On the Basis of Sex: Director Mimi Leder on the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Biopic, RBG’s Reaction to its Sex Scene, and More

On the Basis of Sex, a new movie by veteran director Mimi Leder, is the origin story of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, before she was affectionately known as the Notorious RBG.

The screenplay is by first-time screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman, who happens to be the Justice’s nephew. As an insider, he gives a behind-the-curtain view of RBG’s personal life, which Ginsburg evidently gave her seal of approval.

Felicity Jones stars as RBG and Armie Hammer plays her husband, Martin, an esteemed tax lawyer in his own right and a devoted and supportive spouse. Martin was ahead of his times, a liberated male who often seems too good to be true, but at a recent SAG screening, Stiepleman confirmed his uncle was exactly as portrayed on screen.
On the Basis of Sex works on several levels, including as a saga of how RBG endured and triumphed at Harvard Law School. As a freshman In 1956, she was one of only nine women in a class of more than 500 men and had to constantly justify taking up place her professors thought should go to a man. The movie is also the love story of a couple with a perfectly equal partnership. The last part of the movie shifts to a courtroom drama focusing on the only case the couple worked together, a gender-discrimination case brought by Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, and which would kick off her career as a feminist crusader and legal activist.
Leder herself is a trailblazer. In 1973 she was the first woman to graduate from the AFI Conservatory, where she studied cinematography. She started working in television soon after, where her successful dramas, ranging from “L.A. Law” (1987), China Beach (1988-91), E.R. (1994-2009) and, most recently, The Leftovers (2014 to 2017), helped to narrow the divide between TV shows and movies.
Her film career began with the political thriller The Peacemaker (1997), which Steven Spielberg asked her to direct as the first film from his Dreamworks SKG studio. Her follow up the next year was the blockbuster Deep Impact, an ecological disaster film that still seems prescient. Her next movie in 2000, Pay It Forward, misfired and sent her back to television where she’s continued her successful run of shows. On the Basis of Sex marks Leder’s return to the big screen after an absence of 18 years.

“Film production is not female-friendly,” said the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative in a report that came out just last week. Among its many depressing statistics, it noted just four female directors worked on the 100 top-grossing movies in 2018, the lowest number in at least four years. In a field in which the greatest challenge, especially for a women, is longevity, Leder has had a career spanning more than four decades.

Leder talked to MovieMaker in mid-December, a few days before the New York premiere of On the Basis of Sex. (RBG was to attend the premiere, along with her pals Gloria Steinem and Hillary Clinton, and which was just days before the Justice was diagnosed with cancerous nodules on her lungs.)

When we met with Leder at the Whitby Hotel in Manhattan, she was recovering from laryngitis. But that didn’t deter her from giving MovieMaker a 30-minute interview where she talked about a number of subjects, including RBG’s career and challenges, her own, how she related to the Justice, and what’s next for her as a director.

L to R: Screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman, stars Armie Hammer and Felicity Jones, and director Mimi Leder attend a special screening of On the Basis of Sex at Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater in New York. Photograph by Kristina Bumphrey, courtesy of StarPix

Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (PS): The film opens with the small figure of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a blue dress walking up the steps of Harvard University surrounded by men in dark suits carrying briefcases. What inspired you to open with that scene? 
Mimi Leder (ML): I wanted to film her entering Harvard in a sea of men, in a sea of black, brown and gray suits, one of only nine women. And I wanted her to be in a certain color, so she stood out, but not in a red or yellow. Blue is her favorite color and so Isis Mussenden, our costume designer, found this beautiful corn flower blue fabric. She brought it to me and it was perfect. It wasn’t too obvious, but it was obvious enough and we wanted a fabric that swayed in the wind. And we wanted her to wear those stockings that had a seam. And she really wore those stockings. She has talked to me about this, and I understand they were difficult to wear because you had to keep moving them around to get the line just exactly straight.
I wanted the audience to feel how unique it was to be that person, to be in a room full of men and so we had a bunch of extras, 300 extras. I shot it with long lenses to compress the frame and it make it feel even more like she was isolated by making the background kind of blow out of focus. I also shot it at 48 frames, a lot of it in slow motion just to give the feel of entering into her new world. And the sun was just perfect at that time of day we shot it, so slow-mo and backlight are beautiful ingredients.

