Ry Russo-Young’s three-part HBO documentary Nuclear Family was something she “resisted the idea of making” for a while because she “didn’t want to make a me-and-my-problems documentary.” But once the director of such features as The Sun Is Also a Star and Before I Fall decided to tackle it, it was a time of “total truth,” she says.
The documentary, out Sept. 26, follows Russo-Young’s mothers, Robin Young and Sandy Russo, who fought a long, emotionally fraught custody battle beginning in 1991 with sperm donor Tom Steel, a then-prominent gay lawyer. It ultimately would engulf her childhood.
Returning to that time when the director says she was “loved too much” involved digging up old footage from her youth — which she had far more of than she thought — and weaving a wider history of LGBTQ parenting in the U.S. with her own family’s experience.
“That was part of the decision from a filmmaking perspective because we don’t live outside of historical context,” she says.
Russo-Young led with her parents’ perspectives (both participated) and ended with her own and Steel’s (though he is deceased, footage of him appears in the film). It was a choice, she says, that allowed her to tell the story in a way that paralleled her own expanding agency. “As I came of age, I was able to find my voice in all of this. As a child, I had a lot of other people telling this story.”
It also involved getting people who had spent years on seemingly opposite sides of the issue to share their stories. “It was a bit of a process to get people like Cris Arguedas [an attorney and her mothers’ former friend] and Jacob Estes [Steel’s son] to trust me,” Russo-Young tells THR. “At the same time, I think they wanted to talk to me.”
The result is a compelling look at the “complicated juxtaposition of pain and love and loyalty” in families, says the director, and at how American society’s preference for the nuclear-family dynamic impacted pioneering LGBTQ families.
“There’s this idea … this weight [that] psychologically tells us that we’re ‘less than’ if you don’t have it,” says Russo-Young. “I never felt like I was less than, but I had to contend and explain my family to a world that sort of perceived that.”
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Russo-Young ahead of the documentary’s release about balancing opposing perspectives, including her own, getting people on the record about her custody case, how revisiting her youth may have shifted her perspective and telling a personal and universal story of gay parenting.
There’s a lot to take away from this documentary, in its conversations about family structures and the role that love can play in bringing people together — or blowing their relationship up, and them apart. What did you most want people to come away with in terms of your various overarching themes?
My hope for the movie was that people would reflect on their own relationships, those family relationships that are so fraught — and they’re fraught because there’s so much love there. The complicated juxtaposition of pain and love and loyalty occurs because these relationships are so meaningful.
Something that resonated with me for personal reasons was how normalized you made the story of your family and that of other gay parents in this really fraught, homophobic time. Was that something that you were consciously thinking about — trying to balance that sensitivity and your reality with the societal experiences of LGBTQ people at that time?
I absolutely wanted to tell this specific story of the lawsuit and my moms’ and my sperm donor but knew that there was a larger narrative of gay families moving from a renegade counterculture to the mainstream acceptance of where we are now. It was a goal to tell that larger narrative. That was part of the decision from a filmmaking perspective in terms of adding in the layer of history because we don’t live outside of historical context, it informs our decisions, and it did inform the people in this narrative’s choices. It’s that sort of dialogue between personal, historical, political that I felt you couldn’t have one aspect of without painting the others. So yeah, it was a balance in terms of navigating all of those pieces.
Within any custody battle, I think it’s easy for sides to represent as a villain, deserving or otherwise. In your case, I think telling this story was extra tricky because it also involved two sides who were both being discriminated against by a homophobic and sexist society and court system. As someone personally affected by this case, did you approach this trying to remain balanced in light of that?
I didn’t have a specific agenda to making the movie other than to understand deeper how I felt about everyone involved, specifically my sperm donor. My feelings felt very unresolved in regards to him. Something that I wanted to explore or what I was committed to exploring was his side of the story honestly, and to be open with whatever those feelings were going to be. Because I was very in touch with the hate and the fear that I felt during my childhood as a result of the lawsuit and toward him, but I wasn’t clear on any other more murky, ambiguous feelings of affection. So that was the exploration of the movie, in the sense of trying to figure out what that truth was and hold whatever that is.
You talk about your feelings for your sperm donor Tom Steele when you were younger in the film. Did your perception and your feelings about Tom shift while you were working on this and maybe even again now that you’ve seen the completed project?
I would say my feelings about Tom and my feelings for my mothers shifted, and they shifted many times throughout the making of the film. Even now, it’s not that they’re shifting radically but they’re still evolving, in some way in terms of having come to more closure with my feelings as a result of making the film. For Tom, I think it’s been sort of what I was saying of being able to hold the love and the hate together. And with my moms, in some ways, the making of the movie challenged our relationship, but that challenge made it deeper and made us closer — we’ve always been close — but closer than we’ve ever been because we’re resilient. We’re able to work it out and talk it through, as we always have.
You hold off on giving Tom’s fuller perspective, as well as your own, until the last episode. Was that a chronological decision in terms of telling the story of how history and gay rights unfolded or was that more about your personal journey?
I wanted the movie structure to replicate what it’s like to live that life. I think as a child, you don’t necessarily have that much perspective or agency. You have a point of view, but you don’t have as much agency so I kind of have more agency throughout the film, meaning I come in more in the third act in the narrative and kind of take over the narrative in the way that I think I did with my own perspective in life. As I came of age, I was able to sort of find my voice in all of this, and as a child, I had a lot of other people telling this story and giving me this story.
In terms of your decision to include your perspective, was there ever a point where you thought you didn’t want to include those really personal details about things like the box and the video or was that always something that you wanted to share?
