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'RBG' Documentary Director Reacts To Death Of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg


I want to bring in Julie Cohen now. She's the director of the documentary "RBG."

Welcome to the program.

JULIE COHEN: Thank you so much.

CORNISH: Now, this film came out in 2018. You spent a lot of time with the justice as you produced it. Can you take just a moment as we remember her and describe something that will stick with you?

COHEN: You know, Justice Ginsburg's sort of toughness in every level of her life will stick with me. I think the indelible image was being in the gym with her and her personal trainer Bryant Johnson as he put her through her paces. And sort of the fierceness and determination with which she did her push-ups and planks and weightlifting and tossing a medicine ball was kind of like nothing I'd ever seen in terms of the level of just, you know, how set she was to do every single thing she was told to do. And I think that determination is kind of - you know, was mirrored in everything she did in her life from, you know, the fight she had for her own career to fighting for equality but for - under the law. But even - and even, you know, over these past few years with the fights with cancer, you know, just the number of really tough medical issues that she had to deal with and how often she would just be back in court, you know, in the past few months with COVID, you know, listening on the phone sessions and asking questions - and, you know, just whatever came her way, she was going to come back at it with as much determination as a person could bring.

CORNISH: How did she handle that kind of pressure and focus on her health?

COHEN: You know, she's just an extremely - she was just - it's hard to talk in the past tense because she was just a person with so much life that, I mean, even someone at 87 with so much illness - I still - all I can say is hearing of her death this evening, I just felt shocked. She just - you know, she just was determined to view tough things in life with optimism. We had a moment in our film where someone asked her what cancer had - what having cancer - what impact it had had on her. And she basically said that having cancer had given her a greater appreciation for the joys of being alive, like the most poignant optimistic viewpoint one could possibly take for, you know, struggling with pancreatic and colon cancer and chemotherapy and all of the physical and emotional pain that that entails. She was determined to, like, take that in and come back with life force.

CORNISH: She was born in March 1933. She was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. And your film does take a look at her childhood. How did her upbringing shape the justice she would become?

COHEN: You know, I think the thing that shaped her most in her upbringing was her mother, someone who was determined that her obviously incredibly intelligent young daughter was going to succeed in ways that may not have been possible for a woman of - RBG's mom to succeed. And she just - you know, she just inculcated in young Ruth Bader such a desire to learn and to spend as many hours as she could at the library and, you know, to do everything. She just instilled a total determination in her daughter that, I think, stood her in very good stead for life.

CORNISH: You can often tell a lot about a person by who they surround themselves with. What did her admirers and detractors tell you about her?

COHEN: You know, the amount of love for RBG was huge even in people that you would think might be opponents. I mean, obviously, the prime example of that is her longtime friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia. But, you know, we tried to book some conservative critics of Justice Ginsburg for our film and were surprised by the number of prominent conservatives who asked not to be named but, like, kind of in the legal world who were like, you know what? I wouldn't want my friends to know this, but I really love Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Like, people just knew her personally and admired her.

CORNISH: In these last few years, she really had reached a kind of pop culture iconic status. Did she see herself that way? And was she surprised at that?

COHEN: She was certainly surprised by her icon status, which really didn't happen until she was an octogenarian, you know, stemming from a series of dissents she wrote, particularly the Voting Rights Act case - Shelby County v. Tennessee (ph). When the young people, young women, particularly young female law students, started making those Notorious RBG memes and posters, she was surprised by it. But she, like, really leaned into it. And I can tell you having been close - physically close to her at times when she was in front of a crowd, like who - of fans from the "Notorious RBG," she really seemed to love that and get a charge out of it. She also understood it to be what it was - an opportunity for her to interest and educate young people about the constitutional issues that had been, really, her primary focus of her career and life.

CORNISH: That's Julie Cohen. Her 2018 documentary is called "RBG."

Thank you so much for sharing your appreciation.

COHEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.