Hell hath no fury like a bored little rich girl. From red scrunchie-wearing teen tyrant Heather Chandler to the "Marcia fucking Brady of the Upper East Side," Kathryn Merteuil, malevolent mean girls projecting their unhappiness onto everyone around them aren't anything new. But in playwright Cory Finley's moody directorial debut, Thoroughbreds, they're frighteningly irresistible.
Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke) are two former childhood friends torn apart by the cutthroat milleu of adolescence in suburban Connecticut. Prim and proper Lily lives a vapid existence in her wealthy, overbearing stepdad's baroque mansion, while social outcast Amanda spends her days in isolation, watching TV and mimicking emotions. In her own words, she has a "perfectly healthy brain — it just doesn’t contain feelings."
They're brought together when Lily, back early from a semester at boarding school, offers to tutor Amanda. But it doesn't take long for Amanda to cut through Lily's good-girl facade, revealing the disaffected girl hiding behind her peter pan collars and Chloé shades. From there, an unlikely camaraderie is born, not out of friendship but rather out of necessity. They each lack what the other has in spades; one girl feels too much and the other nothing at all.
By the time they hatch up a plan to murder Lily's stepdad, this dark and funny teen noir already has you by the throat. MTV News chatted with Taylor-Joy and writer-director Finley about the psychological push and pull between Amanda and Lily, the late Anton Yelchin's scene-stealing improvisations (in what would be his final film), and the challenges of writing complicated young women — as a dude.
MTV News: Anya, as a fan of your work in films like The Witch and Split, I've noticed that you tend to gravitate to more heady, psychological thrillers. Why is that?
Anya Taylor-Joy: I've never made the conscious choice to go after films in this genre. I'm very much character-oriented, so I read a script and if I feel like the character belongs to me and I belong to them, then I tend to follow them where they go. It just so happens that these characters have inhabited very dark worlds, but it's definitely not something premeditated. I go where my characters go.
MTV News: So what was it about Lily that made you want to follow her? Because she's a ticking time bomb in this film.
Taylor-Joy: I loved the idea of these two women continuously usurping each other and manipulating each other through dialogue. What particularly drew me to Lily is I find that most of the time when you're doing character work you're working from the inside out, whilst Lily is very much an outside-in kind of girl. She presents to the world a very intense veneer of perfection — it's all preppy and pastel. But in reality, as the movie goes on, you see the morality stripped away from her, and you realize that she's this very messy, rageful chaotic mess. I really wanted to chart that progression.
MTV News: Cory, this is your first experience behind the camera. I'm curious how that experience was different that your theatre work. How collaborative was it?
Cory Finley: Before we ever started shooting anything we had a couple days of rehearsal that doubled as a really comprehensive discussion of who the characters were and where they had been coming from prior to the start of the movie. Those conversations really informed re-writes of the script. So it was definitely a living document. We didn't do a ton of straight-up improvisation on set. Although, Anton [Yelchin] was a real amazing improviser and have a couple little quips that did make it into the final edit. I'd always try to come in with how a scene should feel and then find something a little more interesting in what the actors were doing.
Taylor-Joy: The script was so much a part of the reason Olivia and I wanted to do it that we really didn't want to improvise. But because Cory allowed us to have really long takes of dialogue, we would attack it with different energy every single time, and you never knew where you were going to end up. That's the benefit of having an actor playing opposite you who is willing to play with you, who is willing to approach it in a different way each time. If one of us took an unexpected breath, it was like a vacuum exploded in a room — not like a vacuum cleaner but an actual vacuum, as in space. [Laughs.] The excitement and exhilaration of that was electrifying.
MTV News: The tension of the entire movie rests on the chemistry between you and Olivia.
Taylor-Joy: It's strange. I've never felt chemistry the way I did with Olivia, where from the second we met we were so physically, mentally, and emotionally aware of each other. It almost felt like we had this invisible string tying the two of us together. She would move, I would move. We become completely symbiotic. And two years on, it hasn't changed. We still move in tandem.
MTV News: Cory, what was your biggest takeaway being behind the camera for the first time?
Finley: What took me a little while to wrap my head around is the idea that as a director you need to have a really clear idea of what you want and to untangle that from the idea of being really bossy. I'm not a bossy people. I don't like ordering people around. I don't think I did.
Taylor-Joy: You didn't.
Finley: But you do need to be deliberate in order for everyone else on set to be able to do their work. You need to give people a clear sense of what you're looking for. That's what activates their own processes and makes it a collaboration. It's easy for someone who's used to just writing, and seeing the things that I've written make their own way to life, it was an adjustment figuring out how direct to be.
MTV News: Because you're going from being a writing, where you're really only responsible for yourself and your characters, to being responsible for everyone on a set.
Finley: What's fun about film as opposed to playwriting is that you really can try things. You don't want to be randomly throwing darts and hope you hit the right tone, but you do have room because it's an edited medium. You can try stuff and see what feels good, and wrong turns will not ruin your whole movie.
MTV News: Was there anything in particular that came out of just trying things?
Finley: There were a lot of moments where scenes took a different tone than what I had in my head, and it worked far better. It was fun working with two leads who are really focused and where every take is interesting, but they were both very willing to try different things, so I had a lot of options in the edit in a really exciting way. There were a couple of scenes, in particular some of the early scenes, that we found this cool, slightly different tone a little later on. It's subtle.
MTV News: That scene where Amanda and Lily are outside and Amanda starts moving the chess pieces around defines the look of this movie. How did you set that up?
Finley: In general, we didn't do a ton of different setups per scene. We were pretty specific about what we were shooting, but with that one, we did a lot of different angles. I envisioned a lot of cuts, like, now you're on a moving chess piece, now you're on a hand — a lot of jumping around. But Olivia's physicality in that scene is so on-point and interesting and subtle that it ultimately worked best to just hang out in that wide shot and to watch the full chessboard, almost you would a sporting match.
MTV News: You also got to work with three fearless young performers in your first film. That must have been exciting.
Finley: Each of them was truly my top choice for that role. I was in director heaven. Coming out of theater and having not had a chance to build up a group of repeat collaborators in film, I instead had the luxury of just reaching out as a fanboy to actors I really loved.
Taylor-Joy: Oh my god. Cory!
Finley: To have them become my collaborators was really exciting.
Taylor-Joy: And what Cory brings as a director in terms of working with us is that he has a huge respect — without ever losing his own vision for the movie — for the relationship an actor has with their character. He gives you the space to be emotional about your character and is very gentle and graceful about it.
MTV News: I was actually surprised by how well you captured the intensity of female friendship, seeing as you have never been a teenage girl.
Finley: I spent a lot of time writing mostly male-led plays that were much closer to my own experience and had a lot of female characters, who hopefully got stronger with every play but were too often in supporting roles, there to be the rocket-boosters on the man's arc. And one of my personal challenges to myself with this was to put two female characters at the center of it and have it be about their relationship and not in any form about their relationship to a man.
MTV News: Anya, I'm sure you've read a lot of scripts in which teenage girls are depicted in quite the opposite way. Were you surprised by the nuance in the film?
Taylor-Joy: I have an incredible team who shelter me from [those scripts] because they know that my instant reaction would be, "What the fuck is this?" That being said, I should not be the exception. I should be the norm. People should be pushing really interesting, messy characters.
I've had several moments on set and since, because Cory is a very lovely man but a man through and through, where it's like, "How does he know us this intimately?" Olivia originally thought Cory was a woman because of the way the characters speak to each other and the intricacies of their friendship, especially at that age. It's quite a mystery how he pulled it off, but I'm grateful he did.