Bringing the infamous story of one of the athletic world’s greatest falls from grace to the big screen must have seemed a daunting task. The controversial clash of personalities which culminated in a ruthless attack on one of the leading lights of the U. S. Figure Skating world was well publicised at the time. Everyone knows the names of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, but the truth of exactly what happened in 1994 was harder to pinpoint. The extreme personalities and the shocking nature of the actions of Tonya Harding and her ex-boyfriend Jeff Gillooly would make for a fine film, but director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers had to work out how to tell their enthralling tale with so much conflicting information and opinion. Getting to the truth at the heart of the matter was key, and in making the film they discovered that the intense drama and dark comedy provided the perfect foundation to uncover the well of deep emotions at play. And they had to do all of this knowing that the real life participants would be watching too.
How much did you know about this story? And were there challenges due to there being ‘multiple versions of the truth’?
CG: I’d never read a script like this honestly. It was so original in its structure and the extremes of comedy and drama, and the empathy and the violence. I loved that challenge. And I was lucky enough that Margot Robbie and Allison Janney were already attached which made my life very easy. Margot is a producer on this, and she interviewed me and I had to pitch myself to get this film. They had such great actors and such mastery of their craft so they could dance between the humour and the drama which is so pivotal in the script that I could see it so easily with Margot and Allison and with Steven’s writing.
SR: I didn’t follow it that much at all – I just happened to watch this documentary on 30 for 30 [The Price of Gold – ESPN, 2014] about Tonya Harding and there was some stuff in it about truth, and the perception of truth and how we justify our actions and we tell ourselves what we need to tell ourselves in order to be able to live with ourselves. That interested me, and I felt like it was framed in a whole lot of crazy… I thought that was 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 – ‘OK, I am so in… I don’t even know if this is a movie, but it will definitely be a great story…’ 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. 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.
Given that the film leaps from comedy to drama how did you avoid it becoming a caricature?
CG: There’s inherent humour in the circumstances of these events that we’re all so familiar with. They’re so outrageous, some of the situations. So, I love that we have that already going into it, and the audience has that. To be able to reexamine that and surprise the audience, and show that you actually care for these characters because they are real people with real stakes in this absurdity of events that’s going on. That was the challenge, that was exciting – that you’ll come into with a judgement and pre-conceived notions about Tonya and the incident, and by the end of it hopefully you’ll have some empathy.
SR: I thought the story was really funny, and I thought it was really tragic, and I thought it was really crazy. I didn’t see why I had to just choose one. I felt like that’s life – life’s never just one thing. It’s everything at a time, and it’s really messy and I wanted the screenplay to reflect that.
How important was it for Tonya to tell her version of the story?
CG: Margot and I got to meet Tonya two weeks before we started shooting and I was amazed at how trusting she was, and OK with what was going on. It’s been twenty-five years of living under this label, of being this villain. I felt comfortable, that I could look her in the eye, that we were really trying to portray her version of it. There would be Jeff [Gillooly]’s version of it, but I was constantly called Steven [Rogers] and asking ‘Is this was really happened?’ and he’d say, ‘Well, this is what Tonya said…’ or, ‘This is what Jeff said…’ so I felt we could honour that, and in doing that make a much more complex story. It was exciting.
SR: When I interviewed Tonya she asked me flat out (and 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. I wanted to interpret it and make a movie. I said, ‘I’m 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. I don’t feel like she was before, so that mattered to her.
Does the fact that the real Tonya Harding is out there hold you back in any way?
SR: I definitely felt a responsibility for Tonya, and for Jeff. But I also felt that I had a responsibility to tell a story in an entertaining way. That definitely propelled me forward. I was really nervous about what they thought of it. Jeff – I was worried about him because he says he never hit her. I told him we were showing both sides in the movie – he said he never hit her, but then we show him hitting her. I was worried that he would feel like I took advantage of him in some way, or made fun of him. He saw the movie, and he emailed me and 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. Tonya sent me a very sweet email saying she liked it a lot.
I, Tonya is available now on Digital Download and arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on June 25th.