Interview: Director Craig Gillespie on taking no prisoners when filming I, Tonya

Director Craig Gillespie wasn’t particularly interested in making a biopic about disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding when he was offered the script.  But the simple uttering of the name “Margot Robbie” was enough to change his mind, and the rest, as they say, is history.

As both the film and Robbie’s performance dominate the current award circuit, the actress just netting her first ever Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, Gillespie sat down with The Iris’s Peter Gray in Sydney on the eve of I, Tonya‘s Australian premiere to discuss the film and how he moulded something unexpected out of a story the world was seemingly so familiar with.

Were you familiar with the Tonya Harding story?

Yeah, very much so.  Ironically, I was in advertising back then, I was 22, and I did a Campbell Soup commercial with Nancy Kerrigan 3 months before this happened.  Of course it got pulled when all of this blew up, but I was very familiar with it, but in the same way as the rest of America thinking “she did it”.  I knew nothing about the bodyguard, or any of the other permutations of what was going on…I just took those headlines as they were fed to us.

Did you feel any intimidation given that these people are all still alive and you’re telling their story?

On one side, I don’t feel great about having to drag Nancy’s name back into this as she’s had this follow her throughout her life…you know, just tragically being the victim in this.  She’s won two olympic medals in her life but they’re overshadowed by this incident, which I think would be incredibly frustrating.  But on the Tonya side of it, I was fascinated.  When I read the script, there was just so much in there that you didn’t know.  There was great duality going on here, and the opportunity to really look at her again, and possibly have some empathy for her and the situation she was in.  We’re not condoning it, but it’s also taking a look at ourselves and the media and how quick we are to judge.  It’s really just a social commentary on that.

Did anyone on the film form their own opinion of what they believed actually happened?

We endlessly debated.  I mean we had to just from a character standpoint, I think on the set Margot (Robbie) would be in a scene and she would say “I don’t know in this scene” and Sebastian (Stan), who played her husband, would be like “you had to!, How could you not know?”  She was playing it like she didn’t know.  Everyone kinda picked their convictions and what they needed to tell themselves.  She (Tonya) is guilty, it’s just a debate to what degree.  But ultimately what was fascinating to me was to take this iconic figure that we’ve known for 25 years, in pop culture, as this villain and to actually look at her as a human being…and understand that at the time she was 22/23 years old when all this was happening, she had no support around her and the world that she came from…the fact that she made it as far as she did is astounding.  In some ways it’s like we’re holding up a mirror to ourselves to see how judgemental we are, and I knew that it was going to be a very tricky dance as most people don’t like being accused of that.  But I think, in a very honest way, we presented her, and all throughout the script she’s completely unapologetic, and we’re not trying to pull those heartstrings…we’re just showing you why she is the way she is.

And obviously a lot of it is to do with her mother, and I know that Steven (Rogers) wrote the script with Allison Janney specifically in mind…

And attached too!  There was no conversation there, but I was thrilled with that.

So how did it come about for you?

When I got the script, Allison Janney was attached, and I thought great, and Margot Robbie was to star and produce.  My agent told me they were sending a script about Tonya Harding, and I thought I don’t know if I really need to do a Tonya Harding movie.  I’ve just done two biopics, one was a sports biopic, it’s not where my head is…and then he finished the sentence “with Margot Robbie attached”.  And I thought that is such a crazy combination, and I was so intrigued by that and I just really hoped the script would play to her strengths cause I think she’s so great with that dance between comedy and humour without losing the character.  And then I read Steven’s script and it was like nothing i’ve read before.  The dance between the violence and the humour and the skating…and just the structure of it was so ambitious but I thought this will play to all of Margot’s strengths and I couldn’t of been more excited with the idea that she wanted to play this role.

Do you think because you’ve done sports biopics, comedy, and violent films that it helped you handle this material?

Oddly, the thing that helped me the most with this movie was my commercials.  I’ve been doing commercials for so long that I have a certain fearlessness…the stakes aren’t so high in a way.  You can be a bit more experimental.  And I approached I, Tonya like I did my commercials, where I just wasn’t going to take any prisoners.  I think that helped me more than anything.  The thing that scared me the most was the portrayal of the violence and how to do that, but I thought it was essential to understand her character…otherwise to not understand the emotional and physical abuse she went through, you wouldn’t understand the choices she made or the way she saw the world.

And did you meet with Tonya?

I did.  Margot and I flew up two weeks before we started shooting, and I was very nervous about that, because again the idea that we were bringing up all her past after 25 years…I didn’t know how she would take it.  But she was so trusting and giving, and it was quite disarming in a way, to look her in the eye and tell her we’re going through this whole journey again, but we’re trying to do it in a very honest way.  And it was critical to her that her point of view was in the film…she knew that (her husband at the time) Jeff’s point of view would be there too, but as long as her side was her side, she was happy with that.  And ultimately that’s what ended up happening and she was pleased.

I, Tonya is in cinemas now