A version of this article about Daniel Stiepleman and “On the Basis of Sex” first appeared in the Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
If most screenwriters told their aunts that they wanted to make a movie about them, the response would probably be, “Why me?” But Daniel Stiepleman’s aunt happens to be one of the most celebrated women of our era, pioneering lawyer and current Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who’s already been the subject of a hit documentary, “RBG,” earlier this year.
So when Stiepleman told Ginsburg about his movie idea, her big question wasn’t why he wanted to do it, but why he wanted to center the film on the 1972 Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue case, in which she and her husband, Martin Ginsburg, set a precedent that helped overturn sex discrimination.
“She said, ‘Why that case?’” Stiepleman said. “She said, ‘I argued bigger cases, I argued cases in front of the Supreme Court.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but this is the only one you ever argued with Uncle Martin.’ And to me, that was the crucial angle — figuring out how they lived at home what they were fighting for in court. It was important for people to know that the political and the personal were intertwined.”
Stiepleman didn’t know about the case until he heard about it in a eulogy at his uncle’s 2010 funeral. “I immediately thought, ‘Wow, this would be an incredible movie,’” he said. “And my second thought was, ‘What kind of asshole am I? I’m sitting here at my uncle’s funeral — I can’t mine his life for material.’”
But Stiepleman was so taken by the story of that case, and of a marriage in which he said his aunt and uncle “were real equals,” that he overcame his qualms and got Ginsburg’s permission to delve into her files at the Library of Congress to research the case and her life at the time. “I’d look at her lecture notes and the drafts of her briefs and her letters to other lawyers, and then at night we’d eat dinner and drink wine and talk about her marriage,” he said.
“On the Basis of Sex” follows Ginsburg as a young mother struggling to be taken seriously at Harvard Law School, then struggling to be hired by any law firm while Martin (played by Armie Hammer) enjoys a flourishing career. But her directive to Stiepleman, he said, was not to overstate her importance in using the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution to strike down institutionalized sex discrimination.
“She said, ‘I don’t want people to think I invented this area of the law,’ as if it had never occurred to people before me that women should be considered people under the Equal Protection Clause. I built my career on the shoulders of a generation of women lawyers who came before me.’”
Because the film spends plenty of time on the dynamics of the marriage, it also ventures into areas in which its screenwriter was not entirely comfortable. One of the scenes that Stiepleman found hardest to write shows his aunt and uncle flirting, then adjourning to the bedroom.
“I just wrote, ‘They fall into bed together,’ but [director] Mimi Leder said, ‘I need something to shoot,’” he said. “I went home, poured a drink and called Aunt Ruth.’”
He laughed. “No, that did not happen. That would have been weird. But I thought about the dynamics of their relationship, which was not something I necessarily wanted to think about, and then wrote the scene. I understand that Mimi shot two versions of it, the one that’s in the movie and one that goes a little further. I was not on the set that day, which was not an accident.”
With President Trump frequently lashing out at judges whose decisions he doesn’t like, Chief Justice John Roberts recently decried the politicization of the judiciary, saying, “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges.”
But Ginsburg has become an inherently political person (and icon), and Stiepleman knows it. So does he consider “On the Basis of Sex” a political film?
“Here’s what I learned from writing the movie, and from being Ruth’s nephew,” he said. “Ruth is someone who has ideals, and those ideals for some have made her a hero and for others have made her divisive.
“There is a perception of my aunt by some that she wants to tear down the system, but my experience is that she reveres the system, and who agrees with the idea that there should not be Obama judges and Trump judges and Clinton judges.
“What I see, and what the movie explores, is a young woman figuring out how to articulate her beliefs in a way that’s persuasive — she finds the balance between not alienating the male authorities and also being true to herself. Which is inherently political. She’s trying to persuade the people who disagree with her, not destroy them, and I think that’s what we’ve stopped trying to do in his particular political moment.”
Meanwhile, he’s hoping that “On the Basis of Sex” educates people, and maybe even changes a few minds. “At one test screening,” he said, “a man wrote down on his comments card, ‘I never understood why sex discrimination was a big deal until now. Thank you.’
“And I immediately called her up and said, ‘Guess what? We did it!’”
To read more of TheWrap’s Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue, click here.