Director Craig Gillespie and actor Sebastian Stan discuss ‘I, Tonya’

Anyone and everyone with a passing knowledge of sports history will find it hard to forget “the incident” that the comedic drama I, Tonya has been built around. In 1994, just before the start of the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, darling of the figure skater scene Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted following an on ice practice session. It was a shocking act of violence and sabotage perpetrated in a sport that – while catty, competitive, and political off the ice – had never seen such a scandal. Coming out of the blue and at the dawn of our current 24-hour tabloid news cycle, the press coverage of the attack was inescapable. It didn’t take long for authorities to discover that the people who carried out the attack were in conspiracy with Kerrigan’s fellow Team U.S.A. skater Tonya Harding, her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, and her pseudo-bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt.

Everyone knows “the incident” (as it’s referred to repeatedly in the film) and the resulting fall out that turned Harding and Gillooly into frequent late night television monologue punchlines, but in director Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya (opening exclusively in Toronto this weekend and expanding across Canada on January 5) these events and the conflicting points of view surrounding them get a deep (and muddy) dive.

Told via recreations of “wildly conflicting” first person interviews and dramatic/comedic re-staging of events, the film goes back to the early days of Tonya Harding (played by Margot Robbie, who also serves as the film’s producer), an impoverished Oregonian pushed into excellence by her demanding, abusive, cold-hearted mother (Allison Janney) who fell in love with Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Both Harding and Gillooly were outcasts from the wrong side of the tracks, so the attraction was natural, but their constant antagonism of one another often led to contentious, violent fights (depending on who’s telling the story). Through depicting Harding’s past largely in the disgraced former athlete’s own words, Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Fright Night, The Finest Hours) , Robbie, and screenwriter Steven Rogers sought to cast the salacious events her name became attached to in a more sympathetic and detailed light.

We got a chance to talk to Sebastian Stan and Craig Gillespie shortly after I, Tonya made its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto to talk about creating a faux-documentary from conflicting viewpoints, the dangers of making a movie where the lead performer is literally skating on ice, their interactions with the characters’ real life counterparts, and how the biggest challenge of the production was to balance the light moments with incredible, often sudden bursts of darkness.

This was a film that Margot was attached to as both a star and producer before you even arrived. What was it like meeting with her and getting involved with the film?

Craig Gillespie: It was great! I actually had to go and pitch myself for the project, so I went to meet with the other producers, screenwriter Steven Rogers, and finally with Margot. One of the first things she asked me was, “So how are you going to create the right tone for this film?” It was a really intelligent question, and we had a really long conversation about it, maybe about 45 minutes or so of the time we met, just going back and forth and discussing tone. I was blown away by her first as a producer. Even when we actually had discussions about possibly casting other people instead of her in the lead, she knew exactly who she wanted to look at, and she was always generous in that respect. Margot always knew what she wanted this film to be, even if she wasn’t starring in it. If she wasn’t able to star, she had a list of people she knew she wanted to look at that she felt could have played Tonya. The story was always first, and she was always multitasking in some of the most incredible ways, and if there was every something that she wasn’t sure of, she would say so. She was always keen to learn and share the load. She was amazing.

It has to be hard to get a handle on what someone like Jeff Gillooly is like when you’re working on a film that’s comprised almost completely from contradictory first-hand accounts from the people who really lived through these incidents. At times, you portray him sympathetically, and at times you have to show this dark, loathsome, irredeemable side of him. Is that hard to convey these constantly changing character directions as an actor?

Sebastian Stan: That’s one of the great things about the script. One minute I was laughing so hard at what was happening, and then the next scene I would become so aghast that I would get confused about what I was laughing at. It’s the kind of material that was always challenging my own system of values, and the idea that these are real people and that this really happened – not to mention what I thought I knew or didn’t know about it all going in – really sparked my curiosity.

