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Interview: ‘Thoroughbreds’ Writer/Director Cory Finley & Star Anya Taylor-Joy

THOROUGHBREDS

Olivia Cooke stars as Amanda and Anya Taylor-Joy as Lily in Thoroughbreds, a Focus Features release. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

Thoroughbreds is the stylish and darkly comedic new film from writer/director Cory Finley. It’s a strong film directorial debut for the 28-year-old playwright, which has been met with great enthusiasm, and rightly so, since showing at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017.

The story revolves around two estranged childhood friends, Lily and Amanda (played by Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke, respectively), who reunite as teenagers in suburban Connecticut. When audiences first meet the pair, they couldn’t seem more different from one another: Lily is an upper-class boarding school student, whose resume boasts an impressive internship, while Amanda is the current social pariah among their peers. However, throughout the course of the film, the teens bring out unexpected sides of one another as they plot to murder Lily’s stepfather (played by Paul Sparks).

“This movie is, more than anything else, about class—social class—and characters that are enabled and imprisoned by their privilege,” shared Finley, during the film’s recent press stop in San Francisco.

Thoroughbreds also marks one of the final performances of actor Anton Yelchin, who tragically passed away in 2016. Playing Tim, a local drug dealer that aspires to achieve more in life, Yelchin’s charming performance adds a lightness to the cutting discourse between the two leads.

Last month, both Finley and Taylor-Joy sat down for a roundtable interview with Academy Art U News to discuss the making of their new film.

Cory, as a first-time filmmaker, what kind of challenges did you happen upon while making Thoroughbreds, and what was the biggest difference between working on a film production versus working on a stage production?

CF: They’re different in so many ways. And just the shocking one … so with a play, the graph of the number of people involved in a play sort of goes like this, (motioning with his hands to represent growth), larger and larger as you get close to production and when you’re opening the play, you have sort of the most people there. You finally have all your designers and all their work there. All the actors, the costumes and everything is there. And just fundamentally, with a film, there’s like a building up through pre-production. But then you’re kind of thrown into everything fully there. And all of the elements are there, the actors are in costumes for the first time, it’s also the first time that the scene is lit. It’s also the first time that they’re really saying some of these lines; we didn’t do as much rehearsal of all the scenes. It was just a shock. The number of decisions that come at you at once the first day you step on set—that was overwhelming for me. It was just a question of like faking it until I made it, in that regard. It got easier as it went on. But that was pretty shocking.

Anya, I thought there was something a little bit meta about your character. The fact that Lily wants to put on this sort of persona, but then she’s harboring something kind of ugly inside. And as an actor, you play a variety of different characters. Were there some parts of Lily where it was easy to slip into her mindset?

ATJ: This is also going to sound really meta. I always feel like whenever I’m working, I am Anya, I am myself, but I’m also Anya with Lily. So I’m living the person all the time, because you’re literally putting on their skin and their clothes everyday, being them for a certain amount of the day. And then you get to go home. It was strange, because with Lily, it very much came posturally for me, at first. I felt the way that she held her body, and I started holding my body that way all the time, and as the movie progresses, she kind of shrinks down and gets a bit more curved. It felt like it was more of a postural thing, rather than thinking her way. I just felt like I was holding myself that way all the time.

THOROUGHBREDS

Olivia Cooke stars as Amanda and Anya Taylor-Joy as Lily in Thoroughbreds, a Focus Features release. Photo by Claire Folger.

You and Olivia have this sharp, kind of intense back and forth dialogue throughout the course of the film. How did you go about creating the chemistry that we see on the screen and setting the pace and tone?

