‘On the Basis of Sex’ Screenwriter On Making Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Story Like a ‘Rocky’ Movie [Interview]

on the basis of sex trailer

The life and career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is worth several movies, and in fact there was already a documentary about her out this year. But for her narrative biography, it took family to truly capture the heart of Ginsburg the person as well as the lawyer and ultimate Supreme Court Justice.

Daniel Stiepleman is Ginsburg’s nephew and On the Basis of Sex is his first produced screenplay. It focuses on Ginsbyrg’s early life and marriage to Martin Ginsburg. After graduating Harvard, in one of the first classes that allowed women, the Ginsburgs try the Moritz case to set a precedent for discrimination on the basis of sex. Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey) was denied a tax write-off as a caretaker because the law assumed only women would be caretakers.

Stiepleman went to film school and earned a Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy, but decided to join the Peace Corps at 22 to find his worldview. He met his wife in the Corps and became a high school English teacher where he encouraged his students to think about more interesting questions. That provided him the lightbulb moment to write this script about his aunt and uncle.

Now Stiepleman is attached to three more screenplays, including Debriefing the President based on John Nixon’s book about interrogating Saddam Hussein, the Usula le Guin adaptation Planet of Exile and the Sharon Draper Adaptation Out Of My Mind. Stiepleman spoke with /Film about On the Basis of Sex which opens on Christmas Day and expands to more theaters in January.

Did you title the movie On the Basis of Sex to be a little salacious for viewers who don’t know the context?

No, but after I came up with the title, it occurred to me that there’s going to be a moment where people go, “Wait” and they realize that that’s exactly the issue. It’s not salaciousness. It’s that our mind goes there first. That seems part and parcel with sex discrimination and stereotyping. So if even the title puts you in the headspace of thinking about those topics, then I feel like it was probably the right title.

How did you center on the Moritz case as the main issue of the script?

Ruth asked me the same question. When I called her and said I wanted to write this movie, she said, “Why that case? I argued bigger cases, more important cases, cases in front of the Supreme Court.” And I said, “Yeah, but it’s the only one you and Uncle Martin ever argued together.” That’s what the movie’s about, right? It’s not just about a landmark case. It’s about the fact that they together are trying to figure out how to live at home what they’re also fighting for in court which is true equality. For me, Ruth in the movie is the same age I am now. So for me it was an exploration of figuring out how she went from being my age, a young professional, I have to consider myself young, I have two young kids at home. And to become the woman who accomplished so much on behalf of so many. So for me, this case embodied all that. You can’t separate what she accomplished from her marriage to Uncle Martin. They were such a pair and such a team, and I hope the film depicts that. I think it does, where neither of them is really perfect. It’s just that together they become a perfect unit.

Is it telling that sexism didn’t begin to change until it affected a man?

I think it’s absolutely telling, but I’m not sure that I would totally agree that sexism didn’t begin to change. If there’s one thing I learned from writing this movie and talking to Aunt Ruth it’s that sustainable change means you have to change the culture, and you also have to change the laws and the institution. By the time we’re looking at the ‘70s, sexism in the culture was starting to change and that people were becoming more aware of it. Women were becoming more vocal about it and what Ruth did that was so revolutionary was that she taught the judges and legislatures that the law and institutions and to catch up with the culture.

So I could say the laws about sexism didn’t begin to change until they affected a man.

Again, I’m going to politely disagree with you and say it’s not that they first started. I’m sure it couldn’t have been the first time it ever impacted a man. It was the first time someone brought that case up and said, “See, look at this.” The law had been wrong for a long time. Now I’m being very Ruth Bader Ginsburg with you, being very specific and exacting.

Was there ever a draft that included more of the Reed vs. Reed case?

There was a draft in which the last scene was her in the back of the room as Allen Derr starts arguing the Reed vs. Reed case, just the first few sentences. So not really, but a little bit. The ending of her walking up the steps is much stronger.

So the cases were always intertwined?

It was always very important to me that the movie not be the story of how Ruth Bader Ginsburg saved women. It had to be the story of how Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the woman who went on to do such incredible things. In an early draft, Reed v Reed felt tacked on at the end. It was like what is this doing here? The movie’s over. So as a writer, to make Alan Derr feel like he had to be a part of it and to make that story be a part of it required going back and introducing it as it was happening from basically the midpoint of the movie.

Did it specify in your script that the real Ruth walks up the steps at the end?

That was Mimi Leder’s idea. The script ended with Felicity as Ruth walking up the steps going in to hear Alan Derr argue Reed v Reed. Mimi called me probably a week into shooting and said, “I have this idea. Do you think your aunt would do it.” With all the caveats, she’d have to check with the court. There’s legal counsel, there’s ethics questions. She would have to look into it but if she can, I think she would love it. Then I said, “But if you shoot it, you better put it in the movie because I don’t want to have to be the one who calls her and tells her she got cut out of her own life story.”

Did the courtroom drama genre give you a structure for the story?

No, in fact that structure almost got in the way. At first, I thought okay, this is a courtroom drama. So I was looking to movies like The Verdict. What I realized is because it’s Federal Appeals Court, you can’t treat it like a courtroom drama. Courtroom drama has the procedures of all the different steps that happen in court. Then there’s time off and you leave court, you come back to court. What I realized is I can’t treat this movie as a courtroom drama because Appeals Court doesn’t work that way. It’s one showdown right at the end. So it’s not a courtroom drama. It’s a boxing movie.

It’s still the preparation.

Yeah, and that was important to Ruth. She said, “Let brief writing be part of it. People should know that it’s not all in the oral arguments. It’s the writing of the brief.” Structurally I treated it like it was Rocky. The preparation is getting ready for the big match. I think you really see that moot court.

Is it documented that Dean Griswold undermined the female Harvard students?

That was a real story. That event absolutely happened and that was Ruth’s answer. Even knocking over the ashtray with the cigarettes happened.

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