Lorene Scafaria on the Best Birthday Present ‘Hustlers’ Gave Her – Awards Daily

The writer-director talks about early drafts of the script and Jennifer Lopez’s iconic entrance.

Hustlers is one of the best films of the year, and it features one of the strongest ensembles, led by Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez. Not only does the film comment on relevant themes of class and the power of money, but it’s incredibly entertaining in the process. Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, Hustlers deserves nominations for how nimbly it gives you the goods and leaves your wallet empty by the end.

I thought I knew how Hustlers was going to end when I attended the film. As Wu’s Destiny speaks to a reporter (played by Julia Stiles) about her experience as a stripper, her main focus is her relationship with Lopez’s Ramona. I initially thought that the film would pit these women against each another, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that Hustlers was really an ode to the friendship between them. We have enough stories of women getting pitted against one another, so Scafaria’s film is such a breath of fresh air.

I really couldn’t contain my excitement when Scarfaria detailed filming Ramona’s iconic dance entrance (and, yes, when she mentioned the big fur coat, I squealed a little), but she revealed how the script evolved from draft to draft. The backstage moments of the film are so realistic to the point that we feel we are getting close to each member of this family of women. It’s a rare heist where the grifting is an absolutely sexy delight.

Awards Daily: What was it about ‘The Hustlers at Scores’ that made you want to adapt it into a feature?

Lorene Scafaria: There was so much. I knew by about paragraph six that I was hooked and I needed to make it. There’s a line that says, “the values of third-wave feminism had aligned with those of Howard Stern…” This isn’t just a true story, but it’s about a time that we are present for. We are all complicit. I was really interested in talking about gender in how it relates to the economy—living under capitalism, especially marginalized people within a marginalized group. That’s why I was so interested in talking about strippers and seeing a story from their perspective. And, at its core, it’s a beautiful friendship story between two women who have different relationships with their bodies and their jobs. It’s kind of a love story between them, but I wanted to tell this story for so many reasons.

AD: You mentioned women under capitalism, and I feel like there are a lot of films in 2019 that deal with economic inequality, like Hustlers and Parasite. Why do you think that’s such a prevalent theme right now?

LS: Parasite really talks about how capitalism is global so beautifully. It captures something really incredible about class war in a very human way. I think that if you are a person who knows what it’s like to not have money, you certainly look at the system and how broken it is and how it’s designed to keep the rich, rich and the poor, poor. I think people are waking up to that and realizing the shortcomings of it. As someone who has enjoyed my capitalist life, I remember what it was like in 2007 and the excess on the rise. I think it speaks to a common experience even through it’s seen through characters who are not often seen as relatable. That’s another reason I was drawn to it. It features characters that are often stigmatized for what they do for a living and for functioning within capitalism and a value system that values women for their beauty and men for their money. The rules of the club felt like the rules of the world and a way to speak to something we all experience, whether our eyes are open to it or not.

AD: I think I’ve seen Jennifer talking about playing this type of role and how actors like her aren’t always represented. Ramona’s entrance is already such a huge moment of the year.

LS: Hmmm.

AD: She owns that room and is taking from all the men in her sights. It’s already iconic. What was it like filming that sequence in particular?

LS: It was my birthday.

(Photo: Barbara Nitke/STX Financing, LLC)

AD: No way!

LS: I’ll never have anything like that again (laughs). It was electric—truly electric. It’s one of those things where in the script I wrote, ‘Ramona does one final flourish’ so I never expected that scene to be a scene. I expected to meet Ramona, and see Destiny see Ramona, and see how much she commanded the room and then get money from these guys. It wasn’t necessarily a dance number. The fact that Jennifer could throw herself into that role and train so hard and choreograph this number was all gravy. That was so exciting. Todd [Benhazi], my DP, and I talked about the control that runs through the movie, and we wanted to apply that to the camera as well. That’s one of those scenes where I feel like Ramona is in control of the camera (laughs).

AD: She totally is.

LS: She’s in control of where the camera goes and what we see and not see and when we cut back. In that scene we are seeing Destiny see Ramona, but we are also on stage with Ramona and feeling that power. To feel what it’s like to so powerfully command that room. We are also like the crowd being captivated by her. We talked about the female gaze and about highlighting the athleticism of it—the power and control. The rest is Jennifer living it. That was one of those scenes that just really came together. Todd and I didn’t see the finished piece until two weeks before we shot it. It took a moment to get our jaws off the ground. How do we tackle it as a live event kind of deal—Jennifer Lopez is doing this routine in front of 300 extras. As much as we want the set to feel safe and comfortable for everyone, we wanted it to feel alive and masculine on camera. It was such an exciting challenge. We were excited to celebrate Jennifer in that way and meet this character.

AD: That’s a great birthday present.

LS: It really was!

