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Director Nanette Burstein on Her Tonya Harding Documentary, The Price of Gold

Nanette Burstein. Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty

It’s been twenty years since the Nancy Kerrigan–Tonya Harding scandal rocked the world of figure skating — and we’re still obsessed with reliving it. Tonight, ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary The Price of Gold adds to the disturbing and bizarre story, giving us a thorough look at the crime, the culprits, and the media coverage. Most important, it offers present-day interviews with Harding, who comes off as an arguably more sympathetic character than you might remember. (You decide for yourself; the doc airs at 9 p.m.) We spoke with director Nanette Burstein (American Teen, The Kid Stays in the Picture) about Harding’s complexity, the unfair “beauty queen standards” of figure skating, and that other Kerrigan-Harding documentary airing on NBC during the Sochi Olympics.

Between this and OJ Simpson, 1994 was so fraught with sports drama.
Yes, it had the most notorious sports events in history. One thing that made them so notorious, outside of the acts themselves being crazy, was it was a time when our media was just starting to change. You had the 24-hour news channels, and they needed to fill the space. And you had the New York Times for the first time covering the same story as the tabloids, the National Enquirer. ABC, CBS, NBC — this is the headline story. The amazing thing about working on The Price of Gold was the amount of footage that was available to really relive this particular moment.

NBC is also doing a Harding-Kerrigan documentary in conjunction with the Olympics, for which they interviewed Kerrigan. Is that why she wasn’t interviewed for your documentary — because she was obligated to do the other one?
Yes, that is correct. She is going to be a commentator, as far as I understand, for NBC in exchange.

Were you bummed about that?
I was bummed, but my intention was always to make the film predominantly about Tonya. In the beginning, I said to ESPN, “Listen, if I can’t get Tonya and I can only get Nancy, I’m not going to make the film. If I can get Tonya and I can’t get Nancy, I’m still going to make the film.” Because Tonya is the fascinating part of the story. What was remarkable [about Nancy] is that she was able to recover in six weeks and win a silver medal at the Olympics. But outside of that, there wasn’t a lot of complexity to the story; whereas Tonya’s story is enormously complex.

And she’s incredibly sympathetic. There are still so many questions: Did she know? Did she not know what was going on? But, after watching your film, I felt for her.
Tonya’s a really complex person. She grew up very poor. She had an abusive mother. She goes to escape her mother at a young age and marries an abusive guy. And she had this prodigious talent — she was the first American woman to do a triple axel jump. But she has the misfortune of being in a sport that was all about grace and poise and beauty, and she was inherently a tomboy. She couldn’t conform to that beauty pageant style, and it’s really the only sport that has that aspect to it — like it’s from a pre-feminist era. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a figure skating fan; I love watching it. But the more I learned about how things, especially back then, were judged … it’s so bizarre.

Is figure skating still like that?
They did change the scoring system so that not so much would be left to quote-unquote artistic interpretation. You actually had to have points based on what people accomplished. Back then, 50 percent of your score was what jumps you did and how well you achieved them. The other 50 percent was this gray area of artistry. What does that mean? Did your judges like your outfit? Did they like your music? Do they like you? Your image? It’s clearly subjective. It’s crazy. And [Harding] didn’t fit the mold. She was not the ice princess. She was not Peggy Fleming, she was not Dorothy Hamill, and she was not even Nancy Kerrigan in that sense.

Did you read the piece in Deadspin about [Tonya’s ex-husband] Jeff Gillooly?
I did! That was fascinating. He doesn’t want to appear on-camera for obvious reasons. He’s always said, “Listen, Tonya was involved. She knew about it at the time.” But it was interesting for him to admit years later that it was his idea and not hers. Because that had always been a gray area as to what he claimed. That was interesting. What a life he’s had since …

He actually said you guys never asked him to be in the documentary. Was it that you did, but he just didn’t want to be on-camera?
Exactly. I tracked down the hit man, James Stan, the guy who was hired through Tonya’s bodyguard to actually do the dirty deed. And he’s sort of off the grid. We found him through Lexis Nexis. I left a message on what I thought might be his home phone. And he called me back. And we spoke on the phone for three hours and he was very open. He just didn’t want to be on-camera, because he doesn’t want to be recognized today, because he’s so different. He once did an interview about five years later for E!, and his boss had no idea that he was the guy who had done this, and he got fired from his job. But it was interesting talking to him just off the record. He had no direct contact with Tonya. Nor was he told at the time that Tonya was involved in the planning. So he couldn’t say for sure that she wasn’t involved, but his experience was that she wasn’t. Which isn’t to say that she didn’t know about it. It’s such a bizarre story.

They were so sloppy in so many ways, and yet, in this way — hiding whether or not Tonya was involved — they weren’t. The crime doesn’t without-a-doubt directly trace back to her.
She never had contact with the guys. She never was in on the planning of the meetings. So whether she was or wasn’t, she stays clear of that. If she was, she was smart to keep herself completely removed.

Nancy was interviewed by the Daily Mail in September, and she said that the FBI told her that Tonya was definitely involved.
Well, the FBI believed it, and to this day still does. I interviewed the FBI agent and the prosecutor Norman Frank, who was one of the people who flew down and met with Nancy to report on what was happening. They just didn’t have the hard evidence to take [Tonya] to trial.

Was there anyone else whom you tracked down that you didn’t have in the documentary?
The only person, who won’t talk to anyone, is Tonya’s trainer, Diane. She had been with her as a kid and went back to help her in 1994. She’s just so embittered about what happened that she has no interest in talking to any media outlet whatsoever. I’d be shocked if she did any interviews.

I wonder if she feels betrayed by Tonya. Or more just by the media.
Tonya was her prodigy. She took her on. She gave her free lessons because she knew how poor she was. She started training her at the age of 3 and taught her to be ladylike as best as she could.

This whole “ladylike training” is so uncomfortable. It reminds me of that scene in A League of Their Own, where they’re teaching Marla Hooch how to be a lady so she can play on the team.
It’s funny because Nancy’s trainer talks about how Nancy was also a tomboy when she started training her as a teenager, but then she let her bangs grow out. She started wearing pretty dresses. And she started winning! It’s like her hairstyle changed and she was able to get some Vera Wang designer dresses and then she became what they call, “the full package.” Nancy realized, “I have to change if I want to get to the top.” Another argument to be made about Tonya, especially if you watch her performances, is that it’s not like she didn’t have artistry. She did have her own style of grace and poise. It was just not what was the norm at that time. It’s not that she didn’t know how to play the ice princess game, it’s that she kind of refused to do it. Of course she wanted the success and all that. She wanted to beat the system. She was like, Listen, if I do a triple axel, they have no choice. They have to make me a champion. And that’s what happened. Her problem was that her personal life got in the way, and she wasn’t able to stay at that level, athletically, for the next few years. She didn’t have the typical … she didn’t have the grace and poise that they wanted to make up for that.

Do you think after it airs more people will see Tonya in a more sympathetic light?
I’ve shown the film to different people and everyone has a different response. Some people find her very empathetic. And then other people are like, Why didn’t she go to jail? She’s so guilty! They don’t have that sympathy for her. I think it’s a little polarizing. The people who find her more empathetic are the ones who were in their teens or twenties at the time and had this idea of who she was from the media. The other people who didn’t know the story very well, they’re the ones who are like, Oh my God, why didn’t she go to jail?

Nanette Burstein on Her Tonya Harding Doc