INTERVIEW: ACE Nominee Tatiana S. Riegel on ‘I, Tonya,’ Craig Gillespie, and Skating

There are few films that carry the energy that “I, Tonya” has brought to the big screen. The film has hit a hot streak in the last week, grabbing nominations from the American Cinema Editors Guild and WGA nominations. With the film trending upward, many are seeing it as a dark horse for the Best Picture race. A couple of weeks ago (before the holidays), I sat down with the editor of “I, Tonya,” Tatiana S. Riegel. We discussed her collaborations with director Craig Gillespie, editing an up-tempo film, and handling the dark comedy of the film.

AF: Congratulations for some of the early accolades you’ve picked up already. You the Indie Spirit Nomination, runner-up at both LAFCA and Boston Film Critics. Those are pretty big ones to get early.

TR: Thank you so much! Yes, I was very pleased with the support.

AF: Well before we jump into “I, Tonya,” I wanted to touch on some of your other collaborations with director Craig Gillespie.

TR: Thank you, let’s do it!

AF: So the first one I wanted to touch on was “Lars and the Real Girl.” That was the first time you worked together?

TR: Yes that’s correct. “I, Tonya” is our 5th feature together, but we also did a pilot together as well.

AF: Yeah, “United States of Tara” was a great show!

TR: Yeah, so it’s been about 10 years and it’s been lovely.

AF: How did you guys begin your work relationship?

TR: Well we met coincidentally through Craig’s agent. I was working with another director of that agent and we happened to be at the Toronto Film Festival for “PU-239.” I wasn’t working at that time and figured I go to the Festival. We were both walking into the movie when we saw each other. He said “hi, how are you doing?” and I was honest and told him nothing. That’s why I got to be there. Well the agent said, I think I have a job for you, passed my name on to Craig, and that’s how we met.

AF: Now “Lars and the Real Girl” is a difficult film to maintain both comedy and drama. What was your process like to cut it?

TR: Well the most important thing from that film was to discover and maintain the proper tone on the film. It was a very fine line. It’s a peculiar subject, falling in love with a sex doll, and this unconditional love from the community shown to the lead character. It’s a very emotional story, with some very comic and crazy moments. I think Craig is very good at that, I think we make a great team when doing that, and in an odd way, “I, Tonya” is not that dissimilar.

Margot Robbie as Tonya HardingAF: Alright, that’s a nice segue into “I, Tonya.” For my money, this movie has one of the highest energy, frenetic feels to a movie this year. It was so much fun to watch. What made you push for a more upbeat tempo to this film?

TR: Some of that is coming straight from the script. There are some 260-something scenes in the script. And there’s a great variety of scenes. Some are quiet, intense scenes, some are not so quiet, and then there are these fun action-packed skating sequences. We’ve also got the interviews and the subtleties of those scenes. We’ve got the voice over, so again, you focus on the tonal issue where you walk a fine line.

The energy is from the number of scenes, but also comes from Craig. When he was reading it, he envisioned this sort of music and began compiling songs he wanted for it. He got the music, and these dynamic camera movements, the way it was shot, which were all things he grasped really early on. It was a matter of maintaining that once Craig had that vision.

AF: Now you mentioned tone again. This one has an extremely interesting tone that is forced to balance extreme comedy with darkly horrific violence. How do you approach something that diverse?

TR: It’s something that we discussed early on, but Craig also discussed with Margo and Steven Rogers (the screenwriter) and the producers. Margo is one of the producers, and they (Craig and Margo) didn’t want to shy away from the violence. That was the reality of Tanya Harding’s life. It really informed her whole being and the decisions she made, both good and bad. He never wanted to shy away or sugar-coat that violence without getting extremely depressed, you have to offset that.

With this particular story, there is a tremendous amount of absurdity in this story. The craziness is real, and the characters are almost caricatures. When Margot first read the story she was unaware of Tonya Harding, and thought it was just a wild ride of a script. When she found it was all based on reality, she couldn’t believe it. It was talked about very early in the process. It was something that was true and real in life, where you have horrible, horrific moments that can be very dark, but sometimes are followed by craziness and humor. Sometimes it’s just part of life.

AF: At the beginning of the film, we get introduced to almost a documentary-style to the film. How did you build the ascetics of those scenes versus the rest of the film?

TR: The interviews were built into the script, Steven actually interviewed both Tonya and Jeff. Their stories and points of view were wildly contradictory, which our titlecard says at the very beginning of the film. We wanted to show them in their new environments. He interviewed Tonya for a few days and Jeff for a day or two as well. As he sat there and listened to them he could hear conflicts. Craig wanted to place them in these environments, so we shot several hours of the interviews. Some of it is in the film, other is used in the voice-over throughout the film to get in and out of scenes.

AF: You already touched on the music in the film that Craig wanted. There’s so much iconic rock and pop here, did you ever have to pull him back on which music you wanted to use, or how often?

TR: The music was important, and Craig wanted to use it to set a time, place, and get us in and out of scenes. I didn’t have to pull him back, if anything I loved the music level and energy. Craig got about 400 songs from a music supervisor, plus Craig’s own collection, and we started throwing stuff against it. We wanted to see what worked emotionally as well as energetically. It also had to work with the camera movements as well. We decided on most of the music pretty early on, and crossed our fingers for clearance and we got most of it. Most of the music was chosen early in the process.

