Meet the Mind behind Thoroughbreds

A Q&A with the filmmaker Cory Finley about his stunning debut feature

Focus Features 10.11.2017

In Thoroughbreds, writer/director Cory Finley mixes suspense and satire to tell a chilling tale of bad intentions in the blue-blood world of Connecticut’s wealthy upper crust. When the sharp-tongued Amanda (Olivia Cooke) reconnects with her childhood friend, the perfectly turned-out Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy)—ostensibly to help with a college prep test––it becomes clear that something else is afoot. As the girls bond over their contempt for Lily’s oppressive stepfather, they conspire with a local bad boy, Tim (Anton Yelchin), to carry out a nefarious plot.

Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, Thoroughbreds was an immediate hit. thought it “might be the most finely-tuned film of Sundance 2017—a puzzle of a film in which every piece fits perfectly.”  We talk with Finley about moving from theater to film, his break-out stars, and why he’s excited about the film’s trailer. 

Official Teaser Trailer: Thoroughbreds

Thoroughbreds writer/director Cory Finley

Where did the story of these two captivating characters come from?

It started as a stage play, an ensemble piece about a dysfunctional family in Connecticut. Initially I was just interested in working in the great American playwriting tradition of the screwed-up family drama, but there was one character, the daughter—who would become Lily––that I was drawn to. A perfect exterior with something dark hidden deep inside. I decided to start over and focus only on her and her relation to her friend, who became Amanda. Thematically, the work started with me taking a hard look at my own morality. I wanted to explore the relationship between moral instincts and one’s ability to be a good person. 

And to take that to the extreme?

Absolutely. The extreme is where you find the most interesting revelations.

You are quite acclaimed as a playwright. So it’s remarkable how visual and cinematic your first film Thoroughbreds is. 

I had a great partnership with the cinematographer Lyle Vincent in devising the look of the movie. I think it actually helped that I was adapting my play, because one of my goals was to make it really cinematic. I challenged myself to create as many moments as possible that worked purely visually. In addition, we spent a lot of time finding the right location. Casting the house was almost as critical as casting any of the characters. 

Were there any films in particular that influenced you? 

The Shining is one of my all-time favorites––a very different movie tonally, but I loved the way it used a Steadicam throughout and the mileage it got out of its setting. The geography of the Overlook Hotel becomes like the geography of the characters. I was also influenced by a lot of the classic film noirs, like Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Strangers on a Train––stories of characters thrown together and plotting murder in geographically limited spaces. While I was writing, I let the patter of those films influence the rhythm of my dialogue.  

Anya Taylor-Joy as Lily and Anton Yelchin as Tim in Thoroughbreds. Photo: Claire Folger

You’ve set your thriller in the rarefied sphere of privilege and wealth. Do you have a connection to that world?

I grew up in St. Louis, which is a very different world from that upper class area of Connecticut. But I had friends in high school and college who came from places like that. As a writer, consciously or not, I am always looking for tension. And there is something about this very repressed waspy culture that naturally fosters tension. I like the idea of a wild, slightly unhinged story taking place in such an upper-class environment. 

Both Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy are sensational in the film. How did you cast them? 

We were very fortunate. They were both our top choices and they both said yes. I had seen Olivia in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, as well as Bates Motel and The Signal. For Amanda, we needed an actor who could get a lot of mileage out of a deadpan. I love Olivia's timing and her ability to generate comedy with the flatness of her delivery. When we first reached out to Anya, I had only seen The Witch. Even though it was an incredibly different role in what could not be a more different time and place, I was just blown away by her range and her ability to hold your attention. 

Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Lily and Olivia Cooke as Amanda in Thoroughbreds. Photo: Claire Folger 

The film was a big hit at the Sundance Film Festival. How did that feel?

At the very first screening, I was so filled with anxiety that I barely registered how it played. It wasn’t until several hours afterwards talking with the cast and producers that I realized how much people really enjoyed it. I was really pleased that it got laughs. It is a testament to the actors’ performances and their timing that the comedy comes through as well as the suspense. 

How do you feel the trailer sets up the film? 

I love this trailer. It introduces people to the characters, but leaves as many questions as it answers. I think this trailer does a great job of capturing the excitement and the high energy of the movie. I hope it gets people excited to check it out. 

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