“Male characters in movies have been allowed to be pretty terrible people and still get us to root for them. We have to be able to love messy anti-hero female characters, even female villains, as much as we do male ones.”
A superbly calibrated comedy that steadily paces into thriller territory, writer-director Cory Finley’s pristine debut feature Thoroughbreds boasts confidence and stylistic precision. Putting both his evidently refined cinematic tastes and his stage sensibilities to work (he has roots in the theater as an acclaimed playwright), Finley has made a rare breed of a film (pardon the pun) as a first-time filmmaker. Thoroughbreds is both proudly, almost wickedly weird throughout, and a genuinely engaging film packed with uncomfortable laughs and surprising reveals.
We follow Amanda and Lily (stunningly played by Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’s Olivia Cooke and The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy, respectively), two wealthy Connecticut teens born into extreme privilege. And they both have their share of troubles amid the monotony of having a bottomless well of money. The supposedly unhinged Amanda is a convicted animal abuser (thankfully, you don’t see any of it on-screen, but the details are harrowing.) The comparatively put-together and proper Lily, dressed in elegant outfits and sporting preppy, high ponytails, despises her stepfather. Throughout forced tutoring sessions, the pair of mean girls discovers they have a lot more in common than they initially realized, and eventually, become meaner in unison.
With Thoroughbreds, Finley digs deep into the concept of social and economic privilege. “I was looking for a way to tackle my complicated feelings about wealth,” he says recently, joining me for a phone conversation. He felt mixing satire and comedic elements was a way into this world of endless resources. “My favorite tone is when movies can be a little bit satirical,” he adds. “They can have a satirical distance from their characters, but also encourage enough sympathy for the characters that audiences feel invested in. [My film] is an engine for comedy and social commentary. [The characters] were both enabled and trapped by privilege. The target of their [crime] was the loathsome center of the wealth in their world, but they were also very much implicated in it and a part of it. Their own sheltered existence made it possible for them to even contemplate [this crime] in the first place.”
Below is my interview with the filmmaker, during which we delved deeper into the female-centric themes of Thoroughbreds (which portrays two refreshingly complicated young women, for a change), Finley’s process as a writer-director and his experience of working with the late Anton Yelchin, who delivered his final performance in this film.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
You have stage roots as a playwright. As you were crafting Thoroughbreds, what was it about this particular story that rendered more cinematic to you?
It’s a very psychological story about the internal state. It’s all explicitly about the characters’ minds and what they’re dealing with: the way they think and they talk a lot about the way they think. That sort of a story often benefits from being able to get very psychically close to the characters and having a real sort of intimacy. That’s much easier to do with a camera than stage. Then just this whole kind of thriller element to the story started developing as I was working on it as a play—that is also a little bit harder to explore on stage. It really benefits from being able to get out of the house and see the community that they live in and have the characters be able to take these journeys away from this oppressive estate. And I always wanted to do a movie. It just felt like the right project with which to pursue that goal.
It still does have that stage-like cohesive discipline, though, stylistically and visually. There is a precision throughout that shows your stage sensibilities.
The heart of the story is these conversation scenes; they are very theatrical. And a couple of the key moments (which are sometimes hard to talk about without spoiling). A couple of the key moments are shot in a very theatrical way and make a deliberate choice not to show you the things that a movie would typically show. You’re sort of stuck in the view that you’d have as you’re watching it as a theater audience. I thought that was just a way of paying homage to the theater world that I come from. It was also the right stylistic choice for this story. But I still wanted it to be as cinematic as possible.
I’m really impressed with the way the movie is shot. It makes you feel like you’re being followed at times. And then other times, it feels like you’re the one who is doing the following. The ominous tone of the camera, established through tracking shots, was there all the way from the beginning.
It was one of the very first things we talked about, and we talked about it constantly: keeping the story sort of mobile. [Our cinematographer] Lyle Vincent is just an amazing artist and technician and has a really beautiful touch with the camera. We have an awesome main cameraman, steady-cam operator named John Beattie, who was really a big part of the creative process as well. Those shots felt like a real kind of choreography; a kind of dance between the character and the camera. We looked to The Shining a lot for inspiration. We stole pretty shamelessly from some of those sequences, following Danny’s little [tricycle] around the Overlook Hotel. It felt like a way to establish the size and scope of the house, which was such an important point and psychological factor for the characters and just a way to make the audience move out of those theatrical rhythms.
