‘Hustlers’ Director Lorene Scafaria Tells Us How She Got This Crazy True Story Made

Hustlers enters the fall movie season with a lot of hype (and a big Toronto Film Festival premiere), so it’s somewhat surprising that this true story of a group of New York City strippers – led by Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona and Constance Wu’s Destiny – who drug and rob their rich, Wall Street customers would be something hard to get made. But, yes, as Lorene Scafaria explains, nothing about getting this movie made was easy – going as far to say she feels a kinship with the main characters of her film because she, too, has metaphorically had to “dance for the money.”

Part heist movie, part rage against the one percent that led to the financial collapse of 2008, Hustlers taps into a lot of today’s discord – but to get there Scafaria needed to paint her “Hustlers” with a little more empathy. How did these woman get to a point where they are now literally drugging and stealing. Ahead, Scafaria explains the challenges of not just getting Hustlers made, but also turning an interesting story into a true narrative. Also, she explains how her own experience working in a stock market boiler room influenced her thought process about that industry.

There’s so much hype.

Let’s all lower our expectations.[Laughs] No, it’s very nice, it’s very nice.

So I’ve read the New York Magazine piece by Jessica Pressler the movie is based on and it is one of those stories that feels like it should be a movie, but I suspect a challenge was, visually, there has to be more to it than men passing out and credit cards being charged.

I felt similarly, in that I read the article and thought it was so well-written and an incredible story. A wild ride, obviously, so it felt like movie in every way. Then, of course, it needs to be filled out in order to begin to understand where these women were coming from. Writing for me has always been an exercise in empathy, so I wanted to see if we could walk a mile in their shoes and tell that story and explore a world that we have seen so much of in other movies and TV shows, but not really that many from their perspective. There’s such a stigma around strippers and sex workers and what they do for a living so that, honestly, was the biggest challenge and why I thought it was a responsibility in telling the story because I understood where they were starting from. Part of it was reading between the lines of that article and realizing there was an interesting friendship story here about these two women who started this business.

The movie does feel more empathetic than the piece. And you also focused a lot more on the 2008 financial crash.

The more research I did, the more strippers and strip club employee’s I talked to, the more that thesis was true. Obviously, the crash changed a lot for everyone. It changed the local economy, so it did have a profound impact on their industry. Specifically in New York, where Wall Street is in their back yard. In a flash, money changed, and so what someone is expecting for $20 changed, and what someone might be willing to do for $20 changed. Of course, like other things, everything gets back up and running eventually. I think we all know the difference between right and wrong, so I wanted to stay true to what happened and didn’t want to water down their crimes. I didn’t want to change anything, because I felt like I needed to be true to that part of the story. And, certainly, there are scenes that didn’t happen. I didn’t get a chance to speak to them ahead of time, like I certainly would have wanted to. But in reading between the lines and talking to other people and doing research, it was honest how the 2008 crash had an impact on them. It really did happen.

So, the women didn’t talk to you?

No, I didn’t get a chance to talk to them ahead of making the movie. I started to get in touch with them while I was making it, which was great to be able to contact them about what I was doing, my approach to the story. I wanted them to know I was approaching it with empathy and not just telling a fallacious story. I’m really grateful that I had contact with Rosie and Corinna. They’re both really just living their lives on the other side of it. It’s really reflective about this crazy time in their lives and I’m just glad that they saw the kind of story I wanted to tell.

Focusing on the financial crash, it does help the viewer go along with what they’re doing. In a, “Well, these guys had it coming,” way.

I think there is a feeling of, “they stole from us” – the people who are spending their hard earned money on this movie. Tying it back to empathy, I do think the value system is certainly broken. In general, women are valued for their beauty and motherhood, sex, their bodies. In some capacity, men are valued for their money and success and power. It’s pretty dangerous and that’s not to say I absolved anybody for capitalizing on that or trying to work within the system and make ends meet. It’s almost hard to not understand how people get greedy. These men even got greedy, because that value system has just been reinforced in every corner of culture and in daily life. So I certainly know the difference between right and wrong and can’t believe the wrongs that they did. I worked in a boiler room when I was 17.

Selling stocks. I assume? Not at the bottom of a ship-type boiler?

Yeah. I didn’t really know what was going on at first, but it was a room full of phones and a bunch of guys selling bad stocks to old people. And this was in the 90s. They were fully taking advantage of these people. There was a guy who was on his little headset, for six months talking to no one. He was losing his mind, so it’s really dark, obviously. Some people maybe thrive in that environment and other people don’t. I think that’s why I do empathize with women and men and all of us that are up against whatever.

What you said about the perceived value system of men and women is interesting. This movie shows a very concentrated version of both those things at their core.

I mean, it felt like the rules of the club are the rules of the world. That’s why, to me, this was a very relatable story. I did grow up with these guys and girls that I felt very akin to these characters, because I just think that’s what we’re all up against. It feels like we were certainly all hustling, and we’re certainly all existing in a kind of heteronormative environment. But I also wanted to have a sense of humor about things because I think we could all use a laugh. As a director trying to get a job, trying to get a movie made, trying to get people to give you money, too? I have certainly felt like I’ve danced for the money and feel a lot of similarities between what they do for living and what we all do for a living.

Did you have trouble getting this one made?

I think all movies are probably hard to get made, but this was really hard to get made. I don’t know why. I think because of the stigma that passed on where these women started, honestly. And obviously where they ended up and how far it went, but I don’t know. Women doing bad things? Strippers in general? I’m not sure. It was honestly very hard to get made and, of course, I didn’t want to compromise the page in a lot of ways. I think that some places would have had an easier time making it if I had watered down what the women did, or if I embellished certain aspects of the interactions between the men and women. I didn’t want to do those things. I felt like the 2008 Financial Crisis was certainly reason enough to, at least, begin to even remotely understand how something like this happened. We’re showing the progression of wealth. We’re doing a period piece. We have all these incredible people. We have 300 extras in this club! We’re going for it!

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