For Sydney-born director Craig Gillespie, Australia’s Margot Robbie represented a link between his old home and a new status in Hollywood.
Nominated for a Golden Globe for her role as a felonious Olympic skater in I, Tonya, the actor also helped produce the darkly comic film, which opened here last week.
Gillespie finds the right balance of insight, frenzy, and just plain American weirdness in Steven Rogers’s scathing screenplay. He does this by chopping up the narrative into different time frames and frequently conflicting perspectives.
“Steven wrote this script on spec,” explains Gillespie, in a call to the Georgia Straight from Los Angeles.
“He tracked down Tonya Harding and interviewed her for two days. He interviewed [infamous ex-husband] Jeff Gillooly for a day and got these crazy, contradictory views. And of course he had access to the other TV interviews that you see in the film, some of which are re-created word for word. The script was very hot immediately. In fact, Margo came onboard only a day after it was released.”
The finished effort’s fragmented storytelling reflects Gillespie’s work on The United States of Tara, a wacky Showtime series starring another Antipodean, Toni Collette, as a woman with multiple personalities.
But Gillespie says that wasn’t how he got the gig.
“Tara is very close to my heart, in terms of my basic sensibility,” states the garrulous director, who recently turned 50. “But the film they were most familiar with was Lars and the Real Girl, because that has such a tricky tone. I mean, it’s about a guy [Ryan Gosling, let’s recall] with a life-sized sex doll, with a weird dance between humour and emotion.”
Still, that didn’t mean Gillespie himself was immediately sold on the concept of I, Tonya.
“Even when I was sent the script, I thought, ‘Yeah, right.’ I knew what everybody else knew: that Tonya and her husband attacked her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, and that’s that. It’s been pretty straightforward for 25 years. But then I realized it was a great opportunity to revisit the story and make a commentary about how the media treats people.
“This was the dawn of reality TV,” he continues, “and they created this narrative of the Princess versus Trailer Trash. Of course, this played right into Tonya’s aggressively distrustful nature. I think Margot did a great job of re-creating that defensive posture, and the movie shows you what she had go through to get like that. As crass and vulgar as she could be, you just have to appreciate the fight in her. Against everyone’s opinions and judgments, including those of her own mother, she had this amazing talent.”
Although set mostly in the early ’90s, in the down-market milieu of rural Oregon, the movie (actually shot in Georgia) takes place in a proto-Trumpian landscape of resentment, MTV’s Real World, O.J., and $1 lottery tickets. Smacking each other around, both verbally and physically, is treated as a kind of reflexive behaviour, like sneezing or voting Republican. No matter how many times it erupts, the participants seem baffled by where that came from.
“The violence was the most important part of the story,” says Gillespie, after a thoughtful pause.
“I had a long meeting with Margot when they first contacted me. First she asked me about how I would find the right tone for the movie. Then she asked how I would handle the violence. I said, ‘I think it has to be brutal. We have to show what she was living with. Otherwise, it’s a disservice to this person.’ To me, it was the hardest part of the project.”
With this portrait of downward mobility—which also stars Allison Janney and Sebastian Stan as Harding’s equally abusive mother and husband, respectively—came the difficult task of avoiding condescension.
“In a way, it’s more about the audience than the people on-screen,” he concludes.
“The hurdle is still getting people to watch it. But once we do get people in the seats, it doesn’t even hurt that they come in with a sort of prejudice against her, because we get to take them on this journey and kind of flip that perspective. The film holds up a mirror, and what’s in it is both funny and kind of scary.”