Thin Ice: Craig Gillespie’s 'I, Tonya' depicts the rise and fall of a notorious figure skater

Movies Features

Director Craig Gillespie appears to have landed something as tricky as the triple axel—turning ice skater Tonya Harding’s tabloid exploits into a crowd-pleasing awards contender in I, Tonya, starring Margot Robbie. 

The dramedy from NEON chronicles Harding’s hardscrabble life as it leads up to the infamous attack on rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. As a result of the incident, Harding was ignominiously stripped her of her 1994 national title and punished with a lifetime ban from the world of figure skating.

While the Kerrigan episode is primarily what Harding is remembered for, Gillespie’s film asks audiences to delve further into the woman’s unfortunate life—and if they don’t forgive her for the Kerrigan attack, at least they can arrive at a greater understanding of her side of the fascinating story.

The retelling of Harding’s hard-luck tale began with a fast-paced script from writer Steve Rogers, whom Gillespie said managed to fit some 265 scenes into a mere 110 pages. The director, whose other credits include indie darling Lars and the Real Girl and Disney sports flick Million Dollar Arm, wasn’t entirely sure the film could sustain such a pace.

“I hadn’t read a script in this format before,” Gillespie tells Film Journal International. “I tried to find references, and the best I could do was To Die For—and even that film is much more subdued. But the best reference I could find in terms of some rapid-fire scenes was GoodFellas—just for sections—but this was our whole film.”

Gillespie came on board with Robbie already attached. The Australia-born actress had already drawn Hollywood’s attention with roles in The Wolf of Wall Street, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and Suicide Squad, and a brief cameo in The Big Short in which she explains from a bathtub the origins of the global financial crisis. Knowing that Robbie was attached to the title role encouraged Gillespie to dive in.

“Margot being attached to it was unbelievably intriguing because I loved her work, her dance between comedy and humor,” he says.

The movie’s rapid pace is fueled, in part, by the soundtrack. Gillespie shot-listed with music in mind, even though the tunes weren’t specifically indicated in the script. The director wanted to incorporate plenty of pop songs to maintain the film’s energy and capture the emotion of the story.

“Looking at some of Scorsese’s stuff, the juxtaposition of certain songs against violence takes it to a different level,” he observes. “I actually collected about three hundred to four hundred songs in prep.”

I, Tonyaintroduces the audience to several narrators in addition to Harding—including her husband, Jeff, and mother, LaVona, played by Sebastian Stan and Allison Janney, respectively. The film then begins to weave a somewhat contradictory tale of the events that culminated in a hired assailant violently striking Kerrigan’s knee with a baton.

Voiceovers can, of course, prove a tricky device for filmmakers, which is why Gillespie specifically prepped his shot list so that he could use narration at his discretion. “I started designing it so that I could put as much of those interviews and voiceovers in as I needed,” he says. “I would shoot these fluid camera moves that could sustain the music and voiceover; that way, we would have the choices in the edit.”

The film uses the shifting perspectives to show various versions of what actually transpired. Gillespie and editor Tatiana S. Riegel then opted to obscure the truth even more as the film nears its thrilling climax.

“The second half of the movie, it’s much more convoluted as to which version we’re hearing,” Gillespie says. “That was a conscious choice, we could make it clearer. But I like that you start to get lost in the conversation and you have to go back and revisit the film.”

Permitting his characters to break the fourth wall with their versions of events also helped Gillespie overcome one of the major challenges of the film: how to approach Harding’s history as the victim of domestic abuse—the skater was subjected to repeated beatings by both her mother and her husband. Gillespie wanted to engage the audience with the cycle of abuse, and hoped that by doing so it would allow viewers to understand Harding on a deeper, more personal level.

“I thought part of the cycle was that she was immune to it. She’s grown up with it and she’s emotionally disconnected,” Gillespie explains. “I thought if we had her break the fourth wall in those scenes, it makes it easier to keep the audience engaged. That was the idea we came up with for the sequence where she first gets hit.”

Gillespie knew another challenge involved how to accurately depict Olympic-level ice skating. Given the many technological advances in special effects, audiences would likely accept nothing less than an up-close look at Harding’s athletic ice routines.

Six months prior to filming I, Tonya, Gillespie shot a Nike commercial with Roger Federer in a stadium that needed to appear full. With computer-generated technology, he found there was little he couldn’t do in terms of crowd replacement. Knowing that, he wasn’t concerned about filling the ice stadium as Robbie skated her well-practiced routines.

What he didn’t know, however, was how he was going to capture the skating up-close. The script featured five major competitions, and Gillespie wanted each to feel visually different. The first competition takes place when Harding is 16 years old. The director wanted the camerawork to be raw, energetic, messy, fast, and a little chaotic to reflect Harding’s teen years.

Later in the film, when Harding is skilled enough to land her first triple axel in the short program, Gillespie wanted stylized and more precise camera moves. Finally, portraying the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics (in the wake of the Kerrigan attack), Gillespie wanted to have the camera right in Harding’s face as a sort of reminder of the public’s unrelenting gaze.

But deciding which camera technique to use vexed Gillespie.

“Trying to figure that out, there were a lot of conversations,” he recalls. “Do we do drone, do we do movie camera on a sled?”

Fortuitously, the production had a Steadicam operator who called up and announced, “By the way, I can skate.” The operator went out the following weekend and shot some amazing footage with a friend who was a figure skater.

Robbie, who had already been rehearsing her skating for five months, coordinated her routine with the operator. “He would say, ‘All right, you come this way, I’ll come around that way and I’ll meet you on this side,’” per Gillespie. “It ended up being the simplest thing, because it’s literally him ice skating, holding a [handheld] camera,” the director recalls. “We actually got through it remarkably quickly. It ended up being an incredibly smooth journey.”

I, Tonyahosted its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. The film launches in theatres in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 8, followed by a wide release on Jan. 19.