Craig Gillespie likes Boston.
The film director was born in Sydney and is now based in Los Angeles, but he fondly recalls spending half of 2015 living on Commonwealth Avenue while he was shooting the Coast Guard thriller “The Finest Hours” in Quincy and Chatham. His son is currently a student at Emerson College, so “I’m in and out of Boston all the time. I love it here. There’s something about the Boston people that reminds me of Australians, but I don’t know why that is,” said Gillespie by phone from New York, where he was chatting up his new film “I, Tonya.” The irreverent biopic presents a fresh take on the controversial figure skater Tonya Harding, famous for both her talent and her involvement in an attack on skating rival Nancy Kerrigan just before the 1994 Olympic trials.
Gillespie, 50, has a small, diverse set of films on his résumé, including his first feature, the much-berated “Mr. Woodcock” (“That one did not bode well for me,” he said.), and the art house hit “Lars and the Real Girl.” He’s also dipped into horror, with the remake of “Fright Night,” and sports, with “Million Dollar Arm.”
But filmmaking wasn’t his plan when, at 18, he dropped out of Sydney University’s liberal arts program and, with a strong background in drawing, scored a scholarship at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Four years later, he went to work at a string of advertising agencies, eventually moving from the business to the creative side when he and a friend got hold of a 16mm Bolex camera and started making spec commercials. The right people took notice, and Gillespie began an award-winning career that includes a series of witty, celebrity-filled Snickers ads (one with Aretha Franklin and Liza Minnelli playing divas is a classic). It was around then that he got the idea to do features.
Q. You had a great career going with commercials. How did you make that jump to directing “Mr. Woodcock?”
A. In that world of comedy movies, they’ll pull from commercials directors. Everything I did in commercials was comedy-based and focused on dialogue, and I had a sort of style that was sellable. So, the studio comedy was the easier sell with my commercial reel. But tonally I was more in the space of “Lars,” and I was lucky enough to get that set up two weeks after I had finished shooting “Mr. Woodcock.”
Q. “Lars” wasn’t exactly a big moneymaker, but it got lots of positive critical response and found an audience. Did it change your life overnight?
A. No, but that response was really nice. It was such a personal project for me; I really connected with it and learned a lot working with Ryan Gosling. In some ways I might have got spoiled. I was very particular about what I wanted to do after that. For a while, Ryan and I had “Dallas Buyers Club.” We worked on that script for a year together and were prepping it, but we couldn’t get it financed. Then I got the offer to direct some episodes of “United States of Tara.” That was suddenly a year of my life, and my momentum for making a film kind of dissipated a little bit.
Q. You were still doing commercials, but did get back to features with “Fright Night,” and have now been making a film every couple of years. How did “I, Tonya” come into your life?
A. I was driving home from a commercial shoot. My agent called and said, “We have a script coming in about Tonya Harding.” I thought, “Why are you sending me another biopic; I just did two of them (“The Finest Hours” and “Million Dollar Arm”).” Then he finished the sentence: “With Margot Robbie.” I thought that was intriguing. Then I read the script, and it was just crazy! It was like nothing else I’d ever read.
Q. Any doubts because of the subject matter and what most of us have in our minds about Harding?
A. I love challenges. With “Lars,” I loved the challenge that people might think there’s no way I’m going care about this guy and a sex doll. In this one I loved the challenge that she’s been this poster child of the villain in our pop culture for 25 years, and we would flip that and look at her in a different perspective.
Q. Steven Rogers wrote the script based on interviews he did with Tonya Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly. Was that script as offbeat as it is now, or did you add new elements to it?
A. I added in the breaking of the fourth wall [during which characters speak directly to the viewers]. The inspiration for that had to do with Margot asking me how we were going to handle the violence in the film. I said that I thought we have to be brutal because it informs us on a lot of what Tonya Harding’s choices were in life. The armor that she has is because of the abuse that she suffered from her mother when she was growing up, and in her marriage. I felt it would be a disservice to shy away from that. But it is very hard to watch, and I came up with the idea of having her break the fourth wall in the film’s first violent montage. Because it shows how she’s disconnected from it and she’s almost numb to it, and that she can step out of it and talk to the audience while it’s happening. Then I thought we needed more of that to balance the film.
Q. How much skating was actually done by Mckenna Grace as young Tonya and by Margot?
A. We had a lot of doubles going on in the Mckenna scenes. But Margot trained for five months. Long before we started shooting, I sat down and did storyboards for the skating sequences. I studied video of Tonya’s skating from 1986 to 1994, trying to get what were her signature moves, so Margot could do those head whips and those dance moves and the high kicks. She trained three or four days a week for those five months, and managed to be able to do all of it, which was amazing.Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.