How Thoroughbreds Morphed From a Play Into a Movie

The freshman writer-director Cory Finley, along with stars Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Split) and Olivia Cooke (Bates Motel, Ready Player One), recently joined Vulture Insiders for a special screening of their new film Thoroughbreds at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. Following the screening was a conversation between myself and the creative forces of Thoroughbreds about the fraught friendships between teen girls, the antiseptic beauty of the film, and working with the late Anton Yelchin, who co-stars in the film as a small-time drug dealer out of his depth. Below is a condensed and edited transcript. If you’d prefer to enjoy the entire conversation, check out the video below.

Thoroughbreds began as a play. Why did you decide to make this into a film, and what changed in the translation process? 
Cory Finley: I think part of it was very just gut level. Usually when I’m writing a play, I will envision the stage. With this one, I just started seeing the story in close-ups and in wide shots and then seeing these moments of movement. It just felt like it kind of wanted to exist as a film. And then, more practically, there was a whole wing of the story involving Anton [Yelchin’s] section, the Tim character, that was just very hard to explore onstage. The whole play would have really just been that couch, and the two characters sitting on the couch and I wanted to move around and see some of the world and the community, and I thought a film was a way to do that.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Olivia’s character, Amanda, teaches Anya’s character, Lily, this very interesting technique of crying. What was it like preparing for and shooting that scene?
Anya Taylor-Joy: Well, that’s all Liv being awesome. So, how did you prepare, Liv?

Olivia Cooke: I didn’t prepare it, the technique doesn’t exist. I tried it, it doesn’t work! You’ve got a story about where the technique came from, don’t you Cory?

CF: Well, the way that her character describes the technique is modeled on what some cocky 15-year-old actors told me back at acting camp, back in the day. It was fun filming that scene because the take that we ended up using was the second setup. The first setup was we had this really elaborate shot that was the camera, tracking laterally from Anya over to Olivia so that it landed on her as she was crying. None of us knew exactly how that beat was going to go on the day, and if she was going to be able to cry in the ten seconds that she has allotted in the scene and so we were all staring at the monitor and the camera slowly moves towards her and she has like this amazing waterworks. We were all like “Yeah!” We had to sort of muffle our cheer backstage, but it was a fun day.

Was there any improvisation on set, or did you stick pretty closely to what Cory wrote?
CF: We had a couple days of rehearsal beforehand where we all sat around with the scripts and talked through the characters — the given circumstances of the characters’ lives, and how they’d known one another prior to the beginning of the movie. There’s a whole buried history that the movie doesn’t go into in any great detail, but we wanted to flesh it out together. That felt really collaborative and cool. I think we did make some script changes, both in the room and little things afterward.

OC: It was so minor, ’cause Cory’s writing is just so incredible that I feel like you’re giving us too much credit. I feel like we changed barely anything; maybe, like, from an exterior to an interior.

Olivia, your character is blunt and emotionless, which is major change from work you’re known for like Bates Motel. How did you prepare for this character, and what drew you to the role?
OC: Well, I think that’s just it. I think I have played hyperemotional characters in the past, and so reading this script I was instantly drawn to Amanda and to the challenge of how to play her and not come across as dull or deadpan the whole way through. I wanted to find the peaks and the valleys within the performance. I started researching different mental-health ailments that she may have been afflicted with, but then I didn’t want to get stuck to one. I wanted to just pick from different ones. We are all so multifaceted and she says herself that she’s been diagnosed with different illnesses from the DSM-V and still doesn’t have a conclusive diagnosis. Maybe that’s just the way she was born, or maybe something happened in her childhood to inform that.

Anya, you’ve done a lot of work in horror and suspense. How did you approach this differently from other roles you’ve played in genre films?
ATJ: With Lily, it all started with her posture. Which was exhausting to do everyday, ’cause she’s so straight and put together.

I was really drawn to trying to build a character from the outside in, rather than the inside out, because this façade that she’s spent so much time carefully putting together, to be porcelain and a sort of Instagram version of perfection, that no human being can ever possibly live up to. I was really intrigued; Okay, so this is the veneer in front and as we morally strip away all these insulation levels, where are we going to get to? That really drew me in. But as you can see she’s not the nicest person, so it was difficult to be her for a month.

Several reviews name-check films that Thoroughbreds seems somewhat inspired by. Were there specific performances that inspired your work here?
ATJ: Actually, I have never really thought of this before, but in terms of performances, I think watching watching [Olivia] was very informative. Because the two characters do start off in very different places and then, because they both so desperately want something that the other one has, that is completely unattainable to them, they sort of meet in the middle and then branch off again. Every time we did a scene we just found ourselves becoming quite symbiotic. We’d just move at the same time. That was a weird mirror-image effect we had going on whilst we were acting.

Anya, what did you and Paul Sparks and Francie Swift do to create this tense family dynamic?
ATJ: We didn’t get any rehearsal time with them, but I will say, they’re just the loveliest people. They’re so wonderful and so supportive and sweet. It’s always strange when you meet someone and you’re like, “Hi, I’m your daughter, nice to meet you,” but we really got along and they are such talented actors. Francie herself is a very outgoing, kind, sweet, lovable person, and so just to see her being so tamped down and continuously cut verbally by Paul [in their scenes together] allowed that resentment to build from a character point of view. But we actually just had so much fun.

