One could be forgiven for thinking that playwright turned filmmaker Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds is a dark comedy made by a master of the genre. An accomplished, delicate, thoughtful, and purposefully unnerving working through of Finley’s own feelings about wealth, friendship, and the nature of empathy, Thoroughbreds is shockingly his debut work as a director and screenwriter. It’s a feat that’s almost unbelievable to anyone who views his final, confident results of his labours.
Originally conceived as a play by Finley, Thoroughbreds tells the twisty and twisted tale of Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke), a pair of teenage besties living mostly blessed lives in an affluent Connecticut suburb. Although brought together by geography and class, Lily and Amanda couldn’t be any more different on emotional and psychological levels. Amanda is a cold, calculated, blunt narcissist without a verbal filter who has garnered a dark reputation thanks to a violent, unspeakable incident that underlines how she perceives humanity and empathy as a weakness. Lily, on the other hand, feels and experiences all of life’s unpleasantries as if they were the end of her world. Lily’s emotional overload, brought on by the passing of her father, leads to an irreparable rift between the teen and her caddish step-father (Paul Sparks). When the more amoral Amanda asks why Lily doesn’t just kill her step-father, the pair embarks on a symbiotic quest to better their lives.
A deadpan blend of pitch black comedy and psychodrama, Thoroughbreds is an intricate and personal work from Finley, a St. Louis native who now makes his home in New York City. Shooting in and around Cohasset, Massachusetts during the summer of 2016, Finley found a perfect setting for his tale of opulence, apathy, and sticky morals that made his debut feature filmmaking vision a reality, alongside a carefully chosen cast of actors that include a supporting turn from the late Anton Yelchin, in one of his final performances as a low level drug dealer who gets caught up in the girls’ increasingly dark plans.
We caught up with Finley during a recent visit to Toronto to screen the film at the TIFF Next Wave Festival to talk about keeping audiences off guard, casting actors against established types, crashing genres into one another, and the personal struggles behind the conflicted emotional centre of Thoroughbreds.
I saw the film last night, and in your introduction you said that you didn’t want to give too much of the film away before people saw it. I only knew who was in it and a single sentence description of the plot, and that was it. I hadn’t even seen a trailer for the film until before I came down here to talk to you, and I think I was better for it. I was completely caught off guard by your film in the best possible way.
Cory Finley: Oh, good! Thanks for that, and I really love it when someone says something like that. It’s something that’s increasingly hard to do these days, but some of my favourite moviegoing experiences have been going into something and not even knowing the genre of the thing I’m about to watch. And our movie actually has two trailers, a two minute one and a one minute one, and I have to say that they really did a great job of being clear when it comes to setting up the characters and the dominos that are about to fall, but there’s also this little bit of misdirection about particular directions that the story goes in, which I think is great.
The film unfolds in a way that I love, which is that the story will eventually answer any questions that you might have that are relevant to the plot or characters, but it will take a fair amount of time before addressing them. Throughout the writing process, what was it like holding back these details about the characters, and when did you know you wanted revelations about them to come to light for the audience?
Cory Finley: That’s always been one of my favourite writing tricks. I’m always trying to ask myself what the absolute latest is that I can get away with revealing a key piece of information. There was a great essay written by a playwright – and the name of the playwright is escaping me – but they talked about keeping the audience on an IV drip of information and giving them just enough information to keep them alive and keep them leaning in for more questions with every passing scene. Harold Pinter, who’s one of my favourite playwrights, in one of his many awards acceptance speeches talked about how he’ll write plays without knowing the names, ages, or anything about his characters at first. He always started with just this back and forth between an A and a B, and as he goes, he would fill in and learn from the voices of the characters who these people are and how they know each other. I don’t know if anyone can actually write that way. (laughs) I certainly don’t, but I love the illusion and feeling that you’re getting deeper and deeper into these characters as you observe them relating to one another.
Knowing that you come from a theatre background yourself, that makes complete sense, since you want to keep people in their seats and engaged. What’s great about Thoroughbreds that speaks to your background, is that it feels like it could be a play. I know that at one point, you were writing this as if it were going to be one, but when you’re writing for the stage, you’re cognizant that the audience will be watching this story through a single frame and field of view and in a single setting for about 90% of the show. This film definitely feels dialogue and character driven like a play, but it’s also remarkably visual for someone’s first directorial effort on film. You have a lot of tracking shots, movement, and elaborate set-ups that I think most first time filmmakers working on a limited schedule and budget wouldn’t want to attempt. What’s it like adapting your style of writing for cinema?
Cory Finley: That difference between a play and a film was definitely the biggest point of emphasis for me early on during pre-production. From shot listing to adapting this from script to screenplay, I knew there were always going to be scenes that worked better if we just stuck to the dialogue. There are plenty of scenes that were just going to work because of the strength of these two main voices that were speaking. That interplay between those two voices was always going to be the core of the film, so I wanted to preserve that, but I also knew that being a movie, one of my biggest fears was that this would come across like a filmed play. Lyle [Vincent], the cinematographer, and I constantly talked about ways to inject as much movement, visual storytelling, and specificity of framing into the film as we could. A lot of the movies I really love use some of those same techniques. In terms of how we carved up the house and the action that would take place within it, we talked a lot about The Shining. We wanted to find a house with a lot of long hallways and a sense of geography that would lend itself well to all of these steadicam tricks that we were interested in attempting.