Overlook Hotel, despite being such a massive place, feels so suffocating and claustrophobic. You achieve the exact same thing with this giant Connecticut house.
Thank you. Yeah, the house was huge and crazy, and you only see a third of it at most on camera. It’s an enormous home. We were so lucky to be there. It really lends the movie a scope that we would not have been able to have if we were in more of a normal home.
Was it hard to find the right place for all the choreography that you wanted to achieve?
It was a long process, yeah. I like to joke that it was really easy to cast our two leads, they were our top choices, and they were interested in doing it from the beginning. [In contrast], it was very, very hard to cast the house, which is sort of the third or fourth lead in the movie. We looked at a lot of houses, and none of them felt right. Eventually, we found the one that we did use in Massachusetts, south of Boston.
I’m so glad you got the leads you wanted, as I love the chemistry between Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy. How did you help them get into the mindset of the film? Did you have time to rehearse?
We did a little bit. We did two days of rehearsals. Those were more about talking through the story together and making sure we were all on the same page about where the two characters came from. We fleshed out their history together, and just talked about the different turns that their relationship takes in the movie, and talked about why they made some of the choices that they make. I think we were all on the same page, but we left the actual playing of the scenes to be discovered a little bit in rehearsal. The chemistry is just a testament to both of their ability as actors, and both of their natural charisma. They were super cool to work with, and it was really fun to watch them experiment and try different things, and play off of one another, and go to unpredictable places.
These two women walk on a delicate line for the most part; they aren’t fully villains, even when they carry out horrendous acts. This level of complexity in female characters isn’t something we see often sadly. I just love how messy, beautiful, and also despicably bad they are in a lot of ways.
I’m so glad you say that. In a lot of interviews, I talk to people who think they’re just horrible people. They are, obviously, to some degree. They commit a murder. Lily particularly is very shortsighted, very self-centered, but at the same time, I’ve always found a lot to sympathize with because I’ve seen it. I’ve put a lot of myself in them, and certainly exaggerated some of the negative attributes. It was important to me that they were complicated, messy people, and that they certainly made some villainous choices. But we could always, if not quite root for them, at least invest in them. I’m hesitant to say love (because they are pretty prickly individuals), but I find a lot to care about in them.
And that’s something that I always crave in female-led stories. I feel like that nuance is often missed when we talk about strong women. I don’t want to see a one-dimensional strong female. I want to see some messiness.
Good. I’m glad you say that. Right, because male characters in movies for a long time have been anti-heroes that have been allowed to be pretty terrible people and still get us to root for them. There have certainly been examples of that in women as well, but I do think that’s an important truth, that we have to be able to love messy anti-hero female characters, even female villains, as much as we do male ones.
Much of the heavy lifting in the story is done not through just dialogue, but also through silence. What’s your process of writing those quiet moments? I imagine it takes a certain level of foresight and also confidence in your performers.
The script has a lot of silences; beats, that are just pauses built in. I tried to leave them in the script and not over-specify what was going on in the silence, but let it be found on set. So, we were certainly aware that there were going to be some and that it may be really performance-dependent moments. But the really lovely thing, too, was that the two actors were so compelling with stillness and with silence and had such a naturally ability to hold your attention and to hold the camera, as they say, that it was really fun seeing in the edit how many lines I was able to cut. They’re still long scenes, but a lot of the dialogue scenes between them were even longer. When I got to the edit and just saw how powerful these two actors could be, just holding one another in their gaze and pushing one another’s buttons that way, it was really gratifying to be able to add in even more silences than we thought.
OK, I will admit. I tried that fake-cry technique a little bit. (I found myself even trying it during the movie; hope you won’t think that I’m crazy.) But it didn’t work for me.
[Laughs] I would have loved to see that. It was mostly made up. I used to be an actor before I ever wrote a play, like in high school, way back. There were definitely some overenthusiastic theater kids that would trade their cheat codes for crying, and I think I drew from some of those. I do remember someone telling me when I was 15 or 16 that if you ever need to fake-cry on stage, you kind of hold your breath, and it’s all in your throat, and it’s like choking. So, I definitely drew on that. I don’t believe it actually works. I think everyone has his or her own technique of reaching that place. Even talking to my two lead actors who are both, among other things, amazing criers. It is usually emotional rather than technical. That’s an interesting feature out there, or something asking every actor out there how they cry. But yeah, the one in the movie was definitely a little BS.
