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Tatiana S. Riegel Earns Oscar Nod for I, Tonya

CAS alum nominated for best editor

  • BU alum Tatiana S. Riegel is nominated for an Oscar for editing I, Tonya
  • Riegel, a BU political science major, has worked as an editor on films like The Way Way Back, JFK, and Pulp Fiction
  • She prefers not to visit a film’s set so she can edit with a fresh eye and see it as the audience does

Tatiana S. Riegel was a bit skeptical when offered the editing job on a film about disgraced skating star Tonya Harding. But her attitude shifted once she got her hands on the script.

Riegel (CAS’86) had worked on four films with Craig Gillespie, the film’s director. “Craig is very good with that unique tone of doing something that’s emotional and yet funny at the same time,” she says. “And then when I started hearing about the cast, I was all over it.”

Her work on I, Tonya has earned critical commendation and an Academy Award nomination for best editor. The ceremony is this Sunday, March 4, at 8 pm ET.

I, Tonya stars Margot Robbie as Harding and Allison Janney as her abusive mother and tracks the skating star’s rise from scrappy, determined child skater to Olympic athlete, and her involvement in the infamous 1994 attack that sidelined competitor Nancy Kerrigan. The film cuts back and forth in time and doesn’t shy away from the physical and emotional abuse Harding suffered at the hands of her mother and husband, or the skater’s own struggles with violence and anger. Robbie and Janney have also been nominated for Oscars for their roles.

Her editing on the film has already garnered the Eddie Award for Best Edited Feature Film, Comedy, from the American Cinema Editors. “I’ve seen the film 500 times, and I can still watch it again and again,” Riegel confesses.

A political science major at BU, Riegel has worked as an editor for more than three decades. Her films include The Way Way Back, JFK, and Pulp Fiction.

BU Today spoke with her by phone from Berlin, where she is working on an upcoming thriller, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, the latest installment in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series.

Spoiler alert: details about the film are included below.

BU Today: You majored in poli-sci and government. So how did you morph from that into a career as a film editor?

Riegel: Part of that was my parents told me I had to go to school and get a regular degree. My father was a college professor and my mother was a schoolteacher, but I knew I wanted to get into film. After I graduated, that’s when I started pounding the pavement.

When you were editing I, Tonya, were you worried about how to strike that delicate balance between the film’s humor and violence?

That absolutely was the biggest challenge. We talked about it a lot. The first film Craig and I did together was Lars and the Real Girl, which is a very sweet, lovely story about a very odd topic. So I knew that Craig would bring sensibility to this.

With the Tonya Harding story, the absurdity comes to it naturally just because of the people involved, and the reality of the story is that it is just crazy and absurd.

Craig had seen a documentary featuring a 15-year-old Tonya Harding, and there was a moment in it that he was very touched and moved by. She was speaking in this very matter-of-fact way about her mother hitting her, and he saw this interesting thing that happens with people when they are abused: they detach and disassociate emotionally from what’s going on with them. So he tried to come up with a way to bring that into the film.

The film is shot in a mockumentary style. Can you talk about that approach?

In order to tell Tonya Harding’s story appropriately, you needed to have the reality of the abuse she was experiencing. To offset that, Craig wanted to show her ability to survive and get past this and detach. So that’s how the idea came to break the fourth wall.

In the sequences where she’s getting beaten up by her husband or thrown into a mirror, you cut to her turning to the camera and sort of speaking more as the 45-year-old Tonya talking back to us. You get this sort of subconscious sense of survival and emotional detachment all at the same time. And I think for an audience member, it just makes it somehow a little more possible to survive when it’s a pretty brutal scene.

Was that one of the biggest challenges in editing the film?

Definitely it was. I think there are a lot of elements in the film from an editorial perspective that are fun—you know, the skating sequences and the music. All of those are fun and challenging, but the general tone is a harder thing to be able to grasp. How are we really going to accomplish it? It’s a more instinctive and intuitive process that you go through watching the film.

What went into editing the skating sequences?

