Cory Finley's 'Thoroughbreds,' bought by Focus Features at Sundance, is an impeccably designed dark comedy for the ages.
You could describe Cory Finley's Sundance premiere as Heathers meets Cruel Intentions meets The Shining, by way of Equus. Then again, it's none of those—Thoroughbreds its own weird, deliciously dark, feral creature.
It all begins with a horse. Amanda (Olivia Cooke, never better) has brutally euthanized her family's stallion, an act that has rendered her the persona non grata of her wealthy Connecticut suburb. In a half-hearted attempt to rehabilitate her, Amanda's mother sets up her self-described psychopathic daughter—"I have a perfectly fine brain; it just doesn’t contain feelings"—with an estranged childhood friend, Lilly (Anya Taylor-Joy), for tutoring sessions. By all outward appearances, lackadaisical Amanda is the antithesis of Lilly, a poised, repressed Andover student who glides around her ostentatious mansion with the intentionality of a real estate agent. What's more, Lilly is threatened by Amanda's deadpan straight-talking and apparent disregard for convention. But, after hurling some verbal grenades at one another to test the waters, they discover that they are more alike than either would like to admit.
"Reading the original play, it was luscious and intelligent and witty, and the characters were just so complex—they had all of these undercurrents going on."
Finley, who has a background as a playwright, has designed a sleek, self-sustained neo-noir universe in his feature debut, ruled by cunning teenage girls whose nihilism is only outdone by their powers of manipulation. Amanda and Lilly sling words like guns—and, eventually, they sling guns, too, as the dark comedy lurches into uncharted (and nefarious) territory.
Thoroughbreds' stars are no strangers to Sundance; Anya Taylor-Joy starred in the festival's 2015 breakout The Witch, while Cooke stole the show in that year's biggest Sundance buy, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. At the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Taylor-Joy told No Film School that she and Cooke were initially taken by Finley's gift for dialogue. Many scenes in the script were five-page tête-à-têtes, which gave the actors ample opportunity to exercise their range.
"Reading the original play, it was luscious and intelligent and witty, and the characters were just so complex—they had all of these undercurrents going on," said Taylor-Joy.
"And note that Corey was 27 when he wrote these very in-depth teenage girl characters," added Cooke.
The characters and the camera are snakelike; the incredibly talented Lyle Vincent's Steadicam shots slink through the mansion and prey upon the girls' faces, which contain multitudes. Although Cooke insisted she "never thinks about what my face is doing in the scene," Taylor-Joy admitted that she and Cooke "became like serpents—she would move, and then I would move instantly."
In addition to the girls' stellar performances, Thoroughbred also features Anton Yelchin in his final role before he was tragically killed in a freak accident last summer. "I think it's undeniable that he is absolutely fantastic in this role, and he elevated it to something," said Taylor-Joy. "I mean if you read the script, a lesser actor would have taken it and created a too-obvious character. Anton brought everything to it. We're incredibly proud and humbled to have been able to experience that with him. He [was] an amazing man."
No Film School sat down with Finley to further discuss the film's taut atmosphere, the risks he took to pull off the dark comedic tone, and more.
"We all just believed in going for the boldest version of every moment in the script."
No Film School: How did you make the transition from theater to screen?
Cory Finley: I've been working in New York as a playwright for the last five years and have had plays produced Off-Off-Broadway—sometimes Off-Off-Off Broadway. Earlier this year, I wrote a play called Thoroughbred. I started realizing, as I was writing it, that certain aspects would really work better cinematically.
Just at that time, I was starting to do the classic round of general meetings in LA—the "water bottle tour," as they call it—and I was really lucky to get connected with Alex Saks, June Pictures, and several other collaborators. They were excited about the play and were very supportive of me adapting it as a film.
NFS: What was the process of turning Thoroughbreds into a screenplay, in terms of infusing the script with cinematic elements?
Finley: As a play, it's almost all dialogue scenes. There were a few dialogue scenes that I decided early on were the set pieces, the key dialogue moments. So I kept those intact, shortened them, sometimes rewrote them just to make them work better in close-ups and film coverage. Then I tried to fill in everything in between with as much pure visual storytelling as possible. I built out a few of the other characters who had been smaller characters in the play.
I was really lucky to work with Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who are amazing screenwriters and directors themselves. They pointed me in the right direction.
NFS: Your tone was very strong—the visuals, dialogue, pacing, and music worked together to create this drama-meets-horror feel. It almost reminded me of Krisha. Was this tone part of your initial vision? How did you develop it?
Finley: I love that movie. I'm very flattered to be compared to Krisha. It was one of my favorite movies of last year.
This whole movie takes place in a big mansion; on stage, you're just looking at one room of the mansion. I knew that I wanted to use the rest of the mansion as fully as possible when turning it into a film, so I thought a lot about The Shining— the way that movie takes you through every nook and cranny of the Overlook and builds so much mood and tone through architecture.
Lyle Vincent, the cinematographer, had some great ideas, and it was a very fruitful collaboration as far as finding camera movement that kept the story from getting too static and feeling like just a filmed play.
"That was the big learning process for me: how much you can let the audience fill in."
NFS: The cinematography was absolutely incredible. It really solidifies that creepy, snakelike tone. How did you develop the visual style with Lyle?
Finley: We talked about it a lot. I was really impressed with his work, but what sealed the deal for me—what made me want to work with him—was sitting down and talking about the story. He got the story. He was excited by the story, and he was immediately thinking about ways that the visual world of film could express that story and could put us in the characters' heads. He's very good at beautiful, slightly larger than life, dreamlike lighting. He's also good at very subtle stuff. Together, I think we tried to come up with little framing choices that weren't necessarily splashy or exciting, but would subtly add a layer of complexity to a scene, or add to a subliminal tone to a scene.
