Playwright Cory Finley Shifts to Features with “Thoroughbreds” (Interview)

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Estranged childhood friends from wealthy Connecticut families reunite for a bit of tutoring that turns into plans for murder. That’s the basic (and simplified) premise for Thoroughbreds, the feature directorial debut by , who cut his teeth writing and directing plays in New York before shifting his focus to feature films.

It stars Olivia Cooke (Bates Motel) as Amanda and Anya Taylor-Joy (Split) as Lily, two very different high school seniors who were friends as children but grew apart as they got older. They reunite at the vast mansion in which Lily lives, Amanda’s mother wanting her outcast daughter to get help studying for her PSATs. As they rekindle a long-dormant friendship, things turn darker as Lily propositions they kill her awful stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks).

It’s a very distinctive feature debut by Finley that shows off his skills for language and writing with a very clever (and sometimes even funny) screenplay that could have easily been a stageplay if not for the amazing primary location, the tone created by the two talented young actors and the jarring hard-to-describe score.

Thoroughbreds also marks the final on-screen appearance by actor Anton Yelchin who died in the summer of 2016, shortly after Finley finished filming and before its premiere at Sundance in January 2017.

The Tracking Board got on the phone with Finley a few weeks back for the following interview.

I talked to Anya for Split, which must have been January last year right before Sundance, and she mentioned your movie. She didn’t say much, but it sounded interesting She just said, “I made this really cool movie that’s going to be at Sundance.”

Well, good. Glad she spoke highly of it. Yeah, I remember it was fun that Split, I think was the number one movie in America when we were at Sundance. Like it gave it a nice little boost in profile. I thought that was a great movie. I think she did an amazing in that lead role, co-lead, second lead, whatever you call it with McAvoy.

I don’t know much about this, but Thoroughbreds was a play before you made it into a movie? Did you actually get around to staging the play or did you just decide to go ahead and make a feature first?

Yeah, it’s a good question. It was a play first, and I fully intended to do it as a play, but initially it was almost kind of going around as a writing sample in L.A., as I was the playwright who was interested in finding a number of different sorts of work in the screen world, and I always had this ambition to direct. I saw a very specific way to do it, and I was just really lucky that it mixed a bunch of more kind of general meetings. I met with the producers, that would eventually become the producers for the movie and somehow managed to persuade them that I knew how to direct a movie. We got cast attached while it was still a play, then we quickly adapted it and did it as a movie and never looked back.

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This could have easily been a two-hander of a play, but you made the movie more complicated by filming in a mansion and having all these other locations and fancy cars.

Yeah, exactly. It did make it more complicated. Part of the reason I wanted to do it as a movie was because there was this whole side of the story that I really wanted to flush out that you just can’t really do well on stage. I think this stage story telling is such an amazing thing. You can do so much with so little sometimes and like the economy of it is really beautiful, but as I was writing this, I just started realizing that so much of what I liked about the story. I mean it was certainly sort of rooted in the characters and the way they talked to one other, that there was this whole genre element that I didn’t feel like I could explore as fully on stage as I could on film. There’s even just something about the mood of it and the tone just felt sort of cinematic rather than theatrical. I started seeing even just the dialogue conversations in close-ups and wide-shots and sort of cinema language instead of on a Proscenium stage in my head.

Did you go to film school or have any background in that sort of thing as far as directing or did it just evolve from how you direct a stage play?

Yeah, I didn’t… so I was an English major, and I sort of concentrated in playwriting, which was what we called it. I did it in college and then after college I always was sort of attracted to a kind of theater that had sort of a strong visual dimension of some kind. Even back in college I was in this experimental theater group where we would do installation art type, immersive pieces, or we would cover apartments in tin foil and all sorts of crazy sh*t. I always liked the visual and technical parts of storytelling, but my only film school was watching a lot of movies. Reading books on film, books on directing, listening to director’s commentary on movies. That sort of thing. The rest was just from hiring and working with great department heads and crew members who were sort of excited to collaborate and who I sort of had a common language with.

You mentioned the tone and the genre aspect of the movie. I saw the movie at Sundance last year then saw it again more recently and I forgot how funny the movie was. The movie’s being marketed as a psychological thriller, but in some ways, it’s more of a cutting dark comedy about the type of people who live in Connecticut. Do you personally have a background in Connecticut yourself?

I went to school at Yale in New Haven, but I had some friends that were kind of from that Greenwich-type area. I knew sort of the aesthetic of that world, but I’ve just been living in New York for a long time. I’m from St. Louis, Missouri, but I’ve been living in New York, and I think those outlying areas, Westchester and Connecticut and areas where wealthy New Yorkers often kind of move their families felt like the right place to set this particular story. I imagined that Mark, the stepdad in the movie, maybe has an office in Manhattan somewhere and commutes, but yeah, it just felt like the right quiet sleepy sheltered beautiful place to set this story.

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And then you found that amazing house in which to film it.  I assume all the interiors and exteriors were done in the same place?

