Director Nanette Burstein Revisits Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan 20 Years After the "Whack Heard Around the World" in ESPN Films' 'The Price of Gold'

The director of the Academy Award-nominated documentary On the Ropes contributes to ESPN's 30 for 30 series with The Price of Gold, looking back at the 1994 scandal that drew all eyes to the world of ice skating. 

Tonya Harding, "The Price of Gold"Tonya Harding, “The Price of Gold”Director Nanette Burstein earned a Directors Guild Award and an Oscar nomination for her first documentary, On the Ropes, a low-budget film shot using a Sony Handycam. The Manhattan bar owner followed up her impressive debut with the Robert Evans biography The Kid Stays in the Picture and American Teen, for which Burstein picked up a Sundance award for documentary directing.

After venturing into feature films and television, directing the romantic comedy Going the Distance and an episode of New Girl, Burstein was contacted by ESPN to develop a special project for its 30 for 30 documentary series. In January, ESPN Films premiered The Price of Gold, a look back at the events surrounding the Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan scandal of 1994, which marks its 20th anniversary later this year.

Burstein spoke with Get In Media about revisiting the biggest scandal in the history of ice skating and how the media and public perception skewed the real-life narrative.

Get In Media: There are many of what I would call “cause” documentaries, where the filmmakers try to promote a certain mindset or idea, or their viewpoint. How do you see that style of filmmaking and that message as opposed to what you’ve done, which is to give the audience just a window into this particular world?

Nanette Burstein: Well, I like to think that any good film, whether it be for a social cause or not, that there’s always a theme and a point of view that has something bigger to say. Like this story, obviously there’s what happened, which is highly fascinating and entertaining to watch, but I do think that there’s always a larger thematic issue, and I think in this film that there’s the issue of class and gender and how our media has evolved. It speaks to all of those things.

I think that in relationship to gender, ice skating is a sport that is very unusual in that it’s part beauty pageant, part athleticism. It’s sort of this non-feminist type of sport in that your score is also based on what you look like and how you act and whether or not you are ladylike. And yet, it still requires enormous athleticism. This story really illuminates that. Tonya Harding did not fit that mold, but athletically she was a phenom.

As far as class, even though Nancy [Kerrigan] was not by any means from a wealthy background, she still had this support network around her that could protect her. They could shelter her from the media and get her Vera Wang dresses, whereas Tonya came from the other side of the tracks, and she was dirt poor, and you really see how that background affects her. And then that other thing related to the media, which I find fascinating about the story, is that 1994 was the beginning of the pendulum of our media really changing. It was the same year as O.J. Simpson. It was the 24-hour news cycle where mainstream media covered tabloid stories as top of the hour. Total saturation of the news. And, obviously, that has only become exponential with Twitter and Facebook and the Internet and whatnot, but this was really the pendulum swinging.

GIM: Do you think that, seeing how the media has evolved or devolved with these tactics, the subjects somewhat make a mistake by trying to take the high road?

NB: I do think that people nowadays, and even now you see it play out… Like Nancy was obviously the victim, first of all, so they’re not going to go after her. Although, in the end, they did go after her as well. So you do need to somewhat protect yourself and have someone shielding you because if the media just has constant access to you, you’re not going to be perfect 24/7. You’re going to let something slide where you look negative and it’s going to play over and over. You even see that happen to Nancy, the way she reacted to not winning the gold medal and she got pouty. They just took that and ran with it. And then, of course, if you don’t come clean it’s always worse when you lie and don’t apologize. That’s gotten so many politicians and athletes in trouble, and I think that’s true with Tonya as well. You saw it happen with Marion Jones, Michael Vick, Bill Clinton. It’s just so much worse to cover up than the actual details. I think the media and the public develop a certain empathy when you come clean and apologize.

GIM: How involved then do you get in telling this story and having your own personal judgments as far as what you see has happened? How difficult is it to then not cloud the vision for the film or enter into the film’s commentary if you’re trying to walk that middle road?

NB: Well, every film struggles with that. As a filmmaker you always have a point of view. You try to have some objectivity, but no matter what a film is going to be somewhat subjective. What you choose to show, what interview bits, what footage… At the end of the day, I certainly steer the viewer to a degree like any filmmaker, but I couldn’t tell you 100 percent whether Tonya was innocent or guilty and I try to make that very clear in the film. There’s no 100 percent evidence. I let her speak for herself, I show contrary opinions and I let the viewer decide. I think because someone having never been convicted of something and having no 100 percent evidence, how can you crucify them to begin with? You can only illuminate what happened.

GIM: I know you reached out to Nancy Kerrigan to comment on things and she refused to speak with the film regarding any of the events. Does that then make it difficult to then tell a well-rounded account of things without her participation or her perspective on what happened?

NB: Well, I had always intended for the film to be largely focused on Tonya’s part of the story. Obviously Nancy, being the victim of it, she is obviously tied to the story. But Nancy’s side of the story is a pretty heroic yet simple story of triumph over adversity. There’s not the complexity to it that there is with Tonya’s side. So, of course, I would have wanted her to contribute, but it didn’t derail the film because the film was always to largely focus on Tonya.

