On the Basis of Sex, a new movie about the first gender-discrimination case brought by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, also represents the achievements of another woman pioneer, in an arena even less equitable than the Supreme Court. Director Mimi Leder, now 66, was the first female cinematography graduate of the American Film Institute. That experience, too, is reflected in the movie’s opening scene of a young, sprightly Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) engulfed in a sea of gray-suited men as she enters Harvard Law School, one of 9 women in a class of more than 500. Like Ginsburg, Leder has had her triumphs and her setbacks: She directed agenda-setting TV shows from China Beach to ER to The Leftovers, then made action blockbusters like Deep Impact, until a misfire, Pay It Forward, left her banished from film — a fate it would be hard to imagine befalling a male director after a single bomb. On the Basis of Sex brings her back to film with a soaring sort-of biopic (she doesn’t like the word), teasing fine performances out of Jones, Armie Hammer as Ginsburg’s enlightened husband, Marty, and Justin Theroux as their boorish ACLU collaborator — and capturing the first giant leap of a woman with whom Leder feels a natural kinship. She talked to Vulture about her career and RBG’s, what’s next for her, and what’s next for us.
What did you know about Justice Ginsburg before you took on the project?
I always knew who she was, but I never knew about her in a personal way, the way she’s depicted in the script. Once I read it, I felt so many commonalities. We’re both Jewish, mothers, both have longstanding marriages. Both have broken the glass ceiling, in our ways — on much different levels, but we both know what it means to make change, and to have doors slammed in our faces.
Have you been on movie sets that felt like the opening scene — you, surrounded by hundreds of men?
I’m often in a truck or shooting something with a lot of men in the room. I know that feeling. But today on sets we really strive for gender parity, 50-50. On this film crew, all our department heads were equally represented in terms of color and gender.
Ginsburg advanced her own career by advancing the cause of women’s rights everywhere. Have you felt the same sense of responsibility?
Always, always. When I became a producer on China Beach, I was in a position to produce and direct. I hired a lot of women, and I always have. Because I always believed in equality for all, and you don’t get good at what you do unless you do it.
Did your turn to action movies in the ’90s also come from the impulse of not wanting to be pigeonholed?
When I started to do features, it was Steven Spielberg who came to me and offered me The Peacemaker — which was an action film, which I didn’t feel qualified to do. He said to me, “You’ve done it every day on television,” on ER. Right after that came Deep Impact, which Steven and Sherry Lansing offered me. Sherry Lansing is the only woman who has run a studio who has ever hired me, which I find very interesting. But I really related to that film on a very personal level. I know it was a big disaster film — a comet coming to earth — but it was really about: If you knew you were going to have nine months to live, what would you do with your life?
And what, in your mind, is Basis of Sex about? It was written by Daniel Stiepleman, Ginsburg’s nephew, but what did you bring to it?
I bring my humanity to every picture I do. This is a story about a woman [whom] I understood, who withstood the subtle, slight, and overt discrimination of the culture around her. Who changed that culture with her smarts and her eloquence, and this incredible marriage with Martin Ginsburg, her equal. Discrimination on the basis of sex isn’t just a women’s issue. It’s an injustice that affects us all.
It’s also about Marty Ginsburg making sacrifices for his wife’s career.
Certainly it was the story about a marriage that was fairly progressive in the ’50s. Marty became one of the preeminent tax attorneys in the country, and he cooked dinner, because she was a horrible cook. Their marriage was based on equality, and it was a metaphor for the film. I’m in a long-term marriage that’s based on equality. That’s what I bring, my personal understanding of living a life. We all need champions, and we all need love. I understood that deeply.
So, this is your first biopic …
I don’t see the film as a biopic. I see this as a film about how change happens, how love prevails. How together we rise to meet challenges of the culture. It’s a prequel for the documentary [RBG, out earlier this year]. It’s the first case she ever tried, which was never discussed in the documentary — and we were very relieved when we saw the documentary, because we had no idea!
But it is a movie based on a true story that happened long ago, and you haven’t done that before.
It’s always challenging to make a film about a real-life person, because you have to put your emotions aside about who they were, and who they are now. We had no recordings of Ruth Bader Ginsburg [at this trial], but we had Ruth Bader Ginsburg as someone who would give us information about being the young Ruth.
Did you feel a responsibility to her — especially since it was a family project?
I definitely felt a huge responsibility to get it right, and make it true. RBG made one demand of us, and it was that we needed to be absolutely perfect in capturing the law. And we [were]. The law dialogue really came out of conflict with the characters, instead of being a history lesson. I thought we were very effective in making that happen.
Pay It Forward was touted as an awards movie and didn’t live up to expectations, and then you couldn’t get a movie for years. Did you feel pressure or concern about that happening again this time?
There’s always pressure on anybody who makes a film to succeed, and for it to be good. And I can’t speak to the outcome. I can only speak to the experience of making it, which was extraordinary. I got the seal of approval from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and that to me is everything. She thought it was magnificent. She thought it got her work right in the Women’s Rights Movement, and it wasn’t men-bashing. She felt that being a feminist in the ’60s, ’70s was a joyous time for her. It was a joyous time for feminists. They weren’t angry; they were fighting for what was right. She felt the film reflected that joy.
Yet 2018 was not a very optimistic time for RBG, nor for anyone who shares her ideals.
That’s why I feel we need this movie more than ever, because of the poisonous political times we’re living in. One of the things that Justice Ginsburg does is she uses her arguments for persuasion, not to eliminate the other side. It’s a very civil way, and it’s something we need now. [The] Me Too and Times Up movements are in their infancy. I think we’re in the beginning of it, and it’s here to stay. I think the country is super-divided. It’s going to be very interesting what happens in the new year. I think this movie is hopeful and inspiring, if I do say so myself, and I’m hoping that has an effect on the people’s mind-set.
When you started out in TV, it wasn’t considered to be on the same level as the movies, which were the ultimate goal of most directors. That’s not true anymore, so does it matter less for you?
Obviously everything has narrowed, and sometimes in television you can get a lot more work done. I’m actually executive producing a television show for Apple, their first narrative television show, The Untitled Morning Show, [which will star Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell, and Billy Crudup]. It’s interesting, bouncing back and forth. The quality of work is the same, and I plan to continue doing both.