I, Tonya offered a unique challenge to a filmmaker. At the core of the film is a story about the physical and emotional abuse disgraced figure skating champion Tonya Harding endured throughout her life from her mother and her husband, but the film also explores the very traditional, staid world of competitive figure skating, while also offering a scathing indictment on the behaviour of the media. To balance each of these elements in the one film was a considerable feat.
Director Craig Gillespie was up for the challenge, as he told SBS Movies.
SBS: How did you strike that balance between the competing elements of the film?
Gillespie: The most nerve-wracking part of it was dealing with the abuse. But, it was the thing that I really didn’t want to shy away from.
It was one of the first questions Margot [Robbie] asked me when we met and I said, “I think it’s got to be brutal because it’s going to inform us on the way that Tonya sees the world, the way that she thinks and this defensiveness we see in these interviews with her from back then. It makes us understand the way that she saw everything.” And I thought, “We can’t shy away from it.”
But it did make me nervous on how are we going to be able to go from those extremes of some very dark moments to some very funny moments, and a lot of that was trying to figure out the dance between her and Sebastian Stan. And finding that cast, with Sebastian… Because we had Margot attached and I knew she had that in her – the dance she can do between the comedy and the humour while never losing the character. Sebastian’s role was such a tall order because he’s the abuser in this. To be able to do that dance from being in comedic scenes to then being in these very dark scenes was very tricky and I think in a lot of ways he’s underrated for his performance with that.
He’s such a terrible person but at the same time, you kind of have some sympathy…
Yeah, and on the page it wasn’t really there and he managed to bring some empathy to him. There is this moment where he makes up with her and he’s bought her Dove bars, and it’s after a really heinous scene. And the fact that the audience can still be invested with them after that, it’s a testament to their chemistry and their performance.
Was there a concern about making him too nice? Because he’s the villain to a certain degree, but at the same time, he is someone Tonya loved.
I don’t think he is. I think part of not making him too nice was we didn’t shy away from the violence. To me, what I found interesting is you can get comfortable with him and we sort of give you this harsh reality of, “This is who he is, guys, don’t forget.” And it actually gets, in some ways, more brutal as the film goes on. At the beginning of the film, we’re trying to really understand Tonya’s mentality about abuse, being that she’s so used to it in her life. And you’d see her in interviews, she was very casual when she talked about it, and talked about her mother and talked about Jeff abusing her, she would shrug it off and make a joke about it.
You can see that defensiveness and just also the way she’s almost become numb to it, and I thought, “How do we portray that in the film?” So in the first parts of the film, it is very violent and I had her break the fourth wall so she’s talking to us and you can see how she’s disassociated herself from it and she’s almost numb to it. But then later in the film, we don’t do that because I wanted to instill the tough reality of it. So I think the other part of that that’s interesting is that often we see abuse in movies and it feels very much like he is this very black and white… it’s very black and white in terms of him being portrayed as this villain, but I think the reason that there is a cycle of abuse sometimes in relationships and people keep coming back, is because it is much more complicated than that. It’s not black and white, and there is this love underneath necessarily and it’s in this very dysfunctional and emotional way, so we were trying to bring in that grey area.
How important it was for you to make sure that you were depicting the broad way the media was looking at the story, bringing figures like David Letterman into the film?
Yeah, there was actually another Letterman Top 10 he did about Tonya specifically. This was Tonya and Connie Chung. I actually really wanted that one, but we couldn’t get clearance for that one.
The media is a huge component to this story. They were at the beginning of the 24-hour news cycle in America and really kicked it off. The bombardment and the paparazzi around them, and the relentless nature of the media – there was no playbook for that back then. And there was nobody around her to protect her. The interesting thing back then is the media created the narrative – they decided, “Right, we’ve got the villain, we’ve got the princess…” and they pitted these two women against each other, which I think in today’s lens may not have happened because obviously she was surrounded by a lot of men that were instrumental in what happened, but it became very much the narrative of Tonya and Nancy. So I thought it was very interesting – and then us consuming it.
And there was this moment in the film, which I think is, again, maybe a tough pill for the audience to swallow, but I love that by going on this journey and maybe understanding her more and hopefully having some empathy for her as a human being, not condoning anything she did, but just seeing why it happened. But by asking the audience for that empathy, they’re also complicit in a way of being guilty of all that judgment we’ve had for the last 25 years. So, it was an interesting dance to have to ask the audience to do. But then we kind of hit on that a little harder at the end of the film with the boxing scene with that voiceover that say, “America, they need somebody to love but they want somebody to hate.”
And I just loved making that statement, and again it came from looking at some footage of Tonya – the actual Tonya Harding – when she went into boxing, and I saw this photograph of her and she’s down on her knee and she’s bleeding, and you can see the whole front row up and they’re exhilarated and to me it’s such a tragic juxtaposition - just the enthusiasm they had at somebody’s demise and it’s a statement again of how we chew through people in society. I thought it was a great was to comment on that at the end of the film. But also it’s a comment on her because she just won’t give up, and she gets back up off the mat and refuses to stop fighting.
You lay the groundwork right at the end there with the OJ trial, as though what we’ve seen with Tonya Harding was just the melting of the ice – the world is ready for this 24-hour news cycle. It brought to mind The People vs OJ Simpson miniseries, with both stories having a female protagonist – because the further the OJ story goes along, you realise it’s really about Marcia. Both stories are really about women who faced misogynistic abuse from the media and culturally at large. Why is that a thread that’s coming through in these biopics?
I think because it’s a reality. In that case, too, so much of the commentary was about her haircuts and what she’s wearing, which is very misogynistic in that way. Back in our period it was so much about the female on female conflict and pitting them against each other rather than analysing the men involved in it. It was the mentality of the culture – there were the Clarence Thomas hearings, there was, you know…
Nancy Kerrigan has said she hasn’t seen the movie yet. What would you like her to think about the film if she does get around to seeing it?
Honestly, it was sort of the one thing that I don’t feel great about - that she has to deal with this again because this is something that has followed her, obviously in a very unfair way. She’s more synonymous with this than the fact that she’s won two Olympic medals, so that to me was an unfortunate part of having to revisit this story, but it really wasn’t about the two of them and that’s something I really tried to stay clear of. I didn’t want to sort of drag her presence into the movie, as much as I could, so there literally isn’t a line in the movie from her.
I, Tonya is in cinemas nationally now.
For more on Tonya Harding, the documentary Tonya Harding: The Price of Gold airs on SBS Sunday 4 February at 8:30pm.