Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
It’s not long after the first minutes of director Ry Russo-Young’s THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR begin to unspool that one tends to notice her elegant sense of style. Her multi-faceted approach to imparting an immersive feeling of hope, conflict and wistful romance is engaging, augmenting what author Nicola Yoon’s put in place with her novel.
The romantic drama tells the story of Natasha Kingsley (Yara Shahidi) and Daniel Bae (Charles Melton), who experience a chance encounter with each other and wander around a sparkly New York City, falling in love despite familial pressures bearing down hard on each. She and her family are facing deportation and he’s forced to reckon with being his immigrant parent’s number one son as the second born. Doubling as a love story and a nuanced, subtle issues-based drama, it speaks to the power of humanity, fate and destiny.
I recently spoke with the talented filmmaker about everything from crafting a love letter to New York City, to ally-ship, to creating a textured cinematic feeling of love.
If I was a New Yorker, and I were seeing this far from home, I’d be totally homesick watching this. Did you pull inspiration from other romantic NYC movies – and do you feel a pressure to represent NYC as this place where anything can happen?
I’m from New York originally. I moved to LA permanently even though I had been doing a lot of back and forth for about seven years. But I moved back permanently two years ago and literally, less than a year later, I started making this movie. In some ways, this feeling about New York and seeing it as a place that’s filled with specific cultural communities and the celebration and love of the diversity of it and all the thousands of stories and people there that make up the heart of the city, that’s all in the book and it was a huge personal pleasure for me to bring out further in the film. It’s who I am – where you’re from is part of who you are. And those themes are laced into the film, so it all stacked up because it was thematically relevant to the movie. But it’s how I feel.
In terms of drawing inspiration, absolutely. MANHATTAN was a movie me and Autumn Durald, my cinematographer, talked about a lot because it’s in widescreen. It’s very iconic. Saying it’s a love story is a little questionable at this moment in time. It’s also the only movie, other than one of the SPIDER-MAN movies that uses the Rhode Island tram in one shot.
I was really excited to capture a New York City that I felt like a local would approve of and that wasn’t a kind of “greatest hits” type New York that we see in every other movies. We stayed away from Times Square, but can still be iconic with it, which was part of the challenge. Grand Central, for example, is in a lot of other films, but it’s so cinematically on point for this movie and beautiful. How could we not?!
The narrator of the show they watch at the planetarium sounds a lot like Robert Redford. Was it?
It is Robert Redford. And that’s a real video the planetarium does. We didn’t have him record that. We were in very close touch with the planetarium because we wanted to get everything scientifically accurate and have it feel as realistic to the experience as watching one of their videos. They have a small handful of narrators and they gave us them. Me and my editor Joe [Landauer] watched them all and that one felt, in terms of what he was saying, felt the most dramatically relevant. And Robert Redford is a wonderful voice.
Right. I was wondering if that was a nod to your Sundance films?
[laughs] It’s my way of thanking him for supporting my career – of supporting women filmmakers throughout his journey with Sundance Film Festival. No, honestly. I wish I could be like, “yeah, that’s why.” But no. It’s always about the movie and what’s best for the story. It was what he said what was best for the story. But I was thrilled it was somebody that I completely admire and respect and that has been so incredible to filmmakers – especially diverse and female filmmakers.
Music plays a large part in your films. A lot of filmmakers don’t pay attention to the soundtrack as a way to help tell the story, but you do. What kind of direction do you give your music supervisor? When you came aboard, did you visualize a soundtrack to go along with it?
Yeah, music is really important to me and my music supervisor Warren Fischer. I’ve known him for ten years and have worked with him extensively in different capacities. He’s a good collaborator – so much more than a music supervisor. He’s like a creative partner in the process who’s with me from the very beginning. When I was pitching on this movie, him and I were trading playlists back and forth and curating and getting a sense of what we wanted it to sound and feel like. Music is so indicative of tone.
It’s a process that went from the very beginning, reading the book stage for me, to all the way until the very end. There’s a lot of people who come and help the process, whether be it Joe Landauer, or Warner Brothers Music – Darren – suggesting a track. But it’s really a sound that gets developed for a very long time through a huge trial and error process of auditioning many, many, many songs and honing it over time.
They all fit perfectly and suit the tones.
Youth-driven films are music-driven which allows it to be fun. There is a soundtrack on Spotify – a director’s playlist. I’m super proud of Herdís [Stefánsdóttir], who did the score. I think the original score is absolutely stunning and tells the story so acutely – both emotionally and psychologically for the characters.
How did you come up with the visual interpretation of Natasha’s world turning upside down with the transitions?
I’m obsessed with transitions. I remember when I made my first movie, my first indie film that I made for $60,000 when I was 24 with a cast and crew of six people, I had zero transitions in it. I made that mistake the first time and it drove me crazy. I was flogging myself. That’s something I learned through making movies that transitions are really important – not just to me as a filmmaker, but in the film. They can tell the story and illuminate aspects of the story that you can’t illuminate any other way – that you can’t do in the scene. There are thematic clues, or emotional visual metaphors that talk about the world. Most simply, Natasha’s world is turning upside down by the two major plot point of the story: meeting Daniel and her deportation. And her home, New York, is literally getting flipped on its head.
The other thing of what it is, is that it reminds you that the Earth is a planet – like the sun is a star and we are in this constant rotation. It put the Earth and the image of a skyline we’re so used to seeing, reminding us of that interconnectedness. It’s such a big piece of the book – that we’re all a smart part of a much larger universe. That’s both overwhelming and assuring at the same time.
The movie feels like allyship in action. It’s a story that’s about people of color and written by two women of color. I’m wondering what that term “ally” means to you?
I think it means working together – all ships rising together. And working in a way with people that share your values.
THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR opens on May 17. Read our review here.