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Interview: I, Tonya’s Screenwriter Steven Rogers on Tracking Down the Rights to Tonya Harding’s Story

To this day, only seven skaters have successfully landed a triple axel in international competition and Tonya Harding was one of the first. But instead of winning renown for her talent, she became famous as a key player in the attack om her rival Nancy Kerrigan. Screenwriter Steven Rogers knew Harding was a messy character but he was determined not to reduce anyone to one thing the way the media had done, “This was the Princess. This was the villain.”

Rogers and I had a chance to sit down at the Hollywood Roosevelt just before the LA premiere of I, Tonya. Read our fun chat below:

I remember this story. It was worldwide news.

Was it big in the UK?

It was. The Olympics was a huge story and so was she. Why Tonya Harding?

I had just written a Christmas movie and I knew I wanted to do something that was the polar opposite. My niece was over and we happened to watch 30 For 30: The Price of Gold and it was a great documentary. Nothing says Christmas quite like Tonya Harding so I went to the website to see if the life rights were available and I called the number for her agent and it was a Motel 6. I thought, “I’m so in.” I didn’t know where it was going to lead me, but I went. I tracked down Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly and, remember, I had never interviewed anyone. I didn’t tell them that, and no one was paying me. I actually wrote it on spec. I interviewed them and their stories were so wildly different they really didn’t remember anything the same. I thought that’s how I’m going to tell it. I decided I was going to tell the story that way and put everyone’s point of view up there and let the audience decide.

A lot of it has to do with truth and the perception of truth, and memory and controlling the narrative of our own lives.

On the subject of memory, where were you when the story broke?

I was young. I didn’t really remember it. I did keep journals from when I was eight.

Born writer?

No, I was doing it so that if someone wrote a book about me, I could say, “this is what I was feeling.” When I started to write it, I went back to see what I did think about it and the only thing I had written was when her lace broke on the skate. I thought she was doing it for attention. I really believed everything the media told me to believe. I thought she was poor, white trash and she was the villain and Nancy was the princess.

That’s how I think everyone had that same perception.

Mine was pretty much that. I was younger and now I know that people aren’t just one thing. It’s not just black and white, it’s grey and the grey is interesting.

But then you met Tonya and Jeff, separately?

Very most definitely separately.

What struck you about each of them?

He was easier to talk to because he had fewer defenses up. She has told this story a lot. A lot just came out and I had to figure out how to get around that. She was also putting on her good face on. I think I just wore her down. The first time we met, it was just to talk and get to know each other. I also wanted to get the life rights. Once I did get the life rights, I went back and interviewed her over a two-day period. I tracked Jeff down after that. I was so surprised he even agreed to talk to me because he’s never given an interview telling his version of the events.

No?

Never. He’s commented on stuff but never said his account of how he remembered it.

You could have made this into a drama, but you went the comedy route. I read the screenplay and was pissing my pants.

To me, it was really funny and it was tragic, and it was crazy and violent and it was true depending on whose point of view you believed. I wanted the script to reflect all of those things. I didn’t want it to be merely one thing or just a traditional conventional biopic. The craziest stuff in the story is the stuff that is true. That’s why I’m glad we have the stuff at the end of the movie.

When Lavona has the bird on her shoulder, that’s true. Shane, who whacked Nancy Kerrigan couldn’t get out of the glass doors, and he had the baton, he could have smashed it, he used his head. That was true. It was going to be funny and crazy. All the characters felt rebellious and I wanted the screenplay to reflect that and include stuff that the teachers and studio executives say, “You can’t do that in a screenplay. You can’t have them talking to the camera.” There’s a moment when Allison Janney’s character talks to the camera and criticizes the screenplay and it doesn’t make sense, but that’s what I was going for. We had to do it independently because it wouldn’t survive the studio system.

Was it a fast process getting it to screen?

Once I got the interviews, research, and rights, I went out with it in January 2016 and we filmed it in January 2017. Here we are in December 2017.

When did it shoot?

Part of it was because of Margot’s schedule and we had this timeframe. We wrapped in March.

What struck me was that Tonya at the end pleads for her career. It’s what we did to her, she’s one of the few women who could do a triple axel.

It’s so funny because we were going over the skating with the choreographer and we were wondering what Margot could do. She said, “It’s really hard.” We thought we could get someone who could do the triple.

There are very few women who have ever done it. I thought it was Margot Robbie.

No one could do it.

We have this tendency, we build people up and knock them down.

That’s a line in the script. Tonya looks at the camera and says, “I thought being famous was fun. I was famous for a second and I was a punchline. It was like being abused all over again and you’re my abusers.” I wanted to make the audience uncomfortable because I’m as guilty as everyone else. It is a chance to reflect.

Talk about working with Craig Gillespie, the director.

I’ve been lucky enough to have movies made but they’re watered down versions of what I wrote. Especially, in the beginning, I was so young and was in the studio system and I didn’t know.

I knew this would not survive in the studio. I was reinventing myself with the script. It’s unlike anything that I’ve ever written that’s come out. I wanted to see the table. I wanted to be a producer on the movie. The day after I said, “Let’s do this,” Margot chased it and she came on as a producer.

People chased it. I met with Craig. Bryan Unkeles did the first round of meetings with directors and I would do the second round. Craig and I spent three hours. He talked about the pacing and how we’d shoot it, but Craig went to the top of my list. He was my first choice.

Everyone brought their own unique talent to it and elevated it unquestionably.

I love Allison’s character.

I wrote it for her. I’ve known her for ages. I’ve always written parts for her but she’s never gotten to play them. We joke about it, but it’s a sad joke. With this, it was a spec script, it went out and there was heat on it. I could put in some demands and that was one demand I put on it, that Allison was going to play the part I wrote for her. I wanted it in writing or it was going to be a deal breaker. I did that before Allison had read it and gambled on it.

And it all worked out with her Mom schedule?

Right. But she was also on Broadway. It took some doing. We grabbed her on her week off. She filmed her whole thing in ten days.

What was it like seeing the final finish?

I was really happy with it. I was blown away by Margot. On set, the way she worked was no fuss and no frills. It looked effortless because she’s so prepared. She’s a producer not in name only. She was there and present. I didn’t appreciate all that she was doing. She would modulate her voice depending on what age she was, and the physicality too and the attitude.

We didn’t shoot this in order. We shot 260 scenes in 31 days. It was a lot and it was scrappy. If we had a lot of money, we would not have had the same movie because we would not have had the scrappy quality.

Working with Allison for the first time since the Neighborhood Playhouse was so moving.

I loved that you used ‘cunt’ so early on.

I purposely did that and put it on page 5. Just so everyone knows, this is not a romantic comedy. This is R-rated you can all relax and let’s get this out of the way.

Good for you! What’s it like for you now?

Well, now I’m offered every misunderstood mean girl of the 1990s. I, Monica. I, Lorena I want to get out of the 90s.

What would you like to do next?

For me, it’s about what I’m trying to say. I don’t want to do the same thing twice in a row.I wrote a script called Flora Plum and Jodie Foster was going to direct it. We almost made it three different times and it fell apart three different times. She had it for ten years, but that was ok because it made me cool by association.

It took place in the circus in the 1930s and someone approached me to turn it into a musical for the West End.

Oh, that’s new.

I’ve never seen a musical with Cirque du Soleil acts in it and that seems original to me.

If it goes to the West End, that’s going to be something the Brits would love.

I would love it. We just need a composer.