Lorene Scafaria: Hustling for Hustlers

October 2, 2019
We spoke with the indie filmmaker behind the surprise US box office hit, Hustlers, which is based on the true story of savvy strippers ripping off Wall Street clients.

“I think as soon as people started to pass a certain amount of judgment on the characters, I felt very personally invested in telling their story,” says writer/director Lorene Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, The Meddler), at the Toronto International Film Festival, about her personal mission to get Hustlers made. “I feel like female characters are scrutinised in ways that women in general are scrutinised. And we’re supposed to be perfect, and we’re not supposed to make mistakes, and we’re not supposed to get greedy, or ever have that level of ambition. And so, I felt like people were judging the characters for not just where they ended up but for where they started.

“As a person who feels like I grew up with these girls, I grew up with these guys… I worked in a boiler room when I was 17 – it was just a room full of phones where guys were selling bad stocks to old people. I have friends who stripped – became strippers after high school, college, paying off student loans.

“I guess I just saw it as a story about people, but the themes were the things I wanted to talk about. The broken value system. These are things that I have just been raging about on my own back porch for a number of years. And I felt like this was a really interesting, organic way into a story about women, that has to be a story about women, not just a manufactured story about women but could only be a story about women. And the collective experience and the very different experiences that we all have.

“I wrote the script, even though I knew it wasn’t my directing job to start. I was trying to write the script to get myself into the director’s chair. And then it took a long time to convince people. I made a sizzle reel, I cut together footage of other movies to try to show this proof of concept to everyone. That was the other part of it. It wasn’t just the directing job, it was proving to people that this was a story worth telling. And it felt like every headline in the news was only making it more relevant to me, and more urgent.”

Based on a true crime article written by Jessica Pressler, Hustlers features an eclectic cast led by Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu, supported by pop culture darlings such as Keke Palmer, Cardi B, Lizzo, G-Eazy, Mette Towley, Usher, Trace Lysette and Jacq the Stripper.

It’s a movie about female strippers, but for a female audience?

There are so few movies that tell it from their point of view, and even when they have, I’m not sure that they’re told with the same humanity and empathy. I was excited to walk in their shoes and really see what they experience on a daily basis. The pros, the cons, the good days, the bad days.

Can you talk about assembling this incredible cast?

It was a lot easier once Jennifer Lopez was attached to get a lot of people interested. But the miracle was probably scheduling all of these people who obviously have incredibly busy lives. Cardi was very busy. Lizzo was touring. We just found windows somehow, and then I think a series of miracles happened. It started with Jennifer, and then Constance, and then building around them. Lizzo, Cardi, those are roles I wrote for them along with Trace Lysette. And Jacq the Stripper as she’s known, Jacqueline Frances, she plays Jackie. So, I had pulled all of these people in that I really wanted to see in a locker room together, and I just kind of can’t believe it worked out.

The film has a comedic nature, but it’s about a serious crime. How did you balance that tone, and how do you create the sympathy for the characters amidst all of that?

I wanted to tell a fuller story, before it certainly turned to a crime drama. Obviously, there’s a point of no return for them. I think we all know the difference between right and wrong. I wasn’t trying to convince anyone that wrong was right or right was wrong, but I was just interested in seeing what they were up against in their industry, how much the financial crisis had an effect on their industry. Obviously, it had an effect on all of us, but there was a real before and after for them, especially in New York, in Wall Street’s backyard.

I didn’t want to change anything, to be honest. I didn’t want to tell a black and white story. I didn’t want to convince the audience that they should root for them or root against them. I really just wanted to leave it up to audiences. There’s certainly fun and comedy involved and there’s other heavier, sadder moments, but it was really at its core a friendship story about these two women who formed this bond and this business together; a friendship that can bail you out of trouble but also get you into a lot of trouble.

I just wanted to talk about the power dynamics. There were just so many things I was interested in. Obviously, it’s a movie about capitalism, and money as it relates to gender, and gender as it relates to money. And so, I thought, we’re used to seeing women spending and shopping but not often seeing them earning and providing. I wanted to talk about all of that.

To what extent is the strip club a microcosm for the United States right now?

The rules of the club are kind of the rules of the world. There’s certainly a broken value system in which women are valued for their beauty and their bodies, whether that’s for sex or motherhood, and men are valued for their success, money and power. I think especially in America that trickles down and feels very dangerous. It seems to seep into all kinds of things that are affecting our lives because of that sort of toxic masculinity.

And that’s not to blame a gender. I can’t really take it out on people who are trying to exist within that system. I certainly don’t fault women for wanting to be beautiful or men for wanting to be powerful, because look at what’s rewarded?

But, yeah, America is a strip club.

Hustlers is in cinemas October 10, 2019

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