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Cory Finley, writer/director of Thoroughbreds

Focus Features releases Thoroughbreds on March 9th, 2018.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Thoroughbreds is the kind of film that's hard to fit into just one genre. How do you feel about the concept of genre?

Cory Finley: I love playing at the intersection of genres. I see Thoroughbreds as a psychological thriller mixed with a dark comedy. Every movie has a genre---even if it's a very serious drama or broad comedy. Every movie comes with a series of genre expectations and movie audiences are super sophisticated about anticipating those. I love when a movie is not about winking at an audience, but that still has an awareness of the genre expectations.

NYC MOVIE GURU: I feel that Thoroughbreds is the kind of film that would be best experienced while knowing very little about it beforehand. Do you agree?

CF: I agree. Some of my greatest movie experiences were movies that I knew absolutely nothing about going in. I also try to avoid trailers, but it's harder and harder because my curiosity gets the best of me. This is definitely the kind of movie where the less you know, the more you're likely to enjoy it. I would be delighted if people would go to the theater on recommendations alone and check it out.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How important is it for a character to be likable?

CF: I think of it as, "Can we invest in a character?" rather than, "Can we like them?" We can care about them almost in the sense of what they're going to do next and being concerned about them. You certainly need some sort of empathy, but I would agree that I'd be horrified to meet some of my favorite characters in real life. If a movie can engage me in an interesting way to explore extremes of human behavior that we'd never want to go through ourselves, the characters can be sort of surrogates for some of these intense emotions and things that that we'd imagine doing, but never actually do. Those are some of the most interesting films, for sure.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How challenging was it to know when to trust the audience's patience, intelligence, and imagination?

CF: Some of it comes from the film starting out as a play. The stage audiences have an extra level of patience just because theater storytelling is, by definition, less efficient. People come to a play with a little bit more tolerance to just sit there and be lulled to the rhythms of a conversation. Some of the playwrights that I like most linger on pauses, silences and in-between spaces. Even in the films that I really like, I like films that have some unpredictable passages that linger at a moment for a long time and lets you live in the moment for longer than you might expect. I love trusting an audience's patience. Even in this very ADD era, I think audiences to have more patience and I give them credit for it as long as there's still something going on that they anticipate or think about through the slow passages.

NYC MOVIE GURU: When it comes to finding the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally, which of those elements was most challenging to tweak in the editing room?

CF: I'm interested in doing that sort of in that order. I think that entertaining is the least important thing that a movie can do, but it's the critical baseline. If you're not entertaining the audience, then you failed as a storyteller and you're going to lose your right to their time. So, you have to entertain the audience, and once you've done that, I think the intellectual provocation is the next layer and then emotional provocation is the key to any movie to work. I think that's the thing that comes last in the editing and the most instinctual. It requires instinctive work when you're figuring out how to pull it off. It's a very difficult thing to talk about afterward and takes a lot of trial and error. It's amazing to watch. Taking an extra moment to linger at an actor's look can drastically alter the emotional equation of the whole scene. We did a ton of playing around with that while editing the movie.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What do you think is scarier: the horror that's seen or that's imagined?

CF: That's the eternal question. It's just a case-by-case basis. Certainly, with Thoroughbreds, there's a lot more of what you don't see than what you do. I wanted it to feel very psychological. To me, a movie is a lot about the inner workings of a character's mind and about emotion. That's both the texture and subtext of the movie to some degree. Whenever we were hearing about the acts of violence or literally hearing them happening off-screen, my general code was to stay with the character to see how she's affected emotionally by the violence--staying on the expressions of the character hearing about something horrific or staying on the character to see how she's changed by the act of violence. I thought that this would be an appropriate choice for this movie, but certainly unabashed about going there. I have a particular fondness for certain movies about body horror where you see the specifics of the viscera. That can have a profound psychological effect on the audience, too.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How important is unpredictability to you as a filmmaker?

CF: It's very important. You always have to stay a little bit ahead of the audience. Audiences will lose respect for you as a storyteller if they get ahead of you. I put a lot of thought a lot about not being surprising for the sake of being surprising, but just thinking about the pacing and the revelation of information to be constantly ahead of the audience. I hope it worked.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think that there's an unfair stigma when it comes to confusion in films? What's wrong with being confused as an audience member?

