Pin It
Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu in Hustlers
Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu in Hustlers

Hustlers’ Lorene Scafaria on making J-Lo and Constance Wu scammer strippers

The filmmaker discusses the magic of her all-star cast and the importance of a woman’s eye on a realm dominated by the male gaze

There’s a common thread that runs through the movies of Lorene Scafaria – the sense of camaraderie. From Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist to Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, and The Meddler, Scafaria’s films bring together lost souls in need of support, love, and kindness: whether it’s for one night in New York, a mother reconnecting with her daughter, or the end of our times. Now the filmmaker is bringing that same sensibility to the world of strippers.

Hustlers is based on New York magazine's 2015 article The Hustlers at Scores by Jessica Pressler, about a group of then-former strippers who were scamming wealthy Wall Street guys and CEOs out of millions in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Jennifer Lopez plays Ramona, the ringleader of the con, with Constance Wu as Destiny, her second-in-command and the dramatic retelling’s protagonist. They’re flanked by an all-star cast that includes Lili Reinhart, Cardi B, Lizzo, and more.

The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and has already garnered critical acclaim, especially for Lopez, who delivers her greatest performance in years. Scafaria sat down with Dazed in Toronto to discuss how she made one of the most enthralling feminist movies of the year.

When did you first get involved in bringing this story?

Lorene Scafaria: I was sent the article in the summer of 2016, so that was the first time I read it. I didn’t know about it when it was viral. I didn’t know about it until they sent it to me. And then as soon as I read it, I thought this was a movie. This is an incredible movie. And I felt so compelled to tell the story. It just touched on so many themes that I was interested in talking about and gender as it relates to money and money as it relates to gender and our value system and capitalism. And I thought it was a beautiful friendship story. And mostly I just thought it was this world that we hadn't really explored from, at least, the dancers’ perspective. And so I was really interested in starting there and exploring.

The film’s produced by Adam McKay, who made The Big Short, an obvious companion film. Was that a movie you thought about when developing how you would tell this one?

Lorene Scafaria: I loved The Big Short and movies like Wolf of Wall Street that show us the other side of the aisle on this. Sports movies influenced this, a lot of gangster movies influenced me a lot. Friendship stories, even just friendships where the dynamic is a little similar, where you have someone who is kind of wrangling the other person or someone coming from loneliness and isolation that gets taken under someone else’s wing and gets brought into the fold a little more. I was interested in all those different angles and movies, almost more than stripper movies in general. Although I think The Players Club is the best one, I wasn’t really rewatching those to pull from.

“I was trying to tell a story with empathy and from all sides honestly, for the women, and the men, for all of us who are navigating this broken value system” – Lorene Scafaria

Quentin Tarantino says he’s paying homage to films he lifts things from - do you do that or avoid borrowing things in order to try and create as much of your own vision as possible?

Lorene Scafaria: I’m a fan of Scorsese and Tarantino – I grew up in the ‘90s which were for me the heyday of movies. Those were all big influences, but when it came to the look of the film, we knew we wanted to create something completely different. Todd Banhazl, the Director of Photography and I, we just talked so much about the look that we wanted to achieve. Being in their shoes, who’s in control of the camera, there are moments that Ramona is in control of where the camera goes and there are moments when Destiny is. That theme of control runs through the movie, and was part of our visual storytelling. The lighting was something that we talked about for a long time – there’s certain scenes where we're giving the women full power and a 50 foot woman gaze and wanting to just focus on the strength and athleticism of what they're doing. There are other moments where it's a really intimate scene between them and I was very excited to see the characters again, strippers, former strippers being seen up close, because they’re used to being appreciated from you know, medium to far away or from the neck down. It was exciting to me to tell an intimate human story and also a big epic story at the same time.

So tell me about the production and prep for that.

Lorene Scafaria: It was such an incredible crew of people ,but Todd Banhazl was someone who I’d wanted to work with for a long time. He had shot these Janelle Monáe videos that I was obsessed with. And as soon as I saw them, I said, “Who’s the woman who shot these?” Her name was Todd. When I met him, he was just such a gem of a person. So we shot listed the entire movie ahead of time. I wanted to keep certain scenes really alive and active, let them improvise and play off of each other and keep it open, but we had a 29 day schedule. So it was a really fast prep and a really quick shoot, but he and I had been talking about it for like nine months before the green light. We had the shorthand and all these references that we were excited about, and you know, some maybe more obvious than others, but the truth is, we just wanted to achieve something new. We felt like, even if we’ve seen a scene in a strip club, and every other movie and TV show ever, so few have been told from their point of view, and even fewer than that are really exploring the humanity of it, the depth of it, and all the things that they’re up against. The microaggressions, the aggressions, and the pitfalls, the positive: we just wanted to paint a fuller picture. And we have these incredible performers who are willing to play with that time period, because I was such a stickler about it being this period piece, making sure that we got 2007-2008.

It’s Britney, bitch!

Lorene Scafaria: Right!

How did you achieve the authenticity?

Lorene Scafaria: We had a corporate consultant, a stripper consultant. When we shot Wall Street, we had a Wall Street consultant; when it came to the cops, I had law enforcement playing law enforcement. We just tried to keep as many people involved in the authenticity of the world. That helped create the look as well.

So you mentioned earlier the 50ft female gaze. In a strip club, the gaze is predominantly male. So what kind of gaze were going for in this film?

