Under the Radar

Fake Spies & Imaginary Assassins: How Writer Steven Rogers Captured the Craziness in 'I, Tonya'

"I, Tonya" (out now on Digital HD, on Blu-ray and DVD March 13th) is a fierce indie movie, fueled by a great screenplay by writer Steven Rogers, has become both an award winner and a huge hit. It's still playing in theaters months after its release even as it's landing on home video this week.

If you're too young to remember the figure-skating scandals of the '90s, the story of how Tonya Harding's friends and family carried out an assault on her main competitor Nancy Kerrigan might seem too outrageous to be true. When you look closer at the details, the entire tale is far weirder than you could imagine. 

Harding's "bodyguard" Shawn Eckhardt claimed he oversaw an international special operations force and his delusions of espionage played a huge part in the assault on Kerrigan. He's a character that no writer could get away with inventing, but Rogers got to use real life to write one of the most memorable lunatic characters in recent movie history. 

Steven Rogers has enjoyed a successful Hollywood career as the writer of mainstream romantic comedies like "Hope Floats," "Stepmom," "Kate & Leopold" and "Love the Coopers." None of those projects suggest that he's the guy who would sink his teeth into this story and find such an inventive way to tell it.

Rogers is a longtime friend of actress Allison Janney ("Mom," "The West Wing") and he's said that he was inspired to write the part of Tonya Harding's mom LaVona especially for her. It worked: Janney won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress. Rogers talked to us a couple of days after the Academy Awards and he was in a great mood to talk about his movie.

Allison Janney Steven Rogers 90th Annual Academy Awards 2000
Allison Janney and Steven Rogers on the red carpet at the 90th Academy Awards.

Congratulations on writing a part that won Allison Janney an Academy Award.  I know that’s a big deal in your profession.

Well, it is also because I've known Allison since I was 17 years old, so we have a great, big, long history together.  So it was great to walk up those eight steps.  

This is a really inventive screenplay.  You’re someone who’s been incredibly successful writing traditional studio comedies, and this is a real departure for you.

It was very deliberate.  I was definitely trying to reinvent myself.  I was known as just one thing, as a guy who wrote romantic comedies, which studios were rapidly deciding not to make.  But I never thought I was just one thing.  

I responded to the story about Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly, who were sort of reduced to just a punchline. We never got a very nuanced version of their story. It was the beginning of the 24-hour news cycle, and we were told that this is the villain and this is the princess and that was about it.  I responded to their story on that level. 

For people who were too young to remember the scandal, it’s hard for them to understand that there was no internet in 1994. Up until that point, cable news even tried to play it straight.  This was a breaking point.  CNN found out they could get ratings from a story like this.

It was the first.  Before that, there was a line in the sand where you never would give your opinion about the news.  Never.  Now, everything has changed so much, you can actually just watch a news station and get almost all opinion, depending on what your personal point of view is.  It’s not just facts.  

It’s almost like Tonya Harding was the opening act for O.J.

Yes, she was.  And the Menendez brothers and Amy Fisher and all of those stories that the media ran with.

Paul Walter Hauser recreates Shawn Eckhardt's interview with Diane Sawyer in "I, Tonya"

Another great role you wrote in film is Paul Walter Hauser’s performance as Shawn Eckhardt.  

Yes, he's great. 

Was his career as an international spy special ops guy a complete fantasy? Or was there some crumb of truth that he expanded into his crazy story?

His story is really funny and it’s really tragic and it’s really crazy.  And it’s true, depending on whose point of view you believe.  But you know truth, or I should say nonfiction, doesn’t have to make sense, but fiction does have to make sense.  

It was very liberating to be able to go as big as I wanted because everything that Paul says, that Shawn the bodyguard says in the movie, is what he really said.  People might think it was over the top, but then at the end of the movie you can see the real people talking.  And he's saying the things that we quote in the movie.  

LaVona wears a bird on her shoulder.  People are like, a bird on her shoulder?  That would never happen.  And then you see at the end of the movie, the real woman, she's got the bird on her shoulder.

Shawn was going around telling everyone that he was carrying out spy operations and managing teams of hitmen. There was no internet back then, so there wasn’t a way for anyone to go online and out him for his lies.

