Interview: Documentary Duo Julie Cohen and Betsy West on Meeting Gabby Giffords, What She Keeps in her Freezer, and Going Over Budget on Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down

Documentary filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West are on a roll, a roll that began four years ago with their Oscar-nominated work RBG, a profile of the now-late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In 2021, they put out two more spectacular documentaries about groundbreaking figures: Pauli Murray, the non-binary Black lawyer and activist, in My Name Is Pauli Murray; and Julia, concerning the world-renowned cookbook author and television superstar Julia Child. And this week, Cohen and West release their latest film, which I believe has a genuine shot at more awards, thanks to its uplifting tale of survival and transformation. Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down tells the story of former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her incredible struggle to recover following an assassination attempt in 2011.

The film covers Giffords’ entire life, from childhood and her early political career to meeting and marrying astronaut-turned-Senator Mark Kelly, and their eventual relentless activism that push both Congress and individual states to enact tougher gun laws in their quest to push against growing gun violence in America. The film features interviews with family members, political colleagues, and even former President Barack Obama. The directors were not only given access to Giffords’ day-to-day speech and physical therapies (she continues to relearn to speak, after the shooting left her partially paralyzed and with a language impairment known as aphasia), but to footage that Kelly himself filmed of a great deal of his wife’s recovery, because he thought she might want to revisit the footage somewhere down the line. We even get a look inside their freezer, where they keep the sizable piece of her skull that was removed during a post-shooting surgery to repair her brain.

The film pays due tribute to the other people who were shot and/or killed alongside Giffords, and the resulting portrait of Giffords’ marriage is one for the ages, as she and Kelly hold each other up in times of need. Her advice to him during his Senate campaign seems invaluable. Watching her recovery and her seemingly endless supply of energy and determination is beyond inspirational, but at no point do the filmmakers allow the film to get overly sentimental. What we get as a result is a tough, extraordinary profile that seems painfully relevant in this time of high-profile mass shootings and more discussion of shifting gun laws. It should be noted that the day after this interview, Giffords received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Biden, so Cohen and West were especially proud to have their film being released just now.

Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down will be released theatrically on Friday. Please enjoy my recent conversation with Cohen and West…

I saw this film at SXSW the first time and re-watched it recently, on July 3. I live in Chicago, and the next day we had this horrific mass shooting in Highland Park. Even in the couple months since the film debuted, things have happened in this country that make certain parts of this film even more relevant today. The film seems more necessary than ever before.

Betsy West: We have an epidemic of gun-related violence in this country, not just mass shootings. More than 45,000 people per year are killed by gun violence. So it’s tragic and horrible what happened in Highland Park, yet it’s another one in a series of events that you could predict and will continue to happen until something is done to address this problem.

Julie Cohen: And the mass shootings like the one where Gabby was so badly injured and others that have gotten so much attention recently are a huge and growing problem, but also ongoing and less in the news—gun homicides and suicides, which both contribute mightily to that 45,000 Americans-per-year statistic. Unfortunately, we understand that this is an ongoing problem and look forward to the day when we’re doing an interview and someone says, “The film doesn’t feel that relevant.” We wish we could be releasing in a moment of celebration because things had changed greatly; that’s obviously not the case. The good aspect of Gabby’s story is the almost shocking degree of optimism, positivity and joy that she brings to every element of her life, not only the fight against gun violence but also her own recovery and her husband’s political career. Her life is full, and she doesn’t let things or opposition get her down.

On the positive side of relevancy, the president just signed into law the first signifiant gun-control laws in decades.

BW: Yes, as a result of the two horrific shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, Congress did come together, and there was a bipartisan effort to pass legislation to deal with the gun-violence issue. Really the first positive note on the federal level in 25 years. That is cause of some optimism, and it’s certainly something Gabby would say is a first step. We’re moving a little bit in the right direction, but there is a lot more to go. That’s her overall approach to tackling this problem. It’s not intractable, but it’s going to take a lot of effort, and you can’t expect instant results. She’s been working for almost a decade on this issue and has made some progress on the state level, as you see in the film. Her organization has reached out to fellow gun owners, even NRA members, people who aren’t against guns but are against gun violence. Hers and other organizations in this growing movement have really achieved some success on a state-by-state level.

And tomorrow, she is getting the Presidential Medal of Freedom

JC: Yeah, that’s a piece of timeliness we had not anticipated and that obviously we’re thrilled about.

BW: And it’s an interesting combination with John McCain getting it too tomorrow. Like a lot of people in Arizona politics, Senator Kelly and Gabby Giffords had a strong relationship with John McCain. We don’t want to speak for her too much, but I think it’s a particular honor for her to get this honor alongside someone who was a pillar of Arizona.

