Thursday, March 8, 2018

Interview with Abe: Thoroughbreds

I’m thrilled to report that my favorite movie from the Sundance Film Festival in 2017 is finally being released, coming to theatres this Friday, March 9th. This fantastic film explores the relationship between Amanda (Olivia Cooke), a teenager whose mental state has been questioned by many after she euthanizes her sick horse, and another teenager, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is subject to constant emotional abuse by her strict, cruel stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks), as they toy with the idea of killing him. One of the film’s posters boasts the quote “Heathers meets American Psycho,” one way to describe its unique tone. I was honored to have the opportunity to chat with writer-director Cory Finley and ask him some questions about what makes this movie so great.

Q: I saw this at its last public screening last January at Sundance, over a year ago. What has the journey from then until now been like?

The journey has been good. It’s been a lot of festival stops. We’ve taken the movie around the United States and to London and Toronto for supplemental festivals. It’s been great. It’s an interesting film to tour with because people have different reactions, which I love. It’s fun to see how audiences permit themselves to laugh and what kind of questions I get afterwards. Some people sort of sincerely inquire about my mental health, which is kind of them. A lot of people want to know about the score, a testament to Erik Friedlander’s work. He did some wild and crazy things. I get questions about my motivations, arguing about plot points and how much characters are telling the truth or not. It’s hard to say more without any spoilers.

Q: The title has changed since I saw it as “Thoroughbred” to have an “s” added at the end. What’s the significance of that?

The thinking was that we don’t want people to be deterred that it’s just a movie about horses. I think there’s a proud cinematic tradition of horse movies, but the thought from our amazing partners at Focus Features is that if we pluralize it, we kind of connect the adjective to the characters, making it more specific and more personal. That’s particularly true with the marketing materials, which put the leads front and center. A plural title rather than a singular noun or adjective creates more of a connection to the characters.

Q: It’s hard to decide which of these two actresses is the true lead here, especially when they fend off questions from Lily’s stepfather Mark. Is there one true lead here?

That’s a good question – one I haven’t really heard before. I spent a lot of time on that – whose movie is this? There’s usually just one character who has the bigger journey. I do believe that this is a real two-hander. Their arcs make a nice X and cross in the middle.

Q: Can you talk about casting Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy? Had you seen them previously in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and “The Witch,” respectively?

Yeah, I was a huge fan of both of those movies. I had seen more of Olivia’s film and TV work, whereas Anya had only done “The Witch.” What stuck out in all of Olivia’s work was that she really shined when she was able to work in a deadpan register, to play in all shades of that. This movie would ask her to maintain a deadpan state, which I knew she could make as interesting as possible. I didn’t audition or have them read. They were our tip picks.

Q: It’s great to see the late Anton Yelchin in another movie after his untimely death. Was he always the actor you wanted to play the role of Tim, who the girls try to hire to kill Mark?

He was, absolutely. I was so thrilled that he wanted to do it. He was such an incredibly prolific guy who worked with an amazing array of filmmakers over the year, a testament to his work ethic and how much everyone wanted to work with him that he still continues to have movies coming out. All the way from “Like Crazy,” where he’s this incredible, deeply complicated leading man, to “Green Room,” where he anchors a very dark, gory movie with this amazingly nuanced performance at the center, he just always lights up the screen. He was amazing to work with.

Q: Paul Sparks, best known for “House of Cards” and “Boardwalk Empire” and recently seen on “Waco,” makes such a great villain here as Mark. Can you talk about casting him?

His little laugh in “Boardwalk Empire” as Mickey Doyle was super memorable. I loved all of his work. We knew we needed someone who, as soon as he walked on screen in his cycling outfit, would be like human fingernails on the chalkboard. You want to punch him the moment you meet him, but he had to have a weird charm, where you’d be able to hate him but also intrigued and amused by his presence. It’s a role that could have skewed very broad, but Paul seems incapable of not even a moment of truly grounded performances on screen. He’s one of the more resolutely grounded actors I’ve ever worked with.

Q: One of my favorite moments in the film comes early on, when Amanda starts crying watching a movie and then coldly looks over at Lily to show her that she was acting. That’s a marvelous first step of bonding and also a great chance to really see Mark for the first time. Was that purposeful?

We had seen Mark very briefly before them, but this is the first time we have them teaming up against him. I loved the idea that he would sort of interrupt this intimate moment. It was great that Olivia would still have fake tears in her eyes when she told Mark about her mother’s chemotherapy.

Q: Do you think these girls really understand death? The way they talk so casually about it really stands in contrast to how they react when Tim first pulls out his gun.

Certainly, Lily does have some sense of the gravity of death and I think she gets very spoked out when Amanda starts talking about it casually. One of the core ideas of the movie is, could a character that doesn’t have an emotional instinct that points her away from brutality still be a better person and make better moral decisions than someone who does have a moral compass? I was thinking a lot about utilitarian philosophy and that you can determine how could or bad a moral action is solely by its effects. There are a bunch of interesting human psychology thought experiments that I remember talking about in college that got at the disconnect between people’s moral instincts and how they would actually behave in crisis.

Q: I’m curious about how this movie is being advertised. When I saw the trailer, I was surprised by the emphasis on the comedy rather than the darkness of it all. I remember this being a dark movie, especially all the time spent inside Lily’s house where she’s lonely and miserable. Have you always seen this as a comedy?

You always want to put forward in marketing materials the piece of the movie’s tone that is most immediately accessible and leave the rest for the audience to discover when they see the film. The trailers do a good job of walking the fine line, they emphasize the comedic and kinetic aspects over the contemplative, true to the core of the characters and the mood. The darkness and deliberate pacing can be a pleasant surprise.

Q: I love that scene where they’re standing on the lawn with the giant chess board. Can you tell me about that?

Yeah, we found that in our location. Before that, the way I had the scene blocked was much more static. It didn’t totally feel like Lily at that point in their relationship, so I thought that maybe she’s sitting just watching, like watching an animal in the zoo. Amanda would be playing both sides of the board, true to her character. It worked out beautifully. Olivia had to memorize a ten to twelve move, two-sided chess game and execute it while delivering a very long technical monologue. I always tip my hat to her.

Q: What’s next for you?

At the moment, it’s till TBD. I have a bunch of different projects in different stages of development, racing each other to production. There’s nothing I can speak publicly about, just character-driven stories that play with different genres.

“Thoroughbreds” opens in limited release Friday, March 9th, including at the AMC Lincoln Square and AMC Loews Kips Bay in New York City. You can read my review from Sundance last year here.

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