There’s little on screenwriter Steven Rogers’ resume to indicate that he was interested in writing something like “I, Tonya,” the year’s most irreverent – and unexpectedly inspiring – biopic that follows the exploits of one of America’s signature fallen stars. After premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in September (where Neon and 30WEST acquired it for 2017 release), the film has steadily picked up awards steam, particularly for the mother-daughter performances of Allison Janney and Margot Robbie, who are both nominated for Critics’ Choice and Indie Spirit awards.
“I’m loving this,” Rogers said with a laugh. “Because you don’t get it on every movie, so when you do get it, you just hold it closely. Never one time, ever, when I started to write about Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly, did I think about awards season. The whole experience has been kind of miraculous.”
Rogers isn’t exaggerating. The screenwriter, best known for writing romantic dramedies like “Hope Floats” and the Susan Sarandon tearjerker “Stepmom,” was in the process of leaving show business when Al Films picked up his spec script about the unbelievable true story behind one of America’s most infamous sports dustups.
Directed by Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”) the rollicking narrative follows the wild real-life exploits of iceskating champ (Robbie, in a breakout role) as she claws her way to the top of the sport, despite a fraught personal life and a big-time bias against her “white trash” background.
Hobbled by a dismissive mom (Janney) and her abusive and criminally stupid husband Jeff Gilloly (Sebastian Stan), Harding watches her hard work crumble after getting mixed up in a tabloid-ready story of human fallibility. Everyone knows what happened next: the attempted “whacking” (like, with a baton, not an actual murder) of her Olympic rival Nancy Kerrigan that exploded the 24-hour news cycle and ended Harding’s career. But Gillespie’s film digs deeper to find the real human in the middle of the mess, a pitch-black comedy that indicts everyone, including Tonya.
It’s pretty much the opposite of Rogers’ other films “P.S. I Love You” and “Kate & Leopold.” “When you say it’s not like my other movies, I’m like, ‘yeah, I know!’ I kind of needed to reinvent myself,” Rogers said. “I was lucky enough to have movies made, but a lot of the time, they were watered down versions of what I wrote. I felt like this tone is very specific to Tonya, and I didn’t feel like it would survive the studio system.”
Rogers was particularly stung by the handling of his previous film, 2015’s “Love the Coopers,” which starred Diane Keaton and John Goodman. Billed as a holiday comedy by distributor CBS Films, the film didn’t even crack $30 million at the domestic box office and earned the screenwriter the worst reviews of his career.
“It was really mismarketed,” he said. “They lied and said it was like a big, broad comedy and it wasn’t, it was a dramedy.” The experience was so devastating for Rogers that he decided to quit the business after nearly two decades. Fortunately, Rogers decided to undertake a totally new type of project first. He’s honest: post-“Coopers,” he wanted to write something that was “totally the polar opposite” of the misunderstood holiday film.
Enter Nanette Burstein’s “The Price of Gold,” the documentarian’s 30 for 30 episode chronicling the Harding scandal, which Rogers happened to catch. Something clicked. “I thought, well, nothing doesn’t say Christmas like Tonya Harding, so maybe there’s something here,” Rogers said.
Eager to see if Harding’s life rights were still available, Rogers called a number listed on her website that was meant to direct him to her agent. It directed him to a Motel 6. The story was already too insane to be believed. “I just thought, oh, I’m in. I am doing this. I don’t know where it’s going to take me, but I’m on for the ride,” Rogers said. “I don’t know what a sign looks like, but that was a sign.”
Rogers stayed on the trail, eventually finding a Harding associate in Texas who said she was Harding’s agent (she wasn’t), who the former ice skater actually calls “mom” (she isn’t), who connected the pair, mostly because Rogers’ resume made it clear that he was a real-deal screenwriter, not some weirdo off the street. Rogers flew to Oregon to meet with Harding for a get-to-know-you lunch. The former champion picked him up at the airport in a busted pickup truck with a trick door that she needed to open for the nervous screenwriter.
It was a daunting task for Rogers – “I’ve never interviewed anybody before!” – but he dove into the challenge. Better yet, he and Harding liked each other. Soon after, Rogers acquired her life rights and returned to Oregon to formally interview Harding over a two-day period.