ATJ: We shot this in 22 days and we were basically together all of the time, because the hotel we were staying at was a three-minute walk away from the house where we shot [the film]. And [Olivia] literally lived above me, so we were together all the time. It’s interesting what Cory was saying about the idea of in a play you have all this rehearsal time, and you have time to get to know each other and try out new things. I almost feel like the first take is rehearsals, rewrites and everything in one. And that’s when you realize, “oh, okay, this is the energy that I’m playing with.” And by the end of the first day, we had spent so many hours talking to each other and hitting back with different energies [that] the relationship was set. We are always together and we are always speaking, and we just fell into the rhythm naturally. Early on in making the movie, we became almost synonymous; she would move, I would move. We were just completely clicked into each other’s tempo and pace, which hopefully you can see onscreen.

I loved how Lily’s home is introduced as the camera follows Amanda around at the top of the film. Being that most of the scenes are spent in this space, how did you go about deciding how to best introduce essentially almost another character to the audience?

CF: A lot of the decisions that I made in adapting the screenplay were made from the sole point of view of making it [as] non-playlike as possible. Having a long, silent opening felt like a strong way to do that. The opening was simply a lot of movement. Sort of pulled it away from staginess. We did want to meet the house in a way that we’d meet a character, and we also wanted to understand Olivia’s character through the way that she looked at things, through the way she experienced things and her stillness and her gaze before she ever says a word. I think that was the very first thing that we shot. I barely remember that whole time, I was just in a fit of fear, but it ended up coming out beautifully.

THOROUGHBREDS

Anton Yelchin stars as Tim in Thoroughbreds, a Focus Features release. Photo by Claire Folger.

Can you talk a little bit about the film’s score and the ideas behind it?

CF: Erik Friedlander, who did the score, is an amazing sort of classical, avant-garde jazz musician, and he works with a really cool extended group of downtown New York classical musicians. And two of them that he wanted to work with for this score, he sort of thought about early on, were a prepared pianist, where you hear a lot of the weird tinkly sounds, and percussionist, who plays a lot of, specifically, big frame drums, which is sort of the crazy sounds you’re hearing. I think early on, I saw music as a way to cut against some of the prettiness of the movie, as we have an amazing cinematographer, Lyle Vincent, who shot this incredibly beautiful movie, but given the message of the story, I didn’t want it to be an overly seductive story. The sort of harsh, jarring score felt like a way to cut against that.

How was the experience of working with Anton Yelchin on the film?

CF: The experience was really amazing. He’s such an incredible actor and such a student of film, as a whole. And from the moment he signed on to the movie, we had a lot of conversations about sort of how this movie fit into the film noir and neo-noir genre and some of the other performances that it brought to mind and the world that it brought to mind. I think those conversations influenced the movie as a whole, not just his piece within it. He was such a brilliant guy, such a deep thinker, but also such a playful, loose, crazy, improvisatory actor. He brought a really wonderful energy that complements the very disciplined, steely energy of the leads in this movie in a lovely way.

THOROUGHBREDS

Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Lily and Anton Yelchin as Tim in Thoroughbreds, a Focus Features release. Photo by Claire Folger.

Being that this was your first film, do you have any advice, or maybe something that you took away from this experience of making your first film, for other aspiring film directors?

CF: There’s a line in the movie that when I see it these days, I think of it as advice to myself. Olivia’s character says something like, “The only thing worse than being incompetent or being evil, or being something else, is being indecisive.” [Laughs] I’ve heard people say if you’re an anxious, uncertain director on set, it’s like people can smell blood in the water. I had amazing collaborators for this one, who were not trying to smell blood in the water. But just pure decisiveness is such an important quality in any director, at any level, I think.

Any advice for aspiring actors?

ATJ: I used to sit in school and Google obsessively “how do people find agents,” because you need to make a movie to get an agent, but then you need an agent to get a movie… It sounds so weird, but my dad always said it to me, just hang around, because usually you end up meeting somebody in that way. I was found [walking my dog] on the street. Go to acting classes, hang around, meet people, keep making stuff, and if you really love it, pursue it with everything you’ve got, because I truly do believe that if you are an actor, if you are an artist and a performer, then you have to do it more than you need to breathe. So keep following that with that passion.

Thoroughbreds is now playing in San Francisco.