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Faking It: This Is How I, Tonya Nailed That Triple Axel
Welcome toFaking It, our monthly guide to the magic of filmmaking. What exactly are two actors doing when they're "having sex" on camera? How do they "do drugs"? What are those phony cigarettes really made of? Join us as we explore the not-so-glamorous underground offaking sex, drugs,violence, and more.
Growing up in Canada, there was no getting around it: Every week, I laced up my white (for the first two or three lessons, at least) skates, and hit the ice. For girls, figure skating was the trendy after-school activity. For boys, it was hockey. In either case, if you didn't want to be a social pariah in late 1990s Montreal, you learned how to look semi-decent while gliding around on a frozen surface.
Full disclosure: I was pretty terrible. Unlike some of my peers, who went on to skate competitively through middle and high school, I quit after-school skating soon after elementary. I still love it as a once-a-year winter activity, but had no desire to accidentally slice my thigh open after falling on my blade as a finale to an axel jump, as one of my best friends did when we were 11.
I was three weeks shy of 4 years old when Nancy Kerrigan was attacked by a man who struck her knee with a steel baton. I don't actually remember her lying on the floor of a Detroit arena, screaming "Why?!" I've heard about it, of course — who hasn't? But as a result, watching I, Tonya, the new black comedy about the events in Tonya Harding's life up to and after "the incident," felt like pulling the curtain back on an event I was really discovering for the first time.
One thing that felt familiar though, was the skating; not just the actual moves, but the sheer effort, time, and commitment that goes into becoming a professional skater. In 1994, Tonya Harding was one of the best in the world. And so, I wondered, how does an Australian actress like Margot Robbie, who produced I, Tonya and plays the titular role, manage to make us believe that she's got that level of skill on skates?
To find out, I spoke to Sarah Kawahara, the former Canadian figure skater, Emmy-winning choreographer and skating coordinator who trained Robbie for the film.
Twenty-four years following a scandal that rocked the world, Margot Robbie takes on the role of figure skater Tonya Harding in a behind-the-scenes story that will have you questioning what’s real, what’s fake, and how much we truly know about the controversial figures who become cultural lightning rods. I, Tonya hits theaters everywhere January 5th. Grab your tickets HERE
Harding's crowning achievement came in 1991, when she became the first woman ever to receive a 6.0 score for a triple axel at the U.S. Championships. She did it again later that year at the World Championships, becoming the first American woman ever to land the near-impossible jump.
Named after Norwegian skater Axel Paulson, who invented the jump in 1882, an axel-type jump is the most difficult to master of the six performed in figure skating, A triple axel jump requires a forward take off, and not one, not two, but three and a half rotations in the air before landing gracefully back on the ice. To this day, only a handful of women in the world can achieve this feat of aerodynamics, which actually presented a problem for Kawahara, who had to find someone to recreate it for the screen.
This was challenging for a number of reasons. First off, the movie starting filming in January, the time in which most American professional skaters are competing in U.S. Nationals. Second, Kawahara had to make sure that the doubles she found would match Margot Robbie's body type, and height. (Robbie is 5'6, while Harding was actually only 5'2.) And finally, the chosen skaters would have to be able to complete incredibly difficult maneuvers and jumps on a daily basis.
Neither Munger nor Markova could do the triple axel, however, which meant that Kawahara had to get creative. She first tried to fake it using wire work, but the action was too floaty. Kawahara says she briefly considered using a male double for that particular jump (men who can land a triple axel are much more commonplace — they've even moved on to quads), but it was too difficult to find a man who would line up physically with Robbie.
In the end, the jump was done through editing and camera tricks. The doubles did "a zillion double axels, shot a zillion different ways," according to Kawahara. Using different cameras to get shots of their feet and the various rotations and positions, the filmmakers were then able to piece it all together for the final product that you see in the video clip from the movie, above.
I Tonya Skating Choreographer On Margot Robbie Stunts