On The Basis Of Sex director Mimi Leder on returning from “Movie Jail”

Director Mimi Leder is the first to admit that On The Basis Of Sex is a personal movie. Deeply so. It’s her first feature film for 19 years. Not that she’s been putting her feet up – quite the contrary – but everything changed after the release of Pay It Forward back in 2000. It’s an experience she’s never forgotten.

The critical reception wasn’t good and, although Leder was, and remains, proud of the film, it didn’t do well at the box office. “I went to a place called ‘Movie Jail’ where I could not get hired,” she recalls. “I was sent scripts but they were lousy and I did not want to make a film that wasn’t good, that didn’t mean something to me. I continued working, I never went away, and worked voraciously on high end TV and for me there’s no difference between the small screen and the big screen. You bring your vision, you bring your storytelling and you do your best to tell the story you believe in. Then my work in television became very strong and I was invited back into the world of film making and it was hard to come back from that, but I did. It was hard having had a big film career with Deep Impact and The Peacemaker and then being shunned and put away to the side. It was hard, hard emotionally, because I have many stories inside of me that I want to tell.”

Yet you believe her when she says she’s not bitter, that she feels lucky to find herself in a position where she can choose the projects that she wants to make. Those years away from Hollywood have given her a deeper understanding of the subject of On The Basis Of Sex, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, indefatigable campaigner for equality and currently Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in the US. “I’ve experienced doors shutting in my face, as did Ruth. I’ve experienced it all. But you fight, you never give up. You have perseverance, and I was raised that way…… My father was a feminist. He taught me never to give up. Someone knocks you down, you get up and keep going. It was a very personal journey for me to make this film ….. and tell this story about an extraordinary woman who changed the world for the better.”

Ginsburg – or The Notorious RBG as she’s better known – was also the subject of a documentary, released at the start of the year, which Leder watched only after her film was finished and locked down. She describes it as “beautiful”, the “perfect prequel and companion piece to our film”, which essentially covers Ginsburg’s earlier years, first as a student and then her struggles to get work as a lawyer, despite a glittering academic career, all of which culminates in her taking on a case that cements her reputation in the field of equal rights. The idea for the film came from her own nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, who approached his aunt with the suggestion. Her response was self-deprecating. “She said something like ‘if that’s what you want to do with your time ……’”, says Leder. “But she’s really become something of a cult figure – children dress up as her – and she’s an inspiration to many generations of people.”

Returning to making feature films after so many years, Leder can see things have changed in terms of equality – but not enough. “There’s so much that has changed, and so little. From 2007 to 2018, only 7% of films have been made by women – that’s shockingly low. It’s really been a male industry and still many women’s voices are yet to be heard. They’re being heard more than ever, but statistics tell us that it’s definitely not gender parity, it’s definitely not enough. In television, it’s a little bit more and when I’m executive producing and directing in television I hire as many women as I can. My crew on On The Basis Of Sex definitely had the gender parity I was after in the department heads: my editor, my line producer, my costume designer, my casting director, were all women and it’s a beautiful thing. It’s what the world should look like.”

Mimi Leder was talking to Freda Cooper.

On The Basis Of Sex is released in cinemas on Friday, 22 February.

Read our review of the film here.

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