More than 20 years after her peak in the public eye, the ways we choose to talk about Tonya Harding are still complicated and confounding. Since its initial theatrical release in December (the film expands nationwide throughout January), I, Tonya has been dubbed “the Goodfellas of figure skating,” with critics praising Craig Gillespie’s direction as “kitschy and smart and funny,” and a “pointed satire of athletic ambition.”
Like Harding herself, I, Tonya is many things at once, most of them at odds with one other. Nevertheless, with Academy Award nominations just over the horizon, Gillespie’s film is neither lost nor found in the shuffle—but decidedly part of it.
When Gillespie sat down with VICE, he opened up about Margot Robbie’s powerful performance as the titular Olympian, what kind of movie he hoped to make, and why consumers seem to need a villain to rally against.
VICE: What was the first thing that struck you about the film’s script?
Craig Gillespie: I was literally driving home from shooting a commercial and my agent called and said, “Hey, we’re sending over this script about Tonya Harding.” Before he finished the sentence, I was like, “Ah, I’ve done a sports biopic [Million Dollar Arm]. I’m not really into figure skating. It was a long time ago.” Then he finished the sentence: “starring Margot Robbie.” The idea that she wanted to do this movie was really fascinating, so I read the script, and it blew me away. The structure was like nothing I’d read before. If I’m visualizing it as I’m reading it, it stops being work.
Your film juggles multiple tones and formats. Was it chaotic to balance all that on set?
It was daunting that the whole kitchen sink of film tricks is in this thing. One of the first films I wanted to look at was To Die For: They use interviews to retell the story, but it’s very linear and everyone’s telling the same story. This film contains contradictory versions of what’s happening, and there’s a very dark side to this story too: the domestic violence, and the emotional and violent upbringing she had. Talking with Margot about it and trying to figure out how we’d do the violence—I didn’t want to shy away from it because I thought it really informed Tonya’s actual journey, the reason that she is the way she is, the defensiveness she has, and her attitude toward violence. When we looked interviews with her talking about it, it almost seemed like she was so numb to that cycle of abuse. Trying to do it in this tone was tricky, and one of the devices we came up with was to actually break the fourth wall in our first domestic violence scene, to show how she can disassociate herself from what’s happening in the moment. She’s almost immune to it.
What about Harding do you think was so attractive and repelling to people?
It is such a crazy, complicated, powerful story, but it was simply told in the media at the time. They portrayed her as the villain, Nancy as the princess, and this whole mastermind plan to bring her down. I feel like as you now watch the film and start to see the history of what she’d really been through, you become more understanding of why she was so defensive about it, because she did have a lot of barriers. She was always having to defend herself throughout her whole life, so that shell, that tough exterior that she developed to protect herself, was something that I think made people bristle at the time when they would watch her, and was divisive at times.
What were some of your objectives in telling this story?
I thought this was a real opportunity to take this person in our society who has been the poster child as the villain, and a punchline for 25 years, and to just reexamine that, and to look at her as a human being and not as a tabloid headline. I also wanted to make a bit of a commentary on the media and how we churn up people’s lives, and then move on in the most simplistic way. It’s so much more rampant now than ever. I enjoyed that people would come into this movie being judgmental because we all have this perception of Tonya, and it gets challenged. Challenged in terms of being judgmental in general not just with her, but how we consume media.
Why do you think we’re so ready to move on?
It’s the ADD nature of our society. The speed and the consumption of news has gotten so fast that literally you’re in the headlines for a day and then you’re onto the next thing. It’s just conditioning that’s happened over the years. Obviously, with Tonya, this went on for a couple of months and it was the beginning of the news cycle and the beginning of needing 24-hour content. It was right when CNN and all these 24-hour news services came out, so we got bombarded with it. It was a different kind of funneling of information, and the media outlets could really design what they wanted us to consume. Now there’s so many outlets that as consumers we get to choose the message that we want, and then we just move on from that. I know Obama mentioned that at one point, you really can’t just choose your singular platforms. You should try and be more even-minded.
It often feels like we crave this kind of flagrant disregard for a person, though. Tonya was, as you said, a villain.
I don’t know if it’s the best human trait that we have. They want somebody to love, but they need somebody to hate. There is this unattractive part to the human psychology where you enjoy other people’s failures, and that tends to be what we consume in the media. You don’t see a lot of stories of optimism. You don’t see a lot of feel-good stories going on. Unfortunately it’s supply and demand. It’s what people are demanding and what they want to consume. We call it “tall poppy syndrome”: When you see somebody get cut down, there’s this unattractive human trait that people can’t help but be happy about that.
Do you think you made the movie you wanted to make?
I feel very fortunate I got to make the movie I wanted to make. One idea was to be able to take somebody that we really think we know and reexamine them and actually change our perspective on them. And the second part is as an audience member we actually feel guilty for being so judgmental. My feedback from audiences has been those takeaways. Not to be presumptuous about it, but those are very common threads that I get from people, and that was my goal in a simple way.
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