Cory Finley is a director whose work stimulates conversation. Or at least it did during a late-night screening at AFI Fest of his feature Thoroughbreds back in November. Now set for release on March 9th, Finley’s dark, polished high school film defies categorization. At times it hearkens back to the world of film noir, and at others it’s a blend of black comedy and cynical drama. Regardless, it’s a conversation starter. Finley sat down with The Young Folks to chat about his new film, how it fits into our cultural discussions about youth and violence, and more.
NOTE: Mild spoilers ahead.
I actually got to see you introduce this at AFI Fest in November.
Oh, brilliant. That was one of the fun ones.
What’s this journey been like for you going from where it started, to AFI Fest, and now seeing release? I’m assuming you’re getting sleep?
I am. It’s been nice because there was a long lead-up from Sundance to now. I have done a lot of press and festival dates, but they’ve been nicely spread out. It’s mostly been a fall latecomer where I got to do some extra travel; I’m a little bit of a homebody so it’s a good excuse to get out of New York. It’s been really great and it’s a fun movie to see different crowd reactions to. People take the tone very different ways, which is one of the joys of it. I stopped sitting through and watching it a little while ago, but even hearing the way people react to the ending is always fun.
This has been compared to Heavenly Creatures and Heathers which are highly divergent in terms of tone. Were you aiming for any intentional homages?
I’m flattered by the comparisons. I think they’re both amazing movies. I finally rewatched Heathers. I saw it early in high school and it was way crazier, both plot wise and visually, than I remembered. That is an out there movie. And it’s a very different tone from this one, but I get where the point of comparison comes from; the murdering, wealthy teen is a pretty clear uniting principle. I definitely wasn’t shooting for any particular movie. It started as a play and it took a meandering path to the shape it ultimately took. It started with some abstract images and some rough ideas of characters who were defined by these unusual moral codes. The ultimate shape of a psychological thriller took a long time to emerge, and there are some pretty dissimilar drafts floating around my computer that were nothing like Heathers. It’s cool to see this included in that subgenre.
What a lot of people gravitate towards is the film’s timelessness. How did you approach this aesthetically?
We definitely wanted it to feel, in some ways specific to this particular time, but not like a 2016 movie [at the time of shooting]. It would have already been dated if it felt like a 2016 movie! I think often teen movies have a lot of Twitter jokes and snappy pop culture references which we wanted to avoid. In writing and shot listing it I wanted as few insert shots of cell phones or screens as possible, that gives it a little bit of a timeless feel. Even with the shows they’re watching on TV we decided early on to have those be older noir and Shirley Temple movies to give it a little bit of that trippy timelessness. I wanted it to feel like they were characters who lived in today’s culture and talked like people who are around today, but I wanted the movie to feel in conversation with older movies and noir classics.
I’m a classic film girl so I loved those connections!
I don’t think anyone has yet, but did you recognize the movie that’s on the screen with the crying lady at the beginning?
If you asked me in November I’d have known right away.
I’ll be honest, I hadn’t heard of this movie before, but it’s called D.O.A.
I feel terrible now because I know that movie.
It’s a cool, crazy, weird movie. I don’t think anyone has passed that test yet.
You mentioned the central conceit was asking whether a lack of emotions makes you a bad person or not. But I think this is even more poignant considering your leads are women and how society responds to them regarding empathy. Was that something you were hoping to explore?
I definitely thought [about] that. When I first chose the gender of the leads I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it that well. But I think there was something interesting and different about these moral codes and characters and positions being taken by women, by young women. There was a really early version where Amanda’s character (played by Olivia Cooke) was a guy. On a whim I switched the genders and said, “What if this was an estranged, weirdo friend?” And something just started clicking. Some of what you were getting at about cultural expectations of women, which is something I know from my sister and my girlfriend and my female friends, there’s something very loaded and specific about teenage female friendships that’s very tense. Certainly the femme fatale is a well-worn noir trope, and I think there’s a lot that’s so cool and juicy about those characters. They’re oversexualized by the camera and they use their sexuality as a weapon in those movies in a way that feels male-generated. So there was something appealing to me about those characters who had some of those classic film noir, femme fatale characteristics, but were not defined in the movie by their relationship to men.
What’s great is they’re not chasing boys, and the men are either inept, like the Anton Yelchin character, or Lily’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) dad who is perceived as controlling. Can you speak to that?
