Ry Russo-Young’s “Nuclear Family”: a Docuseries About a Monumental Case for Same-Sex Families
When filmmaker Ry Russo-Young was nine years old, her known sperm donor, a gay man, sued her lesbian mothers for parental rights. The case was covered in the media and helped define the rights of same-sex couples today. It was also a defining experience for Ry. As she became an artist and filmmaker, she worked the idea into and through her art, and in 2015, she received a Creative Capital Award to make a fiction film about the story. Over the course of the last several years, she realized that it had to be told through documentary, allowing her to better understand how she felt about the experience as she was making it. The final result, Nuclear Family, is a three-part documentary series that airs on HBO and HBO Max.
We talked to Ry about what it was like to work out complex feelings through filmmaking, and how Creative Capital helped her take the time to make the film in the way that it needed to be made.
Alex—Aside from the story happening in your life, how did this film start as a project?
Ry— Prior to making Nuclear Family I made narrative feature films. I’ve had a few films come out at Sundance, and I’ve directed studio films. For a long time, I thought that I wanted to tell my own story in the form of a fiction film. It wasn’t until two years ago that I realized that the only way I could tell this story was to make it a documentary.
Alex—From the very moment that this event begins, it’s captured in the media. First through local and national news, then later in a documentary made about you and your family. You were interviewed at age 16 for that first documentary—and now the footage is part of your film. Can you talk about that experience?
Ry—The footage of me at 16 is from a documentary that was on PBS called Our House: A Very Real Documentary About Kids of Gay and Lesbian Parents that I participated in with my family and other LGBTQ families. The filmmaker, Meema Spadola, was kind enough to give us the raw footage, and we used it in the film.
To that end, I spent a lot of my childhood telling this story to other forms of media and press, but I always felt like it was someone else’s version of the story. I wanted to tell my own perspective, but I wasn’t sure what that was. That’s part of what motivated me to finally make a documentary—I realized that with a documentary, the making of the film itself would help me come to understand my own feelings.
Alex—How has your career as a fiction filmmaker affected this very personal story you tell through documentary film?
Ry—I think for a long time I didn’t want to tell my own story and sort of ran from it. It was a great reprieve to tell the stories of others. Narratives often have heroes and villain archetypes, and I’ve always tried to add grayness to those archetypes, to deconstruct them and bring out their humanity. I think that’s been true in all of my fiction filmmaking.
Alex—The documentary does an amazing job at giving a platform to all sides of the story. You center your family and your moms, but it’s also really interesting to hear the different people involved in it. Can you talk about that process of going back to some of the older characters?
Ry—When I decided to make the documentary, I felt that I wanted to hear my biological father, Tom’s side of the story. So I reached out to people that were close to him and involved in the lawsuit in various ways. I didn’t know what they were going to say, but I was curious.
What really surprised me was that people on Tom’s side, like Cris Arguedas, had a completely intact, other narrative waiting for me. Cris said to me, “I’ve been waiting for you for thirty years to come and talk to me.” She spoke for three hours, and it was completely riveting.
That was—in the filmmaker’s sense—a complete gift in that it added a whole new layer to the story that I didn’t anticipate. But emotionally, it was a slap in the face because it was a deconstruction of what in some ways I had known to be true. It made me have to stop and take it in, and then recalibrate how I felt.
Alex—I can’t imagine how difficult and also interesting it was to be working on a documentary project that is such a core part of your history, and that’s still ongoing.
Ry—In a way, this project followed me around for so many years no matter what I was doing. It was like the little itch in my back that was saying, “you have to figure this out.”
The “itch” wasn’t necessarily to tell the story, but to figure out my feelings towards my biological father. And eventually, I realized that telling the story and figuring out my feelings were intrinsically linked and that it was only through telling the story that was going to figure out how I felt.
Alex—I don’t know if this was intentional, but one thing that was interesting about the film was how often people who you are interviewing—whether it’s the lawyers, or Cris, or your moms—are talking to you, the interviewer, using “you” as a pronoun. It puts the audience in your seat. All of a sudden we are you.
This helps the viewer think through some complicated situations. Often, the most important art projects help us think through vital issues that we might not otherwise have direct experience with.
