Winning an ACE Eddie on her way to the Oscars for Craig Gillespie’s finely crafted dark comedy I, Tonya, editor Tatiana S. Riegel has developed an easy shorthand with the director over a little more than a decade.
Riegel’s first project with the director was his visionary oddball romance Lars and the Real Girl, and over the years, Gillespie has remained an unpredictable, surprising collaborator. Receiving Steven Roger’s cutting and clever script for a most unusual Tonya Harding biopic—that positioned Harding as the hero of her own story, rather than the villain of someone else’s—many of Gillespie’s collaborators were “a bit stumped,” and Riegel was no exception. “I was like, ‘Hmm, not sure anybody wants to see a movie about Tonya Harding,’” she confesses.
Reading the script, though, the editor immediately understood why Harding was the perfect candidate for a character study of this nature. “It was just a fascinating script with characters with many dimensions, and a terrific dance in tone between the very serious and tragic and ridiculously, absurdly funny,” the editor recalls.
Signing on to the project, Riegel’s challenge would be to negotiate the film’s complex tone in her own way, while convincingly portraying Harding’s world of high-stakes athletics. “The most difficult thing was just really to keep the tone appropriate throughout,” the editor explains. “You’re dealing with a very serious subject and people in very difficult and vulnerable situations, and you certainly don’t want to do that with any lack of respect, when it’s next to wildly absurd and funny moments that are innate in the story.”
Tonally and stylistically, I, Tonya is quite unconventional, with its series of unreliable narrators all speaking straight to the camera. How did you conceptualize your take, when it came to the film’s unique features?
It was extraordinarily challenging. It’s a lot of work to figure that out and to walk that very delicate balance. It’s also quite fun because it allows us to just break all kinds of rules—anything is sort of acceptable when you accept people lying to you. It was sort of that challenge of figuring out who knew what, when, and how we wanted to let the audience to know that.
The breaking-the-fourth-wall material was originally scripted as interviews, and Craig immediately wanted to change some of that and mix it up with not just the on-camera interview stuff, but also voiceover. It became a balance of testing to see what we liked, what we felt worked better.
You’d cut two of Allison Janney’s performances prior to I, Tonya. What was it like working with the raw material provided by your actors on this project?
With Allison, I knew exactly what I was going to be getting—nothing but terrific material—so I was thrilled. I’ve told her several times I’d like to just follow her around and be her own personal editor. They’re all remarkable actors, and from the smaller parts to the leading roles, everybody just did a marvelous job and gave me everything that I could want, in terms of variety and consistency in all the right places. It was just brilliant.
Margot is amazing. Sebastian, who is not getting the credit that I think is due to him with this, I think he’s just phenomenal in this film. It’s a very, very difficult part. To have compassion for a character like that who’s pretty brutal and heinous, in terms of the abuse and everything, and yet you still are charmed by him in certain ways, the same way that Tonya Harding was with Jeff [Gillooly]…I think it’s a tribute to his abilities.
The film’s tone is deftly balanced. How did you go about refining that tone, as well as the rhythms of I, Tonya, in the edit?
I think a certain amount of that is simply instinctual. You watch the dailies and react to your gut feeling about a performance, or an emotion, or a moment of storytelling, and you use that in the appropriate way. That’s an element of it. An element of it is my understanding Craig and his sensibility so well, what he’s going to want. For example, he was always playing for the reality of the scene; the absurdity and everything else just naturally comes out because of the story and the comedy. It’s great writing and it’s a crazy story, so that element’s going to come.
The crucial part is to really get the audience to be invested emotionally with what’s happening with these characters. I think when people walk into the theater, they do not think that they’re going to like them, or enjoy them, and yet I think we’re successful through the course of the film in making us all have a lot of compassion for these people—maybe not liking what they did, but certainly understanding a little bit more about Tonya’s life and what motivates her, rightly or wrongly, to do the things that she did.
What work needed to be done to sell the audience on the athletic action at the center of the film? Of course, Harding’s world-famous triple axel was brought to the screen with the help of visual effects.
That’s the tricky part. Margot definitely knows how to skate, and she trained for five months or something like that to prepare for it. Obviously, she’s not a professional, Olympian athlete, so she couldn’t do that sort of stuff—that requires decades, not months. The DP and the director had everything choreographed and planned in the way that they were going to shoot it, and where we could make some of those transitions between Margot and the double in a seamless way within the same shot through visual effects. Then, some of it was just straight cuts where you’re going to look for the action, and the movement, and the distraction.
It was all choreographed and shot in a way where we could do that, hopefully, as seamlessly as possible. Then, we had a terrific visual effects house that tried very hard within the budget and time constraints to accomplish all that they had to do, which was a lot. I think there were somewhere around 90 head or face replacements—some 2D, some 3D—and they just did a superb job.
Production designer Jade Healy told Deadline recently that Gillespie is incredibly dexterous and efficient as an independent film director. What has that ended up meaning for you as an editor?
He has a background shooting commercials and he just does tons and tons of them, so every project that he approaches, he is very well planned and very sure of what he wants to do, and yet somehow also extremely open to everybody’s suggestions on the set. He’s open and encouraging of everybody, and that carries over into the cutting room.
Because we’ve worked together for so long, we have this terrific shorthand. I send him scenes all the time while he’s shooting, but we don’t really talk about it all that much. We’re pretty much moving forward, and if there’s something that really sticks out, he might say something. But we’ve gotten to the point where he really trusts my opinion and my choices of performance and all of that sort of stuff, which is wonderful. He gives me a tremendous amount of freedom and courage to try things that I might be a little more afraid to do with a director that I don’t know as well. Because he works so quickly and gives you so much material to choose from, you just have options, which is an editor’s dream.
Were there scenes that changed significantly from your preconceptions of the written word, as you tinkered around in the editing suite?
I don’t think there was anything that changed drastically from what I first conceived—maybe the end, where she’s trying to tie her shoelace on her skate and she’s very nervous, and we’re really building up tension, cutting back and forth between the audience stomping their feet and waiting for her, and the clock, and the announcers and all of that. That area took a little while to build and develop to really get the tension as high as we possibly could. That’s something that just comes with constant massaging, but some of the other things really fell into place quite early in the process.
The other thing that took a bit of time was the music. There’s a lot of music in the movie, and finding the right pieces for that took some time—then, of course, hoping that they would clear and that we could pay for them. That’s always a hurdle, but that was our music supervisor’s challenge.
What has it been like to see women recognized this year for their contributions, above and below the line? While there have been a great number of successful female editors, in other craft areas, women are only now beginning to break out.
It makes me very happy. I think it’s about time. This sort of constant discussion about it is finally making people work hard at opening their minds and realizing that there are a tremendous amount of extraordinarily talented people out there that just need the opportunity to be fairly considered for something. For example, with Rachel [Morrison] on Mudbound, she’s a fabulous DP and is proving herself over and over again, and it’s just fantastic that she is getting this nomination. The first woman cinematographer—that’s remarkable, and thoroughly deserved by her, and I think it’s terribly unfortunate how few there are.
It has nothing to do with how few talented people there are floating around out there. It has to do only with the opportunities that they’re given, and whether or not people are willing to open their minds and try something that, in their mind, may not be what they visualize as their cinematographer—to open their minds, and just look at the talent. I think it should happen everywhere, and I think that the discussion is making people take the time to do that, in a much more fair way.