James Cole Clay // Film Critic
In America, we are always comparing ourselves to one another through social media, water-cooler talk and what we see on television. This idea helped shaped the outline for screenwriter Steven Roger’s script for I, TONYA — the story of Olympic figure skater turned American myth Tonya Harding.
The film stars Margot Robbie as Harding, Sebastian Stan as her bozo husband Jeff Gillooli and Allison Janney as Harding’s abusive mother. I, TONYA is anything but conventional. Rogers turned the concept of dreamers on its head and adds a heightened sense of comedy without losing the painful truth of reality being just around the corner.
Roger’s script is now a major awards contender, and it may have this distinct film bringing home Oscar gold in the coming months. Rogers – who has been a Hollywood screenwriter for decades now (HOPE FLOATS, LOVE THE COOPERS) – captures the quintessential American dream chasers and subverts all expectations on how the American public may perceive the vilified Tonya Harding. Rogers recounts his own career and told us, “My story paralleled their story in a sense, because I was trying to reinvent myself professionally,” in a recent phone call. “I was the guy who would writes romantic comedies, which are not being as rapidly made anymore. So I wanted to do something totally different and reinvent myself, and I think that’s what a lot of the characters were trying to do.”
For Rogers, the path to success with this story was anything but ordinary — falling perfectly in line with this stranger than fiction tale.
“I went on the Tonya Harding website and I was looking to see if the life rights were even available. I called the number for her agent. It was a Motel 6,” said Rogers.
Filmmaking isn’t all just the Hollywood lights and flashy parties; that comes later. Rogers put in the work by pounding the pavement, stating, “I don’t know where this is going to take me, but I want to go. I tracked down Tonya and Jeff and interviewed them both. I had never interviewed anyone before. But I didn’t tell them.”
The fun of Roger’s script comes in the form of unreliable narrators. I, TONYA is told from the perspective of Harding, Gilooli and Harding’s mother — each with a wild account on how the events unfolded and who was to blame. The shifts in perspective are a vibrant touch to a script that keeps the audience laughing and guessing.
“When I was talking to them, their stories were wildly different from each other. They remembered everything differently,” Roger recalled.
Rogers has faith in his audience to be able to decipher which side they will choose and who they will believe. This isn’t a story about good and bad, or black and white. Harding was so easy to judge within the 24-hour news cycle, and Roger’s script is well aware of that notion.
“As a result, I just put all points of view up there to let the audience decide what’s what.”
I,TONYA is a film that doesn’t spoon feed its audience, or answer and judge its characters; that’s up for the film goers to decide. The duality of tragedy vs. comedy has been riddled within plays and films since the Shakespearian times. But it’s those awful truths that allow a film as boisterous as I, TONYA to resonate with an audience.
“It’s a really funny, tragic and crazy story,” Rogers said. “And because we are reduced to one thing by the media — me being pinned down as a romantic comedy writer — I didn’t want to just be one thing. Therefore, I didn’t want these characters to be just one thing. It was a conscious effort to complicate things. I wanted to make them human.”
Rogers doesn’t shy away from the darker sides of Harding’s life. From her abusive relationships with her mother and husband, to the horrific events that led to the assault on Nancy Kerrigan, it’s about finding the right balance without sacrificing the hard truths that lie beneath.
Rogers went on to state, “I know I had to do this film independently, because it would never survive the studio system. I think [director Craig Gillespie, Robbie, Stan] and myself knew this was not part of the entertaining aspects of the film. I wrote it with her talking right into the camera, and the way [Gillespie] shot it allows the audience to dissociate from the horror and lessens the impact of what’s happening on screen.”
The violent struggle Harding goes through in the story is treated with a respect that never exploits this struggle. The film is a romp and insane in many ways, and that’s a difficult task to manage while being Harding’s own version of a Rocky story. However, Rogers is an artist who will never backdown from a challenge.
“None of this is easy. It’s all really hard for me. If you show me easy, I’ll do it. So, I mean, it’s all hard. I’m just trying to tell a story in the most original way I can,” Rogers said.
Rogers employed a new technique to his work, and as an artist, he took a chance and tried new things. I, TONYA is a rare feat in the film landscape today. As we dive deeper down the rabbit hole in Harding’s story, audiences may begin to feel emotions about humanity they never knew existed — a testament to Roger’s talent.
I, TONYA opens in select theaters on Friday, Dec. 22, and will expand its release in the following weeks.