The opposite of a feel-good Christmas story? How about a Tonya Harding biopic?
I have the most walked dog in Santa Monica. When I feel stuck, I walk Walter. Production executives tend to put creative people into just one slot. Professionally, I was thought of as the guy who wrote romantic comedies, which were rapidly going out of style. I felt stuck. Walter was exhausted.
I had just written a Christmas movie called “Love the Coopers” and I wanted to write something that was completely different. My niece was over and we happened to catch this great documentary that Nanette Burstein did on “30 for 30” about Tonya Harding called “The Price of Gold.”
And it occurred to me — nothing doesn’t say Christmas like Tonya Harding.
I tracked down a super nice woman in Texas who said she was Tonya Harding’s manager (but she’s not), who Tonya calls Mom (but she isn’t). She got me in touch with Tonya and because I’d written those romantic comedies, Tonya agreed to meet with me.
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I spent two days interviewing her. After that, I tracked down Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and, surprisingly, he agreed to talk with me too. There’s a title card in “I, Tonya” that says, “Based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.” And that’s pretty accurate. Tonya and Jeff remembered almost nothing the same way.
For their first date, Tonya remembered that she and Jeff went to see a movie one afternoon called “Nowhere to Hide” and that her dad chaperoned. But Jeff recalled Tonya’s mother accompanying them to a restaurant for dinner and Tonya’s mother trying to leave with extra chicken parts in her purse.
All the characters in our movie are telling themselves what they need to tell themselves in order to be able to live with themselves. And that’s very human.
— Steven Rogers
A lot of our movie has to do with truth and people’s perception of the truth. Shawn Eckardt, Tonya’s “bodyguard,” told himself and anyone within earshot that he had teams of hit men at his disposal and that he worked frequently for overseas dictators. It’s crazy and funny, but if you go a little deeper, I think he said it because he was closing in on 400 pounds, lived in his parents’ basement and was lonesome. All the characters in our movie are telling themselves what they need to tell themselves in order to be able to live with themselves. They’re trying to control the narrative. And that’s very human.
I wrote the script on spec for free and felt very protective of it. I’ve been lucky enough to have movies made, but I often found them to be watered down versions of what I wrote. “I, Tonya” has a very specific tone that I didn’t think would survive the studio system. It’s funny and violent and zany and tragic. It’s not just one thing. I wanted to make it independently and be a producer so I could finally have a seat at the table.
I partnered up with Bryan Unkeless, Tom Ackerley and Margot Robbie. All of us were fairly new producers, but I didn’t think twice about that. We all saw the movie the same way. That’s miraculous. Craig Gillespie was our unanimous choice to direct.
I had it in my contract that no one could rewrite me without my consent. But I didn’t need it. Everyone had my back. Writers in Hollywood notoriously feel mistreated. Dorothy Parker said, “Writers are the women of Hollywood.” But on this movie, I couldn’t have been treated more respectfully. It was actually really moving.
I’d been friends with Allison Janney since we went to acting school at the Neighborhood Playhouse 150 years ago. I’d always write parts for her but she never got to play them. This time, I attached her to the role of Tonya’s mother, LaVona, when I went out with the script. OK, the fact that she hadn’t exactly read the script yet or agreed to play it is another story, but thank God the gamble paid off. She’s fantastic in the movie.
All the actors are.
We had a small budget. All of us worked for scale. Somehow we shot 256 scenes in 31 days. I don’t know how many scenes a day that makes (I don’t use the math side of my brain. I sleep on that side. And I get eight hours), but that’s in large part due to Craig Gillespie and a fantastic crew. And Margot Robbie. She would sometimes play four different ages in one day, modulating her voice slightly four different ways with different physicality for each age. Come on!
The truth is, no one would have hired a “romantic comedy writer” to write this script. I had to gamble on myself and reinvent myself. And that, like Tonya’s story, is very American.
Of course, now I’m only offered edgy, dark comedies instead of romantic comedies, but that’s a different problem. Walter is resting easy.
It's a date
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