It was yeah. We found this amazing house, and we did like 17 of our 22 shooting days in this one house. It was a huge find and it was a really, really long search to find it, because we wanted something very particular. From a technical perspective and from a sort of overall look and feel perspective, we found that in… it’s actually in Massachusetts, so it’s Massachusetts playing Connecticut, and it’s sort of an hour south of Boston. It’s just this little old home with a cool history and then for other locations, they’re all in the area. We did some creative stuff, like the really upscale spa where Anya goes with her mother was a nail salon that we sort of took over and could only shoot from one angle because it was very specifically set up to create the illusion. But yeah, the house was…  it’s become a film cliché, but it was definitely a character in its own right, and its casting was very elaborate.

It’s funny, because that last scene where Anya and Anton meet again, I thought that was shot in the place I literally lived in Connecticut, so your ruse worked.

Oh, good. Fantastic. I love that. I think that was Wellesley, Massachusetts actually, and we just found the one block for the two or three angles we needed, looked like a Connecticut block and sort of block out anything that looked too not Connecticut and then put our own pedestrians on the street and all that sort of thing.

What about the two actors? The way you talk about the casting, it seems like they just kind of fell into it, but these are two of possibly the hottest two young actresses working right now. Anya was coming off The Witch, and Olivia was coming off Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Was there any decision which actor would play which character?

I’ve also wondered what it would be like with the roles reversed, because they are very different roles, but both actors have such kind of versatility and I think could play either role. That would be a very different interesting movie to see Anya’s Amanda and Olivia as Lily. Yeah, I was just a huge fan of both of theirs for the movies that you mentioned and some of their other work, although I think The Witch was just coming out when we were casting. That was sort of Anya’s big first feature, but I always thought they were amazing. I knew that we needed actors that were… I guess the most important quality was just that they could make you a little bit scared of them. Not scared. They had a fundamental credibility that they were potentially capable of dark things, that they were very, very intelligent, both of them, and I just thought from both of their past work, they’ve really shown both of those things on stage. We just reached out, and they were direct offers. They didn’t read or anything like that and we were super-lucky with both of them coming on board. They were our top two choices and both of them coming on board, that’s what made the movie happen.

Were you able to do a lot of rehearsal before you got to location to see how they would work together? I’d imagine coming from a stage background, that would be important.

Yeah, we did a little, and I definitely didn’t want to rehearse anything like the amount that you rehearse for a play. That they get such a different process for actors and you want to leave some of the emotional discovery for the moment that they’re first on-set in the costume with the other actor, all of that, but we did do what I call in theater “table work” where we just sat around a table with a script and almost talked through the script as much as we did sort of act it out. We read through some scenes just to kind of hear what was natural in the way they spoke and to almost just make changes to the lines as much as anything, to sort of fit the script to their particular voices. Then to talk through their relationships and figure out what we could improve about the script and answer any questions to get on the same page about what these moments meant. We still wanted the way they unfolded to be kind of spontaneous on the day. I think they were both into that idea, and I certainly wanted to let them have that.

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Of course, the saddest part of the movie is that you were able to get Anton at the height of his , but then he died before the movie even played at Sundance. How long did you have him on set to do his scenes?

We had him I think…  I forget the total number of days. I think he only shot for something like four days. It was a pretty short shoot altogether and his pieces were pretty compressed. I think he was on set for sort separate chunks of time, but he also hung around sort of in between just to spend time with us after the shoots and all that, and he was just absolutely the loveliest guy to work with and the loveliest guy to know. It is certainly a tragic circumstance, but we were all just really lucky that we had that opportunity.

I have to ask about the music because the music is so interesting but also so disconcerting because it’s percussion and scratched strings, so what led to the decision to make the soundtrack so interesting, but then when Anton shows up at the Mansion, you used “Ave Maria” which might be the only melodic part of the soundtrack.

Glad you enjoyed that. The composer is a guy named Erik Friedlander, who is sort of a avant-garde, like jazz, classical intersection improviser sort of guy. He’s like a virtuoso cello player, so a lot of what you hear, including what you wouldn’t necessarily think is a cello, is his playing and then he also had a couple amazing collaborators, essentially like a small chamber ensemble that scored most of the movie. I think the idea there was that it’s such a sort of slick looking-movie by design and Lyle Vincent, who shot it, is just brilliant at many things including making really beautiful appealing images. That’s what we wanted for the look of the movie, but I also didn’t want it to be overly sort of seductive or classically beautiful or anything like that. For me, the score and then all the kind of sound work in the movie in general is kind of a counterpoint to the visual beauty of it all.

The movie has been done since Sundance last year, so any idea what you want to do next? Are you getting a lot of scripts? Are you writing a lot of scripts or what’s kind of the next step?

Yeah, I have several different projects that are in the works that I don’t think I’m allowed to speak on publicly yet, sadly.  I will say I’m definitely interested in continuing to do stories that have some sort of a foot in genre. You talked about how it was sort of like a psychological thriller with comic elements, and I think those sort of dynamic genre mixes and movies that are able to keep you guessing moment to moment about the genre of the movie are really attractive to me. Then always sort of character-driven stories and stories that deal with language I think are always going to be interesting to me as a playwright. But yes, hopefully I’ll be able to say more publicly soon, but there’s certainly a couple different things brewing.

Thoroughbreds opens on Friday, March 9.

  | East Coast Editor
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