About The Production
From first-time writer-director Cory Finley comes a darkly comic
psychological thriller exploring friendship, privilege and morality in a
rarefied Connecticut setting of sprawling mansions, equestrian stables and elite
private schools. Starring Olivia Cooke (Ready Player One, Me and Earl and the
Dying Girl), Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Split) and Anton Yelchin (Green Room),
in one of his final screen performances, Thoroughbreds takes its cues from
classic film noir, locating a deadpan wickedness in the maneuvers of his dual
protagonists Amanda and Lily.
"The story really started working when I discovered the conversation dynamic
between the two characters," says Finley. "Even before I knew who these people
were, what they wanted and how they fit into the story, I found something
sparkling about their verbal exchanges, and I knew that dynamic would become a
central factor in the movie."
As he wrote the script, Finley watched classic film noirs, including The
Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, to help shape the darkly comic
tone of his screenplay with those works' canny exploration of non-traditional
values and shocking amoralities. "I like the mental exercise of climbing into
the moral space of unusual characters who see the world in unconventional ways,"
says Finley. "It puts the audience on edge and creates interesting tension. It
also forces viewers to grapple with moral questions of their own. I didn't
intend Thoroughbreds to be a moralizing work, but I'm interested in stories that
play with the deliciousness of amorality, and ones which also make you conscious
of questions you might not have otherwise had."
As the script took shape, he began meeting with agents in Los Angeles on the
film side of the company that represents him in New York for his theatre work.
Through the agency, he met Alex Saks, a former ICM agent who is now the CEO of
June Pictures, the Los Angeles-based company she co-founded with producer Andrew
Duncan to produce and finance feature-length narrative and documentary films.
Their recent work includes Sean Baker's critically acclaimed The Florida
Project, starring Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince, the Netflix documentary
Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, about Hong Kong student activist Joshua Wong,
and Paul Dano's forthcoming directorial debut Wildfire, based on the novel by
Richard Ford, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan.
Through June Pictures he met producer Kevin J. Walsh (The Greatest Showman,
Manchester By the Sea), who trained under Spielberg, Scott Rudin and music
industry veteran Tommy Mottola, and actors turned screenwriters Nat Faxon and
Jim Rash (The Way Way Back), who won an Oscar for writing Alexander Payne's The
Descendants before forming B Story, their own production company with Walsh. As
financing on Thoroughbreds took shape, Finley honed his script with input from
his new friends at June Pictures and B Story, making the story personal and
CASTING THE LEADS
While the stage version roiled in Finley's head for some years, it sprung
into screenplay form over the course of several months, solidifying once the
casting process began. Finley was looking for actors who could embody each
character's specific flourishes. With Amanda, this meant spending considerable
time in a deadpan state, suggesting someone who is at heart an empty shell. He
also wanted an actor who was precise with language and could bring alive his
hardboiled banter. Rising star Olivia Cooke, currently on screen in Spielberg's
Ready Player One, had caught Finley's eye following her breakout role in Me and
Earl and the Dying Girl; conveniently, she had a break in her busy schedule at
the beginning of 2016, when Finley began casting his film. "She's been great in
every role she's played but one particular strength I've noticed is the way she
casually slips into comic deadpan in her movies," says Finley. "It's not the
heart of the characters she plays, it's more like fleeting moments on the screen
where she comes especially alive."
Cooke immediately responded to the character of Amanda. "She's a young woman
who is trying to find that thing that makes her tick - because nothing really
makes her tick," says Cooke. "For as long as she can remember, nothing has
impacted her emotionally. Hunger and fatigue might be things she feels, but joy,
sadness, anger, or romantic feelings towards another person, are things she's
never experienced. Psychiatrists would label her as sociopathic or depressive,
but I didn't want to lock her into one specific illness or tendency. She's
someone whose emotions are incredibly repressed, and she's searching for those
emotions through her relationship with Lily."
For Lily, Finley was looking for someone who could credibly go to very
intense emotional places while maintaining a veneer of poise and calm. The
horror sensation The Witch had just come out when Finley began casting
Thoroughbreds, and Finley was a huge fan of the movie - and of Anya Taylor-Joy's
central performance as Thomasina, the teenage daughter of immigrant homesteaders
battling the remote New England wilderness after being cast out of their
puritanical community. "Anya's performance is a huge part of why that movie
works so well," says Finley. "She went to those intense places while conveying
charisma, power and strength - it's a magnetic quality."
