Throughout her trials in the courtroom and 85-year life, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been many things: Supreme Court Justice, wife, mother, grandmother, widow, the first female member of the Harvard Law Review, a tireless women’s-rights warrior, and an unlikely pop-culture icon. But as RBG, a documentary about her life and legacy, makes clear, the sum of those roles can be measured in sheer grit and stamina. Directed and produced by Betsy West and Julie Cohen and shot by DP Claudia Raschke, a 30-year film industry veteran, RBG uses interviews, verité and archival material to build a formidable portrait of the soft-spoken justice who had already won landmark gender discrimination cases before she became the second woman appointed to the country’s highest court. We spoke to Raschke about the documentary’s lighting challenges — Ginsburg is extremely light sensitive — and how the justice’s style and achievements have inspired her in her own work on set.
StudioDaily: It’s hard to make a good documentary without good access to your subject. What was your way in to Justice Ginsburg?
Claudia Raschke: We started filming the events first, when she appeared at a speaking engagement or at the opera. At that point, we weren’t granted anything, so we carefully approached her. There’s a certain amount of trust that has to be built with your subject if it’s going to work. But I tried to light some of those events with some pretty bright units, because it was just too dark in the theater. I noticed that she would take it upon herself to sit in the chair that pointed away from the lighting. Of course I didn’t know that she has very light-sensitive eyes, and though I’m well aware that lights can be uncomfortable for many people, in her case it was even more uncomfortable. I got the feedback that the lights were too bright for her, so I started thinking about all the ways I could possibly light her to make her relax and feel really comfortable. I like using broad, soft strokes of light like a painter, and highlights in the background, but I knew that a big source could be really harsh on the eyes. By the time we were granted our interviews with her in the courtroom, we came up with the idea of shooting an HMI into an ultrabounce, which is a very bright white reflector, and filtering that light through a silk. It became this very comfortable, beautiful light. I had a window that I wanted to use as part of my art direction, and this setup made the light seem very natural and authentic. And I think it made her look magnificent. We had three cameras going, just to make sure that we milked every minute of our time with her! But that means lighting three different setups with three different backgrounds, while maintaining certain character lighting, a certain background that tells the story of who she is. You want it all to jell.
Were you allowed in her chambers?
No, we filmed the interviews in another room inside the Supreme Court building. We were, however, allowed into her chambers for a brief moment: in the film, it’s when you see this tiny person at this huge desk behind all the law books. We were limited to five or ten minutes to get the shot and move on.
How long did you have inside the empty Supreme Court courtroom?
We were given just twenty minutes to shoot in there. I had two cameras but we weren’t allowed to bring in any lighting or jib arms or anything like that. Because it was empty, I suggested we experiment with moving cameras, one on a tripod and one on a steadicam. The tricky thing usually with a steadicam is you have to have somebody in front of it because it floats with human motion. Even if you have the steadicam rig, it isn’t perfectly smooth. So without anyone in the seats, and graphic lines that are unforgiving for any kind of motion, how do you go about making it look smooth? I decided that going slow motion will make a faster move where you have more of a smooth motion with a steadicam. By slowing it down significantly, later on we can use it to our advantage.
Perfect for overlaying the text treatment to match the voiceover audio of the cases she presented before the court, and later, her dissents.
Exactly. I felt so happy with that approach, which I was confident we could do with the C300 MKII and its beautiful sensor. We shot the film in 4K, but of course, when you’re going into slo-mo you can only shoot in 2K because of the way you have to crop for the mechanics of it. But not having any lighting was no big deal when you’re working with the right camera and lenses. We used Prime lenses (Canon CN-E 50mm Cine Lens), which would open to T1.3. We had some nice little moments in there that I was so happy about, like this rotation shot we did on the podium and microphone where the presenting lawyer argued their case.
You got some terrific shots of her in the gym with her trainer. Were you given much time for that?
Of all the vérité scenes, that was probably the largest block of time we got: 20 minutes. It is inside a special small gym for the justices within the Supreme Court, so it’s completely private. We had two cameras going at once. In D.C., my second camera was Peter Nicholl, who is also a DP. In New York I like to work with Alan Hostedder, so he was my second camera for the interviews based there. In the gym, there were a lot of us squeezed in there, from Betsy and Julie to the grip and sound. And there was a wall of mirrors, which made it tough. But it was so much fun because she just goes at it. She’s doing planks — I can’t do that! It’s a tough workout. But she has incredible focus.
How did you approach the various interviews with her colleagues, family and friends?