So all of that is prologue to me wondering, when you have a story like Gabby’s, which is constantly moving and changing, how do you know when it’s time to stop filming and start putting together this movie? Are you tempted to update the film before its release?

BW: Well there are some budgetary issues. We made a plan for how many shooting days we had and what the overall production schedule was going to be. Luckily, we had no lack of material. It’s not like we were like “I wish we could shoot for another couple of months.” We had extraordinary access, not only to the past 18 months of Gabby’s life, which has been pretty eventful with her husband becoming a senator. She helped greatly in that effort. She has been pushing really hard in Washington for anti-gun violence legislation. And she has a jam-packed personal schedule that would exhaust a normal person—bike riding, gym, we didn’t even show yoga. She got bat mitzvahed, she takes French horn lessons, as well as her activism. We had a lot of material to work with and to paint a portrait of this extraordinary person. At some point, we had to stop and we did.

The first time you spoke with her, was it about her deciding you were the right people to tell her story, or was it more you deciding if you wanted to take this on as your next project?

JC: It was kind of a combo of both, and that first meeting was on Zoom. This was in April 2020, so the world had moved into virtual meetings. We were brought together by an LA-based producer who had first met Gabby a couple years before, a few years after the Newtown shooting, in connection with work the producer was doing for Oprah Winfrey’s show. She had always thought that Gabby could be an incredible subject for a documentary, and there had been ongoing talks over the years. And this is the part in the story where we don’t want to appear immodest, but Gabby was a big fan of our documentary about RBG, so she had thought about working with the RBG filmmakers on her story, and Gabby was intrigued enough that we all had a conversation, which was beyond memorable.

BW: It was a real meeting of the minds on a virtual landscape. Gabby kicked off the conversation by kicking up her foot and showing us that she was wearing RBG socks [laughs]. Just one example of the very innovative way Gabby can communicate with people. Then she and Mark, who was not a senator yet, gave us a tour of their house, which had a big surprise in the freezer. They opened the door, which we replicate in the movie because it’s both shocking and weirdly hysterical, and they keep in the freezer next to the empanadas, a Tupperware container that has an extremely large piece of skull that was removed following her shooting. Their attitude about that is that it’s a keepsake. Some people keep their baby teeth or wisdom teeth when they’re taken out; this is an enormous piece of skull. That showed us their attitude about what happened to her—to accept it, to deal with it, and to move on in the most inspiring way. For Julie and me, we were thinking we had to make a film about this woman, and luckily there was a level of trust established on that call, and by the end, we knew we were going to do a documentary.

JC: And Gabby and Mark not only accept what she’s been through, but sometimes, they make light of it. Anyone who has been through something as big and as horrendous as they have and get out the other side while integrating that into your humor, that’s part of their life. It’s surprising when you first meet them, but once you get to understand these people, it makes a lot of sense.

I want to ask about the order in which you tell this story. You begin with the recovery, and then you move from the shooting to Gabby and Mark’s history, separate and apart, and then finish up with the newest material. How did you decide on that structure?

BW: We learned in that Zoom meeting that Mark Kelly had been trained as an astronaut to be a videographer and had the wherewithal to set up a camera very early on in Gabby’s rehabilitation. He has dozens, if not hundreds, of hours of video that he had saved. And once we looked at that video and saw what it took for Gabby to come back and the determination that she displayed and the ingenuity that her amazing therapists showed in using music and other techniques to relearn language, it was absolutely fascinating. We’d never seen anything like it, so we felt that this was something that people would be really interested in and would learn something from. People who have experience in dealing with people who have aphasia—maybe not from a gunshot wound, but by a stroke or other things—it’s still pretty fascinating, so that was a decision. The shooting is not at the heart of the film or the point of our film, but we had to explain what happened to Gabby, so we presented that. And we wanted to show this portrait of this woman who has done this extraordinary pivot as a public servant in Congress to a public servant as an activist, working to curb gun violence.

Music is such a huge part of Gabby’s recovery process, and the music you have in this film, I’m guessing most documentaries cannot afford. How could you afford all of this music from all of these bands—U2, Coldplay, Tom Petty, John Denver, The Police, David Bowie, and the list goes on?

JC: Yes, you have struck to the core of a very sensitive issue for us [laughs]. You make a music-rights budget when you start a project like this. Betsy and I actually pride ourselves on coming in under-budget on all of our prior films; this film is the exception. We actually had to go back to our partners and ask for a little bit more money because Gabby was amping up our music-rights costs. We did not need to and did not use every song that she sang in our film, but there were so many scenes that were so great and intently enhanced by listening to Gabby singing that we were like “Oh my god, we have to license that.” But it was worth it.

Thank you so much to both of you. Congratulations and best of luck with it.

JC: Thanks, Steve!

You two are so prolific, we’ll probably have a chance to talk again soon.

BW: We hope so!

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.