Regardless of what really is the truth, I had to follow the script. In the film, there are scenes where Jeff will say “I didn’t do this. I had nothing to do with it.” Then in the very next moment, we’ll cut to him acting completely opposite of what he was saying because that storytelling perspective has changed. Whether he was telling the truth or he was lying, I always had to follow the script to find the truth in each scene as an actor. Both Jeff and Tonya, from doing these interviews, basically contributed to the screenplay in their own words. Steve Rogers went to interview both of them. I never got a chance to hear Tonya’s interview, but I did get to check out his, and his point of view is definitely in the script, as is her’s. We have to honour both of them to some respect.

It’s also a story where there’s a great amount of abuse and violence that colour who these characters are. How were you all able to manage the film’s more outlandish and comedic elements with these incidents of real life violence?

Craig Gillespie: It was a constant conversation between all of us. I never wanted to shy away from what was really happening, and I wanted to tackle it head on. I think it needed to be violent if you ever wanted to understand and empathize with where Tonya was coming from. I came up with this idea that was very tricky, so it was also what I was most concerned about as a filmmaker. It was an exciting challenge to deal with this dangerous mix of a controversial subject, this violent undercurrent, and comedy. It was always a dance, but the one thing I kept coming back to was how Tonya always saw these cycles of abuse as normal ever since she was a kid.

It’s hard to make a film feel that way, and I that’s where the idea came in to have Margot break the fourth wall. Whenever things were getting too intense for the audience, she would come in and you would see that this didn’t bother her because this was just where her head was at in those years. We shot those scenes both with and without breaking the fourth wall, and my hope was that the device would work and make the film an easier sit for the audience. We tested it, and it turned out that it definitely worked, so it was always a struggle to make sure that we were staying true to who these people were as human beings while also balancing their somewhat comic contradictions.

I’m so glad that we have Margot, who is willing to explore these places, but also someone like Sebastian. Most male actors, if given a role like this where they have to do some truly heinous things, would try to come in and do something macho and brutal, like it’s an assertion of sexual dominance. Sebasitian plays him more like a six year old’s level of impulse control. We never condone what Jeff does, but it does illustrate Jeff as the kind of person who does something before thinking about it. That just gives us more access to these characters.

Tonya also fights back, which helps to balance things, but you always have to ask yourself how far you can take something before you lose the audience. Given what these characters go through, one of the first questions I would always ask whenever we screened it for people was, “What do you make of the violence,” and I think that was an important question to keep asking. I knew we weren’t holding back and that we were putting in almost every violent incident that we knew we had. Ultimately, people kept saying that we needed it in there. We also tested it with various amounts of violence removed from the film, and ultimately what happened in those screenings was that people lost compassion for Tonya. You had to know what she had been through, no matter how tough it might have been to take. The more we screened it, the more we realized that this darkness and violence fostered a sense of understanding.

Sebastian Stan: The hard part with Jeff is that there’s no excuse for that kind of behaviour. I don’t care where you’re coming from. There’s no excuse for it. Absolutely none. I think the issue is more than boiling down to calling Jeff and Tonya rednecks, and more about the nature of trauma. You’re talking about two individuals who are very damaged. You can see in both of their lives that their pasts aren’t the greatest, even before they met each other. The problem is that you’re growing up learning these cycles of abandonment, abuse, violence, and survival amid great uncertainty, and if these are present when you’re growing up as a child, the sad part is that these feelings often get equated with love if that’s all these people know. I thought about that a lot, and how people can seek that later in life. I think they both play this tug of war with each other where they try to let go, and they keep coming back together because they exemplify all they think they know about love.

For her, she thinks that she can’t be happy, because if she starts feeling happy or comfortable, she thinks that something must be wrong. That’s relatable, and I think we all have these fears; this fear that if someone puts a gun to your head that you’re going to run a marathon faster than anyone has run a marathon before. It becomes a survival mechanism. People always try to say that there’s something in their background, but I think people always looked in the wrong places for answers. Neither of them was exactly keen on going to therapy. In many ways, this is a story about trauma.

You said you got a chance to go over the interview tapes, but did you meet Jeff in person, and did it change your opinion about him as a person?

