‘Hustlers’ writer-director Lorene Scafaria had to do her own dancing to get the film made
“Hustlers” fell apart, for the first time, the day before my 40th birthday. It was a real one-two.
A few months later, the studio officially dropped the movie. The producers and I scrambled to bring it to other financiers/studios/streaming services/anyone who would listen. Some rejected the concept over the phone. Others reluctantly said yes to a meeting. The pitches landed during the week of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, when husbands and wives weren’t speaking to each other. The rooms were cold, filled with mostly men who sat back and stared, stone-faced, arms folded, waiting to be impressed, as I gave my spiel.
As I danced for the money.
I was used to it. I had been trying out various moves to get financiers to open their wallets in a post-recession world for almost two decades. I moved from New York to L.A. a week before 9/11 when I was 23. I spent most of my 20s trying to sell specs in general meetings with producers and studio execs, accompanied for a brief period by a male writing partner who was shocked to witness such gems as, “We talked about your script for five minutes, we talked about your tits for 20.”
A year later, I was on my own in these rooms. One producing team spoke to me at length about their abilities at cunnilingus. The younger one emailed me later writing, “Miss you, crave you, want you, OR let’s just f— work together.” I wrote back, “I think I got your wife’s email by mistake.” We did not f—work together.
I was sent Jessica Pressler’s brilliant New York Magazine piece, “The Hustlers at Scores,” in the summer of 2016. The article read like a movie — a pulsating true-crime story about a team of strippers who drugged and fleeced their Wall Street clients after the financial crisis brought the global economy to its knees. It touched on so many themes that I wanted to talk about — gender as it relates to money, women under capitalism, our broken value system, loneliness, friendship, motherhood, survival, greed, power, control.
What did Jennifer Lopez, Charlize Theron, Renée Zellweger, Awkwafina and Cynthia Erivo talk about when they got together for a conversation?
I had been sent a lot of “female empowerment” stories since that phrase had become a genre, but most of them felt manufactured and condescending, simply making characters female rather than telling stories that depict and explore the female experience. Pressler’s article was different.
It wasn’t just a story that happened to involve women — it was a story that could only be about women. It was inherently female. Its danger, its moral ambiguity, its tenderness, its brutality, all of it stemmed from the women themselves, from the women as women in a society that values women and men differently. It was messy. And it had to stay that way.
I wrote draft after draft. Some elements would change, but the crimes were always the same. At one point, I deleted “Hustlers” from the title page, typed “Destiny and Ramona” and did a page-one rewrite. Then, I did another. I focused more and more on the central relationship but stayed true to what excited me about the article in the first place. It was a tougher sell than I thought.
I danced my ass off. I pitched “Hustlers” as an event movie. A movie for women and men. Something that could spark conversations rather than give easy answers. I thought it could be a movie for everyone.
At GQ’s Men of the Year party, “Hustlers” director Lorene Scafaria gushed over cover star Jennifer Lopez and reflected on all the awards buzz around her film.
They disagreed. The men in the room identified with the men in the story. And the women in the room didn’t like strippers to begin with. Grown-ups couldn’t seem to say the word “stripper” without giggling or gagging. The characters weren’t just being judged for where they ended up but for where they started.
The women were “unlikable.” The men weren’t unlikable enough. The crimes were too great. “There’s nobody to root for.” I brought up the many beloved male antiheroes in film and television, first and last name. “You expect more from women.” “Are they good enough moms?” “Can you cut out the drugging?” “Can you write in a rape?”
By the time I met with STX, I was out of breath. I thought that when I sent them the shooting script, that was that. I said one last tearful goodbye and pushed it away. Twenty-four hours later, it got the green light. A week later, I was living in New York for the first time since 2001, scouting strip clubs.
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