I also admire the way you crafted the stepfather character. When I first saw him onscreen, I thought, “Oh god, I’m going to hate this dude.” But then I just kept wondering whether he was really that awful, and how much of it was my prejudice looking at him from Lily’s perspective.
I wanted him to seem horrible at the beginning, and to remain horrible. I think even if you get more information about him, he’s still a really deeply unpleasant guy, but I definitely, by the end of the story, wanted you to question whether he was as bad as Lily makes him out to be. I did want to leave it ambiguous. I think it has driven some people crazy that the movie doesn’t plant a clear flag in whether he deserves to die or not. But certainly, he is just the devil in Lily’s eyes and transformed the family dynamic and has certainly changed the woman that her mother is pretty profoundly, and changed her in a negative way. So, I think she has well-earned hatred of him, but I also think it was important that there are moments where he is talking sense, and where he seems much more reasonable than we would expect. I didn’t want it to be a really justified revenge story. That’s a different sort of movie.
On that note of ‘justified revenge,’ I was genuinely relieved this didn’t end up being a story of sexual abuse. I want to thank you for not taking that shortcut.
It is a pet peeve of mine when movies use sexual abuse of women as a shortcut to emotion. They sort of throw it in, like in the ’70’s’ exploitation movies, as [a device]. There’s a whole tradition of movies using that as a motivating factor, often for a man. I definitely didn’t want to fall into that trap. There are some amazing movies that deal very seriously and very rigorously with sexual abuse. It’s certainly a subject the movies can explore. But I was definitely interested in other things with this movie. If you’re going to introduce that, the movie needs to be very serious about it, and really understand what it’s getting into.
The costuming is so thoughtful in this film. Following Anya’s character through her clothes was especially fascinating. She is so proper and put together, but her clothes shift in tone.
That was a huge part of the movie from the beginning. Alex Bovaird, our costume designer, has done a number of really amazing movies. She did American Honey, which is an intensely different world than this one, but has equally specific costume choices. She is just really amazing and did a lot of research beforehand into what preppy, wealthy East-Coaster teenagers were actually wearing. She wanted to ground everything in a place of anthropological research. Once we started from that base, we wanted it to feel as elevated as possible, and we wanted to bring in these film noir influences and inflections into what they wear: stuff that subtly recalled ’40’s fashion. Anya had an enormous role is shaping her own costume arc. Alex worked very closely with both her and Olivia to craft an arc for each one of them. We thought very specifically, all four of us, about which outfits they’d wear in which scenes. We talked about Lily starting very posh, very proper, very buttoned-up, and staying very fancy, but having an increasing looseness to her clothes and even to her hair as she unleashes more of her own personality. She also takes on these softer silhouettes and these looser cuts of clothing, ending with the very oversized sweater that she wears in that last scene.
I want to be sensitive and careful about asking this, but I think a lot of people would love to know what it was like working with Anton Yelchin if you wouldn’t mind sharing your experience. It must be painful for you. This was his final performance, and he is going to be dearly missed.
I appreciate your thoughtfulness with the question. It’s certainly hard to talk about him as a person, and everything that happened, but it’s very easy to talk about him as an artist and a collaborator for sure because he was just an incredible presence on set. I was a huge fan of his going in. I was thrilled and happily surprised that he wanted to do the movie. He had been in so many movies that I really loved. He’d shown great taste as an actor in picking projects, and he was really smart in the way that he thought about Tim, and he thought about the movie as a whole and its tone. We had some really exciting conversations the first couple days that he was on set. He also, I was saying Anya took a really active role in her costume, and Anton did the same, and really shaped my perception of Tim. I think he added a ton of complexity and sympathy to that role.
He was just an utter joy to work with. He was so playful and so fun and so spontaneous, but so consistently great and really grounded as an actor. And yeah, we all just really, really loved him, and he’s very missed.
Now that you’ve done your cinematic debut, do you want to keep making movies and balance it with your stage work?
I do want to have a balance. I definitely love the stage. I think it’s my first love. It’s where I found my voice as a writer. And there are incredible things you could do on stage, but that’s all to say that I really love the film world, and I had such an incredible experience with this. It exceeded all of my expectations. I felt like I was coming into these new powers when I first had the chance to edit, to move the camera, to do stuff like that that you have no ability to do onstage. And yeah, I think I lucked into an amazing group of producers, actors, and technical people, department heads. And I am really excited to do it again. Since I shot Thoroughbreds, I’ve been working mostly on developing film projects. They’re all a little bit too early to discuss, but I’m very excited about some stuff coming up in that world.