Sebastian Stan: Yeah, I did. As for if it changed my opinion of him… (long pause) Even right now if you were to ask me that, I honestly wouldn’t know what to say. I’m further removed now, but at the time I had to take such an objective point of view, and to a point where I had to take my own opinions on the matter out of the equation to find a way in to who he was as a person and the situations he found himself in. The only way that this made any sense was to treat the film as an obsessive, compulsive love story. Here’s someone who attached his own identity so close to someone else’s identity and worth that without her he didn’t know what life was going to be like, and it terrified him. I worked from there and tried to figure out what kind of situation that would be like. All of that was in the script, and the accounts were already so contradictory that I would never go up to Steve Rogers and say, “Oh, we can’t say this like this because Jeff told me…”

But there were definitely moments where Margot and I would be in a scene, and I would say to her beforehand, “I’m pretty sure this is where she knew what was happening.” And she would say, “No, because he wasn’t telling her anything.” And we would go back and forth and question ourselves and our characters about who knew what and at what point. I think Craig did such a great job with the film and how he allowed us – and how he allows the audience – to come away with their own take on what happened. No one here is very innocent, so getting the truth out of them all was something I knew would be almost impossible.

We will never really know. Maybe that’s what’s so interesting about the story. Why do we keep coming back to this? Why do we keep examining what happened with O.J. or the Menendez Brothers? There was a bad thing that happened, and we can point to it and know that it’s bad, but knowing where it starts, where it ends, and who knew what is confounding. It’s like no one involved or observing from a far thinks that the actual truth could ever be good enough. Everyone thinks about what could have been and why, but I’m not sure if anyone wants to confront the truth or know it completely. Tonya claims she knew nothing about it, and Jeff says that it started out as this small thing that someone else ended up taking to another level that he wasn’t involved in.

But regardless of who they are, when you play a real life person, there’s still a sense of responsibility there. You have someone’s life in your hands, so to speak. It’s a great challenge, for sure. With Tonya, you have someone who’s very animated and adamant that they had nothing to do with what happened, which if you study behaviour and how people react to certain situations, it makes people question them more. With Jeff, he just kind of shrugs and says he didn’t do it, which is fascinating in its own way because you’re always looking deep into their eyes for any sort of tell that they’re lying to you. It’s colder, but there aren’t as many distractions. It’s so fascinating to be able to play alongside Margot and show these two sides of this crazy story.

Did you actually want to meet these people or were you content to go along with what was written?

Craig Gillespie: It’s amazing because between all of the documentaries that were made over the years, there’s so much stuff on Tonya that has already been produced. There are so many interviews from when it was happening and from years after that I probably felt pretty good about the physicality of what she should move and sound like when talking about “the incident.” But meeting with her in person really reminded all of us that we were dealing with human beings, and there has to be a certain amount of respect that comes with that. I was always sensitive to that because Tonya has been thrown under the bus in the media and in the eye of the public for thirty years now.

When I was pitching this film, I loved that everyone reading it was approaching the material from the most judgmental points of view possible. Tonya and Jeff are punchlines. They’re villains. My goal was to always make you feel bad for Tonya by the end of the film; to empathize with her. No one ever just lands in a moment like this. People are victims of their own circumstance and privilege most of the time. It’s in someone’s upbringing, their environment, their education, their choices. It’s never one thing that can be pointed to where someone can say “Here’s where so and so went bad.” It’s all about the choices that are made. It’s all in human nature, and most people – unless they’re psychopathic – aren’t inherently dark. I love the one line in the film that where Tonya says that Nancy got hit one time, but for Tonya getting hit was a regular occurrence.

Did you ever follow the case closely when it was originally unfolding?

Sebastian Stan: I was about ten or eleven when it first happened, so I was actually in Europe at the time, and I wasn’t following it closely. I did see [the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary] Price of Gold, and I think that was that was the first real exposure I had to what happened, and that was great. From there I watched so many tapes about the ins and outs of the figure skating world, and it took my appreciation for the sport and the seriousness of what happened had more weight to it. Here are athletes who make the near impossible look effortless, and I think that was one of the things that endeared people to Nancy Kerrigan. Everything Kerrigan did looked so smooth, pristine, and almost regal. But this idea that it was also like a pageant sort of thing, which is weird when you consider how physically demanding it all is.

