The indie biopic I, Tonya tells the story of the infamous figure skater Tonya Harding and her quest for Olympic gold. Writer Steven Rogers (Kate & Leopold, Hope Floats), known for writing in the dying genre of romantic comedies, decided it was time to reinvent himself as a writer. Here’s how he did it.
“I had just written a Christmas movie,” says Rogers, “and I wanted to write something wasn’t a Christmas movie.”
He happened to see the Tonya Harding episode of ESPN’s documentary series 30 for 30. Something sparked.
“I thought, nothing doesn’t say Christmas like Tanya Harding!”
He’s right, especially since Harding is considered one of the biggest villains in American sports. But beyond what conspired between her ex-husband Jeff Gallooli and former bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt regarding the attack on skater Nancy Kerrigan, there were more universal aspects of her story that Rogers was attracted to.
“Truth, perception, memory – what we tell ourselves to like ourselves. But also class.”
We all remember the tacky lacy, homemade skate outfits Harding used to wear. She was poor, even white trash, but she had talent. She was also willing to do whatever it took to succeed. Hers is one of the most iconic American stories of all time. Too bad it ended in tragedy. Or maybe not if you’re a movie-lover.
Rogers went to the Tonya Harding website (now defunct) to see if her life rights were even available. “I called the number for her agent and it was a Motel 6. I just thought, I’m so in!”
He tracked down both Harding and Gallooli and managed to get both to open up to him.
“No one was paying me, it was a spec script, and when I did interview them, their stories were so wildly contradictory, I thought, well, that’s my way in. I’ll tell everyone’s point of view and let the audience decide what’s what. Because I’ll never really know what’s true.”
Rogers admits to paying Harding somewhere in the thousands (though less than $10,000) to obtain her life rights. He told her if a production company was interested in making the film, more money would follow. But there were no guarantees. Surprisingly, Harding “Lutz-jumped” right in.
The movie suggests that Harding didn’t know about the planned attack on Nancy Kerrigan. That’s what she told Rogers. So, when I ask him if he believes her, he says, “It depends on the day. But at a certain point, I didn’t care. Because that’s not what I was trying to do. In fact, it was the opposite. These are the things that people tell themselves in order to live with themselves. Tonya said, ‘Nothing is my fault,’ and Jeff said he never hit her.”
Despite the fact and actress/producer Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street, Suicide Squad) had never heard of Harding or Kerrigan because she’s Australian and was only a child in the early 90s, she nails the performance. But even more chilling, is actress Allison Janney’s (Mom) performance as Harding’s abusive mother, LaVona, who’s icy as the fjords in Lillehammer.
“I wrote the part of LaVona Harding specifically for Allison Janney. I’ve known her since I was 17 years old. We studied acting together at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. I’ve always known how good she is.”
Rogers has written parts for her before, but she was never able to play them. But because this was a spec script that gained a lot of heat, “I was able to say Allison Janney is playing the part I wrote for her and I want it in writing or it’s a deal breaker.”
Janney, a talented stage and film actress, gives an Oscar-winning performance.
For Rogers, the biggest challenge in writing the screenplay was taking these public figures who the sports world depicted as stereotypes, and making them three-dimensional, empathetic human beings.
“The media really reduced them to a punch line, showing them as just one thing: Here’s the villain, here’s the princess. It was not a very nuanced picture. I never wanted to say this person’s a hero, this person’s a villain. They’re human.”
Writing this story was personal to Rogers considering he’d been pigeonholed as a rom/com writer.
“I was really reinventing myself with this. I was just like Tonya and all those characters. I was the guy who wrote romantic comedies which were rapidly not being made.”
Roger’s advice to up-and-coming writers is to, “Just write what you want to write. Don’t worry about being commercial or anyone else liking it. Just worry about holding it up to your personal high standards. Write what you want to say because that’s going to be your voice and that’s what people will respond to.”
I, Tonya triple axels into theaters Dec. 8.