The Ms. Q&A: Carla Gutierrez on Editing RBG and Learning Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Notorious History

Carla Gutierrez has had an enviable to-do list recently. It was her job to go through of footage of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and career as editor of the new documentary RGB—and in the process, shape the narrative around one of the most iconic women in America.

Ms. spoke with Gutierrez about her work on one of the most anticipated documentary films of 2018 and meeting the Notorious Supreme Court Justice herself.

How did you become involved in making this film?

Everything in this business is a kind of word of mouth, so I actually did not know the directors, Betsy and Julie. I was actually recommended by someone at CNN Films, who produced RBG… Once I found out what this film was about I told myself: okay, be on your best behavior, impress these ladies! I really, really wanted to be part of this… I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to work on this.

Was the film completed when you were brought on?

Yeah! It was very special. So, when I came on board, they had filmed a lot of the interviews, but still had some [left to film]. They hadn’t done the main interview, but they had gathered a vast amount of archival material. I came on board and the first thing I did was work with my assistant editor at the time [later, subject editor Grace Mendenhall]… organizing all of the media. We worked with Adobe Premiere Pro, because we had a lot of different formats of media, and I just dove in and I started watching, just to get a sense of RBG’s personality and how she spoke.

Julie and Betsy had a really strong vision of what the film was going to be, but they were encouraging of me to watch as much footage as possible and to find those little gems. You know, the very intimate moments that you can only find in the footage by watching everything.

It sounds pretty amazing to have it be your job to go through footage of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Is there one of those moments from the final cut that sticks out to you?

There are a few. I remember watching the confirmation hearings very early on. And they’re about five to six days; a lot of it is really dry, kind of boring stuff. Most of it is the Senators talking—because they love to talk! And they’re talking to their voters, and then there was her. And, at that point she was kind of introducing herself to the nation for the first time. The energy of that moment, just the way that she was presenting herself, and, at the same time, the opportunity to explain and defend her legal thinking… there was an energy about it that was very special that I hadn’t seen on other archival footage of her. Her family was there and her husband [Marty Ginsburg] was there and there were shots of her husband when she spoke, he was laughing at all of her jokes and when she talked about him, about Marty, at the confirmation hearings, his face and his reactions were just so lovely. Even though it was in public, it felt so intimate… And that moment is at the beginning of the film.

What’s something that you enjoy about your work as an editor?

I love the collaboration that happens in the editing room. It’s a very intense creative collaboration, but it’s beautiful. It’s funny because I have an early background in math, I was studying math in college, and I find that the stuff I learned back then, it’s problem solving [and] the day to day mechanics [of editing] are just something I really, really love. But it’s really the collaboration. Films are not done by just one person, and when you have such fantastic collaborators and leaders in this process, like Julie and Betsy were to me, that was really special. Just have an all female crew… I’ve learned so much from them. We had different generations of women; there were women who were older then me and there were women who were younger than me and we were all working together and I’m hoping that the women who were younger than me [learned something] because I was trying to teach them and mentor them.

And that’s so valuable, regardless of your field, but especially in a male dominated profession like film editing.

 It is very male dominated. There are more women in the documentary than there are in fiction and we find each other, we become fast friends with each other outside of the edit room, and I really love that. In documentary there’s a really strong sense of providing mentorship for others because that’s how most of us start our careers. I’ve met a lot of female documentary editors who are excited to mentor a new generation, so I think that is something that is very present in our little community.

When it came down to shaping the story, was RBG’s personality that emerged from the work that you did the same as you thought it would be going into the project?

I definitely learned a lot. I was very curious about her, but I didn’t know her story. I only knew her, as most people do I think, as most people I think know her now and that’s been the reaction from movie-goers, that they didn’t know everything she did before she became the justice we all know as Notorious RBG.

The stuff that I learned about her legal work in the 70s and the legal cases that she brought up to the court to move women’s rights forward, that was very inspiring. In terms of the personal, it was really great to see the development of her personality. The most inspiring thing was to see her legal strategy and how her personal life and her time in law school formed the work that she wanted to do later one.

Intellectually, I was always grateful [to the strides made by women during the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 1970s], but emotionally, I never felt so close to it as I did working on this film, because you take your rights for granted. They cover so much ground, so realizing that there were these laws, that was only 30, 40 years ago—that’s not that long ago. I had a really strong reaction to that, and it was great because the justice always, always—in all of her interviews and in her writings—she always pays tribute to the women who have been there before her, fighting the good fight for equality. I like having the idea that we’re paying tribute to her and the women [who have come before] through this film.

And I hear you recently met Justice Ginsburg?

Yes, it was very special! Our entire team was with her at a big launch at Sundance and they introduced us. It was the main crew, and we’re all female, and she was really excited about that. You could see she was really happy to see that the film was made by this group of women, and different generations of women. Later on, the entire team was excited—and nervous—to see how she reacted to the film. Usually the first time you watch something with an audience, you’re nitpicking at how it’s coming across, but I don’t think any of us were looking at the film, we were just looking at [Ginsburg]! We saw her cry and laugh out loud, so it was pretty spectacular.

 How do you feel that the movie is out and people are seeing it in theaters?

It’s been great. I mean, as an editor I’m already cutting my next film and its really the directors who are taking it out into the world, and it’s amazing to see them.

What I really love is going into the theater once in a while and seeing the reaction of people who are watching it—and it’s very special, because it feels like people are coming out of the film really inspired and grateful for the work that she’s done for women’s rights. I get a little choked up when it’s young women or young lawyers who are excited about the film and it really made their days and it made them feel re-energized.

ms-headshotLauren Young is a Ms. contributor. She has a Master’s Degree in European and Russian Studies from Yale University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Government and Russian Civilization from Smith College. Follow her on @thatlaurenyoung.

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