Wes Anderson, the Coen brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee. When established male directors write their own movies, they direct them. There’s never a question.
Lorene Scafaria, a 41-year-old actress, writer, pianist and director, aspires to join those top-tier ranks. But with only two previous director/writer credits to her name (most recently, “The Meddler”), getting her third film, “Hustlers,” made required lots of, well, hustle. For nearly three years, she wrote and edited her script, lobbied for her film and fought to convince producers that she should occupy the director’s chair.
Hopefully she won’t have to work quite so hard for movie number four.
“Hustlers” is about many things, most notably dancers at a Manhattan strip club, but more importantly, as Scafaria points out, “It’s about gender” and “economics.” So to get the film made — and get the film made her way — she did what a woman working in the megabucks world of the film business often has to do: strive and sacrifice. She turned down other directing projects, at a financial loss, to stay available for her own film. And when the green light finally came, she had only eight months to make the movie.
Once filming got underway, “People kept saying, ‘Are you okay? This must be crazy,’” Scafaria told The Lily. “And I was like, ‘It was crazier not making it. The amount of stress I faced not making this movie can’t remotely compare to the stress of making it.’”
“Hustlers” premiered Sept. 7 at the Toronto International Film Festival and opened nationwide Friday, less than two weeks after Scafaria finished it. The film stars Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu as a pair of single moms and night club performers who, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, start drugging their clients and maxing out the men’s credit cards to stay comfortably afloat. (Scafaria adapted the film from Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York magazine article, “The Hustlers at Scores.”) She was able to cast Lizzo, Cardi B and a host of real-life strippers and pole dance artists as pasty-wearing performers at the club, while Lili Reinhart and Keke Palmer play young colleagues who join the fleecing scheme, which involves dozens of bodycon minidresses, a few Louboutins (“I got the red bottoms, baby!” Palmer’s character squeals) and several passed-out, naked Wall Street executives.
Scafaria spoke to The Lily about what drew her to this Robin Hood-esque story of income inequality, the terrifying logistics of studio financing and how hard Jennifer Lopez trained to show the world she could pole dance.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The Lily: “Hustlers” is so well-written. Your script is full of one-line zingers, like “Motherhood is a mental illness” and lap dances should be performed “Slow as a [expletive] sloth.” How did you approach structuring the film, and how did you settle on a nonlinear format, including a journalist (played by Julia Stiles) interviewing Lopez and Wu’s characters years later?
Lorene Scafaria: Jessica’s article was so well-written, and she told the story so well. I was equally inspired by the structure: Here were these two women who formed this friendship and this business, and here they were being interviewed separately. So from my very earliest pitch of how I would adapt the article, the journalist was part of the story. The film needed that reflection.
It’s such a compelling story that talks about so many themes that I wanted to talk about in my work, but in this really organic way. We’re seeing control and gender as they relate to the economy and capitalism.
TL: Yet I don’t feel like you are totally bashing capitalism. The tone of “Hustlers” treads this delicate line where you look at the bad hands these women have been dealt as well as the realities of a capitalist economy, which can really suck.
LS: Writing, for me, is always an exercise in empathy; this was no different. We’re all up against this broken value system: Women are valued for their beauty and their bodies — whether for sex or motherhood — and men are valued for their money and success and power. I don’t fault anybody for trying to navigate that system; I certainly don’t fault the women who [pole dance] for a living. I had friends who stripped after high school and college. [As Pressler’s article and the film suggests, plenty of Wall Street executives had no qualms about dropping $10,000 in one night.] But also, is it any wonder that something like the financial crisis happened? This is our value system, where greed is rewarded. So, while I didn’t want to bash capitalism, I certainly wanted to look at it and see how it affects women in a very specific way.
TL: I was going to ask if you had any personal reference points for strip clubs before you started working on the film.
LS: I was aware, but that was in the early aughts. [Stripping and pole dancing] were in the culture in a different way then. Howard Stern was promoting [clubs on the radio]. That’s why I wanted to do this very recent period piece. I talked to a lot of different strippers — former and current — about how the financial crisis affected their industry. Many of them quit dancing around that time. We certainly wanted to focus on the friendship and the sisterhood and the camaraderie. And of course, the movie turns into a crime drama, but I really wanted to speak to not just where these women ended up, but where they started from.
TL: This is not a movie about female empowerment, even though that may be the reason some women are hoping to go see it.
LS: I know. Just because we’re empowered, does that mean we’re in control? They feel like two different things. … Money and power still rule the world. And so as much as I want women and girls to feel comfortable in their own skin — and I think there’s something to be said about subverting what people might think of strippers and the power that they actually have, the power that they wield — I wanted to bring a sobering reality. I certainly hope people enjoy the movie and the performances, but they may be surprised by it.
TL: The performances are fantastic.
LS: I never expected to get someone like Jennifer Lopez. Once she was attached, she was able to train like crazy and really bring it.
TL: Everyone’s talking about that scene where she pole dances to Fiona Apple’s song “Criminal.” It’s amazing, but you also use a bunch of piano solos for the scenes where she’s teaching Constance Wu’s character to do moves like “the Peter Pan,” “the carousel” and “the tabletop.” With that piano music in the background, it’s like they are taking ballet class.
LS: I wrote those études into the script. I had been editing footage of strippers and stripteases to Chopin as a proof of concept [to try to get the film made]. I wanted to show what’s required of [the dancers]: the flexibility and dexterity, and also the beauty and the grace and the ballet of pole dancing.
TL: You went through a hell of a time trying to get this film made. How did you cope? Do you have any foolproof mindfulness practices you can share? Or did you just bang your head against the wall?
LS: I banged my head against the wall. It was really hard. This was a writing assignment first, but I thought, “If I can write my way into the director’s chair, I’ll try.” It was a months-long process of half patience and half impatience, because I was trying to sell the movie and make sure the movie was getting made, while also trying to win myself the directing job. It took a long time to get in the room [with the producers] and get a meeting. So, my friend [the editor of “The Meddler”] and I made this sizzle reel — like a fake trailer for “Hustlers” of stripteases to Chopin along with footage of movies like “9 to 5” and “Mean Girls.” We were trying to show that this was a high-concept movie that could be an event.
TL: But then after you got the directing job, you ended up losing your studio backing.
LS: The movie fell apart one or two times. We didn’t get the green light in time for Jennifer’s schedule, and then the studio [Annapurna Pictures] let go of the project. And then we had to take it around again. I was taking it really personally. I [rewrote] the script once, and everybody [at STX Films, where Lopez had connections] agreed that wasn’t the movie. I was grateful for that. Then I rewrote it again. Because they said to me — and I’ll never forget this — “Just write the movie that you want to make.” So I was able to take into account what everybody liked about each draft, and try to put it together into something that was actually the movie that I wanted, which was the story of friendship and money. I handed in that draft in mid-January, kind of not expecting anything to happen, to be honest. And then the next day they called. “Hustlers” got the green light, and here we are eight months later. I finished the movie a week and half ago.
TL: What’s next, besides hopefully awards season with these amazing actresses?
LS: I don’t know. I’m not sure yet. Maybe just a small nap? And then another movie? It’s my favorite thing to do. All I want to do is do it over again.