MM: The closing shot is a bookend to the opener: Jones as the Justice walks up the steps of Harvard University but then she morphs into the older, real RBG, who is  walking up the steps of the Supreme Court Building. Talk about shooting that scene. How did you talk her into being in the film and what was she like to direct?  

ML: The end was originally different. But as I was standing in front of the Supreme Court Building before we shot, talking to my DP, Michael Grady,  I was saying, “You know, I want to change the ending. I really want to end this film with the young Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the 35 year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg walking into her future. I want to mirror it with the front of the film. And I want her to morph into the real RBG. I want her younger self sending her to her future on the Supreme Court.”

And so I then had to write a letter to Justice Ginsburg and ask her to be in the film. And she said, “Yes.” And then I was like, “Oh my God, we have to do this. This is exciting.” It was the last thing we shot in the film, and it was fascinating directing the Justice. I did do two takes, and I wanted one more, and I asked her, “Justice may I have one more take, please?” And she said (holding up one finger), “One more,” just like that.

MM: There’s a lot of color saturation, a lot of blues and yellows in the film. What lenses did you use? And what was your production schedule and budget? 

ML: I won’t say what the budget was. I’ll say it was a high budget indie, but it was an indie budget and we shot the film in 34 days, 33 in Montreal and one day in D.C. It was quite a feat because it’s a very dense film. We shot on mini-Alexas. Michael Grady I believe made it look like film. We shot it on the Alexas because film was too expensive for our budget. And we added a lot of grain to the look. I wanted a lot of depth of color, a lot of saturation. And I wanted her to be lit a certain way; I wanted to light her in a very classic sense and naturalistic, but classic.

MM: The production notes say the idea for the screenplay came to Daniel Stiepleman when he attended  his Uncle’s funeral in 2010 and during the eulogy someone mentioned the case.

ML: Yes. And you know the Justice asked Daniel, “Why this case? I’ve tried much more important cases in the Supreme Court?” And he said, “Well, but this is the only case you’ve tried with Marty.” And this movie is as much about their marriage and about an equal partnership. And about how love prevails. And that’s why it was important and very smart of Daniel to focus on this, their first case and only case they ever tried together.

Felicity Jones (L) and director Mimi Leder (R) on the set of On the Basis of Sex. Photograph by Jonathan Wenk, courtesy of Focus Features

MM: Early in the film you show a young RBG and her husband in a sex scene. That’s something you don’t think about when you think about RBG. What inspired that scene? 

ML: It was important to me to have a scene where they make or begin to make love, because she’s a real person, you know? Everybody makes love and everybody has a love life and a real life. We had dinner after I first showed it to her—she loved the film, by the way—and she said, “You got my work in the women’s rights movement right.” But her biographer said, “Oh my god the sex! It was so much!”

It’s not really a sex scene—it’s the beginnings of making love. I kept thinking about RBG seeing it, and wanted to be respectful by not making it about the sex, but make it about their love.

Although no one ever asked me to tone it down, I toned it down. So, at the dinner table, when her biographer said, “Oh my God the sex, so much,” I said, “Well, you should’ve seen it before.” The biographer said to RBG, “Well, what did you think?” All eyes went to RBG and she said, “I’m fine with it.”

MM: What was it like meeting the Justice? And what was it like when she met the actors who would play her and her husband? 

ML: It was incredible. I had met her previously and had had dinners with her to try and understand and get some truisms about who the young Ruth Bader Ginsburg was.

I brought the actors to meet her right before we began shooting. Producers Robert Cort and Johnathan King and myself brought them to meet and we had dinner together, but before dinner I also just brought Felicity. But before that I had them tour the Supreme Court and had them brought to her chambers. And she was quite taken with Armie. It was really important to her who was portraying her life partner.

And she immediately loved him. I mean Marty was charming from everything I’ve read and everything I’ve been told. He was charming, he was smart, he was funny and he was a magnet in the room. And when I cast Armie I knew he could be that. I just felt it inside. And when he walks into the room there’s no taking your eyes off Armie Hammer. And yeah she’s quite taken with him. Then Felicity and I went to her apartment, and she showed us her pictures and all the paintings and her desk and got to see where they lived and breathed.

