Carlen Palau ’04 is an associate producer of the film On the Basis of Sex,
about a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fight to outlaw gender discrimination. Palau holds degrees from Babson College and the American Film Institute. She worked in television production before joining Robert Cort Productions as a creative executive in 2014. Ahead of the film’s wide release in theaters on Jan. 11, we asked Palau about her work on it.
This is your first feature film. What was that experience like?
I work for Robert Cort Productions, and my boss, Robert Cort, is the lead producer of the movie. I’d been working on this script for four years, basically since I started working here. We developed it with the writer, Daniel Stiepleman, who is Ruth’s nephew. I got to be in the story meetings, read every draft, give notes, and see all the hard work that goes in before you actually start making the movie. We’re a very small company—there’s just three of us here—and I got to be involved in everything along the way, including the director search and casting.
What can you tell us about the film?
It’s about the first case in this country that declared it unconstitutional to discriminate by gender [Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue]. Ruth is defending a man who’s being denied a caregiver deduction because he isn’t a woman, and she’s pointing out that’s not right because it implies that only women can be caregivers. Men can be caregivers if they want to be caregivers. He’s taking care of his mother—why wouldn’t we help him the same way we help a woman? And by the same token, why wouldn’t we give women benefits that we give to men?
Both my parents are lawyers. So the project was really special for me, especially since I told them at a young age that I was never going to be a lawyer, so this is probably the next best thing. It’s actually an appellate court case, not the type of law we usually see because it’s doesn’t involve a jury. You just go up in front of three judges and argue your brief, which is what my dad does! And I had no idea what he did, so it was kind of fun to see, “Oh this is what you do all day.”
This movie is genuinely about equality, not just about women. Ruth is such a strong character. I mean, now we think of her as this outspoken older woman, but for most of her life, she had this mindset of, “Put your head down, work hard, be smart, be focused.” She wasn’t some big, flashy person. That’s a nice character to see since it’s usually the loud ones who get our attention.
Ruth’s husband, Marty Ginsburg, is a big figure in the movie, too.
Yes. Her husband, Marty, was this magical unicorn of a man and a wonderful ally. He was so far ahead of his time. Ruth was a terrible cook and he was just like, “Cool, I will learn to cook.” They shared child-rearing responsibilities, which was unheard of back then. He believed in her, and they took on this case together—it was actually the only one they ever argued together. The two of them were able to do great things because they had such a strong partnership, and I think that’s a wonderful model for girls to look up to. You don’t need a prince—you just need someone who sees you for who you are and believes in you.
What was it like working with Ginsburg’s nephew on the script?
Daniel actually learned about the story of this case at Marty Ginsburg’s funeral in 2010, and he thought, “Oh, that’s the movie I’ve been wanting to write.” He asked Ruth for permission, and in very Ruth fashion, she said, “OK, if that’s how you choose to spend your time.” A mutual friend introduced him to [Robert Cort], and that’s when we came into the process. It was fun because we’d get a call from Daniel on Monday morning and he’d say, “Yeah, so I talked to Aunt Ruth. She only had time to talk to me from midnight to 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, but I have the notes.” I think it was really important to him to tell the love story of these two people and capture them correctly.
Ruth didn’t ever particularly care about the personal parts of the script. She cared about the law and whether the law was right. It was funny because she would read the script like legal briefs. She would say, “Daniel, I would never wear heels in this scene. I’m walking to school—why would I ever need heels?” Or like, the movie opens with this sea of men and the Harvard fight song is playing, which to this day the lyrics are, “10,000 men of Harvard want victory today.” Then you see just one little woman walking in there, and that’s Ruth. She was one of nine women in her class of 500 men. The song is written into the script, and Ruth would read that and say, “Why would this song be playing now?”
Did you get to meet Justice Ginsburg?
My boss did. Our lead actors, Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer, did. I didn’t, unfortunately.
What was it like watching the film for the first time?
I cried a little, I’m not going to lie. This is my first movie, and it’s been years in the making. It’s just a really fun movie, a big crowd-pleaser. I saw it again at Bethesda Row Cinema on Christmas Day when I was home, and the place was really packed. Plus, a lot of my family came out, so it was a good day. The audience loved it, and we got the lawyer seal of approval, which is not easy to get in D.C.
What do you hope people take away from the movie?
The most special part of this story about Ruth is that she was just a normal person and she was able to change our world. That’s a really important message for girls these days, to say you can actually affect change in your world even if you’re not in a position of power.
Really, it’s just a fun movie about a woman. She’s a mother, she’s an activist, and she’s a rebel. I desperately want NCS girls to see it. It’s a story that, when I was at NCS, I would have been attracted to. I remember watching Erin Brockovich and feeling really inspired by that and other movies about strong women who blaze their own trail. I’m really proud that this gets to be the first one with my name on it.
How did your years at NCS influence you?
My love of writing and telling stories started at NCS. I was in a writing group with some of the other girls in my grade, and I have a distinct memory of making a Lord of the Rings-type movie in the Bishop’s Garden. Those are good memories.
What’s next for you?
We're in post-production on a movie called The Secret, based on the inspirational book from several years back, starring Katie Holmes and Josh Lucas. We shot it in November in New Orleans, and I actually got to do a set visit for that one! I’m credited as a co-producer. Hopefully we'll get to shoot another one this year!