Nuclear Family director Ry Russo-Young knew the family included in the HBO documentary very well — because is was her family.
During her childhood in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Russo-Young was the focus of the first-ever paternity lawsuit in which a sperm donor sued a lesbian couple for visitation rights — and to be recognized legally as the child’s father.
That child, of course, was Ry Russo-Young. The donor was Thomas Steel, a prominent civil rights lawyer, and Ry’s mothers are Robin Young and Sandy Russo. Steel had first established a relationship with Ry during visits to the family with his partner, Milton Estes, and Milton’s son, Jacob, beginning when Ry was three years old.
In 1993, Judge Edward M. Kaufmann issued a ruling in Manhattan Family Court that denied Steel’s legal status as Ry’s father.
“It was the first in the nation where a gay couple was recognized, and that a biological parent wasn’t given rights,” Russo-Young told MovieMaker.
Judge Kaufmann’s decision was overturned the following year by the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan, which ruled that he should be granted legal standing as Ry’s father. Steel would ultimately drop the suit, and to Russo-Young’s relief, she continued living with her mothers and sister, Cade, who was conceived from a different sperm donor.
As Nuclear Family shows, the experience of being dragged in and out of courtrooms complicated Russo-Young’s feelings towards Steel for much of her life. A box of baby videos on VHS tapes — which Steel sent her shortly before he died of complications from AIDS in 1998 — sat untouched in her closet for years.
While making Nuclear Family during the lockdown of 2020, she watched all of the tapes for the first time. One included a goodbye message from Steel.
“I’d spent so many years, you know, most of my life, telling the story intermittently — first in the form of the trial, and then in press after,” she said. “I wasn’t clear on how I felt about the story or how I felt about my biological father, and so I had a sense that my telling the story would clarify my feelings.”
As a director of feature films including 2017’s Before I Fall and 2019’s The Sun Is Also a Star, Russo-Young tinkered for several years with the idea of telling her story in the form of a fictional feature narrative. But she finally concluded that it would work best as a three-part documentary series.
Another catalyst for making Nuclear Family was becoming a mother.
“Becoming a parent myself and having kids made me realize the stakes of the story. For my moms, certainly… but even a little bit for my biological father, just how much you fall in love with your kid and you want to protect that child and you’re worried about that child all the time — all of that hit me on a whole new level when I was a parent,” she said. “Also, the world was finally ready to hear it.”
In the past, Russo-Young recalls, she and her moms would be peppered with questions that revealed the asker’s prejudices towards her family. Now, she feels more confident that society will be able to hold a more respectful conversation.
“The questions that the world used to ask — or culture used to ask — about kids with gay parents or gay families were sort of derogatory, homophobic questions. You know, ‘Are the children normal,’ or ‘What is the effect gay parents have on these children.’ And I felt like the culture could finally handle a more nuanced story about a gay family,” she said.
To have that bigger conversation, she first had to have many smaller, on-camera conversations with the full cast of characters who could tell the story, including Steel’s family and friends.
“It was tricky to wear these different hats because in some ways I had to be as a subject who was experiencing something during the making of the movie and having feelings about everything that happened — I had to be really open and present and emotionally engaged,” she said. “But then as a director, it’s almost the opposite. As the filmmaker, you have to be aware of the whole narrative. You’re thinking about how things are constructed. So there were times that I had to talk about myself in the third person.”
From start to finish, Russo-Young wanted viewers to experience the events of the doc almost as if they were happening to them.
“I always wanted to embrace the subjectivity of the experience and have the viewer’s journey watching it mimic my journey emotionally and psychologically,” she said. “That was always the plan.”
The first episode of Nuclear Family is now streaming on HBO Max, with the final two episodes set to air on Oct. 3 and Oct. 10.
Main Image: R-L: Cade Russo-Young, Robin Young, Ry Russo-Young, Sandy Russo pictured in Nuclear Family, courtesy of HBO.