Cooke and Taylor-Joy were Finley's first choices to play Amanda and Lily and
both actors were eager to sign on to the writer-director's feature debut. "I
hadn't read such brilliant, nuanced teenage female characters before," says
Cooke. "Cory has keen insights into their specific world but the script was also
very funny and I liked how the humor was sprinkled in seamlessly among the
suspense. It was also genre-bending as well - it felt fun and new and
interesting without ever taking itself too seriously."
Adds Taylor-Joy: "I've seldom been so captured by a script - it was
phenomenal. I was instantly drawn to Lily and I had to meet Cory right away
after I read it," says Taylor-Joy. "It's a beautifully crafted piece of work but
it's also dark, witty and clever."
The actors found themselves energized by Finley's dialogue, in particular
Amanda and Lily's capacity to usurp each other through their banter, taking on
each other's character quirks and effectively merging as one once they decide to
kill Lily's stepfather. As the story opens, Lily is nervous and high-energy
while Amanda is removed and deadpan - until they fuse together and things become
almost comically nasty. "They both desperately want what the other has - and
what they can never have," says Taylor-Joy. "Lily wants to feel nothing,
admiring the fact that Amanda can complete a task without emotion. In Amanda's
eyes, Lily is this girl who seemingly has it all; she's sociable and has
feelings, qualities Amanda lacks."
The actors were required to deliver their lines quickly and methodically in
the form of sharp banter that frequently verged on nastiness. "We had to say
some awful things to each other, but I loved the pace of the dialogue and how
it's delivered," says Taylor-Joy. "It's a unique way of drawing two characters
closer together. We created atmosphere on set through the words we had to say to
each other so that by the end of production we were in each other's flow so much
it was like synchronicity. If Olivia moved, I would move, and vice versa. It
felt serpent-like in the way we connected to each other - the movie became this
elaborate dance between us."
Thoroughbreds functions easily as a two-hander between Amanda and Lily as
their cat-and-mouse game escalates towards mayhem. But Finley added the
character of Tim to the screenplay - a local working-class thug who is enlisted
by the girls to help kill Mark - as a kind of leveling force between the central
protagonists. As played by Anton Yelchin (Star Trek: Into Darkness), the role
poignantly marks one of the final performances by the gifted performer, who died
tragically in June 2016 following an accident outside his home. Finley was a
longtime fan of Yelchin's work, citing standout roles in Like Crazy, Green Room
and Only Lovers Left Alive as personal favorites. "I admired his body of work
and the types of roles he'd chosen," says Finley. "He was a great leading man
but he also had the distinct ability of being able to steal scenes in supporting
As Tim, Yelchin resisted turning his character into a cartoonish loose
cannon, ceding much of the script's blunt tones to Amanda and Lily. A local drug
dealer who washes dishes in a psychiatric facility for extra cash, Tim also
hails from a different economic class than his partners in crime, broadening
Thoroughbreds' social tapestry. "It was important that Tim's character not
become a caricature because he brings lightness and comic relief to the second
half of the movie," says Finley. "I wanted to keep him emotionally grounded and
that was one of Anton's strengths as an actor - he could elicit your sympathy in
so many different ways. He was such a joy to have on set, but he was also
serious about his craft and prepared intensely for this role, scrutinizing
everything from Tim's wardrobe to specific moments in the plot."
CASTING THE HOUSE
As crucial to the story as its human characters, the Connecticut mansion at
the heart of Thoroughbreds proved the most difficult casting challenge for the
production team. With its formidable spread, including meandering corridors made
ominous and threatening in the movie through a series of gliding tracking shots,
Finley and production designer Jeremy Woodward set out to find the perfect
venue. Together they looked at dozens of homes in Massachusetts - where the
movie was shot - many of which were sitting empty on the real estate market.
"It was so important to have movement in the story, so we needed a house with
dramatic hallways," says Finley. "Even though it's mostly set in one location, I
didn't want this movie to feel like a play.
