Filmmaker Ry Russo-Young is not only the creator and director of the HBO Documentary Films series Nuclear Family, but also one of its main subjects.
The three-part series revolves around her upbringing as the daughter of a lesbian couple, Sandy Russo and Robin Young. Back in the late 1970s and early ’80s, couples like Sandy and Robin couldn’t get access to sperm banks if they wanted to start a family, so they relied on friends to recommend possible donors. That worked out fine for Russo and Young until Ry’s biological father, after spending time with the young Ry, became emotionally attached to her, and then sued Ry’s mothers for visitation rights. It turned into a terribly bitter court case.
Contenders TV Docs + Unscripted — Deadline’s Complete Coverage
“The thing that’s important to stress is that when my lesbian moms started a family, there was no precedent. So, they were sort of completely blind in doing it for the first time in a lot of ways,” Russo-Young said as she appeared with producer Dan Cogan at Deadline’s Contenders Television: Documentary + Unscripted event. “My biological father, my donor, his ‘contribution’ was in an effort to help lesbian families, and he was a gay man himself. So, all of these people were ostensibly on the same team, and that’s what’s part of what’s so horrific about how they turned against each other and the lawsuit that ensued.”
Russo-Young interviewed her moms for the series, and many other people involved in one way or another in the legal dispute. Her biological father, Tom Steel, died of AIDS in 1998.
“There were subjects that said to me, ‘I’ve been waiting for you to come find me for 30 years. What took you so long? I thought you were going to come when you were 18. Instead, you came when you were 40,’ ” Russo-Young said. “Part of really what I needed to in order to make this film was to have children of my own, to become a parent. Becoming a parent made me so much a better person in a lot of ways, and it made me think about not just myself, but really understand the stakes of what it is to have a child. And that helped me understand this story with so much more insight and perspective for everyone.”
Cogan, the Oscar-winning producer of Icarus, says he’s struck by the universal character of the story told in Nuclear Family.
“What the show is really about is the joy and pain and experience of being in a family,” Cogan noted. “This family had a particular set of constraints and traumas it had to deal with. But at the end of the day, it is not only about being in an LGBTQ family, it is about what happens in conflict in families when there are deeply felt beliefs, experiences, that not everyone agrees with.”
Check out the panel video above.
Must Read Stories
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.