Ry—It was absolutely my intention from the very beginning to have the viewer experience what I went through in the chronology in which I experienced it. I wanted them to feel my dramatic arc, which began with affection for my sperm donor, then swung toward betrayal and hatred, landing in modern day, with nuance and empathy.
I was always in such a rush as a creative person—a rush to finish a project, to make money, to realize whatever I was working on and see it through. Creative Capital allowed me to slow down and work on the materials.
That’s why we chose for everyone to address me as “you.” My editors and I discussed this at length and we decided that direct address would further take the viewer into my POV.
Alex—You collaborated with writers, editors, and others on this project that was very personal. Was that helpful to work through this complicated story?
Ry—On the documentary, my editors were Ben Gold and Pisie Hochheim, and they were both really incredible collaborators.
From the beginning, it was clear that we needed total transparency in order to make the series complicated and truthful. So Ben and Pisie saw all my family’s dirty underwear. Every embarrassing piece of footage that had ever been shot by me or of me and my family was viewed and considered. I’m grateful for their patience.
For me, there was a difference between being the filmmaker and being on camera as a subject. As a subject, I needed to be emotionally open and in the moment. But being a filmmaker and interviewer is almost the opposite because I’m aware of the larger narrative and the ways in which what I’m shooting will possibly play within it.
So there were two different hats that I had to wear throughout the process. I often relied on Ben and Pisie to give me perspective on the characters and the narrative because there were moments where I couldn’t see it clearly.
Alex—It’s incredible that the film is coming out on HBO as a three-part series.
Ry—Part of the length is due to the fact that we include the social and cultural context of the time. We felt the viewer needed this history (often reminding us of the homophobia of the period) in order to understand the stakes of the story. The story takes place over the last forty-years but it’s shocking to see how far we’re come in terms of LGBTQ rights during this time.
It comes out on September 26 on Sunday night, and each episode will be released the following Sundays on October 3 and 10. I can’t imagine a better place for this documentary to premiere than HBO. It’s where I watch quality series and movies, so I was just so thrilled that they wanted the project.
Alex—At the end of the film you show that you become a mom as well. I imagined my own mother passing on a documentary of this quality about her own struggles and my origins, and how amazing that would be. What are you imagining for your own child, or children, who will watch this?
Ry—Well, I want to say that I made this series, yes, because I needed to figure some things out for myself, but more importantly, I made it in the hopes that the audience would think about their own relationship to their family.
There’s so much drama in families, and that’s fascinating to me. And they’re so universal! Everyone has been a child at some point, and they were raised by somebody. That relationship shapes how you come to see the world. It’s the first everything of who you are. I find that fascinating.
I definitely think about the fact that when my son is grown up, he is going to be able to look back and see this piece of history about his family and hopefully to him it will all seem completely foreign. My son has never asked me, why do I have two grandmas? He’s never questioned it once. That’s an exciting reflection of our times.
Alex—You got a Creative Capital Award in 2015 to make this film. Can you talk about how Creative Capital was helpful?
Ry—It’s a funny thing with this story because I always knew so much about it, and yet, it was the hardest thing to figure out how to tell.
When I got the Creative Capital Award, it was incredibly meaningful to be recognized as someone who was worthy of financial support and the prestige of the grant. What it gave me was the time, the ability, and permission to focus on the project to treat it with respect, and to allow it to unfurl on its own terms.
I can talk about Creative Capital for a long time so feel free to stop me! It’s not just about the grant money, it’s the community. The Artist Retreat, I found incredibly helpful to my growth in a way that I did not expect. To this day I keep the strategic planning notebook on my bookshelf and refer back to it every so often. As a type A person, I’d always wanted to be strategic, but didn’t know what that looked like in a creative profession. What strategic planning taught me to do is to focus my goals both creatively and personally and actualize them.
Perhaps most of all, what the grant gave me was time. I was always in such a rush as a creative person—a rush to finish a project, to make money, to realize whatever I was working on and see it through. Creative Capital allowed me to slow down and work on the materials. I was able to try a bunch of versions and then throw them in the garbage. Process the photographs, process the film, edit the film before I knew what it was. So much of the creative process, for me, is about trial and error and play, and getting my hands on the materials to see if there’s anything there. Creative Capital allowed me the time and the ability to actually do that, which is really rare.
Read more about and watch Nuclear Family on HBO.