'Hustlers' Director Lorene Scafaria On American Culture, Big Bird, And Pop Star Charisma [Interview]

Hustlers lives comfortably in the grey. Lorene Scafarai's movie shows the good deeds and the bad and the right and the wrong, never telling the audience exactly how to feel about it all. The crimes speak for themselves, but Scafaria keeps the characters and the world messy with more empathy than moralizing. The drama, which is based on a wildly entertaining story by journalist Jessica Pressler, has more to it than strippers drugging and stealing big money from their marks. Starring Constance Wu and Jennifer LopezHustlers is about friendship, culture, and people dealt a bad hand in life, hungry for the American dream.

Similar to Scafaria's previous movies, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and The Meddler, the characters are alive and vibrant in Hustlers. The ups and downs of their complicated friendships are as suspenseful as their life of crime. They're doing a bad thing, without question, but there's also a lot of good in these characters.

Recently, Scafaria talked to us about the relationships in the movie, a potentially iconic shot of Lopez, and how we're all hustling.

I think this is a movie that's going to tell you a lot about someone, what they take away from a movie, and maybe how much empathy they have. What have been very telling reactions you've heard about the movie so far?

I think people have been really pleasantly surprised with how much they empathize and are on board in ways, even though they know the difference between right and wrong and the movie knows the difference between right and wrong and it's been really great to see so many different reactions to it. Some people are reacting to sex workers being humanized. Some people are reacting to the friendship story. Some people are reacting to seeing women handling money and talking about money, or just seeing them in some kind of epic story like this. So, it's been a variety of reactions.

It's a story that has its fun, often shows them having fun, but there's also horrific situations. How much of writing and making the movie felt like a balancing act?

Yeah, we wanted to tell something truthful and authentic and be truthful and authentic to what happened and certainly where they started from and where they ended up and at what point did they cross the line into something bad. But I always think of writing as an exercise in empathy in general, so I honestly tried to empathize with the men as much as the women and empathize with all of us in navigating this really weird world and our roles and our gender roles and what's expected of us. And then I also wanted to tell this crime drama and this really wild story, this period piece of recent history.

So, it was a balance, but since it's all an exercise in empathy in a way, I kind of just felt like, "Well, if don't try to vilify anybody too much or I don't try to turn anyone into a hero, what kind of story do we get to tell that way? If we don't all have to be perfect and the pressures that are on us in everyday life". And I felt a real responsibility to these characters and certainly to the community of strippers and sex workers but also to the characters in general that are often not able to be seen in a certain light or people want them to be virtuous or the Madonna whore complex, you know so...

Whenever I hear that, I cringe a little. 

It's so weird, I know. I haven't heard it in so long. Me saying it out loud actually felt strange, because that was a thing, isn't it?

Yeah. A screenwriter once said it to me during an interview. Completely serious. 

Really? It's so weird.

This is your most genre and plot-heavy movie as a director, so what was new for you and what was familiar? 

I feel like in a way I grew up with these guys and girls. I'm from New Jersey, I worked in a boiler room when I was 17, off Wall Street. So I was around these guys who were selling bad stocks to old people and I had friends who stripped and friends who stripped to pay off student loans or just as their job to get by and so I felt a kinship in a lot of ways. It felt very familiar to me. It was an epic story that I knew I could tell visually and that was why I really wanted the job.

That story is so cinematic.

Yeah, I mean as soon as I read it, I was like, "This is a movie already," and it felt like an event in a way because it felt like, there's been a scene in a strip club in every single TV show and movie ever and I can't believe how few have been made from their perspective. That's bizarre for something that feels like it's been represented too many times. I saw a movie recently where it was focusing on the guy sitting at the table and I actually was confused at why the camera was pointed at him because I've been so used to obviously following the girls around. So it blew my mind.

hustlers trailerYou have one of those tracking shots at the beginning where you follow Constance Wu's character walk into the club and her world, like Goodfellas or The Wrestler. How tricky are those shots?

Yeah, that was hard. That was our biggest day, scope wise. We had 300 extras and certainly not all the time in the world to pull it off. Todd Banhazl, the DP, and I, we shot listed the entire movie because we shot it in 29 days and it's really sprawling, it's a lot of story, a lot of locations, a lot of wardrobe. So it was a lot, and I didn't want to compromise so much on the page because I felt like this was a story that had to span time and had to show financial growth and had to show these things.