I have a bad tendency as a writer – all my characters are too dark and unpleasant and messed up in the first draft. I have to gradually concede positive qualities to them, so that maybe is one of the reasons the male characters are that way. I knew that to be able to invest in these characters we needed a villain, if you can call Mark that – the Paul Sparks character – who we hate in a knee-jerk way, and hopefully our sense of him gets a little more complex as the movie goes on. With Anton’s character I wanted him to seem like the most morally bankrupt character in the world when you’re introduced to him, but to become the most sympathetic as the movie goes on. I like when you can take a character from point A to point B and the two points are very far away.
This is even timelier with Thoroughbreds‘ look at class and gender. How do you hope the film resonates with where we are culturally?
It’s been interesting because we premiered a year ago and we shot close to two years ago…
It feels like a different lifetime!
Oh, my God, yeah. Certainly a vastly different political climate. None of the problems that were present in 2016 have gone away, but there’s a deepening of other ones. I wanted a movie that raised a whole bunch of questions and made interesting juxtapositions of ideas and didn’t have a preachy message. I wanted the experience of watching the movie to be thinking your way through the multiple angles on different concepts. It is a very violent story. One of the interesting things about wealth is when you experience it, it feels soft and lovely and quiet and comfortable, but there’s always an invisible violence supporting wealth built on someone else’s back. I didn’t want it to be a graphically violent movie visually for a lot of reasons, but partly because I have very little stomach for those things myself.
You mentioned earlier drafts that were darker. I’m assuming your squeamishness explains why the crime the two ladies commit is shown off-camera, but was there a draft that had more violence in it?
The ending was always that way. I thought a little bit more – and this is all spoiler territory – the other graphically described violent act in the movie that Olivia’s character describes on the chessboard – everyone’s question when I was describing the play and adapting the screenplay, they said “are you gonna show the horse getting killed?”
People are always more affected by animal death than human death.
Which is partly the extension of that funny thing where every time the dog dies that’s so much more traumatic, which I totally think is okay. We just have a different emotional response to animal death than human death. Early on I knew I didn’t want to show that, partly because this story working is so dependent on the tone being really particular. As soon as you show some of these acts on-screen you really risk going into more of a midnight movie, crazy screwball genre sort of tone. A little bit more of that Heathers tone, frankly. I think there is a place for that, and I love some movies like that. Whenever we were discussing violence on-screen I wanted to stay with the character who is ultimately affected emotionally by the violence. At the end the hope is we’re staying on Amanda because that’s the relationship, and the breaking of the relationship, at that moment, is what we’re invested in more than the specifics of what’s going on upstairs.
You mentioned Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy were your first choices. What was the atmosphere working with them? The vocal cadences they have seem like they needed to be shaped.
Totally! We always tried to keep discussion about the character, everything we’d say or decide in the group motivated by the characters rather than saying we want it to feel this way because we want the movie to have a certain tone. I think even if actors are aware of shooting for a particular tone in the movie it’s not conducive to good acting to be thinking about the final product every moment as you’re trying to feel something. We talked a lot about the characters’ backstory and discussed the thinking in each of the moments, what was going on. On-set we just tried a lot of different things, and I think they were both amazing collaborators and really excited to explore the material. Hopefully all of us had very little ego on-set and we worked together. We all could feel when we found a vibe for any given scene that worked, and we could feel when we were on the same page and in the same world. That was one of the real joys of working with them.
It’s probably far too early to discuss what comes next, but is there a genre you’d love to dabble in after this? Do you feel the need to cleanse the palate after a dark story?
I’m definitely thinking very carefully about the next move, and I have a couple different projects at various stages of development. I don’t think I’ll ever do anything that’s broad comedy or straight-up drama without any sort of a genre angle. I’m always interested in stuff that mashes up genres and stuff that has some kind of strain of dark humor. I’m definitely interested in telling stories that have a little more scope and size, and I probably won’t do another one location movie next (although this had a few other locations). I’m definitely interested in unusual characters and movies that are really concerned, above all else, with those characters, exploring those characters and the way they change. It’s funny, I was talking so much about tone, but I guess in deciding what to write or work on next I don’t think, at the outset, about tone. I think about character and world, and then I let those things dictate the tone. It’s a very vague answer to that question!
The last question I have is also spoilery. The final moment had my audience in November shocked because evil triumphs. Was there ever an ending with everyone getting their comeuppance?
Yeah, there kind of was. I experimented with a bunch of different endings and the version that made it to the movie was my first impulse. I did question just how intense a choice it is, and how blunt a choice it is. I played with a bunch of other things and I think that just felt truest to me and that story and those characters. I do love an ending that makes people talk and disagree, even if not everyone gets on-board. I love that there’s been discussion about that, and people debate whether she actually read the letter or not.
Thoroughbreds is in theaters March 9th.