Ry Russo-Young Talks Directing Immigrant Romance in ‘The Sun Is Also a Star’
"I was always moved by stories of immigration, and I felt like I was a piece of that puzzle," says Russo-Young.
When director Ry Russo-Young first read the script for The Sun Is Also a Star, like the two main characters, she said she fell in love.
The young adult romance about two first-generation immigrants explores the relationship between a Jamaican-American named Natasha Kingsley (Yara Shahidi) and a Korean-American named Daniel Bae (Charles Melton). The story takes place over a 24-hour period as they explore New York City and fall in love all while navigating racial tensions and immigrant relations in contemporary America.
“It was such a new Hollywood meets old Hollywood, but a truly contemporary and urgent story that needed to be told now,” Russo-Young tells THR. Tracy Oliver penned the script, incorporating the book’s cultural and historical elements while exploring the intense emotions that everyone feels when first falling in love.
Russo-Young talked to THR about her time directing the YA adaptation.
How was it filming on location in New York City?
I was really committed to shooting in New York because I'm from New York. I was a teenager running around those same streets. I went to that coffee shop [in the movie]. I remember one of the first times I was ever in Grand Central. So [New York] had a lot of personal meaning to me. From a director’s perspective, it was very tricky to shoot in New York because of the noise. We were shooting all the plaza stuff in one day and because we had to switch days at the last minute, we ended up with a construction site next to us, and so it's just slow, difficult, challenging filmmaking.
Are there any experiences growing up in New York, a city filled with immigrants, that really inspired you?
My grandparents came over on the boat through Ellis Island. I remember when I was younger, probably like 13, going to Ellis Island and finding my grandparents' name on the Wall [of Honor]. Finding my ancestors there was really moving. We've always called it the melting pot, but it is truly a city made up of immigrants that came from every which way to inhabit these pocket communities from Little Italy to Koreatown to Chinatown to the Lower East Side, where the Jews dwelled. To try to capture that in the movie was part of the goal. I was always moved by stories of immigration, and I felt like I was a piece of that puzzle — the shared puzzle — we're all in it together because we're all immigrants.
Sometimes the film felt like a photo portfolio or a documentary. Can you talk about your style choices and how you came about that look?
Our production designer, Wynn Thomas, who is gifted at his job, helped bridge the gap between the kind of contemporary specificity of New York and the more iconic locations that I think speak to the old Hollywood of the story. I wanted to make it feel contemporary. That was part of what informed the docu-experiential, natural lighting visual language of the film. It gave you a real sense of the people around the corner, [as if] you're right there with them. In terms of the photo montages, that was something that came really from the book. The book has a lot of different perspectives; it oscillates between Natasha and Daniel, while you also have an entire chapter dedicated to the multiverse, Korean names and this relationship between African-American hair stores in Korean culture. Those were just such incredible jewels of cultural specificity that I felt deepened the story and deepened the characters.
How did you establish your relationship with your two leads?
I remember flying out to L.A. and rehearsing for a week, maybe two. It was just me, Yara and Charles in a room together with a bunch of water and snacks. We'd read the scenes, and we'd talk about them and sometimes we'd put them on their feet. I think that early bonding was really crucial to bonding them together, but then also just having them understand where I'm coming from and having me hear them out. Like, what are their issues with the script, what are they excited about or what are they afraid of? It's really getting to know each other as people before even getting into the work itself. I really see them as my collaborators in making this movie.
Did they have any immigrant stories that they shared with you?
Yara’s father is Persian. I think her father's first generation, so she comes at it from a very personal place. Charles and I would get into long discussions about his family and what it was like growing up partially in Kansas. His mom is Korean and I think he experienced some of the fish-out-of-water stuff, being a Korean boy in Kansas. We definitely dove into both our parental relationships, our first love relationships and also the cultural histories that we have and how that informs who we are.
What are some of your favorite scenes from the film?
For me, one of the great moments is the plaza scene where [Melton’s character] Daniel's like, ‘Here's what we're not going to do. We're not gonna pretend that this is not the worst day ever," and Natasha’s crying and she's upset that she has to leave. I remember shooting that and just being so impressed by Yara's performance. She was really willing to feel the pain of being ripped apart from this person that she loves and from the city that she loves, and Charles’ ability to hang on and be right there with her.
What stereotypes were you breaking by telling this story?
I loved that Natasha, this young, Jamaican-American female, is a lover of science. She is the rational, sober one in the relationship. In addition, I just felt like I had never seen this kind of culturally specific, interracial romance onscreen before in a way where it's truthful to who they are. To Nicola Yoon's credit, it was in the book, and that's what attracted me to the project to begin with. It's based on Yoon’s own experience with her husband. She's Jamaican-American and he's Korean-American.
A lot of the religious themes and the family conflict didn't make it onto the screen. Can you talk about why?
Some of those elements were in the movie a little bit more even when we shot it and it felt distracting or off-topic. At the end of the day, it felt like the audience cared about Daniel and Natasha most of all. If we diverged too much from that, then we were lost as viewers. The closer we kept to their main arcs and storyline, the more engaged the audience was.
Where did you draw inspiration from?
I really looked at a lot of iconic love stories that have been throughout the ages. Everything from Bringing Up Baby to Romeo and Juliet to Splendor in the Grass, a lot of Spike Lee's work to The Notebook. I like to dig deep — Ernst Lubitsch — and really understand the genre from all angles.
Did The Sun Is Also a Star remind you of your first love?
It definitely reminded me of that time when you meet someone and you just want to eat up every inch of their body and brain. It feels like a chemical rush. Everything else melts away because that person becomes like your North Star.
A Warner Bros. and MGM co-production, The Sun Is Also a Star opens in theaters May 17.