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Tonya Harding Financed My Film

Tonya Harding Financed My Film

Articles - Directing

I make my living off the misery, tragedy, and celebrity

of other people’s lives. I work as a freelance cameraman for network

television – Eye to Eye with Connie Chung, Dateline NBC, the CBS Evening News, A Current Affair – and I’m paid well

to provide those and other programs with issues/08/images that entice and entertain

the viewers, and the voyeurs.

A good story for a freelancer

is one rich in overtime, frequent flyer miles, $50-a-day per diems,

and long hours sipping expensive espresso drinks on the clock.

I was lucky enough to work on what was, until recently at least,

THE cash-cow story of the year. No, I was not dispatched to Cape

Town on the eve of Mandela’s election; I did not parachute into

a Rwandan massacre; I even missed the Los Angeles earthquake.

I was working at the time on something much more important. Tonya.

Thirty­five days of Tonya. Thanks to her, I was able to produce

and direct my first film: a 30-minute Super 16mm/color short based

on a script I wrote last August, called Spree.

In my business, most

of the guys spend their earnings on a new camera, a new Plymouth

van, or some new computerized widget. I burned my money on a dream.

I wrote the script for Spree in August of 1993. The main character, Jackie, is

a battered woman on the run from an abusive ex-husband. She embarks

on a crime spree in the desperate hope of starting a new life

for herself and her kids. Jackie could have lived in any one of

the trailer homes I have visited in any number of small Northwest

towns: Payette, Idaho. Springfield, Oregon. Marysville, Washington.

These were the settings for the stories I covered, and the stories

were nearly always about women abused, raped, or wronged in some

way.

The script lived for

several months in my computer. I scouted locations, reworked scenes,

and despaired of ever having the money to shoot. I wanted to hire

professionals and pay them on time. I’d worked on too many shoots

for nothing, and on too many deferred payment schedules when the

money dried up. I knew that if I paid people, they’d work harder.

Rustin Thompson takes a break from real life tragedy to direct

Libby Simeon in Spree.

At 6 a.m. on January

12th, I found the end of the rainbow. The NBC show NOW sent me

to Portland because a skater named Tonya Harding had been implicated

in the clubbing attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan. I’d never

heard of Tonya, and figured I’d be back home that evening. By

the time I got niy rental car, I’d been paged by three other news

programs, and knew this was a hot story. That evening I hitched

my wagon to a gravy train called CBS, and together we traversed

the twisted curves of Tonya-land for more than a month.

My sound man, Pat, and

I, as a freelance team, were making $700 to $1,200 dollars a day.

The network thought of replacing us after a week with a more affordable

staff crew, but realized we would be taking everybody and everything

we knew about the story with us to the next network that called.

They dropped the idea, and we were in for the long ride.

January 18th was the

night I first realized that my dreams of making Spree were

inextricably linked with Tonya’s claims of innocence. Twenty-four

camera people and reporters were crammed into an elevator lobby

at the FBI headquarters, waiting for Tonya to emerge from questioning.

We waited for ten hours – thirsty, cranky, and gassy – to get

a picture of Tonya exiting the building. If the doors leading

to the interrogation room so much as creaked, we all sprang to

our feet, shouldered our cameras, and readied our microphones.

Our heart rates doubled in three seconds. Usually it was just

a janitor on her way to the next floor. Gradually we relaxed,

turned off our cameras, sat down, closed our eyes. I arranged

numbers in my head: cost of film stock, the fee for a good director

of photography, how much to feed 10 people a day for five days.

Next to each figure was an asterisk keyed to a footnote that read:

"If Tonya doesn’t confess."

When she finally emerged

from the FBI office that night, it was pandemonium. A riot of

cameras, cables, elbows, and lights. I squeezed into the elevator

with Tonya, her attorney, and a hundred others. I wanted to ask

her for a blank check; instead, I said weakly, "How are you

holding up?"

We had two more nights

like that one, when Tonya’s estranged husband Jeff Gillooly was

being questioned. Long hours of paralyzing boredom punctuated

by bursts of coronary inducing panic. Each time I shook my head

at Pat and said "I gotta get off this story," he’d just

mince the act of punching cast register buttons and whisper "Ka-ching."

The third week of the

shoot arrived. I was now in a Zen state. I began to enjoy the

stake-outs, the long waits in the courthouse hallways, the verbal

jousting with the taciturn lawyers. Making enough money to make

my movie was now my raison d’etre. Every minute spent watching

Tonya’s apartment meant a few more feet of film. Six hours of

overtime equaled a day’s rental on a portable crane. Work on Sunday?

Lattes for the crew.

I was paying off credit

cards and long­standing loans by exploiting the antics of Gillooly

and his gang of misbegotten petty crooks. It seemed fitting that,

here in a land of double-wides, duplexes, and obese four wheel

drive pickups, I was shaping a film whose main character was mired

in that milieu. There was, afterall, a real sadness in Tonya’s

story, if you looked beyond the movie-of-the-week hijinx of the

tawdry affair. Tonya was fated to fuck up. It was written in her

upbringing, in the men in her life, in the friends she chose.

In so many ways she was like Jackie in Spree: desperate

for a new life, she struck out wildly, and was doomed to fail.

The gravy train ended

for me when Tonya boarded a plane to

Norway.

I returned home and began spending money. I cast actors, found

my D.P., finalized the script. I was in great spirits.

We shot on a more expensive,

fine­grain stock and rented a grip truck, but saved money in other

ways. The actors rehearsed diligently, we shot in daylight, and

went hand-held in many scenes. My budget went from $15 to $20,000,

but thanks to Tonya, the money was there. If Spree is successful,

I can switch careers. And repay Tonya Harding by never sticking

a camera in her face again.

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