I don’t think anyone really believed him.  He would go around and tell people he worked for overseas dictators and he had assassins at his fingertips, which is really funny and really crazy because he obviously didn’t.  

I thought he was doing it because he was 400 pounds, he lived in his parent’s basement, and he was lonesome. It’s the things that we tell ourselves in order to be able to live with ourselves that I find really interesting. 

I would imagine there were at least a couple of people who bought his stories and that encouraged him to keep telling them.

I know that Jeff didn’t believe him. Everyone who knew him knew that was just what he did.  He went around telling everybody that.  He had business cards made up.  You know assassin, bodyguard business, all these different things, but they weren't true.  

There's a great interview that Diane Sawyer does with him.  You can find it on YouTube, where he talks about all of that stuff.

[We found the video on YouTube. It's insane.]

Have you gotten any feedback from any of the characters portrayed in the film?  It has to be strange to see themselves back in the limelight after almost 25 years.

I interviewed Tonya beforehand and I interviewed Jeff Gillooly beforehand and I kept in touch with them. It’s got to be weird to watch the most traumatic parts of your life up on screen like that.  

When Tonya saw the movie, she said there were parts that she loved and she thought Allison nailed it as her mom.  And there were parts that she didn’t love, mainly the things that Jeff said happened. She was definitely glad to get her version of events out there because she felt like she didn’t have that voice before.  

I think Jeff was a little confused as to why we were even making the movie.  He's moved on.  He went to jail, he served his time, and he went on with his life. He was surprised that anyone would even want to talk about it.  I had to coax him to even see the movie.  He was saying, “No, I’ll just see it in the movie theaters when it comes out.”  I said, “Jeff, I'm not going to have you pay to watch the movie.  We’ll send you a link.” He finally watched it and he sent me an email saying that he really liked the movie and he liked it way better than “Hope Floats,” which is another movie I wrote.  I do, too.

Wasn’t there a really long magazine profile of Jeff within the last couple of years that talked about his life and his family now?

There was a lady who came to his door and he gave an interview to her.  It wasn’t at all about what happened. But, aside from mine, that’s the only interview he's ever given.

[Found that interview. It was on Deadspin in 2013. Also worth reading if you've seen the movie.]

I'm curious about the Shawn Eckhardts, the people less central to the story.  Have you heard from any of them?  Do you know what they think of themselves in the film?

Well, unfortunately Shawn died.  He died at age 40, I think in 2007.  So I have no idea what he would have said.  I think Paul Walter Hauser talked to some of the people who knew him and he sort of verified everything that we were saying.  

I didn’t talk to the coaches Diane Rawlinson or Dody Teachman.  I think they both wanted to move on, which I respected.  

There’s another thing that you get at in the film that younger people might not remember.  But before all of this happened, Tonya Harding was a great athlete who was never going to win. I remember seeing her skate. It was spectacular and, athletically, she was better than everyone else on the ice. She was never recognized for that.

Her big crime was that she was poor and she didn’t apologize for it.  Tonya was very unapologetically redneck, which was her word, in a sport where the judges want you to be a princess.  She wasn’t a princess and they penalized her for it.  Her costumes weren't good enough because she had to make them.  She was poor, that was her crime. 

She also came along at this moment in the 90s when punk rock raised its hand and was part of the mainstream for a minute.

Yes, what she was doing was very rebellious. She really did skate to ZZ Top. None of the other girls were doing that.  They were skating to Mozart and classical music.

Figure skating hasn’t changed very much in the last 25 years. It’s still about this other thing and not about what Tonya wanted to do.

They want their skaters, especially their female skaters, to be very old-timey versions of what they think women are supposed to be.  Very pageant-y, you know?  She wouldn’t do that, which I admire.

'I, Tonya' New York Premiere - After Party
Steven Rogers at the "I, Tonya" premiere.

You’re coming off this amazing success. What do you get to do next?

I don’t know yet.  I'm looking for what I'm going to do next.  I know that I'm offered every misunderstood mean girl of the 1990’s, which I don’t really want to revisit.  I'm offered, "I, Monica," "I, Lorena." I think I've already done this.  I want to do something completely different.  So I’ll find it.  I just haven't found what it is yet.

 

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