It is no secret that Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s story is a unique one; an untraditional tale of how a respected U.S. Supreme Court Justice became an adored pop-culture icon. Sharing the story about the life and career of the beloved 85-year-old Justice is no small feat, and so it comes as no surprise that Julie Cohen was part of leading a team in successfully completing this task.
Cohen is an experienced documentary filmmaker and television news producer with a host of honors and awards under her belt including three New York Emmys and the 2017 Panavision Showcase Award. Understanding the importance of recognizing your value and doing something about it, Cohen decided to start her own production company Better Than Fiction in 2007, which produces documentaries, television programming and digital content.
Cohen’s films have screened at more than 80 festivals across the globe. RBG, directed and produced with Betsy West, premiered at Sundance 2018 and has quickly become a cultural phenomenon as a top grossing documentary bringing in over 10 million dollars at the box office.
Her Agenda had the opportunity to chat with Julie Cohen about the success of the new film, critical aspects to consider when leading a team, and what it takes to run your own company.
Her Agenda: Where do you find motivation for the work you do?
Julie Cohen: My motivation comes largely from the subjects of the stories that I’m working on at any given time. In the case of RBG, I feel like our motivation stemmed largely from the star of our film, Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself, whose life story is full of inspiration and exemplifies again and again what it looks like to overcome adversity with determination. Every time she faced something difficult in her life, whether it was her mother’s death when she was just a teenager or the intense sex discrimination she faced in an era when women weren’t welcome at law school, law firms or in all kinds of places in society, her response was to strategically figure out a way around it. This remains true. You can see it today when she does her workout routines. She is 85 years old, has had all kinds of physical adversity including battling cancer twice, and still her attitude towards exercising is how am I going to push forward? I think that’s inspiring and motivating.
Her Agenda: How would you describe your career path up until becoming co-producer and co-director of the film, RBG?
Julie Cohen: I have had a long journey, but all of it had direction. I started off as a journalist doing radio journalism and print journalism. I then moved to television journalism where I was a producer at NBC and did mostly long-form TV writing and producing. In 2007 I decided that I wanted to take the skills of storytelling that I had developed at NBC and devote them to telling stories I was most interested in so I started my own production company. I started making documentaries for different venues, PBS, festivals and online documentaries on a variety of subject matters. This work ultimately led to me working on the film about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which I made with my friend and colleague, Betsy West, another journalist, TV producer and documentary filmmaker. We both had the opportunity previously to interview Justice Ginsburg for two separate projects. Thus as Justice Ginsburg’s stardom was on the rise, we thought someone ought to make a film about her and why shouldn’t it be us?
Her Agenda: As someone who owns your own company, what are some of your best practices for leading a team?
Julie Cohen: I would say a best practice is choosing your team wisely. This means not only putting together skilled teams, but also putting together teams of people that you like and work well with. For RBG we made an additional goal of putting together a team of women as well as placing all the top creators and leaders in executive positions. It wasn’t that hard to do and it made the whole process a lot more fun. One of the best practices is pulling together a team that has the right chemistry and is really going to bring something as a unit to create the kind of film, in this case, that someone like me wants to champion.
Her Agenda: Was there ever a time in your career when someone doubted you and your work? If so, how did you handle it?
Julie Cohen: I think the hardest kind of doubt to deal with professionally is self-doubt. There are instances in every creative project I do where I wake up in the morning, something went wrong, an interview fell through or things didn’t come together the way I dreamed it would. In situations like these you might wake up the next morning and think: What am I doing? Can I really put this whole film together? The difference between people who end up making films and people who don’t is how you react in those moments, how you lead and how you decide to forge ahead. It’s about coming up with alternatives if plan A doesn’t work out. As a young woman, when I started out in the journalism and TV business, I had a lot of mentors and encouragement for my work. I think if you are expressing confidence in yourself and exude it you can decrease that doubt. Doing both of these things will assist you in building more confidence.
Her Agenda: Where did you find the courage to start your own company?
Julie Cohen: My courage to start my own company came from two distinct places. The first being my experience. I didn’t just get straight out of graduate school and simply decide to start my own documentary production company. I had a fair amount of professional experience by that time. I had worked in all kinds of capacities so I knew that I had developed professional relationships that we’re going to help me do what I needed to do. I knew that I had talents, skills and experience to do what I wanted to do. The other came externally, frankly, from having people around me who encouraged me, said I could do it, and it was a good idea. Of course, a big part ultimately came from within. I thought to myself ok, I have the experience and the support from friends and the people around me. I took all of that in, internalized it and affirmed I can do this, why not give it a try?
Her Agenda:What is one of the best pieces of advice you’ve ever been given?
Julie Cohen: Don’t become too invested in any one outcome that you can’t make the best of what comes to you. Try to take what comes your way and figure out how to make the best of it. When I was working at the Justice Department an official made an interesting point. He stated that sometimes an event occurs and you don’t know whether it is bad news or good news for your life. At the time of an event it can seem very difficult and tragic, but in fact it is going to end up pointing you in a new and better direction. My takeaway was to relax a bit when you’re focused, waiting or invested in something taking place.
Her Agenda:What is the key takeaway you want viewers to walk away with after watching your film about Ruth Bader Ginsburg?
Julie Cohen: My directing partner, Betsy, and I, along with the whole team, want viewers to walk away with two things. First of all, an appreciation for everything Justice Ginsburg has done in her life and career to advance the notion that women and men should be treated equally under the law of the U.S. Constitution. A lot of the advances women have made are the direct reflection of the work of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The second takeaway is more of an emotion. We want people to hear her fun and fascinating story and be inspired. There is a lot about her story that is inspirational. There is a lot in the story that is romantic focusing on the importance of sharing your life with someone else. There is also a lot about her story that is fun and funny. We want our viewers to feel all of those things.
Her Agenda: What is something you look forward to accomplishing before the end of the year?
Julie Cohen: One major goal of mine is to bring RBG to more diverse audiences including ensuring that more young people see the film. Also, by the end of the year I’m hoping that I have at least one new project that is in full swing! Betsy and I are actually initiating a bunch of new projects at the moment and we are determined to see at least one of them move forward.
Her Agenda: Is there a book you would recommend to the Her Agenda community?
Julie Cohen: There is really nothing like the experience of reading a book. There are so many great books I have read throughout my life. For this audience I’d recommend Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. The book has a beautiful story as well as poetic and fantasy elements.
[Editor’s note: This interview published on September 10th, 2018. It has been edited for length and clarity.]