So it was thought of, certainly ahead of time, that a shot like that, that might have been take seven or eight. It was a lot to co-ordinate. I mean the AD department, the team I worked with, the New York crew was unbelievable. Colin and all the AD's, they were artists and generals. That's what I can't believe about when they're so great at their jobs that they are running the ship and yet they're also looking at every person in the frame and filling in the space and so we were co-coordinating which stances were where and then it's also sensitive enough material where you want to make sure that everyone feels comfortable.

So we had a comfort consultant and a stripper consultant who was there, along with myself of course. We were running around making sure that everybody feels good, making sure the girls know that they're in control, our actors were able to pick their patrons and not the other way around. And so we had to figure out how to set up an environment where everybody felt safe and comfortable but still very much alive and electric because we wanted to capture that spirit of what it's like to walk from the locker room out onto the floor and up on the stage.

There's a feeling of anxiety and fear there. 

Yeah, because I think you have to psyche yourself up. It's like anything, you have to... I guess for me, that's why it felt so familiar because I thought, "What's the difference between this and me and my girlfriends in the bathroom before going out and trying to get ready and being like 'All right, all right girls, we're doing it."

So I just felt like, some girls need a drink and some girls need a smoke and some girls are all good without it and it's a performance. It could be fast money but it might not be easy money, so it's wanting to just capture what that feeling might be like, while not trying to demonize it and not trying to turn it into this poverty porn. I mean, it really is a job like anything else.

Jennifer Lopez is Out of Sight great in this movie, and she gets a big movie star introduction, her and the character. How did you land on that introduction? 

We thought about Raging Bull, we thought about certainly giving her the entrance that she deserves but feeling like there were fighters in the ring, so we were trying to give her that kind of entrance and for me what was so funny was before it was Jennifer Lopez, I certainly would not have expected that kind of routine from whoever I was going to cast in that part. So I believe in the original script it was, does a final flourish," then steps on stage and then all of that.

But when you have J-Lo in the part you get to have a scene like that and so it was really exciting. I found a song that I thought would be great for her and she enjoyed the tempo of it and loved it. And so she and a choreographer put together this number that was beyond my wildest dreams and we talked about this scene a lot. We shot it like a stunt, honestly. It was a three camera set-up and moved around a couple of times, did it a few different ways and that was it.

We wanted to make sure we got it right so I was on stage ahead of that, walking around and doing J-Lo's, not doing the routine but a walk through of her routine and pointing to different men and saying, "You're going to throw money and you're going to throw money and you're going to throw money and she's going to do this and that's going to get you to throw money", so that once she was there doing it we weren't going to have to put her through that too many times because it's truly athletic and that's why we wanted to treat it like a sports movie. You know, a boxing movie. I think she's so powerful and strong and athletic and I think for me, I think Ramona is in control of the camera at that point. So whether it's sexual or not, it's what she wants it to be.

It's followed with a great laugh and cut, that shot of her smoking on a rooftop. What can you tell me about shooting that shot, that pose, and that scene?  

It was in my dreams, obviously, that that would be the shot and it elicits such laughter from me personally. I was so happy that it did the same, because it's beyond ridiculous, she is so beautiful, and so what she just pulled off on stage and to see J-Lo in a way that you haven't ever seen her before and yet in a way that is familiar and so there was something about putting her on that rooftop. I mean, like inspiration, I tried to make like it includes Big Bird. I don't know if you ever saw Big Bird on the roof that's stuck there on Christmas? But I will show Todd Benhazl Big Bird on the roof.

That was an inspiration?

That was one of my inspirations. No one will want to hear that.

[Laughs] I like that Big Bird and Raging Bull are influences.

Big Bird and Raging Bull, basically. That's just a delicate combo, those two. But we found this incredible rooftop. I was so specific about this rooftop, I drove everybody crazy about this rooftop because this was the first scene that I wrote, was that scene and for me, it was all about mamma bear, baby bear and the idea that if Jennifer Lopez invited you into her fur coat, you'd be like, "Yeah, I would probably do whatever you told me to."

