Craig Gillespie brought a touch of humour to his fantastic film about scandal-tinged skater Tonya Harding, writes Esther McCarthy
IN 1994, champion skater Nancy Kerrigan was struck on the leg with a baton by an attacker, setting in motion one of the biggest scandals in sporting history.
When it emerged that the man involved was connected to the camp of her main US rival, Tonya Harding, the story captivated America and the world. Though Harding has always maintained she knew nothing of the attack, she became the most vilified woman in sport.
Australian director Craig Gillespie’s terrific new movie I, Tonya, instead of trying to find the truth in all the accusations, makes them part of this unconventional film. Various characters give their versions of events, sometimes speaking directly to the audience. It’s a movie with the same sense of fearlessness and rebelliousness as its subject.
“I read the script and I just fell in love with it,” Gillespie tells me. “It was so original and unique and I couldn’t necessarily find a specific example of it in other films. This had so many different things going on and it was so unconventional with the multiple narratives that were contradictory, their undermining each other and the interaction between them talking on camera.”
Nominated for three Oscars at next week’s Academy Awards, I, Tonya features ‘the incident’ but is about so much more than that. It is funny and mischievous and often incredibly sad, an account of a working-class white American’s efforts to excel in sport, and a woman for whom abuse and ridicule was a part of life.
She had a volatile relationship with her mother (Alison Janney) and suffered physical abuse at the hands of her
“There’s a tone to this which is very tricky and in some ways it just became more complicated because I didn’t want to shy away from some of the harder issues that were in the script,” says Gillespie. “Obviously one of those was the domestic violence. It was one of the first questions Margot asked me: ‘How are you going to handle the violence?’
“I said: ‘I think it’s got to be brutal, to understand Tonya Harding and the way she thinks, the way she sees the world’. I would watch her in TV interviews after the incident and you could see she had this chip on her shoulder, a defensiveness to her, which I felt was alienating to the public. But in this way, showing the way she grew up, the abuse that she suffered, you understand where all of that is coming from.
“As I was watching interviews with her, she would be so sort of cavalier about the violence, shrug it off. You see how she’s almost disassociated from it, it almost felt normal to her. I think it would be an injustice not to show it, and I knew it was going to be tricky, it’s about how we do that dance and keep the audience invested.”
Robbie, who spent months learning to skate and adopt Harding’s accent and mannerisms, travelled to meet the former skater with the director before filming started.
“Margot and I flew up and met her two weeks before we started shooting,” explained Gillespie. “It was more that I wanted to reassure her that we weren’t going to take advantage of her. But amazingly she was so trusting. We had lunch with her, I thought she would have more of a chip on her shoulder. I kind of expected that she would be a little more resistant.
“We said that there were some tough edges to this, that it’s not just her version. She said: ‘That’s ok, as long as my version is in there. I’m good with that’.
“She really seems happy, and mostly what we talked about, we didn’t revisit the past, what we talked about that day was mostly her son, and her marriage, her husband.”
Gillespie says he felt there was an ingrained prejudice against Tonya Harding. “She was the poster child of a villain for 25 years. Obama joked about it when he was campaigning against Hillary Clinton, that he was going to do a Tonya Harding on her. It’s so ingrained in our culture, that I knew that was a huge hurdle to have to get over.”
As well as being anything but a standard biopic, I, Tonya has some clever things to say about class and establishment, especially in sport. A brilliant athlete, and the first American woman to successfully complete a notoriously difficult triple axel jump in competition (the film brilliantly recreates the achievement in a tense scene), the skater nevertheless didn’t fit the traditional mould and frequently felt isolated.
“Basically the class system was what she was fighting against, very much so,” says the director. “I think it’s pretty much in all sports, because to get to Olympic level, the amount of training involved, and time, it is, I think, class restrictive. Particularly in this when you’ve got the outfits, and renting the ice time, it’s particularly tough.
“There was a fearlessness that she had in terms of wanting to be her own individual and skate her own thing, and she had this whole different style and this athleticism. All those traits that you would typically love and cheer for are being penalised.”
In many ways, Gillespie was the perfect director to helm the film as he is not a man to tie himself to conventions.
Born and raised in Sydney, in his late teens he moved to New York to study illustration and graphic design.
He went on to direct commercials for 15 years before moving in to film. It was his second feature, the lovely and indie Lars and the Real Girl, starring an early-career Ryan Gosling, that put him on the radar of movie lovers. Was the fact that the story centred on a man who was in love with a sex doll a tricky selling point? He laughs.
“That and I, Tonya are the two films that are closest to my heart, and they’re both opposites in a way.
“But they’re both premises that I knew the audience would come in with a prejudice against them. I loved that challenge and again it was an amazing script.
“That moment where Ryan kisses her at the end of Lars, is unscripted, and it’s a pivotal moment in the film for me.
At the first screening you could hear a pin drop and that’s when I could give a sigh of relief.”
In recent years he also got to work with one of our most-loved actors, Colin Farrell, in a fun remake of the horror movie Fright Night. “I love Colin. We’ve actually become very dear friends since then, which is great. He has a huge heart, he’s got an amazing set of priorities.”
I, Tonya is in cinemas tomorrow