In a little over 10 years as a costume designer, Jennifer Johnson has covered a great deal of terrain, immersing herself in the needs of the script to the extent that it’s difficult to link her name to any one style. Making her feature debut with David Slade’s haunting thriller Hard Candy—which saw a precocious young woman (Ellen Page) luring a pedophile (Patrick Wilson) into a violent trap—Johnson’s first effort sprang from a great specificity of vision, a trait that is the unifying factor amongst her works.
For Johnson, it’s often difficult to predict the path her career will take her down. “I never thought I would so easily say yes to a movie about ice skating,” the costume designer says—but when she received Steven Rodger’s Black-Listed script for the Tonya Harding black comedy I, Tonya, signing on was a no-brainer. Impeccably written, Craig Gillespie’s take on the controversial skater is also remarkably well-designed, with the costumes, cinematography and production design fusing perfectly in conjuring up Harding’s Pacific Northwest world at various points in her life.
Below, Johnson discusses the “fish out of water” element to Tonya Harding’s story that made for fascinating juxtapositions in visual storytelling, and the resources she drew upon to find her way into Harding’s past.
How did you come to I, Tonya?
I knew Craig Gillespie through another director, Fredrik Bond, who I did a movie called Charlie Countryman with. I actually had met Craig at Sundance—he was there to cheer his friend on. We had a nice meeting, and that was that. Then a few years later, I got a call from Craig and he said, “You know, I’m doing a movie about Tonya Harding.” It was like, “Okay, all right. That’s crazy. Let’s read the script”—and it is an absolute page-turner. The script is so distinct and hilarious, and I couldn’t put it down.
I never thought I would so easily say yes to a movie about ice skating, but it was an effortless decision because the script is really incredible, and I knew that Craig’s energy, combined with this script, was going to be totally insane. I was ready for that challenge.
I’d imagine this project would be compelling just for the fact that it centers on a collision of worlds—“white trash” and the world of competitive figure skating.
Yeah, it was the most interesting exploration that we all had, and I hope the viewer has as well, because Tonya’s so famous. If you’re of a certain age, we all had judgment about who she was and what we thought she had done, and the most interesting thing for me was the discovery of who she actually is.
A big revelation was these films that her best friend had made of her in high school, which actually turned into her Yale thesis in film school. Her best friend in high school followed her around with a camcorder, and I discovered this really self-possessed, determined, really intelligent person who knew who she was, and that was really appealing to me—that this person who has no money and clearly has come from an abusive household absolutely knows who she is and where she stands, and who she sees herself as, and this rebellion against Diane.
Diane is her coach, who had a lot of money and was trying to prime and primp her into this ice princess. I love that Tonya really always said, “No. This is who I am, and please listen.” I just thought that was really fascinating. That, to me, makes her really a powerful figure in the sports world, because that world is sort of a ballet. It has so many rules, and it’s sort of like cotillion, the rules of dress and behavior and how women should act. I thought that was a really interesting angle I never expected, actually.
Tonya Harding was a consultant on the film. Did you have any interaction with her?
I would give a list of questions to Margot, and Craig and Steven [Rogers, writer], and they would ask her. They were very respectful of her space—they didn’t want a bunch of crewmembers inundating her with questions. So, they acted as my representative if I needed to find out more. Actually, it was really difficult doing research on her, because you would meet people in the skating world that didn’t want to talk about her.
There wasn’t a lot of positive documentation—‘94 was when you started having more formal documentation that’s now available on the internet. It was piecemeal, VHS tapes and hearsay, and I would order Inquirer tabloid clippings from eBay. It was an unusual, interesting research process, reading tell-alls and Tonya’s statements and taking things with a grain of salt—things that were said about her, things that she said, always peeling back layers. The most interesting photographs that I have were actually from an Inquirer article that had photos that no one had.
What was it like collaborating with the actors on this project? Allison Janney’s getup is particularly remarkable.
These tabloid clippings that this person had collected and I had found on eBay had these really beautiful photos of the family. LaVona had made a lot of Tonya’s costumes when she was a kid—they’re really beautifully made, and her hair was very carefully tied with ribbons. LaVona had really beautiful jewelry, was very nicely dressed, had a nice little hairdo, so I tried to keep elements of that. The fur coat is a real thing. That’s documented—the bird clawing at the fur coat is a factual, documented thing.