Your film even includes a fair number of sight gags, which is a rarity for a comedy this dark, and memorably includes a moment involving an errant bag of snacks and a maid that’s one of the funniest moments of film. What’s it like to work in a genre like this and to be a bit more playful than some other examples of this kind of film?
Cory Finley: I love hard collisions of genres. I think a lot of my favourite movies do things like that. I really idolized the Coen Brothers growing up, and they have such a great way of combining humour, tragedy, and fear. No Country for Old Men is probably my favourite movie from them, and for my money, their darkest and in many ways funniest story. I think you always want to keep an audience on their heels or their toes. You want to keep an audience engaged, and I think that creating a tone that’s overly controlled and specific only works if you make them wonder if the story should be shifting in the direction that it seems to be headed in. You should wonder if you should be laughing, crying, or freaked out, ideally, and that’s the most exciting place that you could put an audience into.
You’re also lucky to have four leads that are really adept at deadpan comedy, and I can imagine that finding four people to pull something like this off couldn’t be terribly easy.
Cory Finley: We were definitely lucky to find actors that were excited about the project from the script phase. As a script, when you don’t see how it’s executed, it can be difficult to get a handle on. As a writer, I don’t like to specify tone when I write something. I find that putting something like that in writing can really mess with an actor’s headspace, especially on something like this where I was going to direct it myself. Some people who read the script thought it was a really heavy and serious psychodrama, and I think that some people who watch the film still think of it that way. It’s a minority that do, but I think it’s still interesting that it comes across that way to some people. There were definitely some who read it in a cold, dark, clinical kind of tone.
The couple of actors who signed onto the project early, like Anya, Anton, and Olivia, saw immediately what I wanted to bring out of the material, and we had great conversations in our initial meetings where all we talked about was tone. They saw something admirable in their characters, and not just any kind of villainous tendencies. They saw this sense of wish fulfillment, and even if they never wanted to be these characters themselves, there was something about them and the way they expressed themselves that was appealing. That was always important. You always want actor that can sympathize with their characters and find the heart within the story. They were all wonderful and great to work with.
You said last night that this was a film that you conceived as a way to work out some of your own personal feelings about wealth, but it’s also a story about two emotional extremes that occur naturally when talking about wealth. You have one character, played by Anya, who feels everything deeply, and one, played by Olivia, who feels nothing. What’s it like working out your feelings about an upper class lifestyle through two emotional polar opposites, and what’s it like making certain that these characters and their points of view are balanced?
Cory Finley: I really empathize with both characters. There’s an uncomfortable amount of myself in both of these characters, or at least in what I see of myself. In the later stages of making a movie, the medium is an amazingly collaborative one, and it gets easier to strike that balance. But when you’re starting out at the beginning, the best moments of creation can be these deeply therapeutic conversations that you have with yourself.
One of my biggest personal anxieties is that I always fear that I don’t feel enough about everything that’s happening in the world. I have this numbness that I think a lot of people have during this particular political and technological day and age. There’s just this information overload, and even in the two years since I’ve made the film, it feels like so much has changed, but the feelings remain very similar. But even though I worry about that, sometimes I’ll worry that the trivial, petty things that sometimes get me going feel like the most tragic things in the world. I was interested in putting those two mental tendencies on a couch together and letting them hash it out. I wanted two people with very different attitudes to rub off on each other and influence one another that could lead to a reversal in the story.
But the fun thing about making something like this in a stripped down format like a play first is that you can be very specific about the starting point and then let the story just happen to the characters. You can just listen to the voices of the characters at first and they’ll tell you where it wants to go. There was definitely some deep psychological voodoo happening during the writing process. (laughs) But the short answer is that both of these characters are extended versions of viewpoints I could relate to.
We’re you also cognizant that you were casting Anya following The Witch – which is a very stoic sort of performance – and Olivia after Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – which is a very warm kind of performance – and then making them go against the tenor of the film’s that offered them breakout roles?
Cory Finley: It’s definitely not a stretch to say that, and I think we all enjoyed how these roles gave them something new to explore. One of the interesting and hard to predict variables of casting is wondering what roles will give actors a chance to do things they haven’t had a chance to do yet in their careers. It’s an interesting way of putting it that their breakout roles were very different in terms of emotional tone, but really when thinking about casting these roles I was looking for a specific sort of quality. Someone once said to me about casting that you want to cast the one trait that you know the performance needs the most to succeed. You need to know that an actor can nail it, and for Olivia it was about casting someone with a great amount of control and verbal wit, and for Anya I knew there had to be an intensity and an ability to go to emotional extremes in believable ways. Both of those traits were evident from the work I had seen them in, even if the characters were very different from the ones they play in this film.
Thoroughbreds opens in select cities on Friday, March 9, 2018.