GIM: You do have her taking part, and in a lot of aspects she’s very candid about her place in the world of figure skating and how these events impacted her life. Were you surprised with how much she was willing to reveal and share with you in your conversations?

NB: To a degree, yeah. I did two interviews with her and the first one was very, very long, It was eight hours. I can be a persistent person. I had the opportunity for her to tell us. Now, she seemed quite comfortable talking about her childhood, even the darker parts of her childhood. You develop enormous empathy for her, so I can understand why she’s willing to talk about that. When it came to the events in 1994, that was very difficult for her to talk about. She would get angry and emotional. We’d have to take breaks and she wouldn’t want to talk about it. She’d scream at me sometimes. [Laughs] “Why are we still talking about this?!” So yeah, it was a challenge, but at the end of the day I think she was quite candid to the degree she was able to be candid, and even revealing at times. There are moments in the film where you see her jealousy of Nancy, which I don’t think she ever intended to reveal.

“There is something wonderful about documentaries where truth is stranger than fiction.”
GIM: Yeah, there seems to be, in certain moments, this unresolved anger and resentment as far as how she was treated and how she was viewed in the public spectrum. And especially how she was viewed against the other skaters.

NB: Yes, there is a lot of anger and bitterness. You know, some of it is warranted. She was enormously athletic. The first American woman to do a triple axel jump. The skating community didn’t really want her to be the ice princess. They didn’t want her representing American figure skating, and there is truth to that. And yet there is anger and bitterness there that you’re just like, “Really? What did you think was going to happen when the scandal came out and your husband was involved in the planning and there’s a good chance that you were, too! Why are you so bitter about how it was handled?” Some of the media coverage is really unfair and clichéd and they definitely painted her as the evil witch versus the ice princess. Obviously, no one did the gray. They only did the black and white. I can understand that. There is also a lack of self-awareness, too, which becomes very clear in the film.

GIM: Have you ever encountered anything in your storytelling that kind of played out like this? Between the plot and the characters, it’s very cinematic.

NB: I think I have. I tend to be drawn to documentaries that have these unbelievable narrative arcs to them that are so engrossing and play out like a fictional film, but if someone wrote it, you wouldn’t believe it. There is something wonderful about documentaries where truth is stranger than fiction. If you were to write that story, no one would buy it. I think that’s been true of a lot of the films I’ve done. [Laughs] And that’s what’s so attractive about non-fiction! Real life… It’s just crazy! It’s amazing, sometimes, how much clichés are real. And how “real life” is not, sometimes. It’s so revealing about the human condition, too. So that’s what makes me very attracted to non-fiction.

GIM: Is there anything that you were surprised to learn in rediscovering the events that happened that you hadn’t known prior, or that people may not be as privy to as being a key component to this entire saga?

NB: Yeah, quite a lot, as I researched it. First of all, I think one of the surprising things for people watching this film is how much empathy they have for Tonya for the first half of the film and her growing up, and how hard it was. There’s amazing footage that exists of it. She had a friend making a short film about her. You really see how awful her mother was to her, how abusive she was. Your heart goes out to her. And then the whole twist of events of how this story unfolded and how the perpetrators were caught. How ridiculous it all was. I didn’t know the extent of that. A lot of the twists and turns of the story I was not familiar with. I think for most people, there’s like this grey area and they’re like, “Oh yeah, I remember that story.” You think you know it, and no one had done a film about it. So you see how complex it was. You think you know it, but you don’t.

GIM: Do you think that the paradigm has shifted away from “innocent until proven guilty” to now being “guilty until proven innocent?”

NB: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah, it’s funny, a lot of people remember this incident, they actually think that Tonya was the one who literally struck Nancy on the knee. Because this is the way the media coverage was at the time, you’d think, “Oh, my God, she was the one who actually did it.” I think that has absolutely amplified. Now there are all these shows like Nancy Grace. The whole cause of these programs on TV is to go after someone who has been accused of a crime but has not been convicted and they basically convict them, night after night in the media. So regardless of whatever the outcome is, in the public’s eye, they are guilty. Even if they were never proven to be guilty.

Tonya was one of the first victims of that. Like I said, ‘94 was that big shift in the pendulum. The Menendez Brothers, the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan Scandal, and then the O.J. case. An entire media industry was created as a result of that. Entire programs, like Court TV and Nancy Grace that were just about those kinds of stories. And then the mainstream media always covered them. So I think that yes, people are convicted in the public eye even if they never got convicted in a court case.

GIM: You’ve done documentary films, you’ve now moved into doing narrative feature films, and you’ve also done some TV. Do you find there to be great differences in how you approach projects of those different persuasions? Or do your core instincts still take center stage and then allow you to explore those different areas?

NB: Yeah, and I also direct a lot of commercials. The only things I haven’t done are music videos. My core instincts are always the same through any one of these mediums. Obviously, there are different approaches to each of them and how you direct fiction versus a commercial versus television versus non-fiction. They each have their own special talents that you need to apply. But storytelling is storytelling at the end of the day, and so much of it transfers across these different formats. 

The Price of Gold is now available on Amazon, iTunes, Netflix, and at the ESPN Store

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