Inspired by Stanley Kubrick's Steadicam shots in The Shining, but unable to
find a space that could accommodate that kind of fluid, hovering camera work,
the production found itself without a central location mere weeks before filming
The houses they looked at were either too opulent in their architecture, or
else too restrained. None had the sprawling hallways that could accommodate
Steadicam work. At the eleventh hour, Finley and Woodward found a house in
Cohasset, Mass., one hour south of Boston. Vast in scale, opulent without being
too ostentatious, and brimming with long, wide corridors and separate wings, the
crew tried to shoot as much of the private home as possible, ultimately using
only a third of its dimensions in the movie.
One entire floor was used as a substitution for trailers, accommodating the
wardrobe, hair and make-up departments and serving as a home base for the actors
in between scenes. "We all learned to love it, and fear it in a certain way,
because it was a very imposing place," Finley insists. "It was such a huge
expanse, with so much dust and empty air - when you were in that house, you felt
this sense of unease," says Cooke. "You came to feel empty inside of it because
of the vastness surrounding you. The house was its own character."
Adds Taylor-Joy: "We each got our own room. Olivia was in a little boy's room
and I was in this pink room covered in rabbits. The room upstairs where we'd get
into costume every morning was filled with dolls and child-like memorabilia that
felt creepy and incongruous because only adults lived in the house - the
children had long ago moved out."
Over time, the house opened up its cavernous spaces to cast and crew,
delivering a stellar performance in the same way a living actor does after
spending quality time shaping a character.
Thoroughbreds shot in Cohasset for four weeks in the spring of 2016, with
Cooke and Taylor-Joy arriving two days before filming commenced to develop
chemistry in the guise of Amanda and Lily. Taylor-Joy arrived fresh from the set
of 2016's Barry, a period drama set in 1981 about Barack Obama's college days,
in which she wore era-specific urban sophisticate clothes. On Finley's set, she
had to quickly transition to a more refined wardrobe, which took getting used
to. "Lily is someone who is so much about appearances," says Taylor-Joy. "I
underwent a total transformation from Barry,
which was all pastels and high ponytails." To aid in her metamorphosis, she
picked out a necklace bearing a wasp from costume designer's Alex Bovaird's
stash and wore it every day on set, symbolizing Lily's more sinister
"Everybody on set kept telling me what a bitch they thought Lily was," says
Taylor-Joy. "But I kept insisting she was neither bitch nor saint. When it came
to the end of the shoot, I suddenly realized I'd been playing this incredibly
In the end, Taylor-Joy found unexpected liberation in playing a character
like Lily. "She goes in a dark direction in this movie but there's an element of
freedom in her journey because it's someone taking control of her life," says
Taylor-Joy. "I'm not excusing her - or her actions - but there's strength in the
notion of two girls achieving freedom together in unconventional ways. So many
movies depict teenage girls in a hyperemotional manner as opposed to dangerous
or twisted, and I loved how different and original Cory's approach to Amanda and
Lily was. There's also a message in how insular their views on the world come to
be. It's important to put yourself in the shoes of people like Amanda and Lily
in order to expand the outreach of your life. If you make it too insular, you
get claustrophobic and things are likely to explode."
Also a character in its own right is Thoroughbreds' evocative atonal score by
New York City-based cellist and composer Eric Friedlander, whose work with such
diverse musicians as John Zorn, Courtney Love and The Mountain Goats has made
him a fixture across Manhattan's polymorphous live music scene. Finley was
referred to Friedlander by music supervisor Sue Jacobs (I, Tonya, "Big Little
Lies") as being someone who could bring an out-of-the-box sensibility to the
film's frequently jarring score, having showcased bold and innovative cello
playing in his live sets and recorded compositions. "We wanted to push up
against the visual beauty of the movie in a deliberately ugly - or rather
ugly-beautiful - manner," says Finley. "Eric did an inspiring job of that,
composing a very distinctive score that takes into account his background in
avant-garde classical and free-jazz improvisation."
Combining cello, percussion and prepared piano, Friedlander concocts a
sensation of eerie, disjointed unease against the backdrop of sumptuous,
unchecked luxury that is Lily's Connecticut home, drawing out the conflicting
feelings of joy, terror and hysteria as Amanda and Lily descend into violence
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