So that rooftop, the skyline, the skylight, the coat, all of it, the lighting, everything that we tried to dial in to get that magic glow out of it, because it does feel a little bit like a fantasy and then it's the reason that you go into the interview right after that because it's like, "Are you telling us this story right or is this like the most glamorous thing?"

I think musicians have a charisma beyond actors, so when they have a great role, it's usually stunning to watch. When you have actors like Jennifer Lopez, Cardi B or Lizzo, is there anything about them as pop culture figures or entertainers you want to bring to the movie? 

I like that that's there. I like that there's a bit of a wink to the arts just by having Jennifer Lopez in this movie, because I think Ramona's style icon is probably J-Lo, so it makes perfect sense. There's a little bit of a wink when you see her wearing the old Timberland shoes or something.

Or listening to Britney Spears.

Yes, like listening to Britney Spears. There's some extra joy in there, that I think is great. Obviously, Cardi brings so much authenticity to the role. I'm like you though, I'm just a fan of seeing performers and musicians, and Tom Waits would be in this movie if he could [Laughs]. But I just find that they just have this natural rhythm and timing and personality and are used to performing and know what it takes to sell something that way.

But what I was so surprised by was how much they all worked within the same movie together, because people are such superstars and then they're standing next to burlesque dancers or real strippers or an actress. And so the fact that they all were able to exist, that Cardi, of course she's a superstar, a megawatt superstar and of course a diamond, is a character that the other girls are obsessed with. But she slipped into that role and she slipped into that world and she allowed herself to wear the 2007 and 2008 clothes and Lizzo and Jennifer, they just have such incredible personalities. They're so good at improvising. I certainly encourage that at all turns. Keke Palmer is another one, she's a musician and a singer and she's just unstoppable when it comes to improvisation. She's so good, she's so full of life and energy and I just think they're incredible gifted performers, they just bring that raw talent and that energy and charisma to everything. It was certainly why I only dreamt of them in this movie.

In the article, a part of the fun is they'll say something ridiculous and then really poignant, like "the want of wanting" or what the movie is about, "American culture is kind of fucked up." 

American culture is kind of fucked up. Yeah, American culture is fucked up. I think that's just it. When I read that story, I thought there's something so poignant to be said about American culture, the American Dream, greed, where we are now, where we just were moments ago, the arts, our such recent history, but they feel like forever ago and also feel like we can probably look at that and see how we got swept along in the sea.

[Spoiler Alert]Ramona's final speech, how'd you end on that note? What did you want her to say and what did you want to say?

It felt like Ramona really needed to let the audience know what they've been watching and the reality is, life goes on, the clubs go on, the world keeps turning, that these girls did what they did. And did anything change? Wall Street did what they did. Did anything change? We're men and women, we've made all of these strides. Has anything changed? So there's something about it... I do think we've obviously made incredible strides just by unification honestly but every now and then you've got to look at it and go, "Have we done something groundbreaking? Have we broken ground because this whole story happened and America is still America."

I think until we start to look at the value system and what ticks off the top box for each of us- Is it money and power and success for men, is it beauty or bodies or sex or motherhood for women? If those are the top boxes for each of us, that's what we're valued for, what's the trickle-down of that? How does that affect everything? And that's not to say that people who strive to make money are evil or women who want to be beautiful are wrong. I can't fault anybody for working within that system or trying to work within that system, but why are we all out of breath at the starting line? What's happened to put us in that position and how many hurdles does each person have before they get there?

So I think in that way it's really hard to summarize a movie or a crime drama or a rise and fall story or any of that but at the same time, I just wanted to leave everybody with, we are all hustling, we're all hustling and I'm hustling right now and so are you and we're just like, this is it. And yet you go anywhere in the world and people are just trying to provide for their families. In any walk of life people are usually just trying to make it and get by and life is really hard and so I have great empathy for everybody, men and women and all of us, who are trying to navigate this thing and feel valued and self-worth and all of that. I would rather take a microscope to culture than any particular gender or job or anything like that. I would rather just look at what are we all doing. And so, it was a way to pull back out and say that the world keeps turning.


Hustlers is now in theaters.