Cory Finley and Anya Taylor-Joy on the arduous journey from play to film in ‘Thoroughbreds’

thoroughbreds2_-2018-focus-features_-claire-folger-courtesy
© 2018 Focus Features / Claire Folger/Courtesy

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Two-hander plays offer the economy of cutting down the set to a singular pair of main actors, engaging the audience with a thorough character study. As proven in two-handers such as Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog,” a play can be richly complicated even when there are only two players involved. After all, humans are complex subjects.

But, generally, plays do not offer the luxury of being a few inches away from an actor’s expressive face. Nor can we follow actors, right behind their backs, as they stalk the hallways of a sprawling Connecticut mansion — if that’s where the story just so happens to take place.

If “Thoroughbreds” — written and directed by debut filmmaker Cory Finley — maintained its original form as a stage play, then it may have easily survived as an enticing drama piece. But by layering neo-noir visuals from cinematographer Lyle Vincent along with a jarring score from avant-garde jazz composer Erik Friedlander, “Thoroughbreds” unravels as an all-around aesthetically pleasing thriller film.

“A lot of the decisions I made in adapting the screenplay were made from the sole point of view of making it as nonplaylike as possible,” Finley explained.

Finley cites the long, silent, one-shot opening sequence — inspired by “The Shining” — as crucial for the introduction of the emotionless antihero, Amanda (Olivia Cooke). “We want to meet the house in the way we meet a character, and we also want to understand Olivia’s character through the way she looked at things and experienced things,” Finley said.

Thus, without any dialogue, audiences are introduced to Lily’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) expansive and heavily adorned Connecticut home. All the while, we see Amanda look upon a child’s photo as an instruction for different facial expressions rather than a piece of nostalgia. And a slight comedic effect is to be found when the camera rack-focuses on Amanda’s reflection, showing Amanda eerily practicing what she’s learned — how to smile.

Against this backdrop of carefully lawn-mowered, upper-class, American suburbia is Friedlander’s atonal score. “I saw music as a way to sort of cut against some of the prettiness of the movie,” Finley says, referring to the polished environment of the film. “I didn’t want it to be an overly seductive story, so the harsh, jarring score felt like a way to cut against that.”

In one scene, the audience would face the veneer surface of Lily’s demeanor and her home, while a single frame drum produces a sound that evokes the beginning of a cannibalistic ritual. As a result of the cacophonous sights and sounds, the characters of “Thoroughbreds” develop in such a way that can only be achieved through the deliberate eye of the camera.

However, “Thoroughbreds” is undoubtedly a dialogue-driven film. It largely leans, as much as a play would, on the chemistry between its actors.

Taylor-Joy recalls a relatively quick and almost natural process of synchronizing with her co-star Cooke. “We had spent so many hours talking to each other and hitting back with different energies and everything like that. By the end of that first day, the relationship was set because we are always together and we are always speaking,” she says. “We just fell into the rhythm naturally and very early on in making the movie, we became almost synonymous.”

Though it may have been easy to establish a rapport with Cooke, Taylor-Joy admits that getting into character proved to be more exacting. Immediately coming from the set of “Barry,” a 2016 biopic of Barack Obama in his college years, Taylor-Joy admits that the transition from playing Obama’s kind, college-era girlfriend Charlotte to a privileged, highly emotional teenager was a difficult transition for her — one that forced her to change every aspect of her acting, including her posture.  

“(Charlotte) was very free-spirited and intellectual and very kind. And then I went straight into a costume fitting for Lily, and I hysterically started crying because the clothes just felt so alien on my form,” she said.

Making the transition from playwright to filmmaker would also be an unforeseeable challenge for Finley, considering the speed with which he was forced to adapt to the new medium. “We didn’t do much rehearsal of all the scenes and so it was just a shock … the number of decisions that come at you at once.

But the end product is a complex transformation from play to film that works on many levels. “The movie is, more than anything else, about class and social class and characters that are enabled and imprisoned by their privilege … about existing in capitalism, existing in a culture that is all about transactions and money and someone winning and someone else losing,” Finley explains, “without hammering you over the head with it.”

© 2018 Focus Features / Claire Folger / Courtesy

© 2018 Focus Features / Claire Folger / Courtesy

And for Taylor-Joy, taking on the challenges of a darker character allows her to envision the type of films she wants to see in 2018 and onward.

“I want to see a movie about two messy, dark, complicated, intelligent women. That is attractive to me. … As wonderful as ‘Wonder Woman’ is, there’s a whole grade of different types of people in the world,” Taylor-Joy said “And so I think telling stories like these which are original — it’s good to show that there’s a plethora of stories to be told.”

Contact Lloyd Lee at [email protected].