Over the last couple years, a dialogue that had been raging in my head found
its way into the mouths of two characters, a pair of teens in Suburban
Connecticut. One of them was Amanda, who'd decided that she didn't feel human
emotions, and had been faking them all her life. The other was Lily, who seemed
sensitive and well adjusted, but harbored the sort of colossal emotional
impulses that could erase any sense of proportion and blot out her regard for
those around her. Their knotty friendship became the spine of Thoroughbreds,
originally a stage play.
My best writing always comes from fear, and each of these girls embodied one
of my darkest suspicions about myself. On some days I'll feel coldly rational to
the point of emptiness. On other days, seemingly trivial emotions will swell up
to such huge size that I just can't see beyond them. There was a lot that
terrified me in each character - both Amanda and Lily - but also a lot that I
loved. The play became a kind of philosophical conversation about morality, and
about the questions that kept me up at night: if my emotional wiring is indeed a
little screwy, does that make me a bad person? Are emotional instincts necessary
for separating right and wrong? Or can a detached view of the world actually be
an asset in moral decision-making? Wealth and privilege always figured in my
angst, and so I imagined these two characters in an environment that might
insulate them from empathy, and at an age where they're just starting to build
their own value systems.
As I kept working on the story, it kept insisting to me that it wasn't a
play, but a movie. The theater is where I learned to tell stories, but it was
film that first captured my imagination as a kid running around the house with a
camcorder. It's the province of fantasy and of mood, the medium that seared
images straight onto the grey matter of my brain and made me too afraid to walk
the thirty steps from living room to bedroom alone. Thoroughbreds wanted to be a
psychological thriller, one that played out not just in the words exchanged by
the two leads but in close-ups of their faces, expressive or impenetrable, and
in the shadows and hallways of the house that loomed around them. I was lucky to
collaborate with cinematographer Lyle Vincent, whose imagination and technical
prowess helped us create a visual world as formal and off-kilter as our
I hope we've made a film that both entertains and lingers in the brain. I
hope it engages with issues of class and power without preaching. And I know
that it's a showcase for a group of incredible actors - among them Olivia Cooke,
Anya Taylor-Joy, Paul Sparks, and Anton Yelchin - who took those voices in my
head and made them figures of remarkable complexity and power.
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