Writer/Director Lorene Scafaria Tells Us About The Years Of Work She Put Into Making ‘Hustlers’

In some ways, Hustlers, which just hit Blu-ray this month, is a slick and straightforward crime story. Constance Wu’s Destiny gets drawn into a criminal scheme (drugging men and running up huge charges on their company credit cards) by a charismatic coworker (Jennifer Lawrence’s Ramona), they live the high life for a while, and then it falls apart. There’s a reason I called it Goodfellas in G-Strings, it’s basically the same story arc.

Yet it seems like every time you bring up Hustlers, someone pipes up about how there aren’t enough “likable characters” or “anyone to root for.” Making a movie about women, and especially about women who are sex workers, is different, somehow. A movie about female sex workers immediately incites some people’s moral judgment in a way that, say, a movie about (male) gangsters or bank robbers or scam artists doesn’t.

The toughest part is that the criticism seems to come from all sides — male scolds, female scolds (for depicting sex), and sex workers (for not getting some aspects of sex work correct enough). Writer/director Lorene Scafaria had so many people to try to please and yet what stands out most about Hustlers is that she refused to whitewash its nuances (which was based on a Jessica Pressler article about real people). It would’ve been easy to turn Hustlers into an easy, 9-to-5-style revenge story, where plucky dancers get one over on evil bosses.

But Scafaria, who has said she’s not interested in “feminine empowerment as a genre,” doesn’t let us off that easily. When Ramona justifies stealing from men on the grounds that they’re all Wall Street thieves anyway, Scafaria makes clear that this rationalization is Ramona’s, not the movie’s. Yet Hustlers is also a recession story in the guise of a sex story, in the same way Magic Mike was.

That Hustlers is this complex is perhaps its greatest strength (other than having J.Lo in arguably her most ideal role), and for it to have been allowed to be so, you know Scafaria had to have won a lot of tough fights behind the scenes. I spoke to Scafaria this past week, as Hustlers‘ For Your Consideration campaign takes shape and Lopez was nominated for a Golden Globe.

Can you tell me about some of the real people this was based on and how much contact you had with them?

I was dying to meet with the real girls at every stage of this process, but then we switched studios and I think when you have corporations and crimes involved, everybody gets a little scared. So by the time I got the rights to reach out to them, I think it was too little too late for the women, and then they weren’t interested in speaking to me. That was before filming, but then once the paparazzi photos of set came out, I heard from two of them. So then I was really happy that I could reach out. And I’ve been in touch with them since and they both saw the movie and it was a really profound experience. I think they were relieved to realize that I was trying to tell this story with empathy not as that kind of salacious ride that I’m sure they assumed it was going to be.

How long was the development process?

I was sent the article in the summer of 2016. They had asked me if I had any ideas of how to adapt it. So I first had to fight to get the writing job and put myself forward for that, which fortunately worked out. It wasn’t necessarily mine to direct, but I thought if I had any chance of directing it, I would have to write my way into the chair. I’d say it was early 2017 when they were trying to figure out who was going to direct it, and I’d kind of had my hand raised for a while at that point. I was just trying to get in the room for the meeting, really. That was maybe a 10-month process in which I was editing footage and various sequences of the movie as kind of a proof of concept. My editor, Kayla Emter, and I put together this sizzle reel that ultimately was the visual presentation. And I guess whenever I got in the room, I think it was November of 2017, I got the directing job. And then came the even longer process of trying to get the movie greenlit.

First it was about casting and getting Jennifer Lopez on board. And then it was about finding our Destiny (Constance Wu). And during that point we lost our studio. We brought the script around town to everybody, who didn’t really get it. I think it was STX who finally got it. I did two more page-one rewrites of the script, and then they greenlit that in mid-January of this year. So it’s been a bit of a race after the marathon.

What do you think other studios didn’t get about it?

Oh gosh. I mean, I think when you have women doing “bad things,” I think those characters are questioned within an inch of their lives. I think in general though, it was the judgment of where these characters started and not where they ended up. It felt like a real misunderstanding of strippers and sex workers. It felt like people couldn’t understand what they did for a living and make that connection between seeing them at work and then paying the bills and providing for their families. Also, it’s certainly not a black-and-white story. It’s not female empowerment wrapped up in a bow for people. So I think they were scared of that. They were hoping that it would be more of an obvious revenge story that I could vilify people more or, you know, change certain elements of the crimes themselves. But that all felt like blasphemy to me.

They asked questions of these characters that I don’t know that they would have of male characters. “Are they good enough, mom?” So, there was just a lot of scrutiny. The conversation about strippers and sex workers is never included in conversations about female empowerment or feminism in general. They felt like a marginalized group within a marginalized group. But I think that’s what was so interesting to me — to speak to a collective female experience through characters that maybe a lot of women wouldn’t think that they could relate to.

I read in another interview that you were trying to avoid “female empowerment as a genre.” Can you tell me about that?