Harding has hardly shied away from the spotlight in recent years – the end of Gillespie’s film amusingly addresses Harding’s dalliances with C-level celebrity over the past two decades, including her crack at AAA wrestling – and Rogers found her eager to talk about the events that shaped her most infamous exploits. Mostly, Harding wanted her side – or, as Rogers put it, “her version of her side” – of the story to finally be revealed.
The screenwriter still can’t quite figure out why Gillooly decided to speak to him. Unlike Harding, Gillooly (now Jeff Stone) has granted few interviews over the years, and nothing nearly as wide-ranging as what Rogers needed for his script. But after speaking to Harding, Rogers knew that his script would be woefully incomplete without Gillooly’s voice in it, too.
Courtesy of NEON
Funnily enough, Harding and Gillooly leave mere miles apart, but haven’t seen each other in years. Rogers didn’t need Harding’s help to find her ex-husband, however, because while Gillooly had changed his last name after getting out of prison, he also announced said name change and promptly moved back to his small hometown. He was easy to find.
“I don’t know why he agreed to let me interview him, because he doesn’t do interviews and he’s never told his side of how all the events went down,” Rogers said. “I think his wife liked some of those other movies I wrote.”
While Rogers enjoyed the back-and-forth questioning of the interview process, he struggled with cutting through Harding and Gillooly trying their hardest to put their best face forward, even twisting the narrative to better suit their hopes. “It was very human,” Rogers said. “A lot of this movie has to do with the things people tell themselves in order to live with themselves.”
Rogers was also surprised to discover how differently both Harding and Gillooly recounted the events surrounding the scandal. “Their stories and their recollections were wildly contradictory, they really did not remember anything the same,” he said. That spawned the multiple points of views that guide the film, leaving it up the audience to decide for themselves what “really” happened.
Stranger Than Fiction
It’s also one of the elements that made Gillespie so eager to take on the project. “I loved these contradictory interviews, I love that we’re giving the audience a chance to participate,” Gillespie told IndieWire. “It’s almost, in that sense, like a documentary. You get to see these people, and you get to try and decide if they’re lying. What do I believe? You get to make your own choices.”
Rogers felt freed up by the possibilities of telling a “Rashomon”-like yarn in which characters often break the fourth wall to better hammer home their side of the story, which speaks to the off-kilter nature of the razor-thin line between comedy and drama the movie so often toes. “The characters are rebellious and wrong-headed, it doesn’t have to make sense,” he said. “I was just trying to mirror the characters. All the crazy stuff is the true stuff.”
Rogers’ contract came with just two caveats, including that it couldn’t be rewritten without his consent (the other one, that long-time friend Janney be first pick to play the role of Harding’s mother LaVona Golden). He didn’t need to worry.
To his credit, the filmmaker still seems in awe of what Rogers was able to do with the material and the insight he gleaned during the process of writing it. “[Steven] did a six-hour interview with Tonya,” Gillespie told IndieWire. “He watched the documentary, he tracked her down, he went up there, they met. This is her interview, which is why these stories feel so spontaneous and personal and bizarre.”
Although Rogers didn’t set out to purposely make a film that, in many ways, engenders sympathy towards Harding and even Gillooly and their insane experiences, that’s been one result of telling a multi-faceted story. “They’ve both been thrown to the wolves, in terms of the press and the media, they were reduced to soundbites, a punchline,” Rogers said. “I really wanted to humanize them. Once they relaxed with me and trusted me a bit, it was a lot easier.”
Turning Around Sympathy
That shines through in the final film. “I really felt like it was there in Steven’s script that, by the end of the movie, we should empathize with [Tonya],” Gillespie said. “I know it’s a tall order with such a huge public persona that we have, but I really felt it was possible…with this script.”
Harding is not the only one redeemed by Rogers’ screenplay. While the writer was initially apprehensive about hawking his script after that “Love the Coopers” kerfuffle, he can’t believe the ways in which “I, Tonya” has altered both his career and perspective. (And, no, he’s not quitting anytime soon.)
“I found out there’s nothing worse than a nice long rest after a great big flop,” Rogers said. “You have to have something else. I thought everything good was going to come from the Christmas movie, but it came from Tonya and Jeff.”
“I, Tonya” opens in select theaters on December 8, with a wide release to follow in January via NEON.