We wanted to make every person who we interviewed stand out as a character by doing as much as we can with the environment they were in. For some it was their home, or others it was in their office. We wanted the setup to set the tone for their particular part of the story. We always would have had two cameras: one that would capture closeups and the other one that would either capture a two-shot, in which you’d see more of the background and environment, or the close-up lens that would swing from one to the other. I loved using the Canon cine primes for these different setups. The closeups would be my 85mm, and then I would use either a 35mm prime or a 50mm. For me, lighting has to do with contrasts and color. You can set the quality and angle of the shadows, and how the highlights guide the viewer’s eyes back to the subject. All of that plays into who the character is and what they’re talking about. Sometimes it works fantastically and other times I think, “Why didn’t I think of doing it differently?” But we only had one moment in time to make it work. Julie and I, however, went and pre-scouted locations in New York whenever it was possible. Peter or someone else would do the same in D.C., and we’d discuss our options over the phone. Once I was on set, I built the camera as quickly as possible with one of my main lenses, the 50mm, and walked around the set to find my backgrounds and how I can have two cameras next to each other. Once you find that, with your canvas in the foreground and enough space to do the lighting, you can start setting your key lights. I set my key lights in conjunction with if there is a window in the background, if there is a little dash of light coming through that I know is actually going to be there when we’re doing the interview. If you have a big window front, that can help, but it’s also a wild card because you don’t know if the weather’s going to change or if another stray reflection is going to come through the window and create a hot spot on the subject’s face. We used a lot of natural light in the scenes with her granddaughter, for example, but I also supplemented it with additional light to create a wraparound.
What drew you to this project?
Betsy’s husband is also a filmmaker, Oren Jacoby, and we had worked together before, so I was in the mix. From the get-go, Betsy and Julie wanted to have an all-women team to represent the strength of leadership so that we echo the equal rights fight throughout RBG’s life. As a woman, especially in this field, where you have only 4% women cinematographers in the top 500 film productions right now, the margin of representation is quite small. Betsy and Julie have had their own struggles as producers and directors, so they felt having an all-female team would represent having stood your ground, despite the odds, the same way Ruth stood her ground. She endured and persevered, and so did we. When Betsy and I talked on the phone, she said CNN Films has just given us the green light and then asked if I was on board. I told her I’ve long been a fan and that RGB has been my hero. Yes, please!
Have things improved for female cinematographers in your experience?
It is definitely getting better. Yes, women in the industry are still something of a rare sight. In the old days, there was a litany of excuses: they were too weak to carry the camera, they didn’t have enough stamina to work through the entire day, they were too soft-spoken, or they couldn’t handle the pressure. But I think we have proven that we can work harder, longer and persevere, because more and more doors are being pushed open. You have more producers, more directors, more cinematographers, more studio heads in decision-making roles. It’s still sometimes a slow process, but it is happening.
Did you ever had any issues on set?
I try to work with my same team when I can, and it is a very collegial environment in the documentary world. In features, where I worked for years, you tend to have a very male-centric grip, electrical, directing and AD department. There, I certainly had some issues with those who didn’t think I could make certain decisions. I quickly learned to address it straight away. I’d put my hand on their arm and say, “I’ve got this. Don’t worry.” They were usually taken aback, because they were caught in their judgment. And they’d back off. You have to stand your ground, but the way you do it doesn’t have to be aggressive.
How does Justice Ginsburg inspire you in your own work?
As I was listening to the different stories from the various people interviewed, I saw that early in her life and career, she was not standing out, although she was doing very remarkable things to push against the norm. And this was during an era that was making it very difficult for women to do anything different from a very narrow set of expectations. You were not allowed to step outside the boundaries, essentially. For me, that was something I could find very encouraging — she ultimately found her tool, which for her was how to frame and argue her dissents. She understood that when you are presenting something, you have to be prepared for how people will interpret that. And if there are key triggers that will shut down somebody’s mind and will close the door to them even considering it, then you have, ultimately, not presented it in the best way possible. For me on set, it’s the same thing. I have to develop my diplomatic skills, be an attentive listener, and present my cinematic ideas in a way that won’t disrupt egos along the way. How the set flows is also a matter of presentation. Once you fine-tune your emotional intelligence to what the dynamic is on the set and focus on bringing your entire crew in to contribute in multiple ways so they feel value and respected for what they do, only then you can create a space where everyone can collaborate. Everyone likes being part of the process. Ruth, in a way, did something similar: she found a process, and words, that didn’t shut the door but opened it.
Did anything else about her surprise you during production, beyond those fearless planks?
She’s not someone who laughs out loud a lot, so it was pretty great that we were able to capture the moment when she’s watching Kate McKinnon impersonate her on Saturday Night Live. That giggle, followed by the deadpan dismissal that it’s nothing like her, was priceless.
RBG opens today in 34 theaters around the country, with expansions scheduled starting next week and continuing into the summer. See the Magnolia Pictures website for play dates.
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