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Interview: Tatiana S. Riegel on Editing I, Tonya and that Famous Triple Axel Scene

Tatiana S. Riegel’s first reaction when director Craig Gillespe told her he was making a film about Tonya Harding was “Okay.” Once she read the script, her reaction changed. Editing I, Tonya would be a dream for her to work on. While Gillespe was shooting in Atlanta, Riegel was home in LA putting the edits together to make sure they were on the same page. From the music, to breaking the fourth wall, to the voiceover in the film, Riegel dealt with it all.

Riegel has now received an ACE EDDIE nomination for her work on I, Tonya. I caught up with the editor on her birthday to discuss how she cut of the film. Read our chat below.

How has your relationship with Craig evolved over the journey of your five films together?

It’s our fifth feature, but we did collaborate on a pilot too. It’s been ten years and I have to say it’s a real luxury to have a shorthand with somebody and a sense of security to try crazy things and to be able to speak clearly without being judged. It really adds to the whole creative process. It’s also fun working with someone who I enjoy spending time with. It’s really developed in a lovely way over the course of ten years.

The first film we did together was Lars and The Real Girl. It was great back then. We had the same sensibility in a lot of ways and yet different enough that we bring different ideas and we can build off of each other.

What’s your recollection of the Tonya Harding story and what did Craig say?

That’s so interesting and so funny because my personal recollection is similar to many. I think I was the common person. I kinda of remember it. There’s a line in the movie where Jeff says that a lot of people think Tonya hit Nancy herself and that was me. I think I remembered exactly what the media told us then.

When Craig called me and told me about the script. I slumped and thought, “Okay.” When I read it, I was super excited because the script was fantastic and beyond that I knew it was the perfect thing for Craig to do. They could not have picked a better director. Hearing about Margot and Allison. This is the third film I’ve done with Allison and I would love to cut every single one of her movies from now on because it’s wonderful. As everyone came into the mix, Julianne, Sebastian, and Paul, it just got better and better.

I remember talking to my assistant when we watched the dailies thinking how good it was.

What’s the process of the cut for you and balancing that?

I know Craig so well and knew what he was going for. They were in Atlanta shooting and I stayed in LA working in my own vacuum. I sent cuts to him on a regular basis and sent him scenes. Sometimes I’d get feedback and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I send scenes for him to make sure he’s getting everything in terms of what he wants to get in terms of physical coverage and tone and for us to begin a dialogue.

I’ll continue to send him scenes and by the time he’s done shooting, he might have seen everything so there’s nothing shocking. We met in New York because all the post-production was done there and we watched it from start to end. We were pleased because it played well.

We had a few songs in there. The music was an element that Craig brought to the film because they weren’t in the script but he really visualized this whole energy and camera movement and music.

The interviews, the voiceover, and breaking the fourth wall. In the script, that was just interviews and we talked about that early on and figured out how to do it. We spent a lot of time in the process trying to figure out how much should be on camera, how much should be in voiceover, and how breaking the fourth wall worked. He shot it both ways. The first week we did broad strokes and moved scenes. We started throwing music against it and seeing what stuck. Working in this wonderful place, we wanted to see what was the best was. In the back of my mind, I didn’t think we’d get any of it. Lo and behold we almost go all of it thanks to Sue Jacobs. With the same reaction that I had to a movie about Tonya Harding, a lot of other people had too. When we approached people about music rights, they had that same feeling. Sue got record companies, publishers and artists to watch the movie and as soon as you watch the movie, it’s never what they expected it to be. Then we started getting yes and it worked out.

I loved how the use of breaking the fourth wall in this film wasn’t jarring at all.

Exactly. For safety purposes and to be certain, Craig shot it and cut it both ways. As you say, it is different. I personally feel it worked wonderfully in this situation and this was the motivating factor for Craig. There was a documentary about Tonya Harding when she was fifteen and in that documentary, she’s speaking matter of factly about her mom hitting her. It really disturbed Craig that this fifteen-year-old was so emotionally detached from that horrible thing. He thought how can I get that in this film? The idea of breaking the fourth wall gives you this emotional detachment that the character has from what’s taking place in that scene. It also is the 45-year-old Tonya talking about what happened in the past so you get this subconscious idea that she survived and there’s this emotional detachment from the violence.

When Diane, the coach does it during the workout scene, it’s fun. Otherwise, it becomes a regular workout scene. It’s fun having her talk to the audience and it adds a level of uniqueness to the film.

