- By Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
A few years ago, Steven Rogers was looking to make a change.
The veteran screenwriter had made a name for himself as a guy who wrote A Certain Kind of Movie.
He penned the comedic drama “Hope Floats” (1998) and the even more dramatic “Stepmom” (1998). He wrote the rom-coms “Kate & Leopold” (2001), “P.S. I Love You” (2007) and “Love, the Coopers” (2015).
These are sweet movies that tug at your heartstrings. They are a little melodramatic and a little funny and maybe, just maybe, a little corny.
But here’s the thing about those sorts of movies: They are not being made as much as the used to be. Blockbusters are all fantasy or sci-fi or superhero franchises. Comedies are all semi-improvised, a la anything by Seth Rogan or Judd Apatow. There kind of wasn’t room for Steven Rogers.
So he made some room.
As of 2018, he is known as the writer/producer behind the completely excellent “I, Tonya,” an extremely funny, oddly nonjudgmental and kind of ingenious movie about Tonya Harding — not just the scandal for which she is known, but about Tonya herself, from her hardscrabble start to, well, whatever she is doing now.
Now, some folks remember where they were when they heard that someone had clocked Nancy Kerrigan in the kneecap on Jan. 6, 1994. Those people are called very serious skating fans. Was Rogers one of them?
“I was not a big Tonya Harding or Nancy Kerrigan person,” Rogers said. We’re sitting in the Driskill during the Austin Film Festival, where “I, Tonya” has recently screened. “I’ve never even been on ice skates.”
Rogers says he had just written “Love, the Coopers,” a Christmas movie, and was looking for a radical change of direction.
About three years ago, he and his niece happened to be watching an ESPN “30 f0r 30” about Tonya Harding. Rogers was intrigued: “I remember thinking, ‘Nothing doesn’t say Christmas quite like this story.’” (Which is weird construction, but you know where he was going.)
He checked out the website to see whether the life rights were available. “I called the number for her agent and it was a Motel 6,” Rogers says. “I thought, ‘I’M IN.’”
Rogers eventually found Harding in Sisters, Ore., and set up a meeting. “We met just to see if we liked each other,” he said. “I had never interviewed anybody before, but I certainly didn’t tell her that.”
Once Rogers got the life rights, he spent two solid days interviewing Harding. Then he tracked down Harding’s controversial ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (who now goes by Jeff Stone).
“I have no idea why he agreed to talk to me, frankly,” Rogers says. “His wife liked some movies I had written, which is ironic because I was trying to move away from that sort of thing.”
(Note: The following contains spoilers for “I, Tonya,” such as they are, given that this is story that dates from the Clinton administration. The movie is scheduled to open Jan. 5 in Austin.)
Rogers says he grew to quite like Gillooly. “He wouldn’t take any money for the interview,” Rogers says, “He said, ‘She never would have thought of calling in a death threat, and that’s on me, and I ruined her career.’”
Rogers says it was vital for the script to reflect a certain tone of both rebelliousness and wrongheadedness.
“I wanted the screenplay to mirror that, so I wanted to include all the stuff that people say you can’t have: a split screen, breaking the fourth wall, directly addressing the audience, commenting on the movie itself,” he says.
At one point, Allison Janney’s character criticizes the screenplay: Janney plays Harding’s mother, LaVona, and says, “Well, my storyline is disappearing. What. The. (Beep).”
As for the title, Rogers wanted to get as much meaning in there as possible.
“It’s a play on ‘I, Claudius,’ but it’s also what you say before you testify in court,” he says. “‘I, Tonya Harding, swear to tell the truth.’ A lot of the movie deals with truth and what we tell ourselves to get through the day. And the title just sounds a little bit fancy, as if the movie is trying to make a good impression.”
Rogers says he didn’t want the title to mean just one thing, which is sort of what happened to both these people in the film as well as himself. “They were complicated people reduced to just one thing (being known for the assault on Kerrigan),” Rogers says. “Professionally, I was reduced to just one thing. I was a guy who wrote romantic movies, romantic comedies, and they weren’t making those anymore. I felt I was 15,000 things.”
So after the interviews, Rogers hurled himself into research (“I’d much rather talk about writing than have to write — maybe you know what I am talking about?” Oh, word?). The weirdest part about the story?
“There is so much misinformation out there,” Rogers says. “People think that Tonya did it, that she personally hit Nancy. Everybody remembers it differently.”
When Rogers sat down to write, he says it came quickly, which was fortunate because he was writing the thing on spec.
Then something lucky happened: The script was circulated and Margot Robbie got interested.
“She didn’t know it was a true story,” Rogers says. “I mean, she’s Australian and was about 3 or 4 when all of this happened, so she thought it came out of my genius head.
“She would say ‘The mom with a bird on her shoulder, did you make that up?’
“‘What about about the part where Shane hits Nancy and he runs into those big glass doors and hits the doors with his head rather than with the baton he is holding?’
“‘No, that really happened.’”
Once Robbie was in, then things started heating up. Rogers got the one thing that was non-negotiable: Allison Janney.
“I wrote the part for her,” Rogers said. “I have written parts for her before, but I’ve never been able to make it work. She can do Noel Coward one night and Arthur Miller the next. She is an extraordinary actress. So when this script got a little heat on it, I was able to say, ‘Allison Janney is playing the part I wrote for her, and I want it in writing or I’m not going to meet with you.’”
But as great as all the performances are (and they are uniformly excellent from Robbie to Janney to Sebastian Stan as Gillooly), it really is the wait-is-this-real aspect of “I, Tonya” that makes it a blast.
“The more crazy it sounded, the more real it was,” Rogers says, shaking his head. “Truth doesn’t have to make sense; fiction does.”