During a Toronto International Film Festival screening of I, Tonya in September, Margot Robbie, the film’s star, grew uncomfortable.
It wasn’t her performance or anyone else’s that made her squirm; it was the way the audience was reacting to a scene between herself, as disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding, and Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, played by Sebastian Stan.
“There was a particularly bad, abusive moment where Jeff punches Tonya in the face, and it’s one of the few times where she doesn’t break the fourth wall to let the audience know that she’s fine,” she recalls. “The audience had such a vocal reaction to it, and I thought, ‘Wow, there’s no way they’ll ever forgive Jeff after this moment.’ But only a few minutes later he has a sweet moment [with Tonya], and the whole audience went, ‘Awww,’ like they thought he was the sweetest guy ever. And I thought, ‘My God! You guys forgave him so quickly!'”
But that’s the point of I, Tonya, the biting satire about Harding’s short-lived reign on the ice: The film may be packaged to present the perspectives of Harding, Gillooly, and other parties involved in her downfall, but it’s really also a way to challenge viewers about their own points of view.
At least, that’s how director Craig Gillespie saw it. With 265 scenes to work with, the Lars and the Real Girl helmer had to figure out how to tell the story without turning it into a multi-part saga, and looked to films like To Die For, Goodfellas, American Hustle, and The Big Short — all of which used voiceovers or direct-to-camera scenes — for inspiration. The trick, he found, was to invite the audience in, “to make a choice,” he says. “We have the awareness that [the characters] are actually talking to the audience and hearing what the other people are saying in interviews.” It’s a device that lends itself to showing how contradictory Harding’s and Gillooly’s tales remain.
Still, even though Harding and Gillooly address the camera in mock interviews, they also do so in the middle of scenes — including ones chronicling the couple’s domestic violence, with Stan’s Gillooly at times hitting Robbie’s Harding just before she turns and tells the audience how often incidents like this happen. That controversial choice, Gillespie says, was harder to reach. “[Breaking the fourth wall] can take you out of a film, so it’s always a risk,” he admits. “As I was working on this movie and trying to figure out how to tell the story, the one situation that was going to be challenging, I knew, was the domestic abuse.”
“Analyzing how Tonya would process that, my feeling was that growing up with the violence, she was very used to it and she was almost numb to it,” Gillespie continues. “It was part of how she could live with the abuse in her marriage. I thought the way to show the violence was if she breaks the fourth wall while this is happening. It shows how immune she is to what’s going on and how disconnected from the moment she is in the scene, that she can step out of it and talk to us about it. I felt it reinforced how she was in her mental state at the time.”
For her part, Robbie, as a producer, had talked extensively with Gillespie about how to achieve the right tone in a film such as this one. At their first meeting, Robbie asked Gillespie to explain exactly how he would handle the violence of the film — and he did, in a 45-minute conversation that covered his strategy entirely. “I felt like a lot of people couldn’t articulate how they would execute [the tone],” she says. “He had the idea of introducing breaking the fourth wall, which was perfect. To see her disconnect from what’s happening in that moment and address the audience candidly, I think was a clever way of letting the audience realize that she’s disassociated with what’s happening, and it’s therefore easier to handle.”
If anything, she adds, “It’s also a glimpse into the vicious cycle of what an abusive relationship is like, whereby it does become routine and you do become desensitized to it. From an outside perspective, people would think, ‘Why does someone still stay in an abusive relationship? Why do they still go back to that person?’ But using these devices throughout the film, I think it shows how this cycle can keep going.”
And if the audience begins to laugh at something else a few scenes later or interpret events differently, then that reaction is on them, screenwriter Steven Rogers explains. Having multiple perspectives “makes you sit forward more, to figure it out for yourself, like, ‘Who’s point of view is this now?'” he says. “Everyone comes into the movie with preconceived ideas… We’re saying, ‘Actually, these were real people. They were human. They weren’t just a punch line.'” The truth of Tonya Harding, therefore, is in the eye of the viewer.
I, Tonya — which landed three Golden Globe nominations this week for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy (Robbie), and Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in any Motion Picture (Allison Janney) — is now in theaters.