AD: On the flip side, I really loved the scenes in the backstage area when we get to see the performers getting ready. What did you want to capture about the intimacy of that area of the club?

LS: That’s where most of the intimacy takes place—up on the rooftop with Jennifer’s big coat or in the locker room. I wanted it to feel like stripping could be a solo sport or a team sport depending on how you do it. Destiny has to meet the right person at the right time, because stripping can come with that isolation. I think there’s an intimacy among women that can only happen between women. That kind of immediate friendship.

Women can see a stranger crying in a parking garage, and she’s going to walk over and see if she can help her. Destiny is a woman who can have all that physical contact with men and strangers, and she’s close with her grandma—even though she doesn’t know what Destiny does for a living. To give her that immediate intimacy with Ramona was life-changing. She welcomes Destiny into the fold. I felt like I was casting for the locker room. The entire movie is in there. I wanted to capture the spirit back there. The way they can talk over each other and be very natural in a way that it feels like in a sports movie. Nudity is the most mundane. The contact they have with each other is nothing to do with the outside world. There are some real strippers, stand-up comedians, burlesque dancers, and some performers, and Cardi B. The joy was taking all these different types of people and putting them together. It was a great challenge to have 15 speaking parts in an all-mirrored room (laughs). It was so alive in that room, and a lot of it was casting certain people. Jennifer is Ramona in that room and Cardi is Diamond in that room. You can see who the top moneymakers are, but you can also see who is in awe of those people. It was so much fun.

AD: I was so happy to see Trace Lysette in there as well.

LS: I’m an enormous fan of hers, and she wrote me a tweet about a year and a half before we made the movie. It was about her own experience in the club, and we met for lunch. I knew immediately that I wanted to write her a role and have her be a part of this.

AD: As the movie progressed, I was curious about how the relationship between Destiny and Ramona would evolve. I feel like in a lesser movie, Ramona would have been so much more “villainous.”

LS: Hmm.

AD: You briefly mentioned a love story between these women. Was that relationship like that in early drafts of the script, or did that chemistry help build it as you shot it?

LS: It came more through the writing. On paper, even though one is more seasoned than the other, there is a little bit more of a she said/she said. In different versions of the story, it was more about an unreliable narrator—much more plot-driven. It’s funny, at some point, I had done enough versions of that script and I wanted to try something else. I smashed the script on the ground and started over and opened up the title page and wrote, ‘Destiny and Ramona.’ I thought of it more as a two-hander love story. I wrote this second version of the script that threw the first version out the window.

(Scafaria, right, directing Lopez on set; photo: Barbara Nitke/STX Financing, LLC)

AD: I love that you focused on them so much. You could feel the love between them. 

LS: It wasn’t the right version of the movie, but it created the right direction for the movie. Ultimately, I still wanted to hang onto that love story, but we lost the plot a little bit. The third version is the one we made. By that time, Jennifer had been cast for a long time, and Constance was interested, and it’s a little bit like matchmaking. I had met them separately and imagined them together. I thought they would have incredible chemistry. I knew that Constance could deliver on this version of Destiny that was lonely and isolated and really needed someone like Ramona to open her up. That dynamic evolved, and it became that mentor/mentee, mother/daughter, big sister/little sister relationship, and it became clear in the edit that the story really hinged on them.

AD: A lot of people keep talking about the holiday sequence and people joke that Hustlers is a Christmas movie.

LS: I agree with them (laughs).

AD: Everyone will be thrilled to hear that! Are you attracted to stories about family? The Meddler is obviously about a real mother and daughter, and Hustlers is more about a makeshift group of family. Do you write with that in mind or is it coincidence?

LS: I think I am drawn to stories about loneliness and the cure of loneliness. I was drawn into the found family and you are not often given the family that you need. You need to make it for yourself sometimes. In that Christmas scene, I was really interested in finally seeing these characters’ home lives. This is their family spending this holiday with each other because it is the family they have. It was exciting to have an all-lady Christmas. I honestly feel like it was one of the happiest days on set—it really did feel like Christmas. It had that spirit in the air since it was about the midway point of the shoot. I was excited to see women giving to each other and spending money on each other. It’s funny that it’s such a warm sequence because it’s kind of seeing, like, capitalism at its core, so I loved how warm it felt. It’s also about generations coming together and that feeling of when your different families meet for the first time. I mean, we see Destiny’s grandma and Ramona meeting for the first time and really hitting it off and that brings tears to my eyes. We all know the feeling of our worlds colliding, and it going better than we could ever hope. Destiny gets to see her two families coming together, and I found that very moving.

AD: I feel like we all need to thank you for bringing back Fiona Apple to us. You and Hustlers are solely responsible for that, too, so thank you.

LS: It was my pleasure.

Hustlers is in theaters now. 

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