBG, who’s a leader and hero to us all. And here we are, the women who made up this team, who also have held our own flags, and so with all that conviction we represented strength, and that echoed what the film really represents.
Advice They’d Give to Others Coming into the Industry
Julie: The most important qualities to succeed in this industry are persistence and confidence, and those are often hard for women to cultivate. But learn how to develop the confidence you need to push forward through your doubts. When I get a rejection, I always move forward by doing three new things right away.
Grace: Be an expert in your craft, and that means having excellent technical skills. In this project, I started as an assistant editor, but moved into the role of associate editor in part because of my passion and dedication to learning and growing my skills, and in part because of my editing and graphics skills. It was really beneficial knowing Adobe After Effects and being fast and knowledgeable about Premiere Pro so I was able to have the time to take a stab at an edit or do some additional graphics work, after I had completed my assistant work.
Carla: Learn the tools, like Adobe Premiere Pro. We need all these tools and we need to know how to use them. But it’s also learning how to tell stories with documentaries. Long-format storytelling is really the most difficult, so be present in the room, ask questions, stay curious, and find mentors.
Betsy: Don’t get discouraged. Don’t give up easily. Try to see your way around obstacles and see obstacles as potential opportunities. Be like Justice Ginsburg.
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