On the subject of violence. There’s the door slamming and then the knife scene because that build up was great. Can you talk about the cut there?

I remember seeing the door slam and thought, “Wow. How did they do that?” When you’re watching dailies things don’t look real, but that looked so brutal.

The knife sequence is one of my favorites. I just found it very real. From an editorial perspective, it was a wonderful challenge. From a performance perspective, they are just so good in the scene. It’s this wonderful scene that starts quiet but tense. They’re sitting still and it starts to build and it builds realistically and very quickly to this moment where the mom is hitting her and throwing everything within arms reach at her and Tonya is not defending herself just jumping out of the way. A basket gets thrown, a plate gets thrown, and the next thing that’s in line is a knife and nobody expects that especially the two characters and the audience. Then it’s the shock of all parties concerned with this steak knife sticking out of her hand, and no one knows what she’s going to do. Tonya doesn’t know, Lavona doesn’t know, and the audience doesn’t know.

The thing I loved about that scene is exactly how far I could stretch it. I wanted to stretch it until almost until it broke. You keep pulling it and create that moment. She slams down the knife and walks away and even then Lavona barely breathes. At every screening we had you could hear a pin drop and then it’s broken by this absolutely absurd line in the interview, “Well, all families have difficulties.” Or whatever that line is and it’s this tremendous release of tension for the audience that is absurd. I hope to God, not all families have that problem but they did and some do, but it’s this fabulous release we all need. It’s a rollercoaster and allows you to continue with the story.

The other scene I found interesting in terms of violence is when he comes home with the Eskimo pies and she gets upset and he whacks her. It’s horrible and awful and comes out of nowhere. A few scenes later there are rose petals on the floor and she opens the fridge stuffed full of Dove bars and the audience gushes at that. A few minutes earlier he had just hit her. I remember the first time my reaction was, “Wait a minute, he just hit her you can’t react like that.” It’s the cycle of violence because there’s a charm and distorted love that happens that even the audience fell into in that moment.

OK, let’s talk about the triple axel because I did not know there were only seven people in the world who could actually perform that movement. Steven told me that because I didn’t know that.

It was so much fun to cut and that was one of the great things about the film, it’s a dream job. You cut the quiet dialogue, the skating and the boxing, it was filled with things that kept my job fun.

The skating, in general, was mapped out and choreographed really well with the transitions between Margot and the double. Only six people have done the move since Tonya did it and that’s remarkable because usually when any athletic feat is accomplished it’s then accomplished by many, and this one hasn’t been.

There are only a few people right now who can do it and they’re skating in the Olympics and didn’t want to risk injury. We knew we’d have to create it with a visual effect. We cut two different takes together to add an extra twirl in the middle. It’s really just cheating. That’s the wonderful thing about editing, it’s really just cheating.

The visual effects company just fixed it to make it look nice and pretty.

I loved the boxing that you mentioned, it’s almost metaphorical of her, Tonya rising.

Exactly. That’s exactly what it is. I love that sequence. It’s beautiful. The whole scene is a metaphor for her life. She says in the voiceover that violence is all she’s known. She performs and she’s in violent situations and that’s exactly what that was. I think exactly that last shot is the perfect metaphor because she keeps getting up.

I loved it. It wasn’t the scripted ending of the film. It continued. The movie ended with other scenes, but Craig knew early about the boxing and decided it was going to end it and he felt strongly about it. I agreed. When it was shot, he shot the end a few different ways. I found it to be one of the powerful endings I could imagine. when we cut to the real footage of Tonya skating, it wasn’t scripted. We had screenings before there were any main titles, people kept commenting on how could the characters be real and there was this absurdity to it. We told people to Google it. We ended up deciding to put the footage at the end so people could really see that they were real and that Lavona really did wear a fur coat and have a bird on her shoulder, this wasn’t artistic license.

We didn’t want that real footage right against the very emotional and powerful boxing sequence. We wanted to give the audience some time and some emotion so we were going to do a montage of the real Tonya skating. I watched that one performance where she did the triple and after watching the movie, I was mesmerized.

First of all, her athletic ability and her joy in that sequence. Juxtaposed with the boxing prior to that. I just found it was unbearably tragic to see those two things together. I loved it and said to Craig, we should use that skate of Tonya.

That last image of Tonya just getting up again right next to the real Tonya, you see the real tragedy of her choices and other people’s choices. The influence of the public and the media and how it destroyed the potential of this phenomenal athlete.