While Ruth Bader Ginsburg origin story On the Basis of Sex is Mimi Leder’s first feature in 18 years, it isn’t a return. In the mind of the director, who was making groundbreaking television long before it was in vogue, she never really left. When she struggled to land a feature after the commercial underperformance of 2000’s Pay It Forward, Leder simply reoriented herself, returning to the ideas that drove her. “I didn’t want to make sh*tty films,” she says. “I wanted to do stories that mattered.” With her latest, examining a groundbreaking case Ginsburg fought as a young lawyer to create a path toward gender equality, the director does just that.
Currently at work on Apple’s anticipated morning show drama, which has yet to be titled, Leder premiered her latest at AFI Fest on November 8. For the director, who was the first female graduate of the AFI Conservatory’s cinematography program, the event was a “beautiful homecoming,” a meaningful nod to the creative space which gave her “a great foundation, and a great understanding of cinema.”
How did On the Basis of Sex come together? What was exciting about this project to you?
Robert Cort bought the rights to the script and developed it with Daniel [Stiepleman, screenwriter]. I know there were other people attached to the picture; when I came on, Natalie Portman was attached, and she eventually dropped out. I sent the script to Felicity [Jones] on a Thursday, and she responded on Monday with a big yes, so that came together very quickly, and when I read the script, I just felt that I had to do it. I felt that I related to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life; I felt many commonalities with her. Not that I would ever compare my accomplishments to hers, but breaking the glass ceiling, and her tireless fight for equality… Being a mother—a Jewish woman in a long-term marriage—those were things that she was up against in those times, and she tackled all of them with her fight for equal rights, and continues to.
What were you focused on when it came to your rewrites?
In working on the script, I just wanted the scenes to feel as realistic as they could. It was interesting reading an original draft, and then several drafts that took us to where I entered. I wanted to restore a lot of the earlier material, and I wanted to make that relationship between Marty and Ruth really honest, and really authentic.
I also changed the ending of the film. The end of the script originally had Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Marty Ginsburg in the Supreme Court, listening to Allen Derr say her words for the Reed v. Reed case. I found that after her triumph in winning the case that changed 178 laws for women and men, I wanted to change the end. I had this idea that at the end, they’re walking down the steps of the Tenth Circuit in Denver. [While] in the front of the movie, I had her entering Harvard, I wanted to bookend the movie with her walking up the steps and ascending to her future.
Then, I came up with the idea that I wanted young Ruth to become the Ruth that she is today, so I wrote Justice Ginsburg and asked her if she would be in the film, in a cameo. She said yes, and it was extraordinary. There were non-believers in this idea, by the way—just a few. They were like, “Is this really going to work?” I always felt it was going to work incredibly well—that we would feel such a gut-wrenching feeling, like we had really completed the journey. I felt that the feeling would make the journey complete. It was amazing, the day we shot that. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was there, and we had her walking up the steps. It was really interesting: How do you direct the Justice? And she was lovely.
How did you approach meeting her, and what did you gain from firsthand experience in the end?
I met her several times; I have had several dinners with her, and conversations. I first met her in her chambers; it was very polite, and I was very intimidated by this tiny little woman. When we had dinner though, things were very loose, and it was interesting having to ask Justice Ginsburg about very personal questions that I wanted to ask her in relation to the film, so that we could be as authentic as we could be. It was like going on a first date, but asking, “How did you know Marty was the one? How did you know?” She told us about her courtship with him, and how brilliant and funny and smart Marty was. That she [had gone] on a date with someone else and they were playing charades, and he wasn’t very funny and he wasn’t very smart. She said he was an idiot. It was very funny, and Daniel and I looked at each other and said, “We have to put a charade scene in the movie.” So, meeting her was extraordinary. Making the film was life changing.
What did you see in Felicity and Armie Hammer that spoke to who Ruth and Marty were then?
Both of them have faces of generations past. In seeing some early footage of what they looked like, and how handsome and beautiful they were, I wanted Armie to play Marty because I felt that he possessed those qualities of charm and humor. We hadn’t really seen the lighter side of Armie Hammer, and I knew he had that side in him. I loved his height, as well, next to the diminutive RBG, and I hoped their chemistry would be great.
In finding Felicity, I was comparing photos of her with [Ginsburg], and I felt they had great similarities in their look and feel. If you look at pictures side by side, it’s remarkable. I have known Felicity’s work and admired her from afar for years, and felt that she was the one who could inhabit the essence of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I just felt it in my bones, and then, when I met her and talked with her, I really knew that we could do this.
When we brought Armie and Felicity to meet Justice Ginsburg, we had dinners together and many talks. I brought Felicity to her apartment, and Felicity had alone time with her. They both got to know her. In the first meeting, Armie was given a book called Chef Supreme. Marty Ginsburg and the wives of the Supreme Court Justices used to have lunch once a month, and they’d all cook; Marty was an extraordinary cook and chef, and when he died, the Justices’ wives put together a book of his recipes, and also quotes with how they felt about him. There’s this quote from Jane Ginsburg in there, saying that, “Daddy did the cooking, Mommy did the thinking,” and the first thing Ruth Bader Ginsburg did when she met Armie was give him that book. During production at one point, Armie cooked five different recipes from that book, and had a sit-down dinner for all of us. We were all eating food that Marty made for his wife and family for all those years. It was quite an interesting connection through food.
