Editor Tatiana Riegel on I, Tonya, River’s Edge, Pulp Fiction and There Will Be Blood
Tatiana Riegel’s first step toward becoming an Oscar nominated editor happened on the set of The Love Boat.
20th Century Fox Studios was just a short walk from where Riegel grew up in Los Angeles and around the time she turned 12 she began wandering onto the lot. “There wasn’t much security back then,” laughs Riegel. “I would watch shows like The Love Boat and M*A*S*H being shot, and I would go into the commissary and see everybody all dressed up in their costumes. I think people just assumed I was someone’s kid and kind of ignored me.” Her visits were typically brief. “It was really fun, but it didn’t take me that long to get bored,” she says. “That’s probably why I ended up in editorial rather than working on set.”
Riegel’s movie career began as an assistant editor in the mid-1980s, a role that included an extended stretch working under Pulp Fiction editor Sally Menke. She graduated to cutting her own films with projects like The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Way Way Back and also forged a long and fruitful collaboration with director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Fright Night). Her latest film with Gillespie, I, Tonya, offers an unsparing yet empathetic look at figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), who along with her ex-husband (an unrecognizable Sebastian Stan) was implicated in an attack on an Olympic rival on the eve of the 1994 Winter games.
Filmmaker: The first thing I see on your IMDB resume is an apprentice editor credit on River’s Edge (1986). I haven’t seen that movie in a long time, but it definitely made an impact and has stayed with me. How did you land that first job and what exactly did an apprentice editor do back then?
Riegel: I always knew I wanted to get involved in film, but both my parents were academics. My dad is an astronomer and a physicist, and my mother was a school teacher; they basically said “You’re going to college and you’re getting a regular college degree.” So I went to college in Boston and was a political science major, but I still wanted to get into film. So I came back to Los Angeles after school and started pounding the pavement.
I knew nobody in the film business, with one exception — my grandfather used to teach film and journalism, and he had a student 40 or 50 years before who became a director. My grandfather put me in contact with him, then that director put me in contact with his editor, who then put me in contact with his assistant. I met another editor through my stepfather’s buddy’s girlfriend or something like that. From those two connections I quickly expanded this little tree of contacts to several hundred names until I was offered a job on River’s Edge.
I use the term “job” loosely because I was working for free. Basically they said, “You don’t know what you’re doing so we’ll train you for free” and I said “Great.” Everything in the film days was very slow and required a lot of grunt labor to get done. I did a little bit of running errands and driving around picking stuff up, then I would help with syncing dailies, coding, logging and prepping things for the editor. As I learned one step of the process, they’d give me another step and another step and then another. By the end of the show, which was about nine months of work, I was qualified to actually get paid. I spent a few weeks after River’s Edge back waiting tables, but then I got another movie and I’ve been going ever since.
Filmmaker: It’s rare for your first job to actually be on a really good film. Back in that era, most people probably started on something more like a cheeseball Roger Corman-produced B-movie.
Riegel: Yeah, I was very lucky. I think it’s always a combination of talent, preparedness and a little bit of dumb luck when those things happen. You have to work really hard and you have to like the job, and I love editorial. When I first started I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and I sort of went through and crossed off every other [film] job. When I was a kid watching things being shot on the Fox lot, it all seemed pretty boring to me, with the exception of the director and the director of photography. I’m not a writer. I had no desire to be in front of the camera. I’m not an executive. I just crossed off every job one-by-one until I ended up with postproduction, which turned out to be a perfect combination of both sides of my brain. It’s a job that’s very, very creative and also very, very technical.
Filmmaker: Before River’s Edge had you ever even sat at an editing station or was that something that was just totally inaccessible then?
Riegel: Yes, I had. When I was in high school I took a film class and did a little two-and-a-half-minute 16mm film, which was basically a music video. I rode around L.A., shot a bunch of stuff and cut it to a piece of music. I didn’t realize at the time how much I enjoyed it, but obviously it made me aware of that part of the process.
Filmmaker: Pulp Fiction was the first time you worked with a non-linear editing system as an assistant. What was that experience like?