AF: Now the skate scenes are some of the highlights of the film. How much did Margot Robbie skate in the film?

TR: It was her skating for a lot more than people might think. She skated a lot and went through training do some of it. She did a lot of the dance movements starting off the sequences. Obviously the things that look like a professional skater are a professional skater.

AF: How do you cut those scenes together?

TR: Well this is some of Craig’s brilliance. They body doubled for each other really well, and he shot it in a way where we had a lot of invisible transitions. We had a couple scenes where we did some head and face replacement, but because Margo’s a pretty good skater, it was a seamless transition a lot of the time.

The skating sequences were shot in a very unique way. We were trying to build an energy and capture the movement, so we were thinking about cranes, drones, all this different stuff. Then one of the camera operators let us know he skated, and that he could just carry the camera around. So that’s how we did it and it was great. It adds so much energy while making it feel aggressive and visceral in a way that skating movies traditionally don’t. That’s how those were shot. Then throw in some visual effects and you got it.

AF: Really? I just assumed that you used a dolly, or at least a crane, but you had a cameraman on the ice?

TR: Yeah, that guy is really talented, as was his focus puller who was on the sidelines trying to figure out where he was going next. They did a great job.

AF: You also had to do visual overlay, similar to “Forrest Gump,” by inserting Margot into iconic moments of the news coverage or skate history. How do you go about that process?

TR: It was all material that we shot, and extensions of the scenes. We just put them into the television. We listened to sports casters and their conversations about her and the event, so we transcribed that and wrote it in. This allowed us to build the sequences go in and out of those moments. Craig did a great job planning, and the crew did a great job pulling it off.

AF: How important was it to you to showcase Tonya Harding in a different light? She was vilified, and you don’t shy away from that in the movie. Did you see this as a reclamation of her character?

TR: I don’t know if we were necessarily trying to reclaim her, but I think it gives depth and color to who people are. You are not only the best or worst thing you did. There’s a lot to every person, and that includes Tonya Harding. By showing her past, and these horribly abusive situations she was in and described in the interviewers, as well as her marriage, which was also abusive, this is the reality of what an abusive relationship may look like. It’s something that people learn and repeat and go back to. This is what made her Tonya Harding, and what led her to decisions in life.

The film doesn’t tell you what she did or didn’t do, but asks you to look again at someone who were all told is the villain, Nancy Carrigan was the angel, and we didn’t look at the shades of gray. Consequently, people have thought about this over the last 25 years. At one of our screenings, a woman came up and said that she thought Tonya Harding was the villain for the last 25 years, and now I feel guilty about that. I think that that’s an interesting idea, and that there is more to a person than what I might get from a news clip.

AF: We already touch on the fact that Margo was a producer on the film, as a producer and star of the film, did she ever feel it was necessary to give you notes?

TR: She and the other producers made the process extremely easy. It was an incredible environment because they had such confidence in Craig and allowing him to make the film he wanted to make, that we could present it when we were ready. They had some notes, and those notes were very productive. Craig wanted to include those, and it was an incredibly respectful process that only made the film better each and every time.

AF: Your team put a lot on the line with this film. It didn’t even have distribution heading into Toronto. Were you nervous, or did you know you had a home run on your hands?

TR: I am personally always nervous about these things. I’ve worked on films I thought were excellent, but didn’t have this lightning in a bottle like this one seems to have. I loved this movie and I enjoyed watching it over and over again. The few friends and family screenings had very good reactions before Toronto, but you just never know. It’s always about what else is out there, and you don’t know who is going to buy it. I mean, I’m not involved in any of that side of the business, but I went to Toronto hoping we’d get bought by a distribution company that believed in the film as much as we all did. I was hoping it would get a good chance for people to see it. You work so hard on these things just hoping for that opportunity. To this point it has worked out great, and NEON has been amazing! It seems to me like they were the absolutely perfect people to get this film because they understood it and know exactly how to push it.

AF: So as we close up, is there any particular scene you want to point to in the film that you are proud of?

TR: There are a variety of scenes that I’m very pleased with. I love the skating sequences because they’re fun. They were tough to put together but they are so much fun and dynamic. I also have to say that some of the more dramatic scenes are incredible. Like the scene with Tonya and her mother in the diner, where Tonya comes for breakfast and the mother is working. When the mother talks about all the things that she did for Tonya and that she shouldn’t have a nice mother, that scene was incredibly emotional. The performances are fantastic, the nuances of those characters is fantastic.

The other scene I really like is knife scene. That scene builds and builds. It starts as a very quiet little scene but builds as arguments do until it reaches a crazy point where she throws the knife, and it goes silent. You can hear a pin drop in the theater, and we hold that moment for as long as we can. We don’t know, Lavona can’t believe that it happened, and Tonya can’t believe what happened. Lavona and Tonya don’t know what to do next. It’s just an amazing, incredibly intense moment that the audience always gasps during in the screenings. Then it’s all broken with this crazy line of the Lavona intervewer, “Families.” I think it was one of the most incredible scenes in the film, and one of my favorite of the film.

What do you think? Did you enjoy “I, Tonya?” Will Tatianna S. Riegel grab an Oscar nomination? Let us hear in the comments below! 

“I, Tonya” is in select theaters now.