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How Oscar-Nominated ‘I, Tonya’ Editor Tatiana Riegel Broke the Fourth Wall

Oscar nominee and ACE winner Tatiana Riegel breaks down how she intricately edited the buzzy Tonya Harding biopic.

I Tonya Margot Robbie

“I, Tonya”

Courtesy of NEON


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I, Tonya” has become the surprising wild card in the editing race, with Tatiana Riegel snagging both an Oscar nomination and an ACE Eddie win Friday night. That’s because director Craig Gillespe went with a fascinating mockumentary-like approach to notorious figure skater Tonya Harding (Oscar-nominated Margot Robbie, who also produced) that skates tonally between absurdity and tragedy. Allison Janney also received a Best Supporting Actress nod as Harding’s acerbic and abusive mother, LaVona Fay Golden.

“It’s a film you don’t expect to see about Tonya Harding and you don’t feel the same at the end,” said Riegel. “There are a lot of interesting elements dealing with [violence] and class issues and not being allowed to be yourself.”

Breaking the Fourth Wall

It also serves as a kind of Rorschach test, adopting an unorthodox structure in exploring Harding’s tabloid-like rise and fall as a figure-skating sensation and implication in the criminal assault plot on Olympic rival, Nancy Kerrigan. There are on-camera interviews, voice-overs, and breaking the fourth wall (an element not in the script),

“The mechanical part of it with all of these different elements was to see what worked best and why,” added Riegel. “Is it better to see them on camera saying it? Is it better to hear it and see the action underneath? Is it better to break the fourth wall and give you this odd distance from what’s taking place? Craig shot everything both ways for that exact reason. He came up with the idea originally of breaking the fourth wall and I liked it a lot.”

Janney in “I, Tonya”

Courtesy of NEON

Cutting “I, Tonya” became a dance between tragedy and absurdity. But the trick was to avoid going over the top. “I think the secret to that is always play for what feels real and genuine and always go for the emotion,” Riegel said.

The inspiration for breaking the fourth wall came when the director saw a documentary about Harding when she was 15 and was intrigued with the matter-of-fact way that she described how her mother hit her. Gillespe then wanted to utilize this detached emotional response to the violence in her life by speaking directly to the audience. “And it was a way for the 45-year-old Tonya to be telling us what happened actually in that scene,” Riegel said. “It also lets you know that she survived these incidents.”

Each component offered a different challenge: the skating scenes contained their own personality, from an early one full of energy done to ZZ Top, to the history-making triple axel (achieved with visual effects), to the harrowing Olympic performance, with the shoe lace breaking, forcing Harding to stop in the middle.

“I, Tonya”

Courtesy of NEON

By contrast, a quiet scene in the diner provides a different side to the mother-daughter tension, where LaVona tells Tonya that being a nice mom isn’t going to get her anywhere. “It’s just two people talking and I find it extremely powerful,” Riegel said.

The Knife and Eskimo Pies

However, violence permeates Harding’s life, perpetuated by her mother and her husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). The pivotal scene starts quietly over dinner and suddenly escalates into a full-blown fight, with LaVona hurling objects at her daughter, including a knife. “It’s shocking for the audience and for the characters,” said Riegel.

“And then it becomes a question of stretching and ratcheting up the tension by cutting back and forth between them, where you don’t know as an audience member what these characters are going to do. They don’t even know what they’re going to do in that moment.

“I, Tonya”

Courtesy of NEON

“And Tonya very calmly puts down the knife and all you hear is LaVona breathing. And I just held and held and held in that moment until it demanded a break. And then, not only do we cut to something else, but to this ridiculously powerful joke by LaVona that all families have problems, which is a huge tension release and allows us to move forward.”

Also out of nowhere, Harding’s husband attacks her with a head of lettuce when she protests that he got her Eskimo pies instead of Dove bars. “And then a few scenes later, they’re walking in with rose pedals on the floor and they open the freezer and its packed with Dove bars. This is the whole problem with domestic abuse: You are being seduced right into it because he’s being nice now,” said Riegel.

Allison Janney in “I, Tonya”

Courtesy of NEON

The final irony: Harding turned to boxing after being banned from figure skating. And the final shot provides the perfect metaphor, when she’s pummeled but gets right back up, proving that she’s a survivor. “That was not the original ending of the script, but it was a brilliant call by Craig,” Riegel said.

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