Craig Gillespie: Everyone knows “the incident.” (laughs) Everyone expects to come in and see this one moment that everyone knows, and then the story completely flips and shows all these things that everyone observing the news at the time wasn’t privy to. It was never about this rivalry between Nancy and Tonya. Almost all of that was created by the press, but that’s all anyone ever saw at the time. At one point, these two were great friends, and even Nancy wasn’t this upper-class hero everyone thought she was. Nancy Kerrigan was decidedly middle class. There were all these elements of the truth that were getting lost in the more salacious aspects that played better to a 24 hour news cycle. We always wanted to make the movie removed from all of that. I loved that we weren’t making a movie about that.

The film does show that in the period leading up to her infamy, Tonya was well liked and regarded by the public at large because she wasn’t as privileged as many of her counterparts in figure skating. Since that’s often forgotten about was it important for you to showcase that side of the story?

Craig Gillespie: Absolutely. There were huge Tonya fans that stuck with her because they always wanted to root for that underdog. Tonya could have had a very uplifting story before this incident in almost any other sport that wasn’t figure skating, which is one of the most image conscious sports there is. But everyone wants villains and heroes, and because there was this incident that she was attached to, her being from the wrong side of the tracks made her into an almost perfect villain. She was rough around the edges. Everyone wants someone they can love, but they also love someone they can hate.

What’s it like trying to recreate the period details of the skating world in the 1990s on what had to be a limited amount of time and a limited budget for a film of this size?

Craig Gillespie: We had such a great crew. Jennifer Johnson, who works with Mike Mills and in the commercial world a lot, did our wardrobe and styling, and she had probably the hardest job of all. Margot alone had 108 outfits throughout the course of shooting, and she had to do all of the other skating outfits, as well. Her crew also made stuff for the people in the background, like when the film goes to the Albertville Olympics, and everyone in the background has these snow suits on. She made replicas almost down to all of the smallest details of all of Tonya’s skating outfits, and since there was so much footage of Tonya from this period, we got to see all of these different looks. If someone can feel themselves in the skin of the characters, it’s easier to get into that sense of time and place, but costuming might have been our biggest expense and hurdle in terms of period recreation. It was such an important part of the film. There were craftspeople that were so loyal to the details on this film that I almost had to remind them that we weren’t making a documentary. (laughs) So much work went into this in terms of costuming and production design. It makes me look good (laughs), but I can’t stress enough how much of a team effort this was.

It can’t be easy to finance a film where – despite the presence of trained professionals and stunt doubles – you have to constantly put your leading performer out on the ice all the time and run the risk of injury.

Craig Gillespie: There was a huge discussion around that, for sure. (laughs) We wondered if we should do that all first or wait to shoot all of it last. I mean, if we did it last and god forbid something happened, we could still work around it, but if we put it at the end of the shoot, that meant that all of Margot’s training would have to be happening while we were filming all of these really difficult, dramatically demanding scenes. But if we did it first, if something happened, it might have derailed everything. We ultimately shot it all first. We spent three weeks on the ice, and it was all rather intense.

On top of all that, time was a huge factor. We were shooting at these rinks where you always had just a limited amount of time because they also had hockey games, and practices, and things like that. One day, we came in and we didn’t think we were going to make our day and get what we needed. I think we had seven scenes in this one rink with thirty set-ups both on the ice and in the locker rooms. We broke it all down, and we had to light and shoot a new shot every twenty minutes, which was insane, and it was efficient, but when you have your lead actress out on the ice for a lot of that, you get VERY nervous. (laughs) There were so many key scenes that we shot that day that it seems insane in hindsight.

I, Tonya opens exclusively in Toronto on December 22. It expands across Canada on January 5.

 

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.

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