NFS: There was a lot of short siding, which is unsettling and visually interesting.
Finley: I like short siding. You wanna use it for specific psychological reasons and we always tried to. There's something disorienting about your eyes flipping from side to side of a screen in a pattern that is opposite of the one you usually do.
"I always write toward things that make me nervous or uncomfortable or afraid—images that I don't fully understand, that feel creepy in the way that a nightmare feels creepy."
NFS: Some of my favorite moments were when characters weren't speaking at all; they were just looking at each other or we were just looking at them.
Finley: Totally. One of my playwriting heroes is Harold Pinter. He's very famous for his innovation about silences and all the things he'd do with pauses and silences on stage. I think they can be super effective onscreen, as well. Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy have such incredibly controlled and expressive faces. In the edit, it was really fun to figure out where we could cut dialogue even further and let the silence and their eyes tell the story. It was really liberating and fun to be able to cut whole sections in the edit and to cherry pick, to take some of the air out of scenes.
NFS: Because it also shows you that your film is working. You don't need so much exposition to get to the core emotional state. You're already there.
Finley: Totally. That was the big learning process for me: how much you can let the audience fill in. If you give the audience just enough to begin to follow what's going on, the ambiguity of just watching a face and putting emotions you imagine on that face can be very satisfying.
NFS: What about the dark comedic aspects of the tone?
Finley: When you're developing a play—because you do a lot of workshops and reading that are filled with friends—the way you know a line is working is if it gets a laugh. I've started to write in playwriting subconsciously for laughs—not cheap laughs, but you want every line, which usually just a revelation of information or a character changing their attitude, to have a little bit of wit built in.
I always pitched this to people as a dark comedy. People have a hard time believing that, sometimes even [after] reading the script. A lot of the comedy just came from those amazing performances and in the edit. The little micro-second adjustments give you an enormous amount of comedy.
NFS: What was the original seed of the story? Was there a first image?
Finley: That's a good question. I wrote it really fast as a screenplay and wrote it very slowly as a play. It went through a lot of very strange forms over the course of several years. It had different protagonists in the beginning, but the same setting.
The first image would probably be a spoiler—it has to do with a horse. I always write toward things that make me a little nervous or uncomfortable or afraid. Images that I don't fully understand, that feel creepy in the way that a nightmare feels creepy. I don't always understand why it's creeping me out yet. I'll start with that, fill in characters around it, and investigate whatever that impulse was.
NFS: Does the horse take on any metaphorical meaning for you? For me, watching it as an audience member, it's similar to the function in Equus; there's this embodiment of ultimate primal power.
Finley: Yeah. I hope it can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I love Equus, another great dramatic classic. I was certainly interested in the image of a horse as a really powerful, impressive, primal force that has metal shoes put on its feet and a bridle put around its neck and is domesticated and put in the homes of the very wealthy. There was just something loaded and interesting about the image. I don't know—it was also just a horse.
"If you give the audience just enough to begin to follow what's going on, the ambiguity of just watching a face can be very satisfying."
NFS: Sometimes a horse is just a horse. When you look back on production, were there some scenes that were incredibly difficult to pull off?
Finley: One of the most complicated scenes was a long, single-take dialogue scene with the two lead characters moving through different parts of a cellar. The cameras moves through a very a narrow doorway at one point. Someone closed that door right before we were gonna shoot that scene, and it mysteriously locked. It was not a normal door; it was a like a safe door. A very, very serious lock. We spent a couple of hours trying to unlock it. It was the middle of the night. We finally woke up a locksmith and he came in with this enormous drill and drilled a hole in the door and popped the lock through. Finally, we got the shot, but we did wait around for about two and half hours.
That being said, that was one of the splashy long takes, but I think the hardest.... A friend said something very wise to me: the scenes that are the hardest to shoot are the ones that you don't think are going to be particularly hard, therefore you don't plan for in the right way. Some of the shots that just give us boring logistical nightmares were things that did not show up on our radar as things we thought would be difficult.
NFS: These two characters are quite complicated women. What kind of conversations do you have with Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy in terms of the nuances of each of their characters?
Finley: We were lucky to get a little bit of rehearsal time. Not much, but a couple full days. We sat down with the scripts. We put anything on its feet; we just read through and talked and designed the characters' backstories together. I'd made a placeholder for all of the given circumstances when writing it, but I wanted to make sure we all had ownership over the characters' histories.
The film takes some strange turns and we had a lot of conversations about the motivations for each of those. In a couple instances, I made script changes based on the actor's thoughts. I think that's an important part of the process. They're the ones really creating the characters. You write out the blueprint for them, but the actors make the character.
NFS: Somehow, the strange turns work. If you described the synopsis of Thoroughbreds to someone plot point by plot point, you wouldn't think it would work, but everything comes together in the world of the film. Were you ever scared that the more risky plot decisions wouldn't pan out?
Finley: Oh, constantly. The fear is always there. I think we all just believed in going for the boldest version of every moment in the script. The boldest character choices. We really spent a lot of time trying to anchor them in reality.
In any story, I think, something has to feel true about it for it to work at all, or else it's just randomly arranged images. There's something fun for me about stories that don't feel like you've lived them, that aspire to the quality of myth. Stories that let themselves go to kind of a crazy place. It will be up to each individual viewer whether they buy [the choices we made], but I'm glad we took the bold roads.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. No Film School's video and editorial coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones.