Interview: Director Cory Finley and Actress Anya Taylor-Joy on Thoroughbreds

by Gordon Elgart on March 9, 2018

 Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy play a kind of chess in Thoroughbreds, Cory Finley’s new film.

Cory Finley’s debut feature, Thoroughbreds, has many signs that point to a promising career in film. His dialogue is often whip-smart, crackling along at a fast pace. He has scenes of incredible tension realized in interestingly new yet classic style. He’s got a knack for casting, and clearly has a way with actors, as his small ensemble performs the heck out of the material. There’s so much to like about this movie, yet it left me with so many questions about its history and its themes. Lucky for me, director Cory Finley and star Anya Taylor-Joy were in town to talk about the film, and I was able to sit down with them to discuss this fun and tense film.

SP: When I saw this film, I had no idea it was based on a play, and then I watched it and talked to my friend, and I said, “I think that was based on a play.” I think there were two things that stood out. One is sort of just the conservation of characters. I was really surprised that we met the moms at all. I thought that we were going to get through the whole film without the moms. Were the moms in the play?

Cory: No, the moms aren’t in the play at all. The play is almost exclusively the two lead characters. Mark, the stepfather, comes on stage a handful of times. And then Tim is there for one scene, sort of a cameo, and part of the desire to turn it into a film was to expand that scope, and particularly flesh out Tim, because there was no way, staying in the house, to give his character the larger scope he eventually had.

SP: And has this has been produced as a play by now?

Cory: It has not. It’s been an interesting quirk of how it came together; toward the late stages of writing, I became really determined to make it as a movie. And it came together remarkably fast, given how long most independent films take to reach production. So yes, the film version beat the play version to reality.

SP: It seems that it would be easier to produce a play.

Cory: You would think! And it probably was. But I think that the narrow window of opportunity to do it as a film started to open itself up, and I reached in with both hands and ripped that window of opportunity open. I think I’m mixing my metaphors.

Anya: I liked it.

Cory: You get the idea.

SP: It’s your first film, so people are really taking a chance on you, right?

Cory: Very much taking a chance, yeah. And I was really lucky to have very good veteran producers, an amazing cast, and amazing technical collaborators. I was lucky to work with a veteran team.

Anya: Putting a footnote in that one: reading the script and speaking to Cory, you weren’t taking a chance. You knew exactly that he was incredibly talented, and he knew what he wanted. I can honestly speak for everyone from the film and from the production side of things that we were just all incredibly excited to be part of Cory’s debut. He’s awesome.

SP: For you, Anya: I’m going to say — and you can correct me if I’m wrong — but if you look at your filmography, this is the first film you’ve done that you could even remotely call a comedy. Is that accurate?

Anya: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

SP: And was that part of wanting to do it? Was it moving in that direction?

Anya: Dude, it’s so weird. People love to put people in boxes, but I just don’t see myself in that capacity ever. I wouldn’t turn down a role that I really wanted to play because the world is trying to put me in a horror box. It just so happens that I read a script that I love, and I love the character, and I really want to play it. I’m such an instinct-based person in general in my life that I don’t make choices to try and eschew images.

SP: So there are a couple of things I thought that seemed very theatrical about this movie, and that are really different for films, or a couple scenes where there was a lot of — I guess I would say — offstage action, off-camera action — specifically the rowing machine noises, and then that scene where Anton Yelchin’s character comes to kill the stepfather… but just the way the lighting and sound works in that scene. Are those things that you really learn from writing plays to use that way? Or did those ideas come from watching films?

Cory: I think to some degree. I think there’s a very proud cinematic tradition of the magician hiding the machinery of the trick. I think of Jurassic Park, where the glass of water is vibrating as the T-Rex approaches. I guess that’s a bad analogy because then you see the T-Rex in all its monstrous glory. I just love a tension state. It’s the state that makes an audience the most awake and most receptive and most invested. And I think one of the goals with this movie is just to prolong that tension state as long as possible, and to milk it for fear and freakiness, and to milk it for an anxious type of comedy. But yes, some of that instinct to keep things off screen or off camera certainly came from the stage. But I do like things that way.

SP: I thought the film had this rubber-band time quality where it would move very quickly, and then a scene would take time, very slowly. So some of the exposition felt like it was just happening very fast, and it was all happening faster than in other movies where they may take time to explain more, and then you’d have these nice really long scenes, like the scene where Olivia Cooke walks around the house in the beginning that sets the stage, and she’s looking around — those kinds of things are very slow, and then it would be this quick dialogue.

Cory: I love that pace. Yeah, a very conscious choice. I think we’re all such sophisticated moviegoers. I think we all see so many movies — some of us more than others — but we’re so used to particular rhythms from movies. I think it’s fun to play with that rhythm, and just to hopefully create a story that sort of moves differently from what you’re used to.

SP: Did you put that in the script, or is that something that came out afterward?

Anya: No, I think I think it was there in the script, because whenever there was a dialogue-heavy scene, reading it, you could only imagine it in that sort of quick-fire way, and that means that when Olivia and I were playing around with it whenever we decided to drop in a beat, it had to be a very deliberate one, because otherwise, we weren’t going to keep the same tempo. But I think when watching the film, that actually makes you appreciate the moments of dialogue more because you have all of this time stretched out where you get a bit overwhelmed, and so many images are coming at you, and then all of a sudden it’s rapid-fire dialogue. I think it keeps you awake and keeps on your toes.

SP: Yeah, there’s a moment where the dialogue just stops, like in that one shot that’s my favorite: you’re talking downstairs in the bar, and she suggests murder, and you just take that step back — you step back.

Anya: The step back and the look down; I felt so bitchy I loved it.

SP: So you’ve finished this film a while ago, and you’ve been showing it for almost a year now. Is there something about that that you think, “I can’t believe I didn’t do that” or you would change?

Cory: When I watch it — and I seem to make the mental decision early on — I either take issue with everything and wish I’d cut at different places in every conceivable cut, and wish I’d chosen different moments. Or I just let it flow over me, and it feels like the work of someone else, and it feels distant enough that I can just kind of enjoy it and not in a distanced way, and I certainly prefer the latter. And the further I get away from the making of it, the more I’m able to just embrace the flow of it.

SP: You don’t see yourself becoming one of those filmmakers who never watches your own work?

Cory: I have not watched it much lately. I will watch it when I have a friend who’s seeing it for the first time or something like that. It could be a fun experience, but generally, I like not to keep revisiting it over and over again.

SP: Thematically, a lot of the talk is about how this really is about class, but one thing I noticed about it is that it’s more like class within class, because all the characters are wealthy. Were you looking at the high expectations that come from wealth, because your character, Anya, specifically has these very high expectations, which is why you do some of the things you do. And one thing I was thinking about is this one scene where it almost seems like the stepfather is right and you’re wrong. Is that something that you think was in there intentionally?

 Cory: Yeah, I definitely wanted the movie to put you as the audience in an interesting position of understanding the characters as much as possible — kind of investing in them, and hopefully sometimes rooting for them, but also to keep a little bit of critical distance and sort of a satirical distance. And to think critically about some of the forces shaping the characters and to laugh at some of the more ridiculous elements of their lives. I think that’s my favorite position for an audience to be.

SP: (To Anya) So do you think the stepfather was right?

Anya:  I think — well, as Lily, obviously no — I think what Cory did that’s really cool, and, actually, I see more of it now, because he’s right; there is something that happens when you have a distance from playing it all the time. When you’re playing a character, I personally believe that you have to completely invest in everything that they’re doing, and you have to love them and that they are correct in your mind. And it’s only with distance from the film that I’m watching it. He’s not — not all of it’s off. And you can you can see it from both sides of the coin. But you can say that for all of the characters. Amanda has no feelings whatsoever, but also technically has more of a code of right and wrong than Lily does, and Anton is very empathetic. You really empathize with him, and he’s very vulnerable, but he’s also done some really messed up stuff. And so it’s interesting to have characters that you feel morally ambiguous about.

SP: I thought Paul Sparks as the stepfather was fantastic. I was wondering where I had seen him before, and I can’t believe it’s the same guy who was the writer on House of Cards?

Cory: Yeah the man’s got range. He’s done a lot of amazing roles. Absolutely.

SP: About the movies that are being watched on television: I wonder if those movies are in the script or were they what you could clear?

Cory: They were not in the script. It was a combination of what we can clear, and what felt thematically right for the moment. The first one is called DOA. It’s an old, fun, crazy film noir. And then the second one is a Shirley Temple movie called The Little Princess.

Thanks again to Cory Finley and Anya Taylor-Joy for talking with us about Thoroughbreds, which opens today, March 9, in Bay Area theaters. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Gordon Elgart

A music nerd who probably uses that term too much. I have a deep love for bombastic, quirky and dynamic music.

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