With Craig Gillespie’s rebellious and unconventional Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya, production designer Jade Healy faced a number of hurdles, recreating Harding’s life at home and out on the ice in a film shot primarily on location, by an independent film director who worked with incredible speed and dexterity. “I think if someone were going to try to bet with me if we’d make our days, I would have bet against,” Healy says. “But Craig was adding stuff.”
Initially “wishy-washy” on the idea of a Tonya Harding pic, Healy was won over by the humanity of an underdog story for the ages. Recreating the infamous figure skater’s life in the Pacific Northwest in the ’80s and ’90s, Healy spent a good amount of time out on the ice, helped along by her own former life as a figure skater, during the time of Harding’s reign as the the first woman to successfully execute two triple axels within the course of a single competition. With her experience in the skating world, Healy was able to not only hold her own against one of the production’s camera operators—who also brought skating experience to bear—but also bring a level of detail to the film’s onscreen skating world.
If I, Tonya were her only 2017 release, it would have been a remarkable year for Healy, but the production designer also played a critical role in two acclaimed A24 releases—David Lowery’s beautifully somber A Ghost Story and Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos’ typically haunting The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
How did you work with Craig Gillespie to define I, Tonya‘s aesthetic.
The way I always work is I create a lookbook of how I see the film. Craig just really responded to it, and we built the look together. I felt like her world was quite muted, and that the skating world was where the color would come in. We didn’t want to go too crazy—we didn’t want to make it that obviously ’90s. We wanted to be a little bit more nuanced, but still quite stylized.
Obviously, we wanted it to look like Portland and the Northwest, and we were shooting in Atlanta. But Craig was always very much like, “We’re making a movie, at the end of the day. We can take creative liberties of how we’re presenting these worlds.” So there was some leeway there. You never felt limited. For the skating, for me and Jennifer [Johnson, costume designer], we just wanted to be as historically accurate as possible. We were funny, her and I. We would drive the ADs crazy. We spent so much time getting these details right.
What was your approach to designing the recent past?
I’m always trying to not go too far and make things too loud when I’m doing period because otherwise, it gets to be too much. The costumes are already going to be quite loud in an ’80s film, and I really wanted her environment to be a little bit more quiet, and not quite full of stuff. I wanted there to be an emptiness there—a sadness, really. There’s a lot of negative space, and that was a really conscious decision.
I wanted her apartment with Jeff to have very little in it. Her life is skating, and that’s it. She’s not going around decorating and getting the cutesy latest thing from the ’90s. She’s got a couch that she probably found at Goodwill; she’s got her television set, and her sewing machine where she makes her costumes. She’s got what she needs, and that’s really it. Because when she’s home, she’s thinking about being on the ice. Her life at home was never meant to be that cozy. She’s trying to get out of that world, and that life. Her homes were sort of like purgatory.
Johnson has mentioned the way in which Tonya and Jeff’s clothes begin to fuse by the end of the film. Did you intend for LaVona Golden’s clothes to fuse with the space she’s in?
Yeah, Allison Janney’s character is stuck. This woman is hard—she is not changing. She is a rock. You’re going to have to go around her. That was the thinking. She is out of this other world, and she’s not going to buy a new jacket or glasses, or change. Everything is just the way it was.
So it does kind of blend. Her house is more stylized—it almost wanted to feel a little hard to look at. It’s a little more dizzy, that wallpaper. It’s a lot, but that’s because she was a lot. LaVona was loud.
It was just a dream working with Jennifer. We had so much fun working together, and it was the most beautiful design relationship I’ve had with a costume designer. And I think you can tell when you watch the film.
How much of the film was shot on sets versus locations?
We had to build out all the ice skating rinks—the Olympic sets behind it, all that stuff. Those portions were built. Lillehammer was quite a big build, the backdrop that you see behind her. That was a real to-do. One of the builds we did was the Western Union—we just built that at an office somewhere.
It was a lot of finding locations and dressing, painting, wallpapering. Getting all the right furniture. There’s a lot of locations. We didn’t really have money or time for a bunch of builds.
What details did you bring to the film’s skating world from your own experience as a skater?
I knew what these locker rooms looked like at that time period. I was in those locker rooms. I knew the badges. There were little elements that I did remember from being an ice skater. I remember sending a picture of my ice skating rink, because I grew up in Canada—It’s this beautiful, old ice rink. I was like, “Let’s go shoot it here!” [laughs] Because Atlanta, their ice rinks are new.
Also, the ice rink in the mall, that was a build with visual effects set extension because we never shot at a rink that was in a mall. That was not something we were able to find. But we needed to get it because it’s so specific. She was training for the Olympics in a mall ice skating rink. Meanwhile, Nancy Kerrigan had a private ice rink, so that was really crucial.
What impression were you left with, working with Gillespie for the first time?
Craig is a machine. That was the challenge. We had a hotel room set, which was where they have sex for the first time. Then, one day, shooting at LaVona’s house, Craig is like, “Jade, I think we’re going to have time to shoot another scene. Can you actually just make that back room a bedroom for that scene?” It was packed with gear, and that hotel room wasn’t supposed to shoot for a while. I was like, “What?”
So it wasn’t a problem of making days, it was a problem of keeping up with Craig. He would just pull stuff out, so you’re constantly running around trying to keep up with him. The only time we got in a little trouble was the ice skating, because it was a lot to cover. We were spending days figuring out the triple axel and we lost some time with that, so we were playing catch up.
Can you share a bit from your experience with A Ghost Story? The film alternates between gorgeous minimalist design and extremely heightened visuals.
David literally delivered Pete’s Dragon to Disney, and then he told his closest collaborators that he had this idea for a movie he wanted to make. I think David wanted to go and make something small that he had all the control over it, after being in this [studio] world for a couple years.
I took a year off features after Pete’s Dragon. Of course, David could call me to do anything. I don’t even need a script—it’s just a yes. He told me, “We’re going to make a movie where Casey Affleck’s going to wear a sheet. He’s going to be a ghost”. I’m like, “Great! When do we start?”
We shot in Dallas where he lives, and he had this house in mind that he had lived in. Of course, we had to find a house we could actually tear down, so that was really going to determine the house, and once we saw this house, we knew that was it.
But it needed a lot of work. It didn’t have a kitchen. It was missing a lot of the elements, and we wallpapered. I went from doing a movie where I had five million dollars just for the art department to ripping up carpet and painting walls myself. That was a transition, but it’s really nice to get your hands dirty, and to still do those things.
Like always with David, I read his scripts and then I just show him images, and our minds are in sync. I imagine is what I imagine, and it’s always what he imagines. Then, we start going from there.
I wanted to create a house that was cozy and loved, and had seen a lot of life and heartbreak, and it was trying to find those layers in it. So we had to bring the house down, and then make it nice, and bring it down again. Then, changing it over within a day for the new family, and all that kind of stuff.
Then, Weta Digital, who did Pete’s Dragon, came along, and we asked them if they would help us with that. I would love to take credit for those vistas, but Weta Digital really just took that.
And then, there’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer by Yorgos Lanthimos, another director of singular purpose.
I couldn’t have worked with three more different directors in one year, and I really loved each experience for different reasons. Obviously I’d worked with David many times, so that was like family for me. But working with Yorgos was totally relearning everything I thought I knew about designing movies and filmmaking.
It was very different. Really eye opening. He’s a mad genius, but he’s very calm, very nice. I’m used to creating these worlds that have a lot of layers, and humanity and depth to them, but he’s creating these alien worlds.