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How Lorene Scafaria’s ‘Hustlers’ turned a tabloid stripper drama into an ode to female empowerment

“Hustlers” director Lorene Scafaria
Lorene Scafaria wrote and directed “Hustlers,” which is premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday.
(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

To quote a timeless Janet Jackson jam, as “Hustlers” does in its opening seconds, this true crime stripper drama is a story about control. Women seeking control of their own bodies, their finances, their futures.

The film, starring Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu as ex-strippers bilking wealthy clientele for cash, premieres Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival before opening nationwide Sept. 13. But along its road to the big screen, says writer-director Lorene Scafaria, it often felt like she might not be the one to get to make it.

Scafaria already had directing credits under her belt when she was hired to adapt “Hustlers” from the viral 2015 New York Magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores.” While she was writing, she found herself scripting musical cues from Jackson, Britney Spears and Lorde onto the page. She saw the movie in her head. She knew she wanted to direct it too.

But her films, including the autobiographical mama drama “The Meddler,” had not exactly, by her own admission, been commercial hits. And there was one big directing name ahead of her at the top of the producers’ wish list.

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“When I handed in the script, [Martin] Scorsese was the person everyone was thinking about,” Scafaria laughed during a chat in Los Angeles earlier this week. Producer Adam McKay, whose company Gloria Sanchez Productions developed the project, she said, was supportive of her bid: “He said, ‘I hope Scorsese passes.’”

Scafaria eventually won the job and helped convince execs it was a story people wanted to see. “It blew me away how hard it was for people to wrap their heads around seeing women doing some bad things and still being able to know the difference between right and wrong, by presenting a story about a thing that happened, and happens, and something that isn’t just black and white,” she said.

“Hustlers” director Lorene Scafaria says of assembling her star-studded cast, “Getting everybody in the same room was the true miracle.”
“Hustlers” director Lorene Scafaria says of assembling her star-studded cast, “Getting everybody in the same room was the true miracle.”
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

With the green light, she amassed one of this year’s deepest squads of women onscreen and behind the camera to make “Hustlers” into reality. It’s no accident that the star-studded project, inspired by a real operation pulled by real New York women in the shadows of Wall Street following the 2008 financial crash, centers on an antiheroine who’s picked “Destiny” as her own poetic stage name.

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Appropriately enough, it’s late afternoon on Labor Day when Scafaria arrives for a quick bite and chat at Fairfax Avenue eatery Jon & Vinny’s. Even on a holiday with the film recently completed, she’s still in finish-the-movie mode. Who can blame her? Including a recent press tour and her impending release date, the “Hustlers” journey has been a whirlwind and a roller coaster all at once.

Originally announced in 2016, “Hustlers” was saved from near-death after Annapurna Pictures exited the project last fall. STX Films came through with new backing in October, then Scafaria led her cast and crew through a brisk 29-day shoot in March — giving her just six months to deliver the fast-tracked final film in time for its release. (STX, which has endured a series of recent flops including “Poms” and “UglyDolls,” recognized the commercial potential for a project currently tracking to deliver the company’s biggest opening weekend gross ever.)

They say that getting any movie over the finish line is a minor miracle; try wrangling the already-busy film, TV and performance schedules of stars like J. Lo, Constance Wu, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Cardi B and Lizzo to get them all on set together to film key group scenes, including a dreamy strip club reverie with everyone on stage at once and throngs of extras in the crowd.

“Scheduling was crazy. Getting everybody in the same room was the true miracle,” said Scafaria. J. Lo was prepping her It’s My Party international tour; Wu had to head back to the set of “Fresh Off the Boat.” The stars aligned for Cardi B and Lizzo, whom Scafaria had chased for the film, to make their schedules work. “Lizzo was on tour and it just happened to be a window when she could come. She had the flu, but you would never know it.”

Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona

Starring in the film and producing alongside her business partner Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, McKay, Will Ferrell and Jessica Elbaum, Lopez had particularly grueling responsibilities.

As Ramona, she makes a grand introduction at the strip club where newbie dancer Destiny (Wu) is scraping by and seeking a friend; gyrating and spinning expertly on the pole to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” Ramona is both snake charmer and queen cobra, working powerful magic on an adoring audience and on Destiny, whom she takes under her wing.

Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu in “Hustlers.”
Jennifer Lopez, left, and Constance Wu in “Hustlers.”
(STXfilms)

“Learning to pole dance was absolutely critical because Ramona is this fearless veteran of the strip club,” Lopez wrote in an email. “She knows how to move, she knows how to mesmerize the crowd. It takes years to learn how to pole dance, and I essentially had to do a crash course. I can say that without a doubt, pole dancing is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. I had to learn how to use new muscles, and every day I walked away with bruises. My back and shoulders are still recovering.”
When the financial crisis trickles down and curbs the cash flow of their Wall Street clients, whose predatory practices set a dubious moral example for the titular antiheroines, Ramona transforms into something like Gordon Gekko in a G-string. She recruits Destiny as her partner in a scheme, along with Mercedes (Palmer) and Annabelle (Reinhart), to drug rich men and run up their credit card tabs.