Lorene Scafaria: I don’t think there’s any shame in what they do for a living, so I didn’t think we needed to shy away from it. But I felt with that theme of control running through it, there are scenes where Ramona is in control of the camera. So her dance scene is one where she  wants that camera where she wants it. We’re telling the story from Destiny’s point of view. We wanted to give her those fighter/boxer vibes, like she’s just entering the ring. So Raging Bull was a little bit of an influence there. But at the same time, how do we show the power and the strength involved in what she’s doing? The sort of power that Ramona feels when she’s on stage, how do we show the electricity that’s in the room? Because it was really an event. We had 300 extras watching Jennifer Lopez strip. It was interesting just to keep it as alive as possible, while also of course, having a set that felt safe and comfortable for everybody to do their work.

I don’t have to think about male gaze, I didn’t have to think about my gaze. I don’t think of myself as a woman until people remind me, so I’m kind of just myself. When I’m on a set or working with my DP or my AD. I kind of feel that way when I’m asking for money. That’s when I feel like someone’s ex wife or daughter asking for the keys to the car. I certainly love being in charge and I love working with women and men. It’s obviously a collaborative effort.

Sure, but I feel like this would be a totally different movie if you were a man.

Lorene Scafaria: It probably would. It almost definitely would.

And that’s why it’s so important to have more women directing.

Lorene Scafaria: Yes, exactly. And I guess I guess I’d also like to think it’d be a different movie if anyone else had done it, but I definitely think a man might have not been able to. There’s so much about us, when we hang out with each other and how we are with each other that I think really comes to life when you have a very female crew or a crew that works for women,even the men on a crew that work for women are very different than mostly male crew. And so as much as it was like a great mix of people, it did just have this incredible vibe to it naturally.

“We had 300 extras watching Jennifer Lopez strip. It was interesting, just to keep it as as alive as possible, while having a set that felt safe and comfortable for everybody” – Lorene Scafaria

You've got an amazing cast. How do you go about bringing out great performances in actors with different experiences, strengths and styles?

Lorene Scafaria: It was so fun to have all these different types of performers, not just women of different walks of life, but also people who are megawatt stars. Singers and dancers just have that natural timing and rhythm, and of course, you get people like Cardi and Lizzo who just have incredible, fluid personalities. They’re just larger than life. Cardi based Diamond on someone that she used to know. What was so remarkable to me is that they were actors on the day as much as they’re gigantic stars. (You see) Lizzo and Cardi, Jennifer, Constance and Keke, mix it up with Jacqueline Frances (Jacq The Stripper). She was our comfort consultant and our stripper consultant as well – she was next to me during all of those scenes. Marcy Richardson, who goes by Opera Gaga, is this opera singing burlesque pole dancer who is incredible. I just wrote parts for them. It was like this fantasy, casting the locker room was everything. For the ensemble, I just thought about who I really wanted to see together and play off of each other. The biggest miracle is that everybody’s schedules worked out.

I feel like Jennifer Lopez is this underrated actress and this is a role that could do for her what Mud did for Matthew McConnaughy. Was she always your Ramona?

Lorene Scafaria: I didn’t think about Jennifer as Ramona when I was writing it but as soon as I thought about it, it just was so obvious that it had to be her. So I sent the script to her producing partner Lang Goldsmith Thomas, who fortunately loved it and sent it to Jennifer who loved it too. And then we met and talked about it and just had all the same ideas. I couldn’t have been more excited about the idea of Jennifer as Ramona. I’m such a fan of hers and I’ve been a fan of her as an actor for a really long time. U-TurnOut of SightSelena, obviously, were all great performances, and there's not a false note in them. But if you watch Shades of Blue, there’s not a false note in them either. She's been delivering forever and the romantic comedies, I love watching all of them.

I was really excited about seeing her in something a little dangerous. In a role that somehow fits like a glove, but a glove she’s never put on before. So that was really exciting to me. And the McConaissance is a really great example. I think that’s something she’s certainly capable of if she wants it but she obviously has a whole other career so until McConnaughy is singing and dancing...

Constance obviously hasn’t had the same career as Jen, and this is opposite to anything we have ever seen her do before – why did you think she could deliver?

Lorene Scafaria: She put herself on tape, which I was really blown away by because, you know... she’s very well known. Once I met her, I was so enchanted by her. She has such an emotional intelligence. We talked a lot about loneliness and isolation that the character experiences before Ramona takes her under her wing, and what we both experienced in life that we relate to Destiny. I was just really drawn to her, and I thought I could picture the two of them together so well – I thought, “Oh, I bet they’ll have this sisterly relationship.” I didn’t see them together until the camera test, and when Jennifer put her arm around Constance, I just had chills. Constance is a star, she’s such a gifted comedic actress. People know her from lighter fare – tears shot out of my eyes during Crazy Rich Asians. She’s such a gifted dramatic actor too, so I’m excited for people to see that, and I’m so grateful that she threw her whole self into it.

How involved were the real Destiny and Ramona and what was it like to tell their story?

Lorene Scafaria: Really intense, (it was) a lot of pressure and I felt a great responsibility. Unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to any of them ahead of filming it. So it wasn't until maybe halfway through filming that we were finally in touch. Rosie and Kareena also, those were the two that I got to speak sort of halfway through filming and I met Rosie the day after we wrapped and I met Kareena about a month later and I’m so glad I got to meet them. They’re on the other side of this obviously so if they had complicated feelings about it I couldn’t blame them. I’m sure it would be very weird for me to watch a movie like that. I hope they know that I was trying to tell a story with empathy and from all sides honestly for the women, and the men, for all of us who are navigating this broken value system. Rosie is a mom and she wrote this book to tell the full story, and I think she deserves to. I mean, they’re all hustlers, of course, so I hope they all are able to seek opportunity in different ways, and that this sheds a good light.