I feel like men and women that grew up in that time had a dignity and a formality in how they dressed, and LaVona tried to keep up appearances. You’ll see some press where she really favored these press moments. She’d put her gold earrings on…
It goes back to your comment about what we call “white trash,” and how you go beyond that, and find some dignity in the character. Even though she was very abusive, you try to find love for the character, even if they’re arguably a really terrible.
Because of the documentation of these character, everyone thought they knew who these people were—especially Tonya. LaVona is not as well known as Tonya, but I think we all had an idea of who she was. What we wanted to do is really pay attention to the script and also the 30 for 30 documentary, which is really informative. All of our preconceived ideas were not always the case, so all of us pushed really hard to find another meaning—and avoiding irony was a big thing. Not to be ironic and not to be referential in a way that felt that we were making fun of poverty, or making fun of the cult of Tonya. There’s been musicals and different millennial takes on Tonya Harding, and that was something we were not interested in doing.
For me as a costume designer, that meant finding something that was real, and it wasn’t always directly copying what actually happened. Sometimes, it was more the spirit. Because if you put Tonya and Jeff in a bunch of funny sweaters, it becomes an ironic wink at the ‘90s, and that was something that was really important for me to avoid.
The nice thing is that the actors were very open to discover what that truth was—not just, “Okay, here’s the photos.” But how can we expand on the emotion of this person, and give this person dignity?
This film hops between different periods in Harding’s life. Were those jumps tricky for you?
When Tonya’s 16 and has braces and short hair, that’s when she’s heavily influenced by her coach, Diane. Diane has a lot of money and goes to gala events and is very much part of Portland society, and she’s trying to turn Tonya into this prim and proper, Ralph Lauren, prep school version of an ice skater. So, there’s a little bit of that in her costume when she has dinner and introduces Jeff to LaVona at the buffet. She has a sweet, ruffled collar and a bow around her neck, and there’s this femininity.
In real life, Tonya didn’t want to dress like that. As she gets older and gets into it with Jeff, she starts really becoming her own person. She breaks away from LaVona. LaVona can’t dress her anymore, her coach can’t dress her anymore and then we explore that in that skating competition where she made her own costume. She starts making her own costumes and making some choices that are not really appreciated by her fellow skating comrades. That was really important, to define that.
Another interesting thing that I noticed in doing research of her and Jeff is that they start dressing alike. That’s sort of like a Stockholm syndrome. Really, you look at press photos of them, and they wear turtlenecks, they wear the same sweaters together. They’re not identical, but there’s a through line where suddenly they become almost one person. She starts wearing his turtlenecks and mock necks, and it’s really subtle but if you looked at the continuity, there’s a scene where sometimes he has the maroon mock neck, and then sometimes she has it on.
It’s not making fun of anything, but it’s the abuse of her identity. She’s so strongly opinionated and such a unique person, and she disappears within that abuse within her marriage. It’s there when you do the research. People might not be aware of that in the film, but that was the intent, that there was a subtle shift, with two people becoming one person.
Then, when you see her in the current-day interview, that says some things about her politics. She definitely has her own opinions about politics, and she’s crass. She has her western boots on, and she’s not part of that skating world anymore. She can do whatever she wants and be her own person once again.
What was the guiding principle behind the film’s color palette, in terms of the costumes?
With Tonya, because she’s a tough person, she’s not afraid to voice her opinion and she does not particularly consider herself ultra-feminine, so the skating costumes were always pink and purple, and colors that were probably quite uncomfortable for her in real life. Then, she started making more money, and being able to afford her Louis Vuitton bag. She has Chanel earrings and a nice leather jacket and she’s definitely more sober in her color choices as the violence escalates.
Diane is very pink and pretty and ultra-feminine, and LaVona’s cigarettes could ignite her costume at any time. She’s usually wearing polyester, usually brown, and then she has a red uniform, when she works— maroon and pink. That was on purpose, so she’d feel really uncomfortable in those colors. She would never choose those colors for herself.
Jeff was really fun to create because I hated him—he’s a wife beater. But as I found out more about Jeff and then met Sebastian [Stan], who’s so wonderful and intelligent as all the actors were, I started liking him. I would give him presents throughout the shoot. I’d knock on his trailer and say, “Jeff, I’ve got a new turtleneck for you.” He was really sweet. He’d always be really pleased that I’d found the two-and-a-half inch mock neck in the perfect tone of maroon. His Girbaud jeans were really hard to find.
As Tonya made money, Jeff would get nicer things. His jeans became nicer, his shoes became a little nicer, he had a nicer car, and the blue interior of the car matches the turtlenecks. [laughs] It’s a love note to maroon, I guess.