Interview: Tatiana S. Riegel on Editing I, Tonya

The skating scenes are so well done. To what extent was it digital effects and to what extent was it editing that made them feel so seamless?

It was three things: the way it was shot, the digital effects, and the editing. We didn't do the visual effects until the very end, so we screened the film many times through the process without them. We were cutting back and forth between two people and one of them had a little orange ball on her head for tracking purposes, and it was amazing how in an audience people didn't really pay attention to that. Because they were so involved in the emotion of the scene and the speed and the pace, and they were really watching her body doing these amazing physical feats. Which, to me, let me know that the scene was ready and done—ready to turn over to visual effects.

I read that one of the cinematographers was a good skater, so he shot a lot of the skating scenes on skates?

That's exactly right. They were having big discussions about how they were going to shoot the skating, with Steadicams and dollies and cranes and drones, and however else they were trying to do it, and then one of the operators quietly said, “Hey, by the way, I skate.” They did some tests with him holding a camera and countering the moves and it just added a tremendous amount of energy and made it a much, much more dynamic and fun scene. It was brilliant. Happy accident!

Tonya Harding seems like a prototypical example of the kind of Trump voter we keep hearing about since the election: working-class, white, frustrated, and angered by the highhanded treatment she gets from the cultural elite. And, in fact, according to a recent interview she did, she said she's a Trump supporter. Did you and Craig talk about that while making the film?

We didn't talk about Trump literally, but one of the themes in the movie is classism, definitely, and not getting support from people around you and the struggle of this woman who was a phenomenal athlete and was never judged strictly on being an athlete. She was judged for all of these other things. Unfortunately, because of that, we all lost out on being able to experience one of the greatest athletes around.

It's classism, and it's also sexism: all those rules about what a female skater is supposed to look like and dress like.

Exactly. I don't know about the writer or Craig or Margot, I can't speak for them. But I can say we were all very much aware of and spoke about those scenes that ran through the film, I think very strongly, about classism, sexism, being allowed to be an individual, and what the media does in terms of simplifying and describing people in a very black-and-white way. That was something that was very important to me from the first time I read the script. And how quickly people judged her. It made me think that I need to make sure I'm not making judgments, in stories that I hear on the news or in my life, without all the information I need to know what's really going on. I think that's a good moral lesson for everybody.

You've edited work by a lot of excellent actors over the years, and you must have their performances practically memorized after looking at their scenes over and over again. Has that taught you anything you can articulate about what makes for great acting?

I would say the main thing is truth—really embracing and understanding who your character is and what their motivation is. The other aspect is to be disciplined and to understand, particularly for film acting, that there are certain technical requirements in terms of matching and consistency that are really important. Somebody can do the absolute best take in the world, the very best performance that I, in watching dailies, believe from one end to the other and think is just absolutely perfection, and if I can't cut that particular take into the rest of the scene I can't use it.

Because they're holding a cup of coffee when they weren't supposed to be, or something like that?

Yeah. And then I wind up having to use the second or third best take, and it's really heartbreaking to have to do that. Because it's a big puzzle and you have to make a lot of pieces fit. You're cutting back and forth between all of these different takes for each line, and each moment has to be telling the story and hitting those points. And if for some reason you can't use something because of something physical, like continuity, it's very frustrating. But obviously, that's not as important at all as just story and emotion. That's always what you cut for: emotion first, story second, and then the continuity. But if the continuity is glaringly wrong, it'll yank you out of the emotion. The best actors have this amazing ability to give you variation but consistency. Those two things seem counterintuitive to each other, but they really are very related.

You've said that you had to cut some wonderful scenes from I, Tonya to keep it from going too long. Can you tell me about one of them?

Yeah, there were a few. There were a couple of other scenes with Jeff Gillooly and Shawn Eckardt that were really, really funny and quite enjoyable. And then there was a little section of film, a kind of montage sequence, that was based on some of the interview of Tonya Harding where she's talking about Jeff and how a lot of people around Jeff ended up dead. That was also quite good, but it didn't push the story forward in the proper way. That's always the hard part. You always are making that call about what's necessary. What's enjoyable and what's necessary for the story. Sometimes scenes that are just wonderful scenes do not fit and just don't move the story forward.

When you do talk to a director ahead of time, do you sometimes influence the way the film gets shot? I read that you told Craig, after reading this script, that there were an awful lot of talking heads in it, and after that he decided to shoot the interviews as direct addresses to the camera, which made them more dynamic. That might be something he would have done anyhow, but do your suggestions sometimes wind up changing what's shot?

He definitely would have done that anyway. When I mentioned that to him, he was already thinking about it. But, yes, there are times when I read a script and I might say, “I think we need an additional scene here,” or, “We don't need that scene.” Or there's something about a character that I'm not liking. But there are so many other people involved in the pre-production process. I really try to keep myself separate from it as long as possible, so that I can keep my perspective. During the shoot, as dailies come in, if I'm liking everything and I know everything's okay, we don't have any conversation. But if there's anything where I feel like it's off a little bit or that maybe I don't understand, then I'll call the director and we'll either discuss it until he sets me straight or he'll say, “Hmm, that's a good idea. Let me try that.”

How much influence do you have on the music used in films you're editing?

A lot, especially with Craig. I try not to put music in for quite a long time. This film was different because of using songs versus a score. And obviously the skating sequences were cut to certain songs, because she really did skate to ZZ Top and things like that. But the other songs—the needle-drop score, as we call it—we did that together. He had some ideas, and then when we had an assembly of the movie, we just started throwing songs against it to see what worked, trying different things for energy and feeling and pace.

But normally, on a regular film that doesn't have so many needle-drops, I like to wait a while before putting music in until I get to know the movie and know its personality. Sometimes I work with directors who have a very clear idea of the kind of music they would like. They may even know the composer. And occasionally a composer may even write stuff before they shoot. But I like to stay away from that as much as possible, because if I can make the scene work without music, then I know it's good. If you leave the music off, it forces you to be very efficient and disciplined. It also allows you to not get attached to things. Sometimes transitions between scenes work very well because music is hiding the fact that you really just have to move that scene. Whereas if the music isn't there, you become much more free to move a scene around. You'll discover it the other way too, but it takes longer.

Are there other editors you particularly admire and have learned from?

Sally. I was a sponge around her. I had a unique position at a unique time, when Quentin was just making his second, third, fourth movie. To participate in that, and to see that amazing relationship they had—I always thought that would be my dream, to find somebody like that. I feel that way with Craig.

In addition to the relationship, there must have been things about how she did her work that you admired.

Oh, definitely. She was just phenomenal. She had an intuitiveness that I've never seen in anybody else that I've worked with. I still can watch her scenes over and over and study them, and they're so good. It's hard to explain what it really was. It was just an innate thing in her, her ability to go for the story and for the emotion. That's what it always comes down to. And she would always find these amazing moments and build them to their greatest potential.


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