By Randi Altman
I, Tonya is sad and funny and almost unbelievable in the sense that this — or a version of this — actually did happen. It’s also a fantastic movie.
Some of us are old enough to remember when the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan “Why?!” incident took place. I think we all knew at the time that what was playing out was more like a soap opera and less like figure skating. Thanks to the Craig Gillespie-directed I, Tonya, everyone gets a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what led up to that assault, and it’s not pretty. What the public didn’t know back in 1993 was the abuse that Tonya Harding was enduring via her mother, her husband Jeff Gillooly and even the figure skating community, who viewed her as too working class to represent them.
I, Tonya’s editor, Tatiana S. Riegel, ACE, is a long-time collaborator of Gillespie’s, having worked with him now on five features (Lars and the Real Girl, The Finest Hours, Fright Night and Million Dollar Arm) and the pilot for the TV series United States of Tara for Showtime. She says the shorthand they’ve developed over 10 years “is thrilling and makes life very, very easy.”
We spoke to newly minted Oscar-nominee Riegel about working with Gillespie and her workflow on the film, which was nominated for a number of Golden Globes and has earned Riegel her own ACE Eddie and Independent Spirit award nods as well.
When were you brought on I, Tonya?
Craig told me about it the fall of 2016, and I officially began when they started shooting in January 2017.
Were you on set, near set? How did that work?
I was far from set. I was in Los Angeles, and they were shooting in Atlanta. It was very nice for me to be able to stay home. That is one of those advantages that I can have with Craig because we do have such a shorthand. And while I have traveled with him on location many times, this time, from a budget standpoint, it was prohibitive. Plus, we were going to be in New York for the six months of post, and I didn’t want to go away for nine months. This was our compromise.
You worked out of Harbor Picture Company in New York, where the post was being done?
Yes. It was lovely. They’re so nice. I really — I have to say — I miss it and I hope I get to go back to New York and work there again. I felt like I was at home, even though I wasn’t.
Can you talk about how you and Craig work together? Does he shoot a lot of coverage?
The short answer is yes. The longer answer is he is very prepared and very disciplined. The schedule on this was quite short. It was 31 days, and I think there were 260 or 265 scenes. So it was compact, but he was so wonderfully prepared. For certain scenes, he didn’t shoot as much coverage, but for other scenes, much more. But always with lots of options, which makes editors very happy.
What did he shoot on?
Craig shot most of it on film, which was lovely. It gave it a great look. He shot 2- and 3-perf, 35mm film, but then he did do some stuff digitally. The interviews were shot digitally, just because of the amount of coverage. It was three hours, per person, for the interviews. And then, obviously, some of the extreme slow-motion stuff was shot with a Phantom camera.
Did Harbor do the dailies?
They did not. We did the DI at Company 3. That’s where we finished, and the dailies were processed at Crawford in Georgia.
Who is your assistant, and how do you work together? Are they covering the technical stuff? Are they another eye?
They’re both. This was probably our sixth or seventh film together. Dan Boccoli is fantastic. For this film he was on with me during dailies, because when we went to New York I had to hire a local. His name was Steve Jacks, who was also superb.
Dan and all of my assistants are a wonderful combination of creative and technical. They are preparing everything, communicating with all of the different departments, making sure I have everything I need, and they keep me out of those loops that I don’t want to get involved in.
I show them scenes and get their feedback, which is wonderful for me — this allows me to show somebody before I show the director or anybody else. Just to make sure everything’s being comprehended properly, and I’m getting the reaction that I want. It’s also a teaching process for them; they get to understand the whole process, and learn for their own future.
Was Craig looking at scenes you were editing?
With all directors, I like to stay up to camera as much as possible. I want to start that conversation sooner rather than later to make sure we’re all on the same page tonally, performance-wise and story-wise. Then there are the practical things like, is all the coverage there? I try to put the scenes together quickly, the best that I can, and send them off on a daily basis, sometimes a couple times a week, sometimes once a week. It depends on what’s being shot.
Another advantage is that when shooting is finished and they come in for the first time to watch the assembly, they’re not surprised by anything. It’s not anywhere close to being done, but they are clear about what they have and how we’re doing tonally and performance-wise.
How were you physically getting scenes to Craig?
A variety of ways, but usually it was a system like Pix or DAX because of piracy issues. It’s very secure, and he was able to watch it online.
Were there any instances where you thought coverage was missing?
Yes, there was one situation. Shawn, the bodyguard, doesn’t really show up in the movie until the second half — there are only some interviews early on. I actually asked for a couple more instances to be added so we would have an introduction to him. This way it wasn’t a new character popping up and the audience thinking, “Oh, I think I saw him once.” I called Craig and he agreed, and the writer Steven Rogers agreed.
Can you talk about editing the skating scenes? I know that VFX was used for some of that and there was a double, but how did that work?
