Director Mimi Leder says she had a visceral response upon reading the script for On The Basis Of Sex, inspired by a true story and written by Daniel Stiepleman, who is also Justice Ginsburg’s real-life nephew and an Executive producer on the film.
“I had to make this movie,” says Leder, a multiple Emmy Award-winning director and producer and the visionary storyteller behind a number of the most acclaimed dramas in film (The Peacemaker, Deep Impact) and television (L.A. Law, The Leftovers), forging a path for a generation of filmmakers both creatively and in terms of opportunity.
“I immediately identified with Justice Ginsburg’s journey to who she was meant to be.”
The film tells the true story of a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) – then a struggling attorney and new mother – who faces adversity and numerous obstacles in her fight for equal rights throughout her career.
When Ruth takes on a groundbreaking tax case with her husband, attorney Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), she knows it could change the direction of her career and the way the courts view gender discrimination. The film also chronicles the storybook-like romance between Ruth and Marty, a partnership that succeeded both personally and professionally.
Leder was compelled to tell the story of a strong woman who, against all odds, was able to realize her dreams, as well as move humanity forward in her fight for equality and the women’s rights movement.
Leder also felt a certain connection with Ginsburg. “I wanted to tell her story because I, too, have felt adversity and discrimination and have fought hard for jobs that lesser men have gotten,” she says. “I felt a commonality in our journeys, both being mothers, Jewish women, having a very long love affair and equal partnership with our husbands. I’ve been in a 32- year marriage. Justice Ginsburg had a very long marriage, that was so full of love and equality that really spoke to our film and spoke to the metaphor of the movie.”
The fact that the script happened to be penned by Ruth’s nephew, with Ruth’s input, added an insightful and intimate dimension of authenticity to the story.
The first woman accepted into the AFI Conservatory’s Cinematography program, Leder’s work uses a rich and dynamic palette, seamlessly blending striking visuals with fluid action sequences and intimate character drama. Notably, Leder directed the first-ever feature (The Peacemaker) under the DreamWorks banner. Her work has received numerous industry honors including recognition from Women in Film and the American Film Institute.
Leder began her directing career on the seminal legal drama L.A. Law, and she quickly established herself as one of the most sought-after directors in television. Of the nine television pilots she has directed, six have gone on to become series.
Leder’s most notable credits include the Peabody Award-winning HBO drama The Leftovers, where she served as an executive producer for twenty-two episodes while directing ten. Her additional television credits include Showtime’s irreverent comedy Shameless and the hit broadcast series Crime Story, HBO’s Luck and, most notably, ER which redefined television drama in the 1990s.
In 1999, Leder was the recipient of the American Film Institute’s Franklin J. Schaffner Award, and in 2000, she received the Women in Film Crystal distinguished Dorothy Arzner Directors Award.
Stiepleman was inspired to write the script during his Uncle Martin’s funeral in 2010 while listening to the eulogy.
“There is no marriage that I admired more than Uncle Marty and Aunt Ruth,” he explains. “And that’s what I was thinking about when Uncle Martin died in June of 2010. And so we went to the funeral and one of his friends got up and gave the eulogy and within that eulogy was just a little bit of a story of the only case Ruth and Marty ever argued together, and I thought, ‘Wow, that is an incredible movie.’”
Stiepleman sat on the idea for a year before approaching Ruth. “So, I called [Ruth], and I said I have this idea for a script. I’d like your permission, if possible, and I’d love your help. And she said, and I quote, ‘If that’s how you think you’d like to spend your time.’ And so then I went down to D.C. and we spent several days together,” he recalls.
During this period, Stiepleman combed through Ruth’s personal files from the 1960s and ‘70s as well as at the Library of Congress by day; by night, he would interview her about what he had found.
“We would talk about their marriage and their early relationship and being one of nine women at Harvard Law School in the 1950s. … What did that feel like and how did you support each other? As I did this, a larger story began to emerge,” he says. “And one of the great joys of this project for me was, in a way, I feel like I got to know my Aunt Ruth for the first time, and she got to know me, too, as a writer.”
According to Stiepleman, it was critical to Ruth that the story remain factual. “We would spend hours and hours on the phone combing together. And the things that were really remarkable about Ruth, what was most important to her was that the law was right, that the way the law is practiced was accurate in the script.”
Stiepleman notes that Ruth never displayed a sense of ego when it came to telling her story. “It wasn’t about, you know, ‘I don’t look good here.’ It was always, this is how the law is, and let’s get the law right, and that was so important to her and I really admire that.”
But what truly touched him was her passion and dedication to the Constitution. “I think there’s something deeper that is crucial to understand about Ruth – how much she really reveres the Constitution and the law and the country,” he exclaims. “And what I learned from her is what patriotism looks like.”
Stiepleman sent a draft to Karen Loop, his supervisor during the time he taught screenwriting at Columbia College in Chicago, who was so taken with the story, she forwarded it to producer Robert Cort.
Stiepleman has been featured on the Black List and the Athena List, and is one of Variety’s current “10 Screenwriters to Watch.” In addition to writing On the Basis of Sex, Daniel is also writing and producing the upcoming film Planet of Exile with Gran Via and LAMF, based on the book by Ursula le Guin, and adapting John Nixon’s book Debriefing the President for producer Alexander Rodnyansky and director Ziad Doueiri.
