This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes director Ry Russo-Young, whose newest project is “Nuclear Family,” a documentary series for HBO about the lawsuit that threatened her family and changed the public perception of LGBTQ+ families. Russo-Young’s other films include “Before I Fall” and “The Sun is Also a Star.” Russo-Young talks about the challenge of directing a film where she is a central character in the narrative. She talks about her interest in fairytales and how they figure into “Nuclear Family.” And she discusses the metaphorical “backpack” she wears as a result of the trauma of the custody battle.
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. It's been a while since we last spoke to our guest, director Ry Russo-Young. She's back with the HBO docu-series, "Nuclear Family." What's really interesting in watching this docuseries is watching the emergence of you as a filmmaker, probably as a teenager, with your Hi-8 camera.
Ry Russo-Young: Yes, I started even before I picked up a Hi-8 camera. I was the kid who was five years old, telling everybody to get naked and put on costumes and telling everyone where to stand and dragging whoever I could into these elaborate, pretend make believe games.
KCRW: Let’s tell the audience what "Nuclear Family" is about.
Russo-Young: "Nuclear Family" is about my lesbian moms being sued by my known sperm donor when I was nine years old. That's the short version. The longer version is it's sort of about me wrestling with that event in my life and coming to peace with it.
KCRW: There is this sort of prepping for presenting the family to the world for the legal case, but also [a contrast] between you, the way you talk to the camera and then what you're like on camera, doing interviews. It's just fascinating to watch all these things that were parts of your work, coming into realization in this documentary.
Russo-Young: Even before the lawsuit happened, my family--my moms and my sister, and I--always felt like we had to defend our family because the outside world was constantly questioning it and asking us questions like, Who's your real mom? And is your sister really your sister? Where's your father? Do you have a father? And so there was, from the very beginning, an automatic defensiveness and explaining that we were always doing, and then when the lawsuit happened, we had to double down on it because the stakes were so high that I was going to be taken away from my moms, and the narrative had to be so clear.
KCRW: What was it like for you watching and putting these things together?
Russo-Young: Well, it took me a really long time to figure out how to tell this story. And I think a part of that is because I was processing my feelings in terms of how I felt about the lawsuit, my biological father, even what happened, trying to understand the narrative of what happened, and that's why, in a sense, the medium of a documentary was so perfect and right for this story in terms of how to tell it and what I wanted to find within it because it would allow me to collect all of those years of footage, which I already had in boxes, but really kind of cull both the trial documents, the voices of my mothers, Tom's friends, the lawyers, footage of me on talk shows when I was 16, news clips when I was nine, the documentary that Meema Spadola made about my family when I was 16, all of that footage, and assemble it and look at it. And in the assembling, I was going to learn more about my perspective and more about all these people and all these events. So, in a way, the process of making the film was a process of self discovery through filmmaking itself.
KCRW: So much of the story that's told in "Nuclear Family" is about you being forced as a young person to explain your life to people who are just trying to boil you down to the kind of tabloid TV that was the lingua franca of the time and pop culture, or this misunderstanding or this ignorance or this fear about cultures that people didn't know.
Russo-Young Well, what I really hoped in making this, which I think is really important to mention, is that even though it was this process of discovery in terms of how I feel about all these people in my life, and the events in my life, and myself, the reason I decided to make this documentary at all was because I hoped that in telling this really personal story, it would get to these more universal themes of family that all viewers would be able to relate to, and tap into, and it would invite them to think about their own family and their own lives.
KCRW: You and your sister, as young people, explain this is much more complex than you're given credit for. As an older teen, we can actually see even before it becomes evident in the last part, the toll that has taken on you having to restate this and in each case, we can see how much of the person you're talking to you're going to let in by the length of your explanation.
Russo-Young: I remember when I was on Leeza at 16 with my mom Russo, and I just remember being horrified by the things that people were saying around me. I mean, they were debating my validity as a child of two lesbian moms. Basically, the underlying premise was that I was damaged and sick because my mothers were gay, and that was happening right across my face as I'm sitting there. And I just didn't know that that's what we were signing up for.
When we agreed to do Leeza, I talked about it with my mom Russo, when we said, Oh, a trip to LA--we lived in New York--it'll be fun to be on a talk show and who better to represent gay families than us? We have so much experience with this. We're happy and healthy and adjusted. So in those moments, I was absolutely having to be locked down and very one note. And it was almost the complete opposite of complexity. I had to make things very clear because I felt completely attacked in those situations.
KCRW: Your moms were saying that you were tough as a kid, so they thought that you might be a lesbian, but I thought that even at that point, that was the kind of willfulness that was already making you a director because you were forced to make choices about the way you were telling stories, even as a kid, that tough mindedness and that clear quality that comes across and the way you explain yourself, in these situations to these strangers, who are, in effect, a living Twitter.
Russo-Young: I think it's also a credit to my moms who were really tough and fierce and strong feminist lesbians themselves. They always encouraged my sister and I to be who we are. And a lot of that was through leading by example. My moms were never in the closet from the very beginning. They were out about being gay, and if somebody gave us weird looks on the street, sometimes my mom would talk back or say, What are you looking at? I think of my mom Russo in terms of how she looks in the film when she's younger, she's a cross between Mick Jagger and Patti Smith. Maybe a little bit of Dustin Hoffman, from "Midnight Cowboy." She was always a bit of a cowboy. And there was just a fierce determination to live life on their terms. And I think that had an effect on me.