And then I left Felicity alone with RBG because I wanted her as a director, I’ve had my alone time, and I wanted her as the actor who was going to become her and embody her, it was very important to me that they have their alone time. And you know because every actress’s process is very different, what they gleam from a person and often when you’re doing a movie about a living person, well there aren’t many films about people who are still living. It’s a big responsibility.

MM: Natalie Portman was first announced to play RBG. Felicity Jones, being British for one thing, is not the obvious choice to play the Justice. What made you decide to cast her?

ML: When Natalie dropped out of the project I kept a  list of actors, actresses and I kept looking at this picture of Felicity. I kept comparing pictures of the young RBG to Felicity and I felt they had a great similarity in their features as young women. Both very beautiful, both very strong. And Felicity really embodied her…  Felicity has green eyes and the Justice has beautiful blue eyes so she put a little lens on too, not the same color. I mean we weren’t doing a documentary, but Felicity had to say goodbye to Felicity and start to embody RBG and she called me one day and said, “You know Mimi, I want to put some caps on my teeth to make them feel a little larger on the side.”

And I never even told the press until she started talking about it. And at first I was silent because what if they’re too big? What if they look terrible? And so I said, “You know what let’s try it.” So she did it. It looked fantastic. It opened her mouth a little bit larger and her mouth was closer looking to RBG’s mouth and she learned how to walk like her. RBG has a specific walk. When you’re seeing her walking with Clinton for her swearing in there was footage we could gleam on and latch on to.

Felicity Jones stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex. Photograph by Jonathan Wenk, courtesy of Focus Features

MM: On another track, this is your first film in 18 years. You’ve helped narrow the divide between movies and TV shows. But how is your approach directing a movie different from a TV show? 

ML: There was no difference. I had been on the project for a long time working on the draft with Daniel and I had eight weeks to prep the movie, but I have been prepping the movie ever since I said yes. And the difference, as you said, the storytelling between film and television has narrowed. I find I don’t approach them any differently.

MM: What is the life experience you would advise an aspiring filmmaker to acquire before they have something to say as a filmmaker?

ML: You have to have an understanding and a life experience of the story you’re trying to tell so you can tell it most authentically and most honestly. And in this case with me I shared a lot of commonalities with RBG in that I was a young feminist. I was a mother. We both have children. We both have had long standing marriages and equal partnerships in our marriages.

And that experience I understood.  I never compare myself to RBG’s accomplishments, but we both have broken the glass ceiling in our own fields, me in my industry and her in her work, obviously, far more important. But paved that trail for generations to come.

MM: You studied cinematography at AFI but switched to directing. What made you decide to become a director? And how has your background as a cinematographer informed your vision as a director? 

ML: I was 20, 21, and I wanted to be a cinematographer and really understand the power of the lens and the camera and when I applied to AFI they wanted me to come in as a director. But I wanted to come in as a cinematographer because I really wanted to understand how to tell a story through a lens and not just the female lens, but the lens. And so I learned so much about light and the power of the image and how sometimes an image can tell a story without words, but then as soon as I understood the power of the lens I wanted to be a director.

And so that is how quickly I changed my course. But I think that education and that studying and understanding of the power of the camera really helped me with everything I’ve done, and to tell intimate stories because in all the things I’ve done, even if the landscapes are big—because I do love big wide shots—I love to set up (the story), here’s where we are. But I also really like to get in there close to find the intimacy of the story.

MM: When Kathryn Bigelow won the Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker it was considered a watershed moment, that more movies would be directed by women. But it didn’t happen. Is there any room to hope things will improve now? 

ML: I’m still called a female director. You never call a man a male director. You never call Steven Spielberg that male director Steven Spielberg. I hope it changes one day because I am a director and I definitely bring my femaleness to the party, but I guess it’s still essential to focus on how much has changed and how little has changed. And that is what this movie is about. It’s about how change happens.

MM: You’re moving back to television with a new show. What can you share about the new series?  

ML: I can’t share a thing, but I can just tell you that I’m just loving the experience of making the “The Untitled Morning Show,” with Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell, Billy Crudup, Mark Duplass and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Every day I go to the set, when I’m not here of course right now, and my mouth is just hanging open at the extraordinary work of these actors. So I hope you’ll tune in. It’s going to be a great show.

On the Basis of Sex opened in theaters January 11, 2019, courtesy of Focus Features.

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