I resisted the idea of making a documentary for a really long time — even though I wanted to tell it and felt that I needed to figure it out — because I didn’t want to make a “me and my problems” documentary. But once I was going to tell it, once I made the choice, I might as well go at it with everything that I have and not fear anything. Now is the time of total truth. I’ve been filming for my whole life in some way, and what was I filming for? I never even knew, but in some way, it felt like I was filming to understand myself more. Now it is like everything that I’ve ever done has been in preparation for making this movie without realizing it.
Just knowing how much footage I actually have from my childhood, seeing how much you had was surprising. You just said you didn’t really anticipate having to use the footage this way but I’m curious if you watched the footage and saw a story there or if you had the story and used the footage to fill it out?
I knew the story because I had been living it for so long. And I didn’t think about the footage element of it until I decided to tell the story. Then I went back and actually realized that I had even more footage than I had thought. But the film has always been my way of figuring myself out, figuring things out or having a deeper perspective. When you film something, you have the ability to go back and watch it again, and you have that perspective of the audience. That’s huge. I am a very in-the-moment person, so I don’t feel like in the moment I have a lot of perspective on what’s going on. But film allows me to see it, understand it, analyze it, watch it 10 times if I need to. So I think all of that filming was part of trying to understand that perspective, and now I’m at the place in my life where I feel like I was ready to see it.
You had the really difficult job of talking about something that was very sensitive and had a strong emotional impact on your family, and surrounding lawyers friends former friends, with them. I imagine it must have been a process to get some of them to open up as much as they did.
It was a bit of a process to get people like Chris Arguedas and Jacob Estes to trust me. There were conversations before they were on camera. At the same time, I think they wanted to talk to me. And they had a story to share that they felt was important that I hear. Particularly Chris, when I first met with her after not seeing her since I was 5. We sat down and she talked to me for three hours. She laid out an entire narrative that I was surprised to hear because I didn’t expect — I knew I wanted her in the movie, but I didn’t realize she would have so much to say. Then I was so floored, I realized I needed her to be in it, and I needed her perspective.
To follow up on that, were there people who you felt like you needed that you weren’t able to get? Or do you feel like you got all of the perspectives you wanted?
As a filmmaker, I got everyone I wanted except for two people. One is my court psychiatrist, [who] I think is deceased, and never got confirmation on that. The other person that I wanted to talk to was the judge, and he felt, ethically, that it was wrong to talk about a past case. But I think I got the right people; I think the people that I did get in the movie were more important. Nancy Clarence, for example, it was very deep into the film. I had been shooting interviews and had a cut of the film. I was probably eight months into making the movie when she finally agreed to be in it. We had had a relationship, basically, prior to that.
You feature parts of your sister Cade’s story, which is in some ways similar to yours but in other ways notably different. Cade was also going through your custody battle experience along with you in a way. Why was it important for you to tell Cade’s perspective?
It was really important for me to include Cade’s perspective because I think at the time it was really easy to forget about her in light of “Ry and how she feels like she’s being taken away” and Tom’s focus on me. She was a huge part of the family that suffered in a really intense way. So I felt that that was a critical perspective. I didn’t have time narratively to go into more of her story in terms of her own relationship with her sperm donor and how fraught and complicated that was, but I know she feels represented well in the film, which makes me really happy.
There’s a line in episode three where you talk about Tom winning the latest stage of the custody case before ultimately deciding to drop it. Your language, and the language of your subjects, really gave me pause as to what “winning” in a situation like this looks like. What is the cost of that win when it comes to matters of family? Can a win be an actual loss with something like this? Because this involves several major themes of the film, I wanted to ask what, if anything, you felt like you lost due to the custody battle while growing up, and maybe what you gained or won, as you went back and revisited this time in your life.
I’ll start with what I’ve gained. Making this movie and the experience of the lawsuit itself and what my family went through has made me absolutely value what family is to me and how it makes me feel safe, completely grounded. It makes me feel not alone. It’s sort of ground zero for my own sense of emotional well being. I think this movie has made me more than anything value that and realize how precious and delicate it is, and that it could all fall apart at any moment. And so to appreciate that, because it’s so easy to forget. You know, life is busy.
As for what I lost … I feel so lucky as a kid to have had parents that loved me, and to have had a sperm donor that loved me as much. That is where the love-too-much thing comes in, because I do feel like I had a great, actually — I had many people that cared so passionately for my well being, and that’s more than most kids have. The lawsuit was definitely a trauma of sorts, but it also made me who I am today, so it’s hard to pinpoint a specific loss.
I’m glad you said that. As I was grieving after my mom died, my father’s chosen absence re-emerged as an issue for people around me, who kept asking if I wanted to find him after he had made contact with my mom once when I was little. I kept telling them I didn’t want to because I didn’t feel like I’d lost anything without him there. My mother was my family, and the life we had, made me who I am. Not him. So what you said resonates with me.
It’s interesting what you’re saying, which is that I think the world projected upon you this idea of “You lost out because you didn’t have a father,” or, “Are you sad that your father tried to contact you?” I think that relates to the title of Nuclear Family because there is this idea — and there was still this pervasive idea, certainly when we were growing up — of the nuclear family, and it overshadows any family that doesn’t look like that. This weight tells us how we think we’re supposed to be and psychologically tells us that we’re less than if you don’t have it. I never felt like I was less than, but I had to contend and explain my family to a world that sort of perceived that, and that’s part of the reason of the title.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.