KCRW: When you were here last time, we were talking about Joseph Campbell in your early college career, recasting your life in those kinds of Joseph Campbell terms.
Russo-Young: A long term interest of mine has been fairy tales and, even larger than that, archetypes. I think that also comes from being interested in gender when I was younger. I think because of how I was raised, because my moms were gay, there was always sort of an awareness of sexuality and gender from a very young age, and part of that was not having that father role.
So in a sense, when I was looking at straight culture, certainly when I was coming into my teens, straight culture seemed really foreign to me, and actually kind of creepy. To me, it seemed very sexist. There was a sense of always wondering: what is this thing of being a woman or being a man and the archetypes of that but also wearing pink, high heels, male aggression, all of these traits that we stereotypically associated with gender, I was really always interested in.
My favorite character in “The Wizard of Oz” was the Wicked Witch of the West because I never related to Dorothy or the ingenue. I was always interested in the more powerful and conflicted women, and so the Little Red Riding Hood project that when I did in college was all this soup of trying to suss out archetypes, gender in my own relationships.
KCRW: What was it like for you, when you decided that you were going to put yourself literally and figuratively in front of the camera and tell this story because you're asking a lot of yourself?
Russo-Young: In some ways, it felt completely inevitable, in that I had been filming those around me and myself my whole life. So why was I doing all that filming? Of course, this is why. And in another way, figuring out my place in the film: that was tricky because my moms are amazing storytellers, and my biological father is incredibly smart, incredibly handsome. Cris Arguedas, who's in the film, is one of the most successful defense attorneys of our time, and has an incredible argument.
So I was surrounded by all these people that were incredibly strong on camera. And from a filmmaking perspective, I felt like I really had the building blocks here, but I also knew that I wanted to tell my subjective perspective. And what I found in making the film is that the reason I wanted to tell it chronologically is that I wanted the viewers’ experience watching the series to mimic my own psychological experience. So because the film is chronological, we can go very light on my perspective. We need just enough awareness that I'm the storyteller in the beginning. Even though as a child, I did have a strong sense of self, children don't have a lot of agency, so I needed to be light in the beginning. And as I come into my own perspective, and come to understand this story, my role in the series will expand.
KCRW: In the first episode, you really take your time to bring yourself in, and I think you understand as a filmmaker, that your moms are kind of stars by natural right. They have so much confidence, their turns of phrase, their self-awareness, but also their awareness of the world. And as you were just saying, this is an incredible cast. And there are emotional upheavals that are kind of Shakespearean, and finally, it's about the way children experience fairytales. If we go back to Bruno Bettleheim, it's this fear of your entire existence being at stake.
Russo-Young: That's the irony: it actually happened to me and to my family, that our existence was threatened. It's not just a fairy tale. That's a really astute observation.
Back to what you were saying about my moms: I felt that their love story was so powerful, and they're still together. And you see that in all the footage of them so clearly, and I felt that if we can get viewers to get on board with them and their love story, then the series will really take off. And that was not hard at all because, in a sense, love is the most universal thing.
KCRW: When [your moms] met and fell in love, and romanced each other, it was a period where lines were really drawn, and loyalties were formed in those periods. To hear these friends with whom your moms have fallen out for, I think, evident reasons and their almost willful naivete about not being able to see, because they're doomed to see both sides of the issue. No, there weren't two sides.
Russo-Young: That was one of the hardest things in making this series was saying to my moms from the very beginning, I'm gonna go talk to Cris Arguedas. I love you, and don't take it as a betrayal from me. I think you're amazing parents, and I adore you, but I have to listen, and I'm going to try to empathize and understand for my own edification here. That was difficult because I was very afraid that they couldn't understand that and that it was going to be really hurtful to them, having gone through everything that they went through, being afraid that their child was going to be taken away from them, that those people participated in that process. I completely understood their perspective. And yet, you know, I had to do it and then I asked them to also participate in this project. So I'm really grateful to everybody who helped make this series possible for those reasons.
KCRW: There's something that connects this to fiction films you've directed. As often as not, when somebody finishes speaking, you linger on them for a couple of beats.
Russo-Young: I always find that actors or non-actors, it's always the moments when they're not talking, which are the most interesting not always, but sometimes, because they just reveal so much.
KCRW: I found myself thinking about the way hurt moves across generations, or I guess I should say more specifically, a wound or an emotional injury, and what the perspective of time can do for that, and it's really the sign of growing up that comes across in your work so often. Is that something you've always been conscious about, about how people respond to an injury, and if they can let it go or not?
Russo-Young: Yes, certainly in terms of "Nuclear Family,” the way that this incident in my childhood, this lawsuit, has reverberated for so many years and has stayed with me like this backpack that I keep wearing. And I keep trying to sort of rearrange the objects inside the backpack. But I'm still wearing the backpack in hopes of shedding the backpack. So I think that definitely has translated into fiction in terms of what that event is that then the characters have to wear for the rest of their lives. And I do think in the case of "Nuclear Family," it's been really hard to shed. People ask me sometimes: do you have closure as a result of making this series? I feel like the chapter is laid on the table, but it'll never be closed, because it's just gonna be with me forever. And now at least I'm at peace with that.