14 June 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West discuss documentary filmmaking at IFTA Masterclass
14 Nov 2023 : Luke Shanahan
Betsy West and Julie Cohen at the IFTA Masterclass
The Irish Film & Television Academy presented an IFTA Masterclass with directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West in the The Lighthouse cinema on November 10th.

A packed audience of emerging and established documentary filmmakers, and those looking to work in documentary within the Irish screen sector, descended upon Screen 3 in The Lighthouse cinema for a documentary masterclass from filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West. Cohen and West have gained widespread acclaim for documenting the lives of trailblazing women: having captured the life of former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in RBG, delved into the legacy of civil rights activist Pauli Murray in My Name is Pauli Murray, painted a compelling portrayal of Julia Child in Julia, and told the inspiring story of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' recovery from an assassination attempt in Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down.

“We're delighted to have these guests here today for this masterclass in documentary filmmaking,” said IFTA CEO Áine Moriarty, introducing the filmmakers. “As you all probably know, they are Oscar-nominated and are just absolutely extraordinary filmmakers. Please give a very warm Irish welcome to Betsy West and Julie Cohen.”

The Masterclass was supported by Screen Ireland through the Screen Stakeholders funding scheme, and was moderated by leading Irish documentary filmmaker Ross Whitaker (Katie, Saviours).

The masterclass began with West and Cohen giving some background on their parallel career paths that lead to them working in documentary filmmaking. Both West and Cohen, despite not knowing each other earlier in their careers, both began their respective careers in radio news before moving on to network television news. West worked for ABC News and then CBS News, and Cohen worked for NBC News. At ABC, West worked in the documentary unit, creating 45 minute television documentaries, and then at CBS she was asked to create a series about groundbreaking women in America, much like the subject matter of her future collaborations with Cohen.

Among the groundbreaking women West interviewed was Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. About two years after West had interviewed Justice Ginsburg, Cohen had a briefer interview with RBG for a documentary called The Sturgeon Queen. In advance of this interview, West helped Cohen prepare to interview the “notoriously introverted” Justice Ginsberg. They had worked  together intermittently on projects over the previous decade prior to this. Around this time, RBG began to gain what the directors described as an “organic popularity” online, largely due to a series of dissents she had written to Supreme Court cases. It was at this point that, having both established some rapport with Justice Ginsberg, that Cohen said to West: “Someone should make a film about this woman, and why shouldn't it be us?”.

This led to West and Cohen discussing the intertwined topics of access and funding when making a documentary. Explaining their strategic approach to contacting Justice Ginsberg about making a documentary about her, rather than going in “guns blazing”, Cohen explains:

“Access is huge when making a documentary. Particularly about somebody who was on the way to really cementing icon status. That's kind of a big word, but I think it definitely applies here. Going about securing that access in an extremely strategic and dogged way was really the key to this whole project.”

“So we're not that young, really. And we weren't that young when we started making RBG. Both of us have been in the professional world dealing with things, and I think that was really helpful. We knew we had to be really strategic and patient. We started off by writing Justice Ginsburg a two page letter outlining what we had in mind, doing a biography that covers the whole scope of her life.”

“We made sure that it was going to get to her. It was helpful that we each had interviewed her previously, so we could strategise through whom this communication could go to make sure it really got in her hands.”

This strategic and patient approach paid off, as RBG responded to their email with a message that could be summarised as “Not yet”, as opposed to no. In response to this, Cohen and West used this approach to show that they had done their research.

“So we took a couple months, actually, to write her back,” said Cohen. “We said we understand that it takes a long time to make a documentary, and we hear you're not really ready to participate in this, but we're wondering if it might be okay with you if we started gathering some other material, and doing some interviews with people who have known you and worked with you throughout your career. We sent a list of about 20 names because we wanted her to see we had done our research.”

Justice Ginsberg then replied with a suggestion of three other people worth interviewing in this vein, giving the project momentum. At this point Cohen and West started looking for funding, which took a year. They were turned down by different companies three times, then eventually received development funding from CNN Films. This allowed them to shoot five interviews in three days (including RBG’s suggestions), which they were able to edit together, and use to find further funding.

Later in the discussion, Whitaker asked the directors about their process when it came to structuring the film, perhaps one of the most pivotal parts of documentary filmmaking. Cohen gives an encouraging answer to the emerging filmmakers in the audience, saying that “the real answer to anything like this is trial and error… see what works".

West echoes this in saying that the editing process takes “a lot of tweaking to put the scenes together in a way that isn’t disjointed or jarring”. However, their approach involves far more forethought than simply finding the film in the edit. Speaking on giving a fully-rounded view of their subject, that spans the professional, personal, and romantic elements of Justice Ginsberg’s life, Cohen breaks down their system of categorising the material they generate.

“It's good to assign colours to things,” said Cohen. “We’ll assign a colour to anything that's a love story moment, so that when you're looking at the whole scope of the film you can be like ‘Oh, there needs to be more love story here’”.

The directing duo use a digital noteboard software for this, such as Google Jamboard, to assign colours to different areas of their transcripted interviews. Similarly, Cohen adds that anything that makes them laugh while going back through transcripts or screening the footage, they will label as “lol” so that they can refer back to these sections in their documents with a quick word search. This helps Cohen and West to figure out the shape of the finished film as they gather material, and deep into the editing process.

Following this in-depth discussion about the making of their documentary RBG, the pair of directors also discussed a separate documentary that emerged from researching the career of Justice Ginsberg. West and Cohen’s My Name Is Pauli Murray explores the life and ideas of Pauli Murray, a non-binary Black lawyer, activist and poet who was a big influence on Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

The project was initially conceived of as a short, as they weren’t sure there would be enough material for a feature, especially since Murray had passed away in 1985. However, the directors revealed a story that again exemplifies the importance of their extensive research process when preparing to put together a new film.
“It was a challenge to make a story about someone who died in 1985,”
said West. “And we really didn't know how much footage we were going to be able to find. Julie had done some research and discovered that there were audio interviews.”

These audio interviews had been conducted with Murray due to their work as a feminist and, later, an Episcopal priest. West and Cohen went into the project knowing that these existed, but discovered many “surreptitious finds” along the way. Perhaps the most important of these being audio recordings of Murray reading their own autobiography aloud.

“Pauli wrote an autobiography, at the end of their life,” West explained. “Their friend was blind, and so started to record the autobiography so that the friend could hear it, and got about halfway through. We had no idea about this until our very junior researcher, really an intern for the summer, was doing some photographic archive research. There was a reference to the National Park Service archive, and it turned out that this friend of Pauli's had given a lot of material to the National Park Service archive."

"When our intern called to ask about the photograph, they asked, ‘Do you have anything else there related to Pauli Murray?’ And they said, ‘Well, you know, we have these cassettes that say Pauli Murray on them’. That turned out to be Polly's reading of the autobiography.”

This resource, a product of the directors slow and steady approach to documentary filmmaking, became an incredibly important part of the feature allowing the project to expand upon the short as it was originally conceived. 

This again goes to show why the directors encourage emerging filmmakers to be patient and strategic, rather than run into a project “guns blazing”.

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