Upon receiving the script, Cort saw promise, even in its rawest form. “We spent probably 18 months on that draft before we brought it out to the world. And it was greeted with enormous interest by the whole community,” he recalls. “It made what’s called The Blacklist, which is a list of Hollywood’s top unproduced screenplays. And that was the beginning of the process.”
Cort likens Ruth to Wonder Woman.
“On the Basis of Sex is the origin story of one of the great women of our times. I say ‘origin story’ with a real specificity of the world of superheroes, because Ruth, in many ways, is our superhero,” he explains. “In the movie, the first 15-20 minutes, her time in Harvard, her time in New York, are the moments and the events that really crystallized who she is as a person.”
Leder was especially drawn to the human side of the formidable Supreme Court Justice. “She’s someone who we know is absolutely groundbreaking and one of the most influential political figures of our time,” she says. “But what’s most important to be reminded of is that she’s a human being and it was very important for me and the filmmakers to bring out her humanity and show her as a real person,” she stresses.
When we first meet her in the film, Ruth is attending Harvard Law School along with her husband, Marty. As she learns to balance life as a mother with her role as a law student, Ruth faces adversity in a male-dominated, often hostile environment, in which she is only one of nine women in her class.
Producer Jonathan King notes that the script came to Participant Media at exactly the right time. “Participant Media’s mission is to make movies that are about important social issues of the time in both the United States and around the world, so this movie is focused on equality and civil rights. It’s right in line with our mission,” he asserts.
King loved the fact that Ruth defied all odds in a world that seemed pitted against her. “On a very simple level, On the Basis of Sex is a movie about a young woman of incredible talent and ambition who is told that she cannot do something, so it’s about her fighting for her place in the world. … And then when she fights for herself, [she’s also fighting] on behalf of everyone who’s been told they can’t do something because they’re a woman or a man, for that matter,” he states.
Academy Award®-nominated British actress Felicity Jones– fresh from her critically acclaimed performance in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story– was cast to portray the determined future SCOTUS Justice.
“I’ve been looking for a part like this for years,” she says. “It’s one in which a female character is fiercely devoted to what she does, but at the same time, explores the fuller sense of her life and character.”
The first step in Jones’ research was meeting with her real-life counterpart. “I was very fortunate to meet Justice Ginsburg at her apartment in Washington, and it was a very moving encounter,” she recalls. “There were so many details, and I didn’t want to forget anything, so I remember going, um, ‘Ruth, do you mind if I just take a few pictures?’
“So, I was sort of taking these pictures of her desk and how everything was laid out,” Jones continues. “And one of the strongest things that came through was that this woman has such humanity and takes absolute care over everything. There’s nothing done in a glib or arrogant way.”
Jones says her greatest takeaway from the experience was that Ruth is a true “revolutionary with a fire in her belly.”
Armie Hammer, who plays Martin Ginsburg, admits he jumped at the chance to be a part of the production. “When I first got this script, I was really excited,” he recalls. “I thought it was great that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was sort of coming to life on the pages. And then after talking to Mimi and meeting everybody involved, I was really excited to see how it would transition to the screen.”
Hammer says he was particularly drawn to the couple’s devotion to one another. “They had a really successful and amazing relationship because they were able to sort of always do whatever it takes. … I think the reason Ruth credits Martin with a lot of her success is justthe level of symbiosis they have. They wouldn’t have been able to have two kids and multiple careers and all that stuff if the y weren’t really interested in helping each other out. And they make a really good team.”
Jones agrees with Hammer’s observation: “When I watch old footage of them, it’s rooted in laughing. They just make each other laugh their heads off. There was just real friendship as well as a romantic relationship there and absolute respect for each other. They really were partners. It was the 1950s and both would clean and cook.”
Hammer admires the effort Jones put into developing her character. “She just takes it so seriously and she brings so much respect to this, especially to Justice Ginsburg,” he states. “She brings a resolution and strength to the character but also a gentleness, which is really touching.”
At the heart of the story is the case that Martin – then a preeminent tax attorney – brings to Ruth.
It involves Charles Moritz, a single man who is denied $296 on his tax deduction for being a male caregiver. “This is sex-based discrimination,” Ruth exclaims upon reading the case. “If a federal court ruled that this law is unconstitutional, it would become the precedent others refer to and build on.”
“It was a case that overturned a century of gender discrimination,” Leder says. “It was a case that declared discrimination on the basis of sex unconstitutional. And so as doors kept closing, she kept opening and opening them. And, you know, these laws, the case that she won, affected so many laws that we, today, take for granted.”
Cort wants moviegoers to pay particular attention to the courtroom drama. “I think people will find the courtroom scene to be, and I say this advisedly, a unique moment in film history,” he observes. “There have been a lot of courtroom scenes in a lot of movies, and I have enjoyed a lot of them. But Ruth Bader Ginsburg, played by Felicity Jones, rises to speak at the end of this courtroom scene … and she has not just one of the longest speeches any woman has ever had in American cinema, but far and away the most inspiring and the most brilliant.”