They were very planned out. Since it’s a relatively small film, Craig had to be very efficient and plan out his shooting. They had a 31-day shoot and 260-some-odd scenes, so it was a very compressed schedule and a small budget.

The skating sequences of Harding were based on all of her real choreography. Each skating sequence has its own personality, and we talked about this a lot early in the process, so Craig shot it that way. In the very beginning of the film, she’s younger and much more aggressive, so the scene where she’s skating to ZZ Top is much faster and cut faster with many more angles. At the end of the film there is one big long take, which is actually three takes put together as one, to really build the pressure and the tension of what’s going on in her mind.

Margot Robbie is not a professional skater, so special effects were required for the film’s skating scenes. Had you ever done anything like that before?

I had done other films with lots of visual effects, like The Finest Hours, and a little head and face replacement, but certainly not like in this film.

It was fun to learn how to do all the head and face replacement—it’s really hard to do. Fortunately, Margot could skate a fair amount, so we had a good amount of her as well. But she can’t do the real stuff [like a triple axel jump] that requires decades of training.

Every film now has visual effects, even if they don’t think they’re going to, just for cleanup: a boom gets in the shot or you have to fix something in the background like a billboard, a geography issue, a clearance issue. You have to take them out.

You’ve said that you view a film editor almost as an audience member who can bring fresh eyes to the project. Can you elaborate?

I really like keeping that distance. One of the hardest parts about editing is trying to keep it fresh and real and trying to remember what it’s like watching it the first time. So I do purposefully try to do that and not go to the set very much. For example, the second you walk onto a set, you know its geography. Whereas if stuff is coming in on film and you’re watching it, you’re like wait, this room doesn’t make any sense. I’ve had that happen many times where a director will come and go, “Well, it’s right there, the door’s right there,” and I’m like, “Well, how am I supposed to know the door is right there? I don’t see it, how am I supposed to know?”

And sometimes there’s something very funny happening on set, and you have a whole crew of 100 people laughing because it’s very funny in the moment, but sometimes that doesn’t come across on the screen.

So when I’m watching a film just on my monitor, I can really judge in a very realistic way what works and what doesn’t work. There’s so much in editing that starts getting manipulated anyway, in terms of performance and pacing and time compression, so you really want to keep it as fresh and clear as possible.

Do you have any advice for BU students hoping to become film editors one day?

I have a few bits of advice. One is cut as much as you can, whenever you can. Offer to cut somebody’s student film, make your own student film. I think editing is a lot of practice. You have to figure your way through the problems that come up.

The other thing is to watch movies, watch a lot of films, and watch different kinds of films. Not just the ones you’re entertained by, but ones that are challenging and different and use a different way of storytelling.

When you’re looking for and beginning to work, try and do jobs that are good for your career, not just good for your bank account. Meaning, it’s very nice to start working and start earning a little bit of money, and you can easily fall into that. Hold off a little bit for a better job, something that will push your career ahead, a more strategic job. Live a little bit below your means and make sure you can choose for the long term rather than the short term.

Are you superstitious about preparing a speech in advance of Sunday’s Oscar ceremony?

I am not really superstitious, although it does make me nervous to do that. It’s a little presumptuous, but having said that, I also don’t want to stand up and look like an idiot if for some reason I am lucky enough to win. There’s a lot to cram in. There was an Oscar luncheon a few weeks ago for all the nominees, and Patton Oswalt spoke, and he gave all the nominees advice about what to do for your acceptance speech. You have 45 seconds from the time they call your name. Run up to the stage, don’t take your time, nobody wants to hear a whole list of names of agents (even though you’re a little obligated to thank some of these people because they’ve been helping you for a long time). I hope I am capable of formulating a sentence if I’m lucky enough to win. That’s as far as I can get.

The 90th annual Academy Awards ceremony will be broadcast live this Sunday, March 4, at 8 pm ET on ABC.

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Amy Laskowski, Senior Writer at Boston University Marketing & Communications editorial department
Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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