'On The Basis Of Sex' Director Mimi Leder Says The Ruth Bader Ginsburg Story Is The Story Of Change [Interview]

On the Basis of Sex is the story of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Not the Supreme Court Justice we know now, but the Ruth Bader Ginsburg who was one of the first female students at Harvard Law School, who began her legal career fighting to overturn a case of gender discrimination.

Felicity Jones plays Ruth and the case in question is the Moritz case. Charles Moritz was denied a caretaker tax write-off because it was assumed caretakers could only be women. Ruth's husband Martin Ginsburg actually pointed her to the case because he knew she was interested in finding ways to fight sexism.

Mimi Leder directed On the Basis of Sex. After making The Peacemaker, Deep Impact and Pay It Forward, Leder directed on TV shows like Smash, Shameless, The Leftovers and was always involved with ER. Leder spoke to /Film about doing justice to Ruth Bader Ginsburg's story and how the film is the story of how change happens. On the Basis of Sex opens in theaters on Christmas Day and expands wider in January.

When you saw that Daniel Stiepleman's script was centered on the Moritz case, were you able to construct the movie as a courtroom drama building up to Ruth arguing the case?

That's a really interesting question because I don't really see it as a courtroom drama. To me it feels like a film about how change happens. The courtroom part of the movie is about 16 pages worth of film, so maybe about 15 minutes of film.

Sure, but I'm including all the preparation for the case part of the drama.

I did not construct the film as a courtroom drama. Everything that leads up to that moment is a movie for me about how change happens. We're showing the story of this woman, RBG, Ruth Bader Ginsburg finding her voice and coming up against all obstacles. How she became who she is today and leading up to the case that changed  a century of gender discrimination for men and women on the basis of sex.

Was it telling that sexism didn't begin to change until it affected a man?

Very telling because there were many women before Ruth Bader Ginsburg. There were countless generations of women before her who fought very hard against gender discrimination and it took a man who was being discriminated against to fight for a win that overturned a century of gender discrimination. I find that to be very telling. We still live in a patriarchal society. It was a patriarchal society then in the '50s. Even though we've made so many changes, there are still so many more changes to be made.

How change happens seems to be a fight in every generation. There's always an establishment resisting progress. Do you have any insight into why it's always a fight and we can't just skip the fight and make progress?

I think everything is a fight these days in this poisonous political climate. I think what is phenomenal about Justice Ginsburg is that she uses persuasion and logic to argue. She doesn't destroy the other side. She treats them with respect and civility the way all people would like to be treated. So I think if we had more civility there would be less of a fight. So I don't know. I think people are afraid and they resist change, and people are full of fear. But, I think change and empowerment is what makes our country and makes us better people. There are so many laws that still need to be changed. There's so much that has been changed but we have so much farther to go before we reach true equality, true inclusion. But, I think logic is the way to go and honesty, telling the truth. RBG's a truth seeker and I think if we use our voices in a civil way, things could continue to change.

I'm really looking forward to a lot of my male friends seeing how you portray a lot of the microaggressions against women in the movie. The professors who won't call on her, who belittle her even though she was smart enough to get into Harvard. Having maybe experienced that in the industry, were you looking forward to dramatizing it so that people outside can see how this works against women?

Well, I felt a lot of commonalities with Ruth Bader Ginsburg in that I've had a lot of doors slammed in my face. I really understood how that felt and therefore felt I could dramatize it in a very personal way. We are both Jewish, we are both mothers, both have had longstanding marriages. We've both broken the glass ceilings in our own ways. I'd never compare my accomplishments to hers, but for generations to come we've paved the way for other women. I felt uniquely qualified in a very personal way to bring this story to life. That scene where she's in her first classroom on the first day is a day that she is feeling the sleights. The professor is not calling on her. It was one of the first years when women were accepted into Harvard Law. I think there was a lot of resentment not just from the male students, but from the teachers as well. It was a lot to overcome but her perseverance and her passion and her smarts, because she was smarter than any of them, she was able to get through.

This might be a reach, but I was thinking how you made two hit movies and then one that only did okay and had to fight for your next movie, nine years later and then another nine years until On the Basis of Sex. Did you see a parallel to Ruth getting into Harvard and still having to prove herself once there?

Well, I want to clarify that yes, it took me a long time to make another movie but I worked and flourished in television where the storytelling is extraordinary. But yes, I very much understood that I had to keep proving myself over and over again, and to some extent still do these days. I know what that feels like and I try and work through it, just move forward, do the work. That's all you can do, and fight it. Fight against injustice. Fight for inclusion. Fight for equal rights. Find your voice. I think thats' one of the messages of the film.

We saw quite recently with the Kavanagh hearings that men can yell and scream and women are expected to keep their composure. The movie shows how even in the mock trial with her own colleagues, it rattles Ruth. Was that a way to show that it is okay to get rattled by sexism? You don't have to be stone cold calm in the face of every obstacle.

Well, obviously showing her humanity and who she is as a real person, I wanted the film to be as authentic and honest as it could be. Showing her having emotion is certainly her being a human being. So it's okay to be rattled.

And maybe it would be unnatural if you weren't ever rattled.

Yeah, I mean, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was taught to keep her emotions in check. It was part of how women were raised in the '50s. So she kept her emotions in check. She was always taught to be a lady but behind closed doors, I know that people are human and I know she is too. I think everybody cries. Everybody feels things deeply. Some people show their emotions up front center. Marty was the charming one, the one who joked. He was the magnet. Their union was opposites attract. Their marriage was a real metaphor for the film, an equal partnership.

When did you think of having the real Ruth walk up the steps at the end of the film?

It was before we started shooting. I knew what the opening was going to be, Ruth in a sea of men, one of nine women accepted to Harvard in a cornflower blue dress swaying in the wind, hope on her face, excitement. I was standing in front of the Supreme Court steps with my DP. There was a different scene that was in the end but I didn't love it. I was standing in front of the Supreme Court steps. I said to my director of photography, Michael Grady, "I want to mirror the end of the movie [with the beginning]. I have this idea. I want to have our Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Felicity Jones, after her triumph and winning against all odds this case that overturned 170 different laws that discriminated on the basis of sex, I wanted to ascend to her future and I wanted her to morph into RBG." I pitched it to my producer. Most everyone was excited. What if it didn't work? What if we shot it? What if we cut it out? I said, "It's gonna work. It's gonna be great." So I wrote her a letter and she said yes. I think it's a very earned moment in the film.