CF: Definitely. I often talk about productive confusion. There are ways to sprinkle confusion into movies. If you read many screenwriting manuals, the very first classical line is not the medium for ambiguity. There's something about the visual medium of films that fits more certainty overall. You can have surprises and mystery, but there should be certain answers. There's something true about that, but I love a bit of productive confusion and a little bit ambiguity about motive when it can be sustained. You need some sort of counterweight of certainty to be able to earn the ability to confuse the audience.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Crime novelist Henning Mankell once observed that the darker the crime, the more it reveals about humanity. What are your thoughts on that?

CF: I like that quote a lot. I've always liked extremes of human behavior. I think that we can learn a lot by just test cases of human morality---What does it feel like to see this happening? Why might this happen? Why push this particular character to do something? Many of the films I love are sort of these thought experiments. What would happen if something that's not far from the boundaries of life might take place.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What was the reasoning behind your inclusion of visual symmetry as a pattern throughout the film?

CF: I love to use the two characters, Amanda and Lily, as mirrors of one another in ways. That's a well-worn movie trope. I talked a lot with the creative team about Mulholland Drive and Persona for the tones that we were going for. They were very different movies, but I wanted you to think of the two characters as the answers to one another or the mirrors of one another. I don't think that it's too much of a spoiler to say that their darkness was a mirror image of each other as well, certainly about the things that they discover about themselves. So, there's definitely some intentional imagery there.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What do you think are the basic elements that turn a psychological thriller or dark comedy into a classic?

CF: There are so many great cult classics that tap into this sort of cultural nerve and seems to express some cultural frustrations or something bottled up. We've been compared a lot to Heathers, but that was not a deliberate reference, generally, but we started thinking about it at a later stage. For a movie to become a classic, there definitely has to be a certain amount of good luck which is something that the filmmakers can't possibly predict. I certainly hope that we find some cultural nerve to touch in a similar way.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Would Thoroughbreds work in black-and-white?

CF: Thoroughbred's cinematographer, Lyle Vincent, also did A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night which is beautifully shot in black-and-white, so I know that he has a great sense of black-and-white photography. It would be so interesting. I think the colors in the movie become such a critical feel. We deliberately went for a colorful, oversaturated look, but I never thought about it in black-and-white, but it would be so interesting to see if it feels like the same movie or a very different one.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you feel about 3D? Dial M for Murder has been shown in 3D. Would it work for Thoroughbreds?

CF: I'm not a huge fan of 3D. It's an interesting moment in cinema history that's come back in very surprising ways. When I get tickets to Star Wars in 3D, I wish I had gotten tickets to it in 2D.

NYC MOVIE GURU: I think that CGI is merely a standard effect while humanism is a truly special effect. What do you think?

CF: I have no great love of CGI even thought that in the future I might find it the only way to accomplish something in a movie. I feel like that part of the art of filmmaking is playing with things that have an intensity of their own. I'm much more interested in what you can accomplish with human emotions.

NYC MOVIE GURU: I believe that a plot is just a means to an end. It's the feelings within the plot that end up lingering in one's memory more often. Do you agree?

CF: A plot is just a container for an emotional load of intellectual questions and images. I completely agree with you, but I don't think it's trivial. You have to put a ton of effort into an airtight, satisfying plot. I think that it ultimately falls away and leaves everything that it contains.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Which actor from the Golden Age of Hollywood would you have loved to work with if you were a filmmaker back then?

CF: Jimmy Stewart. He has such a fundamental decency. I don't know if there would actually be a part for him in a movie like Thoroughbreds. That would be a dream, of course.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What film would pair well with Thoroughbreds in a double feature?

CF: The original The Postman Always Rings Twice because it's sort of underseen by a lot of my immediate peers. It's always been one of the first early noir movies that I really looked at as a tonal inspiration.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Would there be anything lost by watching Thoroughbreds on the small screen?

CF: I love the in-theater experience partly because of the visual and sonic reasons. I love people seeing it with a crowd of strangers. Coming from theater, that's really important for me. It's really a movie that aims to provoke and cause discussions. I think it's better if those discussions are within the public square.

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