Well, I’d been sent so many scripts since female empowerment became a genre. Maybe that was 2015, maybe it was the year before that, but somewhere in there it felt like it became a genre. And a lot of the scripts I was seeing felt like “an all-female whatever,” or had male characters that they crossed the names out and changed to women. I don’t think that’s the way to do it. I mean, I personally just think that if we’re going to speak to the female experience, then let’s do it. Certainly, it’s great to create more female characters out of thin air where there were none, but for me, a lot of them felt like stories that didn’t have to be about women. I was very much interested in a story that had to be about women. I mean, we saw Magic Mike, and it’s great. But this was much different than that.

On that note, it seems like there’s this push/pull in the movie between the legitimate politics of it, that some of these Wall Street guys the dancers are stealing from actually are thieves, but it’s also clear that J Lo’s character is just using that as a rationalization.

Yeah, I mean I think that was her rationalization, of course. And I never expected an audience to have a round of applause after she’d delivered some of those lines. I was sort of surprised to see that in the theater. I think that’s just it. I think an audience just knows the difference between right and wrong. I think it’s just a test of how long are you on board with these women? Do you agree with Ramona in that moment? Is she making valid points to you personally? And how much does that say about your own lot in life and what you relate to and who you relate to? I certainly thought what they did was wrong as far as drugging and stealing from these men. But I thought it was an interesting rationalization for Ramona to make.

Tell me about getting Cardi B in this movie. She got in trouble for admitting doing something similar to these characters in her own past, didn’t she?

I don’t know if we were filming by then or if we were in prep, but it was… Maybe we were filming by then. I mean she spoke to that obviously, but… yeah, I had chased her for a couple of years. I had wanted Cardi in this movie before there was a movie. On Instagram I’d get a message back to text a number. I’d text that number. I eventually got another message with a different phone number. So I have like two phone numbers in my phone labeled “Cardi B,” I’m not sure even if either of them works. But I mean, she’s incredible.

So that all came about accidentally? That subtext didn’t exist when you were trying to get her in the movie?

Oh no, not at all. She was already cast and we were just figuring out the schedule. That was years of me trying to get her into it. I mean obviously she understands this world and she’s done so much in her life to represent the community. So I always thought she would be such a perfect addition to this story. I also think she’s an incredible personality, and obviously incredibly talented. I just imagined that she would be a good actor, and she was. She really blew me away. I think everyone assumes that she could improvise and make lines her own and make things funny, but she also stuck to a script. She had to deliver scripted lines and be in these scenes with a lot of different kinds of performers. I think musicians and singers and dancers, they just do kind of make great actors. They have that rhythm and timing. So we ended up having Cardi, Lizzo, and Usher all in one day. It was wild. But I think ultimately Jennifer just called Cardi and said, “Please be in the movie.” That that made my job a lot easier.

From everything that I’ve read, it seems like you made a pretty good faith effort to try and include real sex workers and to get their input on this movie. And then you still sort of ended up getting some criticism after the fact. Can you talk about the difficulties of that?

I mean, I think anytime you make a movie that represents a certain group of people and certainly a group that’s been judged and misrepresented and maligned in the past — I think [the criticism is] understandable. I mean, the truth is that the people who probably liked The Meddler the least were women of a certain age who identified with the character. I think you often find that to be the case in any story you’re telling where you’re kind of representing a group. But in this case it makes perfect sense. They’ve been so misrepresented over the years. I certainly approached it from a place of research. I had to go into a lot of clubs and meet with a lot of women and I interviewed a lot of women in New York who were there during the financial crisis, who saw the change in their own industry before and after.

It was obviously about a very specific group of dancers in a very specific period in time. And I had friends who danced at Scores in the early aughts, and friends who had stripped after high school and college and paying off student loans and all that. I never judged the community in any way, but I still needed much more education as far as their daily lives. Then there were some people like Trace Lysette who read the script a year earlier and I wrote her the role and talking to her and talking to Jacqueline Francis who goes by Jacq the Stripper online who is a great advocate for the community. She played Jackie in the film and was also our stripper consultant and our comfort consultant. So she was invaluable.

And we had a Wall Street guy as well. I wanted to make sure things felt authentic. He walked around making sure the guys were wearing watches. There weren’t enough watches. He said back then they all wore big watches. And then something like the Usher scene was thanks to Jacq, because when we were filming, Jennifer said to her, “How would you act with a guy like this who came in the club?” And she said you’d act like he’s nothing. You might ask him his name. So Jennifer asked Usher his name, and we knew we had to shoot it.

But I mean, it’s hard. Obviously, I felt like I specifically made it for this group of people to show my love for them. What’s hard is that they’re still up against so much. Nothing’s changed for them. You know, pole dancers are still shadow-banned on Instagram while Hustlers has a training sequence playing as an ad, you know? The double standard obviously continues and there are so many recent laws that have put into place like SESTA/FOSTA that just makes their job harder. My hope was certainly to create more of a dialogue and to see something mainstream that could create space for that kind of empathy.

I hope they get to tell their own stories too. And I’ve certainly heard from other strippers and sex workers who’ve been deeply moved by this in profound ways, and other people who are making art similar to this now have a path to do that. So that’s really exciting.

‘Hustlers’ is now available on Blu-ray and to stream on-demand via various streaming platforms like iTunes, Amazon Prime, Youtube, and Google Play. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.