Before writing and directing Thoroughbreds, 28-year-old Cory Finley had never worked on a movie before. It’s an auspicious start. The playwright’s cinematic debut—a twisted thriller about two privileged Connecticut girls who conspire to kill one’s stepfather—earned rave reviews when it first premiered at Sundance and comparisons that ranged from Hitchcock to Heathers.
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) and Olivia Cooke (Ready Player One) and featuring the final performance of late actor Anton Yelchin, Thoroughbreds is like a French macaron laced with rat-poison. At some points, it’s obvious the movie began its life as a play—information is purposefully withheld and slowly unfurled, time skips forward, dialogue is crisp and comprehensive. But it’s also startlingly obvious that Finley is a director with vision, who understands how the sound of an ergometer machine can portend insanity, and how privilege can make monsters.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So there’s another very famous play, about a teen committing violence against a horse. As you were writing Thoroughbreds, was that in your mind?
CORY FINLEY: It was not, consciously! The comparison was made to me later, I think actually once it became a movie. I don’t think anyone mentioned it when it was a play. And I was like, “Of course! That’s the iconic horse-violence story!” so I’m sure it was rattling around in my subconscious somewhere, but that and the most common other point of comparison is Heathers—neither were deliberate influences. I was more riffing on classic film noir.
With regards to Heathers—I saw so many reviews mentioning it, but I didn’t really see any similarities at all. Is that a comparison you’re happy with?
Well, it’s a comparison that I’m flattered by, because I love that movie and I saw it when I was young, and I think it did expand my sense of how dark you can take teenage material. I think that’s still one of the striking things about it, going back. It’s so not afraid to be icky. But it is a really different tone and a different feel, and I think this one is more a character portrait, whereas that’s more of a satirical statement. So, certainly mixed feelings about the comparison, but always flattered when a movie I appreciate gets cited as a comparison.
When Thoroughbreds was just a play, it took place entirely on Lily’s couch. How did expanding the setting affect the story?
It affected it a lot, and it was kind of the desire to expand beyond the couch that made me want to make it a movie. Certainly, on the simplest level, I just wanted to leave the house for the third chapter of the movie where they get into the murder plotting with Tim, but I also wanted to explore the house as much as possible, and so many movies I love are very contained within a house or space—or hotel—but take a really kinetic approach to exploring the space.
It’s interesting how Tim—a sex offender and would-be drug dealer—becomes sort of an unlikely moral center of the movie.
Absolutely. Flipping audiences’ understanding of characters on their heads is always a fun thing to do. And yeah, it’s just always good to have goodness come from unexpected places. I think it’s more surprising when you find yourself sympathizing with someone you would never expect to. And I think a lot of that is down to Anton’s performance, which really elevated that character.
I’m very grateful that I had an opportunity to work with him; he had such an amazing track record of working with great filmmakers and working on amazing movies, and improving and deepening and enriching everything he was a part of.
Is it accurate to frame this story as a parable about the selfishness, or at least lack of empathy, of the privileged?
I think that’s certainly an element. It’s sort of me wrestling with ideas and my own conflicting thoughts about privilege—that’s how I like to think about it and that’s how I tried to shape the experience for the audience, that it’s not a hard and clear satirical point but more inviting the audience to experience with these characters and be forced to try to understand them, and see them as indicators of larger problems in culture today.
You mentioned your privilege—there are definitely not many twenty-somethings who would get the opportunity to direct their own script on their first feature. How did that come about?
It is a long, and maybe excessive story, exactly how it wound up in the hands of the producers, but initially I had some producers who were excited about the possibility of trying to make it; Olivia and Anya were excited about it and so we had a little momentum there, and we kept pursuing it aggressively, and I put plans to potentially do it as a play on hold, and fully pursued it as a movie, and we were really lucky that it came together. I certainly feel super grateful for the opportunity, and lucky that all of the collaborators I worked with were so wonderful and brought so much to the project.
I think the climax, the scene that features Amanda sleeping on the couch, is certainly my favorite short in the movie, possibly my favorite shot of the year. Can you walk me through how you filmed it?
That’s one of the older ideas in the movie, that scene, and it’s shot and seen exactly as it would have been on stage. It was fundamental to the idea, I think, doing the climax in that way, and a lot of the other choices about what to show and what not to show and how to rely on sound, I think, were reverse engineered from that moment. It’s very theatrical—it’s the one shot where the camera is placed exactly where an audience would be in a theater, but it’s also hopefully very cinematic. Long shots are sort of a great cinematic tradition. The thing that ties everything in that shot together is Anya’s performance, which is really deeply felt and was almost hard to watch on set; she was just really committing to the emotional reality of that moment.
The motif of the ergometer sound is also really important—it sort of sounds like a wet heartbeat, or even maybe horse hooves. What were you going for there?
When we first talked about it, we talked about it as the Tell-Tale Heart, and it was designed in the process of adapting it from play to screen. we wanted a device to really put you in Lily’s experience; one of the big things the movie asks from the audience is to believe that Lily would actually do some of the things she does in the movie. Having the ergometer sound take on this nightmarish quality was important in that. The sound design there was critical; we played with a lot of different layers, bringing in some real ergometer sounds and some strange distortions and pieces of other things, and it took a lot of tries to nail it.
It was like the buttered toast in Phantom Thread.
Love Phantom Thread. And there’s a horse comparison too! “It’s like you just rode a horse across the room,” or whatever that line was that really got me.
The horse is the universal connector!