Visually, what was important when it came to this film?
Directorially, I wanted everything to feel very authentic to the time period, to be really true to form. I tried to shoot it in a very contemporary way, but in a classic way as well—and I thought the density of light and the saturation had to be really strong. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of making a biopic, and making it look like a biopic; I wanted it to really have powerful images in the confines of this story, which involves a lot of talking. The opening sequence, I had a chance to put her in a sea of men, of black and gray and brown suits. Isis Mussenden, the incredible costume designer, and I wanted to find just the right color [for Ginsburg’s dress]. Ruth’s favorite color is blue, so she found this incredible cornflower blue dress that swayed, and that was very inspiring, to shoot that opening sequence.
While you’ve recently worked on a lot of extraordinary television, On the Basis of Sex is your first feature in 18 years. Has that been a matter of preference or opportunity?
I believe it’s all about the storytelling and great scripts. Whether it’s on the big screen or the small screen, my approach is always the same, and I’ve had a lot of great opportunities in television to really tell great stories. Making this film was really interesting. I didn’t feel I was coming back from anything, even though the perception is that you haven’t made a film in 18 years, and you’re coming back to features. Well, that is true. But I never left. I continued to work in high-end television and make shows that mattered.
What changes have you noticed, in terms of representation, at this point?
The issues are certainly complex. We never say, “That male director Steven Spielberg really did a great job.” But we’re always tagged with, “Female director Mimi Leder,”—always. It used to bother me quite a bit a long time ago, and now, we’ve made great gains in [getting] more female directors directing films and television.
You’ve been able to champion many of those very women yourself, bringing them on to your projects.
Yes, I hire women directors a lot, and I seek gender parity in every show I’m producing, and it’s really important. So much has changed, and so little has changed; we have such a long way to go to reach gender parity. You can see the percentages—they’re still very bad. I’ve been very fortunate to choose the projects that I want to direct, but for a long time, I wasn’t. For a long time, I was in movie jail, and I don’t even like to really linger on that, but the double standard still exists. Male directors whose films have failed are always given second and third chances to make more.
This year has been remarkable for women filmmakers, who are telling super complex, intimate stories, [making] huge action films, and running the gamut. It’s been an extraordinary year for women, and I love it. I always want to see a movie and not know who directed it, and say, “Did a woman direct that or did a man direct that?” I’d be so curious: Could we tell the difference? What does a woman bring that a man doesn’t? What does a man bring that a woman doesn’t? How can you tell who’s muscular, who isn’t?
You recently premiered On the Basis of Sex at AFI Fest. Could you describe the experience you had as a student at AFI?
When I was there, I was 20 years old, with the likes of David Lean, Gordon Willis and Billy Friedkin coming to speak to us about film. Frank Daniel would teach us—we’d go through West Side Story, and explore scenes, and what they meant and felt like, and it was really a great time. So, it was truly full circle for me. They pushed me out into the world, and I’m very grateful to them for that experience. It’s really interesting how, in the early years, AFI wanted me to come in as a director, but I wanted to come in as a cinematographer. They saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. I wanted to study lighting and angles and camera, and then that education truly informed who I am today. I very much am a visual storyteller and a performance storyteller, and I love to merge the two.
What can you share about your new Apple series?
It’s based on a book called Top of the Morning by Brian Stelter. It’s a behind-the-scenes story of a morning show, and it has this real dark comedy bent to it. It’s an extremely timely piece—get ready. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing by Kerry Ehrin. It’s just been a great experience, working with her and the likes of Jen Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell, Billy Crudup, Mark Duplass. It’s an extraordinary cast.
Are you in the know about any details, when it comes to the Apple streaming service we are yet to see, or when the series will debut?
I’m somewhat privy to it, but I’m not quite sure yet. They’re still figuring it out and presenting it to us. I know how it will roll out, I just don’t know very much about the streaming service part of it. But there will be an announcement.
Apart from this series, what’s next for you? Do you have any other projects in mind? Is there anything specific you want to pursue that you haven’t yet?
I wrote a script with my brother Reuben Leder, and my niece, Stefanie Leder, about our father, who was an ultra-low-budget filmmaker. It’s sort of a Day for Night type film about a family that makes films together, and the family you make when you make a film.
Then, there are other stories I want to tell. I love making political films, and I wouldn’t mind getting in the trenches again on a big action film. I have purposely not done them for a long time, but I’m very open to everything. I want to make films that people will take something away from. This film, On the Basis of Sex, it’s about Ruth Bader Ginsburg finding her voice, and I’m hoping that many generations to come will be encouraged to find their voice. I am so open to the future, and I don’t ever want to just stay in one genre. I just want to tell stories about people, and change the world.