Genre: Biopic? Comedy?
Premise: The infamous true story about how figure-skating protege Tonya Harding conspired to win the Olympics by having her competition, Nancy Kerrigan, violently attacked.
About: I, Tonya is the number one script on The Tracking Board’s “Hit List,” a list of the best spec scripts of the year, and a good indicator of what to expect when the Black List comes out next week (A quick shout out to the number 2 writer, Nick Yarborough, who I’ve known for four years now – I remember when he was out there hustling with every new screenplay – good job, Nick!). I, Tonya is a departure for writer Steve Rogers, who’s best known for romantic fare like P.S. I Love You, Hope Floats, and Kate & Leopold. In maybe one of the strangest casting choices I’ve heard all year, supermodel-esque Margot Robbie will be playing Tonya Harding. Um, okay.
Writer: Steve Rogers
Details: 106 pages
Does anybody really understand the Olympics?
Who came up with this “every four years” idea anyway? Not sure what the Olympic masterminds were thinking on that one. I mean yeah, that may have made sense back in 1608 when it took 4 years for everyone to actually travel to each Olympic host country. But we live in a world now where we can be anywhere within 2 hours. 4 years seems like overkill, no?
And then there’s the whole, “It’s only for amateur athletes” thing. Which means that the ultimate test in sports doesn’t include the best athletes in the world (professionals).
Except for in some events, where professionals ARE allowed.
Oh, gotcha. So it’s only for amateurs except for sometimes when it’s for professionals. Makes total sense. Pardon me for the misunderstanding.
Here’s one of my favorite parts. We prop up athletes like Michael Phelps as “the best athletes in history” because they win 8 gold medals every Olympics.
Oh, but here’s a small detail no one seems to acknowledge: SWIMMERS GET TO COMPETE IN 90 EVENTS! I mean, of course they win 8 medals. They have 20 times more chances than everyone else. I’m sure LeBron James would win more gold medals if he was allowed to compete in more than 1 event.
Who comes up with this stuff?
Let’s go back to a simpler time. A time when the Olympics were pure. Where Olympic figure skating hopefuls could hire mob goons to whack their opponents. I’m talking about the infamous battle between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan.
“I, Tonya,” starts out in… I guess I would call it “mockumentary” style, with modern day interviews from Tonya Harding, her thuggish former husband, Jeff Gillooly, Tonya’s despicable mother, Lavona, and Tonya’s prissy coach, Lavona.
Tonya and her crew lay out what it was like for Tonya growing up. For those who don’t know, Tonya was unabashedly white trash. Her chain-smoking bitch of a mom (who had four kids from five marriages) recognized that Tonya was a talented ice skater and bullied her way into the figure skating clique to get Tonya the proper training.
Because Tonya was so poor, she was looked down upon by the skating community. But no one could deny that she had historic talent. When Tonya reached her teens, she was the only female American in figure-skating history who could pull off the triple-axel. So the U.S. figure-skating team had no choice but to take her on.
Tonya ended up marrying the thuggish Jeff Gillooly, who quickly started beating her, just like her mom did. As Tonya tells us, all she knew growing up was violence, which would foreshadow the infamous decision she made (or “allegedly” made) to solve her competition problem by resorting to violence.
Anyway, after watching Tonya grow up amongst all this chaos, we finally get to the nitty-gritty, the attack on Nancy Kerrigan at the U.S. Nationals leading up to the Olympics. This is where things get confusing.
Giloolly’s best friend, weirdo Shawn (a man who claimed to be a counter-terrorism expert despite nobody being able to find any evidence supporting the claim), was supposedly asked by Giloolly to scare Kerrigan away from competing. But Shawn took that to mean he had free rein to do what he wanted. So he hired some goon named Shane Stant to cripple Kerrigan with a bat (the aftermath which can now be seen in the famous video of Kerrigan on the ground crying, “Why me???”).
The last 30 pages of the script chronicle the aftermath, as everyone attempts to figure out who ordered the hit, and if Harding knew anything at all. Unfortunately, we don’t get any definitive answers. Everyone has a different version of how things went down. And to this day, Harding denies any involvement in the attack.
“I, Tonya” is a classic “end of year” list script. It’s a dark comedy that jumps between having fun with its subject’s white trash roots (Tonya: “I won my first competition before I was 4. Those bitches didn’t know what hit’em.”) and going dark with a healthy dose of violence (coming from both Tonya’s husband and mother).
For that reason, the finished product will be a wild card. There is no tone harder to nail than dark comedy. And while it seems to be celebrated annually on these lists, it rarely does well on the big screen. The Beaver, The Oranges, Butter. The director has to have a deft touch and be in lock step with what the writer intended. And we all know how often the director and writer are in lock step.
As a script, however, I liked what Rogers did. I always say to find fresh ways into tired genres, and there’s no genre more tired, at this moment, than the biopic. So to write one that doesn’t take itself so seriously? That uses the mockumentary style? Not a bad call.
The stuff that works best is the buffoonish Gillooly and his insane best friend, Shawn. When they attempt to put together a plan to take out Kerrigan, it’s true lunacy. Imagine Carl and Gaear from Fargo but 200 times dumber. Details like Shawn’s hitman choice, Shane, stalking Kerrigan at the rink for 3 days before realizing the skater was in a different city were classic.
But here’s where I differ with I, Tonya’s approach. They should’ve explored the craziness more. You have this grade-A idiot doing 3 days of “recon” in the wrong city, and that moment is relegated to a throwaway line in an interview? Imagine if we would’ve been with him and his clueless partner during these scenes?
Once “I, Tonya” commits to this mockumentary format, it digs in and never lets go. This results in a staccato like storytelling style where there are no actual scenes. Just recollections of events peppered with lots of interview interjections. That was fine at first, when we were setting up the story. But when somebody’s still interrupting fun moments on page 75? Kill me now.
I’m not saying that can’t work. But, up until this point, it’s only been proven to work with pure comedy, like the Spinal Taps of the world.
“I, Tonya” wants to tackle some pretty intense stuff (we actually see Gillooly punch Tonya in the face at one point). And those moments deserve to breathe. To always cut out of them to an interview answer: “He liked to hit me a lot,” felt disingenuous. And I don’t just say that because I like writing the word “disingenuous.”
I really wanted to like this. I thought I, Tonya could’ve done for biopics what Deadpool did for superhero flicks. But the deeper I got, the less confident I felt that the script knew what it was doing.
Maybe I was expecting something more like (HBO Tennis mockumentary) “7 Days in Hell.” But “I, Tonya” came off a lot like the person it covered – an outsider that didn’t know how to fit in.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: If you’ve got a great scene or great character in mind, but they don’t fit into your original vision for the script, rethink your vision so you can get them in there. These bumbling idiots who Shawn hired to take out Kerrigan felt like they deserved their own movie. Instead, they get one and a half scenes and a few references in the dialogue. It’s so hard to find anything that sticks with a reader. So when you’ve got gold, through hell or high water, find a way to get that gold in your screenplay, regardless of the difficulty.