An interview with Tatiana Riegel, editor of I, Tonya.
Being an editor is having a front row seat to the endless chaos and compromises of filmmaking, from the comfort of your editing suite. Tatiana Riegel has worked on a lot of films. She’s worked on period pieces, comedies, thrillers, you name it. But one of the things uniting her filmography, besides her ability to adapt to any genre seamlessly, is her collaboration with Craig Gillespie, director of I, Tonya. They started working together on Lars and The Real Girl and are still working together over a decade later.
I reached her in Los Angeles before she leaves for Berlin to work on The Girl in the Spider’s Web. We talked about her preconceptions of Tonya Harding, breaking the fourth wall and how the film was initially supposed to end.
First off, big congrats on the Oscar nom.
Holy moly. I don’t think I can even quite process it…
And this is your first nomination?
Well, I’ve worked for several editors that have been nominated. As an additional editor or assistant editor. But this is my first nomination as an editor.
What does an additional editor do exactly?
It kinda depends. Like for example, on There Will Be Blood, Dylan Tichenor was not available, so I did the first cut of it.
So, I feel like the best part of I, Tonya is how it manages to balance tone. It goes from heartbreaking to hilarious in a matter of seconds. Even if the tone is in the writing, it’s still all up to the editor at the end of the day.
Yeah, it’s even a tough thing to describe. Because it’s intuitive. But that’s where I had a huge advantage in that I’ve worked with Craig Gillespie many times before. And I understand him so much, and we have a similar sense of storytelling and a sense of humor. So I knew exactly what he was going to bring to it and what I could bring to it as well.
And just like with Lars and The Real Girl, we often describe that one as five degrees in either direction would’ve been a disaster. And it’s the same thing here. It’s delicates process.
Well, the scene in which Levona throws a knife at Tonya and then it cuts to Levona saying in her interview that ‘all families have problems’ is the perfect example of achieving that balance.
I have to say that’s one of my favourite moments in the film, editorially. You have this scene with one person that’s upset, and it builds and it builds in a very natural way in a arguments do, and it escalates to the point where Levona starts picking stuff up from the table and then throwing them, and one of them is a knife – which I think surprises them off. So it’s a matter of holding the tension until it almost breaks. And then having this wonderful release with this absurd comic moment.
How do you manage that balance of not minimizing Tonya Harding’s experience and her trauma through comedy, but also not exploiting her pain for the sake of good drama?
We definitely had a number of screenings to test stuff out for friends and family. But I think a lot of is intuitive. I always always cut for story and emotion. Mostly emotion. As I’m watching dailies, I’m always looking for those moments that affect me, as the first audience member. I try to pay attention to what my initial emotional reaction is the first time to a scene, to a performance, to a line reading. And I really try to remember that and keep it as fresh as possible, which is obviously difficult the 9000th time you’ve seen something. But I try to cut for the reality and the emotion, because this story, innately, is just absurd. These real-life people are just absurd. We would have screenings and people would say ‘oh that bodyguard can’t be real’. And we’d say, ‘Google it! They’re all real.’
Even the people who knew about it, remember certain things differently. Jeff says in the film that people thought that Tonya hit Nancy. And when I read it in the script, I was like “didn’t she?”
And that’s what’s so tragic about the film. How she was betrayed by the media, by the 24-hour news cycle, by us just eating it all up.
And that’s what’s so sad about seeing O.J Simpson on the TV at the end is that we know what happens.
What’s interesting about the direct address is that even though it’s jarring, we still crave their sides of the story because they’re so contradictory. It’s sort of like a contemporary Rashomon.
Totally. I think that’s what’s so great about this film is how everybody comes in expecting something different. They expect a ‘whodunit.’ But it’s not about that.
But in terms of the direct address, there are basically three elements. The on-camera interviews, the direct address, and the narration. And all of that was written just as on-camera interviews. And that was one of my comments after reading the script that there were a lot of talking heads. So he said he was going to shoot a lot of additional stuff so a lot of it could be used as voiceover. And then he had this idea of breaking the fourth wall.
Craig had seen a documentary of Tonya Harding when she was fifteen years old. And there’s a moment where’s talking about her mother hitting her. And even at fifteen she was very detached. So Craig, who was very moved by this, wanted to find a way to convey that. So breaking the fourth wall is a way of showing what happens to people when they experience abuse.
Yeah, her detachment is her coping mechanism in a way.
Exactly. It’s her survival method. And that’s what happens at the end of the film with the boxing. Her narration there is “violence is all I’ve ever known.” And this was her way to stay in the public eye, make money – she had to make money, because she was forbidden from making money the only way she knew how. And that’s what I found so powerful about the film all the way through till the last image, when she’s on the mat in blood and she gets back up. As Tonya Harding keeps doing. She’s a survivor.
It’s quite a bold choice for an ending. I feel like there could’ve been a more sentimental version of the end that cuts to her skating as a young girl, or something like that. But that wouldn’t have been true to Tonya’s experience.
Absolutely. In fact, there was another version of the script, that ended where we see her meeting her current husband and meeting her son. And when we saw it, we knew that it wasn’t going to have the emotional impact. It was almost like, “oh she’s ok, everything is ok.”
And it wasn’t.