The Writer and Director of 'I, Tonya' discuss perspective, relative truth, and responsibility to their subject
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Director Craig Gillespie and writer/producer Steven Rogers opened up about how they approached the true story of Tonya Harding -- the Olympic figure skater who was accused of involvement with an attack on a rival skater.
I, Tonya stars Margot Robbie in the title role, alongside Allison Janney as her formidable mother LaVonna, and Sebastian Stan as her husband/co-conspirator Jeff Gillooly. Both Robbie and Janney are nominated for an Oscar this year, while Janney won the BAFTA and the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress.
To read what Allison Janney had to say on her BAFTA-winning and Oscar nominated role as LaVonna, click here. To read what Margot Robbie had to say about playing Tonya herself, you'll have to wait for The National Student print edition, coming soon to a campus near you!
Here's what the creators behind this brutal and darkly funny biopic have to say:
How much did you know about the story, and how did you approach it since there are multiple versions of the truth?
Steven: I didn’t follow it that much at all, I just happened to follow this documentary about Tonya Harding, and there was some stuff in it about how truth and the perception of truth, and how we justify our actions and tell ourselves what we need to tell ourselves in order to live with ourselves. That interested me, and I just felt like it was framed in a whole lot of crazy, so I thought, “Well, that’s an interesting story to tell.”
I went on the Tonya Harding website to find out if her life rights were available, and I called the number for her agent, and it was a Motel 6. And I just thought “Okay, I’m so in! I don’t even know if this is a movie, but it’ll definitely be a good story.” And then I tracked down Tonya Harding, and I tracked down Jeff Gillooly, and I got them to agree to let me interview them. When I did, they just remembered everything completely differently. And that’s what gave me the idea to put everybody’s version of the truth up there, and let the audience decide what was what.
Presumably, that would propose certain challenges in your job, Craig?
Craig: I’d never read a script like this, honestly. It was so original in its structure, and the extremes of comedy and drama, the empathy and the violence. I loved that challenge, and I was lucky enough that Margot and Allison were already attached, which made my life very easy! Margot is a producer on this, and she interviewed me. I had to pitch myself to get this film. They’re such great actors with such mastery of their craft — the dance between the humour and drama which is so pivotal in the script — I could see it so easily with these guys, and with Steven’s writing.
You were just talking about the comedy in the film — why did you want to have it as a black comedy?
Steven: I actually thought the story was really funny, and I thought it was really tragic, and I thought it was really crazy, and I didn’t see why I had to just choose one. I felt like that’s life - life’s never just one thing, you know? It’s everything at once, and it’s really messy, and I wanted the screenplay to reflect that.
There’s inherent humour in the circumstances of these events that we’re all so familiar with, and they’re so outrageous, some of the situations. So I love that we have that already, going into it, and the audience has that, but to be able to reexamine that and surprise the audience and show that you actually care for these characters because they’re real people with real stakes in this absurdity of events that’s going on. So I think that was the challenge that was exciting. You’ll come into this with a judgement and preconceived notions about Tonya and the incident, and by the end of it, hopefully you have some empathy.
As an unashamed Hamilton fan, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” is such a powerful thing, and in relation to this film, how important was it for Tonya to tell this version?
Steven: When I interviewed Tonya, she asked me flat out — because she pretty much does everything flat out! — “Do I have any say in any of this?” and I said “No!” Because I didn’t want to give up that control, I wanted to interpret it and make a movie. I said, “I am going to tell everyone’s point of view, but I am going to tell your point of view,” and I think she really just wanted that. I think she just wanted to be heard. Because I don’t feel like she felt like she was before. So I think that mattered to her.
Craig: Margot and I actually got to go and meet Tonya two weeks before we started shooting, and I was amazed at how trusting she was, and okay with what was going on. Because it’s been 25 years of living under this label of being this villain, and I felt comfortable enough to look her in the eye because we were really trying to portray her version of it. There would be Jeff’s version, but constantly I’d be calling Steven and saying “Is this what happened?” and he’d say, “Well, that’s what Tonya said,” or “That’s what Jeff said.” So I felt we could honour that, and in doing so, make a much more complex story. So it was exciting.
From a filmmaking perspective, does the fact that the real Tonya is out there hold you back in any way?
Steven: I definitely felt a responsibility for Tonya, and for Jeff. But I also felt I had a responsibility to tell a story in an entertaining way, and that definitely propelled me forward. I was really nervous about what they thought of it. Jeff, I was worried about him because he said he never hit her, and I told him we were showing both sides in the movie - he said he never hit her, but we also show him hitting her - and I was worried he would feel like I took advantage of him in some way, or I was making fun of him. He saw the movie, and he emailed me and he said “Well, I liked it way better than Hope Floats,” which is another movie I wrote. I said “Me too!” But I definitely felt that responsibility for him and for Tonya. And Tonya sent me a very sweet email saying that she liked it a lot.
I, Tonya skates into cinemas Fri 23rd Feb, distributed by EntertainmentOne.