In 2014, on a hilltop in rural Nepal, Daniel Stiepleman found himself getting some fresh air at two o’clock in the morning.
He was pitching scripts to producers thousands of miles away in Hollywood, standing just outside the public hospital where his wife, Jessica Hawley, had taken a job as a doctor of internal medicine.
When another doctor at the hospital learned about his late night phone calls, he approached the then-aspiring screenwriter. “Daniel, you can’t,” the doctor said. “There are tigers.”
“You don’t mean tigers,” Stiepleman said. “Yes, tigers,” the doctor insisted. “Cats?” Stiepleman asked. The hilltop had seemed so peaceful. “Black and orange stripes?”
“Oh, no!” said the doctor. “Not tigers.”
Stiepleman was relieved.
“I meant leopards.”
From then on, Stiepleman made his 2 a.m. pitch calls from inside the hospital.
So how did Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s nephew so nearly end up leopard meat in the hills of Nepal?
Because he wanted a perfect marriage — one right out of the 1950s.
Stiepleman and Hawley had hoped, since the earliest days of their marriage, to model their partnership of his uncle, the celebrated tax lawyer Martin Ginsburg, and his wife, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The couple, who fell in love as undergraduates at Cornell in the 1950s, was not a model of the traditional male-led households of the time. Neither did they fully reverse gender roles, forming their household around a female breadwinner and a domestic male.
The couple was radically egalitarian. “On The Basis Of Sex,” Stiepleman’s Bader Ginsburg biopic and his debut film, out December 25, dramatizes the single case that Ginsburg and Bader Ginsburg argued together, and the unbelievable partnership that propelled it. “It’s the story of a marriage,” Stiepleman said. That’s how he sold the idea to his aunt, when he called, asking for her permission to write down her story in 2011.
As he tells it, she was hardly impressed. “Well,” she told him, doubtfully, “if that’s how you want to spend your time.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Marty Ginsburg shared one of the greatest romances of all time. They married just after her graduation from Cornell, and moved to Fort Sill, Oklahoma so that Ginsburg could complete his service in the ROTC. He enrolled in Harvard Law School, and she followed the next year. During their time as students Ginsburg was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Bader Ginsburg attended his classes and typed up his coursework, while Ginsburg dictated essays to her in between radiation treatments.
He recovered, and with the help of his wife, returned to his coursework as if he hadn’t missed a day. When he graduated and got a top job in tax law in New York City, she transferred to Columbia and finished law school tied for first in her class. Later, when Bader Ginsburg got a job that took her to Sweden for two years, she took it. He visited when he could. The couple spent the next 17 years in New York, as he took a professorship at Columbia alongside his work at the firm, and she became the general counsel of the ACLU, arguing six gender discrimination cases in front of the Supreme Court and winning all but one.
When Bader Ginsburg was confirmed to the DC Court of Appeals in 1980, and the family relocated to the nation’s capital, Marty switched to a professorship at Georgetown. They lived there together for 30 years, until Marty’s death in 2010.
In going to Nepal, Stiepleman hoped to emulate his uncle’s attitude. “Objectively, what she’s doing is more important,” he says. “So I follow her.”
In the seven years since that life-changing phone call with his aunt, Stiepleman and Hawley moved from Manhattan to South Africa to Boston to Nepal, back to Boston, to Santa Monica, and then again to Manhattan. The moves have been almost entirely motivated by Stiepleman’s wife’s residencies, first in internal medicine, then in oncology. The one exception is their two year move to Santa Monica for Stiepleman’s shot at the movie biz, or what the couple jokingly calls “Dan’s residency.”
But who really wears the apron in the family?
“I cook,” Stiepleman says. “Or we’d starve.” Marty made the same call; he started cooking for the couple as soon as it became clear, almost as newlyweds, that Ruth would not be a reliable source of edible food. Marty — who went on to become such an enthusiastic and gifted amateur chef that he developed dozens of recipes, some of which were published in a cookbook — was always wearing an apron, Stiepleman says. As a child at a family Passover, a relative asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. “And I said, ‘I want to be like Uncle Marty,’” Stiepleman remembers. “And then he said, ‘Oh, you want to be a lawyer!’ And I was totally confused because I had no idea Uncle Marty had a job. I was like, ‘No, I want to be a cooking dad.’ I just thought that was the coolest thing.”
In “On the Basis of Sex,” as Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) faces umpteen setbacks trying to get educated, employed, and in front of the Supreme Court, Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) is a warm presence at home, standing with a baby slung over one hip and a whisk in his hand, daubing olive oil on steaming dishes, pep-talk locked and loaded. His character seems like a gratuitous heterosexual female fantasy.
But it’s real, Stiepleman says. And seeing it as a possibility is a good dating barometer.
“If you go on a date [to the movie] with somebody and they’re like ‘I don’t believe in that guy,’ never go on another date with that guy,” he laughs. “Men who think of themselves as great husbands and fathers, you hold up Marty Ginsburg and they go, ‘Oh.’ And some of them feel inspired and some of them, I think, get kind of angry about it. In a way he’s the more radical character of the two.”
Refusal to believe that a confident man could do housework and support his wife extends beyond insecure audience members, says Stiepleman. “I can’t tell you how many times in development people would come with a check and say, ‘We’re ready to make this movie, except we don’t believe in this Martin Ginsburg character,’” he says. “We would get notes like ‘Marty should threaten to divorce her.’”
In the end, Stiepleman and producer Robert Cort did decide to slightly re-write the Marty character. “What we did was lean in,” Stiepleman says. “We made him more confident, more sexy, we made it absolutely clear that this has never been a burden to him, he is not under Ruth’s thumb, he is doing exactly what he wants to be doing to support his family.” Stiepleman shared old family footage with the cast of “On The Basis Of Sex” to help them see “the way Ruth and Marty looked at each other.” The love on screen isn’t a Hollywood fantasy — it’s just Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s past.
For Stiepleman and Hawley, just like Bader Ginsburg and Ginsburg, an egalitarian approach to marriage has led both partners’ careers to flourish. “The weekend that I went to L.A. to talk to my producer for the first time was the same weekend she presented her first medical conference,” Stiepleman says. “My movie’s coming out Christmas Day, my wife just got announced that she’s going to be the chief fellow of her project and got a million dollars for her research. We’re always just building our careers right next to each other.”
Striving for true equality as partners, Stiepleman says, isn’t so hard. What’s hard, he says, as a man, “is to do that and feel masculine and confident in this culture, because you’re taught you’re not supposed to do this.” But treating his aunt and uncle as role models, and particularly striving to emulate Ginsburg, has paid off. “I know that I’m a better husband and a better man and a better father and a better writer because I did that,” he said.
Bader Ginsburg was sitting next to Stiepleman’s mother when she saw the movie for the first time, Stiepleman said.
From the moment Marty appeared on screen, the two women held hands for the rest of the film.