What was it like working with Anton Yelchin? Did any specific moment on set really stand out to you?
ATJ: Something that I have been saying that I hope comes across all right is that it’s very difficult to talk about him as a person because he is our friend and we really miss him. However, as you’ve just seen, as a performer, Anton is just completely unparalleled. He brings such energy and zest and intelligence to each one of his performances. But what is also really striking about him playing Tim is that this character could, in the hands of a lesser actor, have been quite a minor role. Instead Anton made him sort of the moral compass of our film. It’s been a real pleasure to tour this movie around because people unanimously love Anton, and it’s lovely to be able to share that with other people and know that they miss him too.

CF: I think we all just feel super lucky to have had the opportunity to work with him, too. He was such an incredible, prolific guy. He worked with such an amazing lineage of filmmakers and other actors. I think if you talked to any of them you would see he left a mark on all of them, and was not just a great actor, but an amazing photographer, and an amazing amateur film historian. He was just the loveliest guy, and definitely brought out the best of everyone on set.

Cory, what made you decide this movie should center on two young women?
CF: I think the roles developed pretty organically. The first draft of the play was very different and was centered on what became Francie Swift’s character of the mother. But there was this character, Lily, who was this interesting young woman who didn’t have enough to do in that version of the story. I scrapped most of it and gave myself the challenge of making Lily the center of the story. Which ended up being the most interesting choice. There was initially a male friend, luckily neither of you have ever seen this version, and it will never see the light of day. But there was a male friend, and at some point she became a female friend that became Amanda.

When I found those two voices of Lily and Amanda on this couch, I sort of found the heart of the play and the rest came from there. I don’t know exactly what choices led to feminizing the characters but I have certainly written my share of young male characters like myself and sort of underdeveloped female characters and it was a little bit of a personal challenge to shake myself out of those habits.

Thoroughbreds feels from the very beginning like a very violent film, even in the dialogue. But the most intense violence happens offscreen. Cory, why did you choose to have most of the violence offscreen, especially the murder?
CF: I think there were a lot of reasons. I think that decision had its roots in the story being a play. I think it’s especially hard to control the tone of violence onstage; it so easily goes sort of farce-y. I still think that can be true of even very well done violence onscreen. It’s so easy to have yourself taken out of it and sort of go, “Oooh, how did they pull that off?” Some movies do that beautifully, but I think with this movie [it made more sense to focus on] its core, which is these characters reckoning with these forms of violence in their life. It just felt right to stay in each of these discussions about violence rather than on the violence itself.

Anya and Olivia, what was it like shooting your final scene together? Amanda is unconscious and Lily goes offscreen to kill her stepfather. It’s a surprisingly tender scene.
OC: For me, when an actor has to display such immense emotion I personally try to give them as much space as possible. I think the whole set kind of behaved that way as well, and everything was kind of said in a whisper and hushed tone so Anya could have as much time as much quiet time as she needed. ’Cause I was just asleep so I didn’t have to …

ATJ: Don’t knock it! You stayed still for a very long time, and it’s actually very hard to do. Cory and I had intense conversations about what’s going on upstairs that we won’t share with you because it’s important that everyone brings their own interpretation to the movie. But I will say, my favorite movies are where the violence and the horror isn’t showed to you, because you get to bring your own imagination into it. It’s always scarier when you don’t see it. You’re basically conjuring up your own worst nightmares.

Anya and Olivia, did you find it more difficult to do the very intense, dialogue-heavy scenes, or the more silent moments?
ATJ: Oh, interesting! I never really approach scenes as difficult. It’s like, “Oh what do I get to play out today?” because I really do love my job. I will say, what is wonderful about doing the dialogue scenes with Olivia is that, whilst we didn’t improvise in every scene, we would approach it with a different energy. Olivia would suddenly take a pause and it would literally feel like the whole room vacuumed. It felt electrifying. I personally enjoyed the dialogue scenes more, just because we are attacking each other through spiky dialogue dripping with delicious nastiness. Everything was just fun to say.

OC: I agree with you. We got to do a lot of acting together. I did five seasons of Bates Motel and a lot of it was like, Where is Norman? [Laughs.] So it was really nice to sink your teeth into this interesting and incredible dialogue. And also to act with Anya, as well, ’cause she threw me a bunch of curveballs and it was my job to respond accordingly. So, it was really fun.

This film is beautiful, but there is also something weirdly claustrophobic about it, almost antiseptic. This house is a less a home than a museum no one lives in. How did working with the cinematographer Lyle Vincent affect the look and the performances?
CF: Lyle is super, super meticulous, and I was always drawn to that. I felt this particular story would definitely benefit from a calculated visual style and a clean — I like that term antiseptic, I’m going to use that. Lyle was fantastic to work with, I think we all just thought one of the loveliest, most sort of radiant human beings on set, which is important in that role I think, and it was a real pleasure.

ATJ: And if you want to get super intense and cerebral about it, when you look at that house, it’s so beautiful, peculiar, and so evidently dripping in wealth, but you’re right — it doesn’t look like anybody lives there. You go into the kitchen and you’re like, “Can I touch this?”

OC: There’s nothing on the counters.

ATJ: It’s like a really beautiful, bizarre gilded cage. Which I think is a nice metaphor for these people and the privileged society that both entraps and informs them.

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How Thoroughbreds Morphed From a Play Into a Movie