“A Superhero Origin Story” Screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman ‘On The Basis Of Sex’
Daniel Stiepleman is in a unique position to write a documentary film about his aunt Ruth (Bader Ginsburg) and his departed uncle Martin. Yes, that RBG – Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the Supreme Court and SNL fame. Creative Screenwriting Magazine talked to Daniel about translating his aunt and uncle’s first jointly won sex discrimination case in the United States Supreme Court. Stieplman’s spec script On The Basis Of Sex made the Black List in 2017.
“I first heard the details of the sex discrimination case at Marty’s [his uncle’s] funeral. Right until the end of his life, Marty believed that handing Ruth the briefs was the most important thing he’d ever done.” At the time, Stiepleman had recently married and he decided that he wanted his marriage to be just like Ruth and Marty’s because they were such a great team. “I realized I was in such a priviliged position to have such great role models that I could share that dynamic in the role of a film. I wanted a house like theirs.”
On The Basis Of Sex is a groundbreaking case because it was the first Federal sex discimination case in the United States that won.
“It set the precedent that every other case followed,” said the screenwriter. “It was the key argument that Ruth became the leading litigator for gender equality in the United States. What was also unusual and unexpected is that the case was argued on behalf of a man.”
It was always assumed that the family care giver was always a woman, so this changed societal attitudes.
Bader Ginsburg’s work exposed the unfairness of the legal system. Almost half a century later, sex discrimination cases still exist. “To make sustainable changes, you have to change the law and you have to change the culture. Ruth changed the law. The culture is still lagging and lurches in both directions in terms of gender equality,” adds Stiepleman.
Although we have made great strides in gender equality in the workplace, we haven’t made equivalent progress on gender roles at home and caregiving. “This is the case in the film which is built around a man who wants to be a caregiver… who wants to take care of his ailing mother at home. The law says that’s not the role of a man. To this day, statistics show that the majority of men don’t equally share their caregiving responsibilities at home. Even in households where both husband and wife work.”
On The Basis Of Sex balances two inextricably linked storylines – Ruth and Martin’s marriage and their pivotal court case. “You don’t have a story without these aspects. You don’t get a Ruth without a Martin and you don’t get a Martin without a Ruth. Any other story would have been an inaccurate depiction. You had to find the balance to form the narrative. That’s why I picked this case because it was the only case they argued together.”
Although the title may be considered misleading, it’s legal rhetoric. This was the expression used in the court briefs to argue the case. Once the audience understands this legal term, they are better positioned to know what to expect in this film and better appreciate it.
Stiepleman does not consider his film to be a biopic. He considers biopics as episodic movies depicting a person’s life. “In my mind this was a superhero origin story. The bad version of this movie would have been how Ruth Bader Ginsburg saved women. Instead it is the story of how Ruth became the woman who went on to achieve amazing things. It’s the story of how Ruth Bader Ginsburg figured out how to become a litigator.”
Reducing the extent of Ruth’s achievements into a two hour movie posed its challenges. “I had to figure out how to be accurate to her life and accurate to the law. It also had to be accessible to a general audience who presumably did not go to law school. It was always about the case,” said Daniel.
“I always thought the movie would start in 1970 a few days before she found the case. In the course of my research at the Library Of Congress, I was digging through Ruth’s files from the 1960s and 1970s where she had been writing this brief. She sent it out to various lawyers for feedback.”
Needless to say, Ruth Bader Ginsburg received severe blowback from some lawyers. “I read in a post script. ‘I can’t believe you’re going up against your own lawyers. That takes incredible courage.’ The culture of the United States is shifting at this time, so I have to show what it was like before that in order to show how it changed,” mused the screenwriter.
Daniel chose to dramatize certain aspects of this film to make them seem “more true. Ruth never wanted people to think she invented this area of the law as if nobody before me ever saw it. Gender equality is protected under the fourteenth amendment. She built her career on the shoulders of women that came generations before me.”
In conclusion, Stiepleman was asked if he asked questions or answered them in his film. “I believe I’m asking them. I think the best movies feel that their stories are completed in a satisfying way, but certains questions are left in the air.“
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