First-Time Feature Director Cory Finley Dishes On Psychological Thriller Thoroughbred

Cory Finley, director of Thoroughbred, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
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Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin and Olivia Cooke appear in Thoroughbred by Cory Finley, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin and Olivia Cooke appear in Thoroughbred by Cory Finley, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Sundance 2017 Q+A — Thoroughbred Director Cory Finley

David Alexander Willis: You’re an experienced and noted playwright in New York. I love this quote: “I like telling stories in public and theater is the most direct and uncomplicated way to do so.” (I have not had that experience in writing and directing theater.) Thoroughbred was originally a stage play? How has the transition been for you from stage to screen?

Thoroughbred Director Cory Finley: I must have been feeling optimistic when I called theater “uncomplicated” — I can think of plenty of tech rehearsals that were anything but!

Thoroughbred did start as a play, and almost all the key beats of the story came from it. But as I kept working on it, I kept catching myself imagining it as a movie. Something about the story just made more sense in the language of close-ups and tracking shots and so on. I’ve been incredibly grateful to work with producers and actors who’ve made me feel confident in making that jump. There’s been a lot of learning on the job, but I’ve found that as long as I have clarity about the story I want to tell, and can communicate that to my collaborators, then the rest falls into place.

David Alexander Willis: For a first-time feature director, you’ve attracted some notable talent in cinematographer Lyle Vincent, who is well known at Sundance for lensing A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night as well as the 2017 festival-runner Bushwick. What was it about his style that you reacted to for this film? He’s known for masterful horror sequences, and chose to go with the ARRI Mini (which he also used on the concurrently shot Bushwick). I’m guessing there will be a fast-paced sequences in Thoroughbred?

Cory Finley: I loved Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Such a singular movie. In that movie and in all of his work, Lyle makes really bold, broad-stroke visual choices — the worlds that he creates are dreamlike and larger-than-life but also have a real internal logic and cohesion. What made me most excited about working with him, though, was sitting down and talking. He’s an extremely technical cinematographer, but he comes at everything from a story perspective. There are some kinetic sections of Thoroughbred, but the most important decisions Lyle and I made were about how to shoot dialogue scenes. We went for minimal, specific coverage and spent our limited time perfecting each frame and squeezing as much psychological information as possible out of composition and lighting.

Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy appear in <i>Thoroughbred</i> by Cory Finley, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Claire Folger.
Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy appear in Thoroughbred by Cory Finley, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Claire Folger.

David Alexander Willis: From the plot, it seems as if there are elements of horror, and yet Thoroughbred brought in the attention of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, themselves notable comedians, actors and writers in their own right. (Not to say you can’t mix comedy with horror.) Were they hands off? How do you consistently attract all of this talent?

Cory Finley: I’d hesitate to call it horror — more like a psychological thriller. Nat and Jim are not just incredible actors and writers but also great directors themselves, and they were influential in so many parts of the film but especially in script development and editing. They do have roots in comedy but their focus was always on honing in on the emotional truth of the characters. Their partner Kevin Walsh and Alex Saks at June Pictures were also key voices in development and throughout the process. I can’t stress enough how lucky I was to work with this whole group.

David Alexander Willis: I was very interested to read about the premise of some of your plays, for instance a character descends into madness while arguing with the sounds coming from his toilet, and a mother’s ghost haunts her son for missing her funeral? Certainly a script will change, but were there things specifically that you may have written for the feature as playwright that were ultimately shot down (by yourself) as you became director?

What I’ve loved about directing for film is that’s it’s felt like the last step in the writing process (or the last several, between preproduction, shooting and editing).

Even though the actual on-paper writing is the step I know best, it’s still the one I understand least. And I like it that way. A story for me always starts with a personal question or fear, and I try to be as loose and instinctive as possible in the first steps of building it out. At its best it feels like dreaming, and you don’t know where some of the stuff you’re writing is coming from, you just lean into it because it feels dangerous in the right way. This has certainly led to some out-there plays (although I think they’re more accessible than the blurbs might suggest). Eventually, as I near a complete draft, I try to go through a script with a harsh eye for realistic human behavior and clear structure. But it’s been important for me to have a period early on where I forget all that.

I wrote the Thoroughbred screenplay in a couple of months, but worked on the play on-and-off for a couple of years. It took several intermediate forms that will never see the light of day, but that generated moments or feelings that ended up in the final version.

David Alexander Willis: Thank you Cory! Thoroughbred has quite a bit of buzz, my congratulations on the festival!

Cory Finley: Thank you! I am just so humbled and delighted to be a part of it.

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