Riegel: It was really interesting. I had been an assistant for a while at that point, but I had already started cutting some very low budget, really lousy movies as well. My father had been working on computers since the 1950s and he kept saying “Computers are going to change everything.” I was like, “OK, dad. Whatever.” But then I began to see them coming into my world and thought I should learn it from the ground up. So I took the job on Pulp Fiction, really, to learn a non-linear system from the ground up, which turned out to be Lightworks. It was very, very primitive at the time. We couldn’t have the whole movie online at once. We could only have about a half to two-thirds of the movie online at any one point. So if we wanted to work on the back half of the movie and we’d been working on the front half of the movie, we had to shut everything down, unplug these hard drives, plug in new hard drives, and start it back up again.
Even then it was a more efficient and interesting process for the editor, but for the rest of the editorial crew it was very slow and cumbersome. We were all of a sudden kind of doing two jobs at once, keeping up with all of the digital material and the film material.
Filmmaker: There’s a powerful nostalgia for film among cinematographers who came up shooting that format. But for editors, do you miss anything at all about working with film?
Riegel: I don’t miss anything about cutting on film with one exception — it was physical. Winding, rewinding, threading the Steenbeck. Moving the reels around. Now it’s became an extraordinarily sedentary job. But editing is just like writing. Does a computer make you a better writer than a typewriter? No. It lets you try more things more quickly, but you still have to have a good story and you still have to have the tenacity to get from the beginning to the end.
Filmmaker: One more before we get into I, Tonya — tell me about working on There Will Be Blood.
Riegel: Dylan Tichenor, who cuts a lot of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, was not available at the start of There Will Be Blood. I think he was still working on The Assassination of Jesse James [by the Coward Robert Ford]. So he asked if I’d be interesting in going on location with Paul and doing the first assembly. I said “Uh, of course.” (laughs) So that’s what I did. I was on until Dylan was available, which was right around the time shooting was finished. I put together the first assembly of the film on location in Marfa, Texas and I got to work with Paul Thomas Anderson every night for three months, which was a fascinating experience.
Filmmaker: I, Tonya is your fifth film with director Craig Gillespie. What’s your workflow like?
Riegel: I, Tonya was a little bit different. I normally go on location with him whenever possible, but on this one I stayed in LA while they shot in Atlanta. Part of that was budgetary, part of that was that I just like being at home, and part of that was that Craig and I had worked together so much that it wasn’t crucial that I be right there next to him.
The process is that I get the dailies, my assistant prepares it all for me and organizes it, and then I begin to assemble scenes. I try to do that as quickly as possible, because I want to turn it around and send it back to the director. Some editors don’t do that. Some editors don’t show the director until everything is completed, usually a week or so after shooting is finished. I like to do just the opposite. I like to show the director stuff as quickly as possible for a number of reasons. One is to be sure the director is getting the coverage and performances they want so they can make any adjustments sooner rather than later. The other thing is that it begins the communication between the editor and the director sooner rather than later. I can get feedback from them and make adjustments and we can make sure that we’re all on the same page right from the get-go.
For I, Tonya we actually did all of postproduction in New York for the tax incentive. Both Craig and I live in Los Angeles, but we went to New York and worked there for the next six months — did the director’s cut, did some screenings there and ended up doing all of the visual effects, the DI, the sound mix, etc. all in New York.
Filmmaker: Period pop music is a big part of the film. At what point do you start laying that into the edit?
Riegel: The music was never written into the script and in my first assembly I put almost no music in. I rarely put music in for my first assembly unless it’s absolutely crucial. For example, in the ice skating sequences we knew what songs Tonya was skating to so I did have that in, but for the rest of the movie I didn’t have much music. About a week after [the assembly was finished], and after Craig had seen the whole thing from beginning to end once or twice, we started at the beginning of the movie putting music against it. Craig had gotten about 400 songs or something like that from the music supervisor and had been listening to them. He had some ideas about what he wanted to use or try, but we threw everything against everything to see what worked and what didn’t.
Filmmaker: I, Tonya has two elements that you normally don’t have to deal with — voiceover and on-camera interviews with the characters. At what point in production did you get those elements? Seems like it would be hard to start cutting even an assembly without those on hand.
