The first time Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West met their former Arizona Congresswoman subject and her husband, US Senator (and ex-NASA astronaut) Mark Kelly, it was in a Zoom call arranged by producer Lisa Erspamer.
The connection was almost immediate, as West remembers it. There was a lot of laughter and Giffords lifted her foot to show the women who made the Oscar-nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary RBG her RBG socks. Then the couple gave Cohen and West a tour of their home, stopping at the freezer to show them a special memento: A piece of Giffords’ skull that had to be removed to prevent brain swelling after the Democratic representative was shot in a suburban Tucson Safeway parking lot during a meet-and-greet with constituents on January 8, 2011.
“The idea of someone keeping a large chunk of their own skull in the freezer, that could be so dark and so gross, yet with Gabby and Mark, it was both fascinating and hilarious,” says Cohen over Zoom, sitting with West in a room in Giffords and Kelly’s house.
“That surprised us and made us want to delve into this story,” she adds. “This is a fascinating couple who came up with extraordinary ways to get through one of the darkest possible times.”
The documentarians seized the opportunity to fashion a film that is a biography of Giffords’ life, partially a of the assassination attempt on her life that wounded 19 and killed six, a deep dive into her ongoing recovery, and her advocacy for gun control and an end to the United States’ culture of violence. Unsurprising for the filmmakers who limned the marriages of Ruth Bader and Martin D. Ginsburg in RBG and Julia and Paul Child in last year’s Julia, Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down is also a kind of romance as it delves into Giffords and Kelly’s relationship.
“We love telling love stories and particularly feminist love stories,” West says. “This is certainly one of the most extraordinary ones we can imagine. Here was this young ambitious couple who were supporting each other in their respective careers and suddenly all of that is cut short. And Mark, really, from the very beginning figured out how to help his wife recover from this devastating shooting and ultimately left his job.
“When Gabby decided that she was going to take on the issue of gun violence in the wake of (Sandy Hook), the two of them went to Newton together. So, there’s Mark supporting Gabby in her new life. And then Gabby’s supporting Mark as he decided that he wanted to go into politics. There’s just this symbiotic relationship between the two of them, and it really is a marriage of equals. That’s so beautiful to watch. It’s based on mutual respect and values and also, a mutual sense of humor. They love to laugh and it’s a lot of fun to be around them.”
When Giffords was shot, Kelly decided to document his wife’s recovery, onward from her time in the hospital. Her injuries were severe. She had to relearn basic functions and she still suffers after-effects, including aphasia. Kelly recorded her as she emerged from near death and started to take back her life. When Cohen and West began their project, he turned the footage over to them.
“It was certainly an unusual choice at a time so shortly after Gabby was shot to react with, ‘We might want to document this at first for personal reasons,’” says Cohen. “And then later it was something that they would be willing to share.
“Even in those early days in the hospital, where she’s not speaking at all yet, just the way that she connects with the camera, you’re really just feeling how hard she’s trying and you just pull for her. We found ourselves, when we were watching the raw footage, just pulling for every word and thought. That would be something an audience would relate to.”
It has been 11 years since Giffords nearly died in a mass shooting. Since then, there have been too many incidents to catalog. As Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down opens in theaters less than two weeks after a gunman attacked parade goers in Highland Park, IL; less than two months after 19 children and two teachers were killed in Uvalde, TX; and one day after the two month anniversary of the racially motivated attack at a Buffalo, NY, supermarket that took the lives of 10. Cohen and West are acutely aware of the timing of their film’s release.
Obviously, the epidemic of gun violence in our country is an urgent issue,” says Cohen. “It has been for many years, and it’s not a problem that’s likely to disappear overnight. Part of what this film is about is showing someone who has experienced one of the most difficult possible outcomes of a gun violence episode, and yet has come out of it and turned that into something incredibly powerful, driving her towards intense activism on the issue.
“Gabby could have just devoted the rest of her life to her own personal recovery and I think everyone would have appreciated and understood that. She made a different and incredibly admirable choice to force herself back into the public eye and really lend her voice to making some positive change on this issue. It makes the story feel timely, particularly now.”
GABBY GIFFORDS WON’T BACK DOWN opens in Bay Area theaters on Friday, July 15.