As it did in real life, the plot goes south and the women have to face the music. “Hustlers” doesn’t absolve the women of their crimes, but it does seek to parse how systems of inequity and privilege played a role in leading them astray.

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“As Ramona says in the movie, ‘This whole country is a strip club. You’ve got people throwing the money and you’ve got people doing the dance,’” said Lopez, whose revelatory performance could send her into the awards race this season. “‘Hustlers’ is in part a reflection on the socioeconomic inequities in America and shines a light on how we are all just trying to get by with this system of hurdles in place.”

“These women wanted to have control over their own destinies,” she continued. “But their focus on money, especially my character Ramona’s, sent them down a slippery slope. Did she end up being any different than the powerful people she was trying to hustle? That’s for the audience to decide.”

Constance Wu’s Destiny

In the film, Destiny has a real name outside of the club — Dorothy — and a ton of family baggage. A single mother with a young child, a complicated relationship with her immigrant parents and a close bond with her grandmother, she embraces her own innate business acumen as the scheme grows. But as the operation careens out of control her sisterly friendship with Ramona sours, testing their bond.

Like Scafaria, Lopez and many of the supporting cast — which includes Trace Lysette, Mette Towley, Mercedes Ruehl, Julia Stiles, Madeline Brewer and Jacqueline Francis, a.k.a. Jacq the Stripper — Wu got to know an array of working and former dancers and house moms, learning about their real lives.

Constance Wu as Destiny in “Hustlers.”
Constance Wu as Destiny in “Hustlers.”
(STXfilms)

“I was just getting to know these people as people, not as subjects,” said Wu, who fought to win the role, a character very unlike the suburban mother of three she plays on television. “Just hanging out, getting a drink, talking. I did ask some girls, ‘What was it like, your first night that you did it?’ And everybody has such a different story.”

Most movies in the crime genre are concerned with morally fluid, complicated men, Wu pointed out. “I think what it highlights is that it is so rare that we have female-centric stories where, in a sense, the men are the narrative tools that are really being used to tell this story about the friendship and the culture,” Wu added. “‘Hustlers’ is not really about the men.”

The actual Destiny that Wu drew from for her “Hustlers” role isn’t named Dorothy. Her name is Roselyn Keo. In 2014 she was arrested along with Samantha Barbash, Marsi Rosen and Karina Pascucci for her part in the headline-grabbing crimes. She took a deal, and in 2016 was sentenced to five years probation. After that, she says, she set out to leave her past in the rearview mirror.
She had given her story to journalist Jessica Pressler for the initial article. But for a while she wasn’t sure how to feel about the movie. “In the beginning it was a little tough for me to accept,” said Keo this week by phone from the New York area, where she still lives. “After six years I was a stay-at-home mom ... it felt like I had just rebuilt my life again.”

As Scafaria’s film took shape, it helped that a trio of key women became involved in the film.

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“Three people I happen to be really big fans of,” said Keo. “Constance, because she represents for the Asian community so I’m honored. J. Lo, because who doesn’t love J. Lo?! I grew up listening to her music and watching her movies. And then Cardi B. She is the strip club idol: She made something of herself, which is not something that too many women from that industry end up doing.”

After connecting with Wu online, she finally met the actress in New York a few days ago backstage at the Jimmy Fallon show ahead of the film’s Toronto premiere, where she plans on seeing the film for the first time.

Keo, who has been supportive of the film, also decided to tell her full story in her own words with a memoir, “The Sophisticated Hustler,” due out the same day “Hustlers” hits theaters.

Lorene Scafaria’s direction

And with Scafaria in control, the film takes a fresh look at the well-worn cinematic territory of the strip club. Her directorial eye doesn’t leer, it sees into her characters, lending an empowering female gaze to the film. “I wanted the characters to dictate [the] camera,” she explained. “If Ramona wanted us to see her a certain way, then the camera would see her that way. We put that thought into how to cover a scene: Who was in control and how much are they in control of us?”

The new “Hustlers” trailer is here, giving you a preview of Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Lizzo and Cardi B in action in the hotly anticipated film.

“This isn’t a story that would normally be told through women’s eyes,” said Lopez, “and to bring it to life is unlike anything that’s been done. Lorene didn’t make this movie to focus on women’s bodies in a sensationalist or overly sexualized way. She made them athletes. She gave them these dynamic and powerful voices.”

Scafaria hopes “Hustlers” adds a long absent female perspective to stories like these — stories of the American dream and the realities of the American hustle. She hopes strippers and sex workers like it, and that women and men feel seen by it. And she hopes it encourages everyone to take a kinder look at the unseen hustles of those around them.

"[Audiences] can certainly walk away feeling like they enjoyed a movie and I’d be fine with that,” she said. “But if they can walk away with any empathy for what other people are going through, that would be meaningful to me.”


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