There are four or five larger skating sequences, and Craig and the DP talked very early on about each having their own personality. For example, the first one, the ZZ Top one, is earlier in Tonya’s career, and she’s got an attitude and gruffness and a strength that wants to be portrayed in that sequence. Especially after coming off of the Vivaldi Four Seasons, and emphasizing how Tonya Harding was not the typical ice skater. She didn’t fit the mold, and she really did skate to ZZ Top.
Craig and the DP Nicolas Karakatsanis watched the original skating sequences for the choreography and tried to get as close as possible. They had to do some pretty serious planning for these seamless transitions between Margot and the double. Margot had trained for about five months, so she did a fair amount of spectacular stuff where you have to be an Olympian type moves. She did do some of the dancing and getting on and off the ice, and the beginning and ends of routines.
Then it was a question of following this choreography map they had set up, but also spicing it up and giving each of the scenes their own personality and energy. The ZZ Top scene is very energetic and a bit show-off-y. The one at the end of the film, at Lillehammer, is all done in one shot, or it plays as one shot. We go in and out of Margot and the double, and that’s purposely done to build the tension, the anxiety and the stress she’s going through at that moment with her shoelace having broken.
The soundtrack is fun. Can you talk about that?
There was nothing about music in the script. This is all something that Craig brought to it. He had gotten a lot of music from the music supervisor, prior to shooting, and we began listening to stuff. But after I had the whole thing together, we sat down, about a week into it, and started throwing music against it and figuring out what worked for energy, for pacing, for fun and for emotion. We just kept trying things, moving them around. Sometimes we cut in or out of songs very quickly, for momentum, and that became a lot of what we did in the post process. Experimenting.
There was a scene where Gillooly is on the floor of his house, and then the camera sort of backs away and takes you down a street. Was that one shot?
It plays as one, but it was actually shot as four different parts. He starts on the bed, which I just love. He’s distraught and hunched over, but looking right at the camera. Then the camera pulls away from him and goes into the hallway, and then we find him again in the kitchen, where he’s obviously trying to talk to her but get mad, so he throws the phone. Then it pulls out of the kitchen and into the living room, and he’s sitting alone on the floor. Then it pulls out of the living room onto the front yard and down the whole block. It was all these different shots that were stitched together quite beautifully.
While there was obvious violence and abuse, there was also humor, so it was a fine line you needed to walk. How did you tackle that as an editor?
Craig spoke with Margot and everybody about it very early on, because it was really important to not sugarcoat that stuff. This is what made her who she is and made her react how she did. This is the reality of her life. There’s a documentary about her when she’s 15 years old, and she’s very matter-of-factly talking about her mother hitting her. She says it in a very detached, unemotional way that really struck a chord in Craig. That’s when he came up with this idea of breaking the fourth wall and having the characters talk directly to the camera. It allowed the characters to separate emotionally from that moment in a way that felt very lifelike to us. Although it’s not a lifelike moment, talking to the camera, it gives it detachment. It also shows survival. It’s the 45-year-old Tonya talking back about that moment having survived.
You cut this film on Avid Media composer. What about it do you like, and did you use ScriptSync?
I find it to be just a fantastic tool for sharing media. I know how to use it very well, so I don’t have to think, which is terrific. I did use ScriptSync for the very first time on this film. I just haven’t felt the need for it before, but this time it was helpful because of the way the interviews were shot, which were, for the most part, very long takes. The interviews are spaced throughout the script, so the actors would read all the way through them, doing some retakes within a take, but then continue on. So, just from an organizational standpoint, ScriptSync was a lifesaver. It was just brilliant. I don’t know how I would have done it without it, to be perfectly honest. It would have been excruciatingly time consuming.
Is there any scene that you are most proud of, or that was most challenging?
The film as a whole was very challenging in terms of balancing the very serious with the very funny. There are moments that portray that, like the knife scene where she’s having dinner with her mother. The conversation grows into this terrible fight, and they are screaming at each other. Then the mother’s throwing stuff, and then she throws the knife, and it’s this amazingly shocking moment.
There is that fantastic pause. You don’t know how Tonya’s going to react or how LaVona is going to react. Then Tonya takes the knife out, but you still don’t know what she’s going to do. She walks over, slams it into the table, and we see LaVona’s reaction as Tonya walks off. I just loved that. It’s about holding that moment as long as possible, almost until it breaks, and then breaking it with this fantastic joke — where LaVona, in her interview says, all families have problems. When we screened it you could hear a pin could drop, and then it just breaks into this great relief of laughter. It’s just a really fun thing to put together.
What’s next for you?
I am going to Berlin to work on The Girl in the Spider’s Web for director Fede Alvarez. It’s part of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series. This is something that’s very different, which I find very appealing. I like doing different types of films. I think editors often get pigeonholed very quickly — “They’re a comedy person, they’re a drama person, they’re an action person.” I like to shake it up a bit whenever possible, because I like working on different kinds of films just as I like going to see different kinds of films, and.