Riegel: They shot them at different times based on when the actors were available. Actually, all the voiceover is just audio from those on-camera interviews. Another element was the breaking of the fourth wall [where the characters directly address the camera]. That material originally was written as interview stuff, but Craig saw this documentary footage from when Tonya was 15-years-old. Even then, she spoke very matter-of-factly about some pretty brutal stuff in her life. She talked in this very detached, unemotional way. That really struck Craig and he realized that it was a survival mechanism for her. That is what led into this fourth-wall breaking; there is a certain detachment that the character needs to have to survive, and that’s ultimately what I think the entire story is about. Every card was dealt against this woman and she just kept getting back up all the way through the last frame of the movie, which is a shot of her getting up. We tried to show the tenacity and strength that she had that formed her character, good and bad.
Filmmaker: Were the on-camera interviews limited to mostly the lines we see on screen or was there a ton of extra material?
Riegel: There was actually quite a lot more that was shot than what ultimately ended up in the movie. For Tonya there was probably a good four or five hours of material. The actors would do multiple takes with different types of readings. Craig really wanted to have options. There were readings that were more humorous. There were readings that were more serious. The interview material was shot digitally just because of the quantity. Most of the rest of the movie was shot on 35mm film. But because the interviews were digital the cameras just kept rolling.
Filmmaker: If I gave you dailies, do you think you could tell just from the amount of unusable footage whether it was shot with film or digital?
Riegel: Oh, definitely. People are much more sparing and efficient with film. Digital cameras tend to roll and roll and roll. What directors do now is they don’t yell cut [when shooting digitally], they just start over with a new take (while still rolling), which is fantastic on set because everybody can stay in the moment. The crew doesn’t get distracted and start chatting. You just keep going and you can build and build and build. It’s fantastic for shooting. Editorially, it becomes cumbersome. There’s nothing telling you that there’s six takes within “Take 1.” You have to just watch it and you have to watch a lot of [unusable] stuff in between. That’s one of the things that my assistant does. He goes through and tells me really how many takes there are within each take and marks them so I can find them quickly. A lot of times they’re also shooting two cameras or even more. If it’s digital and they’re rolling all the time you can get seven hours of dailies per day. By the time you watch all of that your day is over and you haven’t cut anything.
Filmmaker: You mentioned the moments of breaking the fourth wall. I love the bit where the voiceover is telling the story from Jeff Gillooly’s perspective and then – mid scene, actually mid-shotgun pump – Tonya turns to the camera and says “This did not happen” as she shoots at her ex-husband.
Riegel: That’s the unique thing about this particular story and how it was constructed by [screenwriter Steven Rogers]. He interviewed both Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly and they didn’t agree on anything – hence the title card at the beginning [“Based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews”].
Filmmaker: It probably says more about me than the movie, but I thought the biggest villains were the uppity skating judges who wouldn’t score Harding solely based on the skill in her program.
Riegel: There are a lot of villains in the movie and that’s what’s really interesting. But even when you look at Tonya’s mother LaVona [Allison Janney, in an Oscar-winning performance], who is an atrocious mother in this story, even with her you can say, “Well, she did pay for all of Tonya’s skating and get up every morning and take her to practice.” As horrible as she is, she did do things for Tonya that enabled her to become a great skater. Those are the characters I find interesting. Characters who have those multi-layered aspects to them. Everybody for the last 25 years has thought Tonya Harding was the villain, period. A lot of people actually think it was Tonya that hit Nancy Kerrigan with the bat. They remember it that way even though that’s not what happened. But that’s how the media tells us stories, in these very simple black-and-white ways. There’s the good guy and the bad guy and that’s it and you don’t get the layers. Even though there’s a 24-hour news cycle they still somehow don’t have time to give you the layers.
Filmmaker: There’s a scene in the movie that deals with the emergence of that 24-hour news cycle. The morning that Jeff goes to jail, he looks out his window and all the news vans are pulling away. On the TV in the background we see the first news breaking about O.J. Simpson.
Riegel: I’m glad you brought that scene up. That’s one of the more powerful scenes in the movie to me. It’s just like, “Next.” There’s another moment that’s similar where Tonya is eating a microwave dinner while the David Letterman Top 10 List about her is on the TV and it’s brutally making fun of this 23-year-old woman who is totally alone. That’s not to excuse a lot of bad behavior on her part, but we all make bad choices.
Matt Mulcahey works as a DIT in the Midwest. He also writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.