Director Lorene Scafaria on How She Shot 'Hustlers' Like a Scorsese Movie

"Gritty glamor," "gangster lighting," and 50-foot women" all served as inspiration to writer/director Lorene Scafaria on her latest film, Hustlers.

Don't call it a heist flick.

Or, you can, but Hustlers is more than that. A lot more.

It's something one picks up on instantly after watching the film, which stars Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu as two of the masterminds behind the real-life crime story about a group of New York City strippers who knock out wealthy men with a one-two punch of MDMA and ketamine and max out their credit cards.

Yeah, that sounds like a heist flick, but once you begin to peel back the layers of the film -- the sisterhood, the male and female power struggles, the athleticism, the spectacle of high-end strip clubs juxtaposed over the sobering reality of its employees -- you begin to see the true complexity of Hustlers on full display. 

Lorene Scafaria, who wrote and directed the film (now out on Digital and Blu-ray), sat down with No Film School to talk about everything from how she managed to get the job to how she and her team created the "gritty glamor" visual style to why we shouldn't feel (too?) bad about our preconceived notions about "stripper movies."

No Film School: Tell us the origins of this movie and how you got attached to it. Martin Scorsese was originally considered to direct, because he had done similar films in the past. But Producer Jessica Elbaum described that later as a "lazy approach." How did you convince producers that you were the right person for the job? I know that you did a really awesome sizzle reel!

Scafaria: Oh yeah, that was definitely part of it. I mean, I have to be honest, when they said Scorsese, I was excited. I'm an Italian kid from Jersey, so I was raised on Scorsese and thought that that would have been a very exciting thing to have happen to a script of mine, obviously. Once he was not in the picture, and certainly before and after, I had my hand raised because I had wanted the job the moment that I read the article.

I certainly wanted to direct the script, but I knew that my track record wasn't exactly pointed at it. I guess that's why Jessica says the word "lazy" because it wasn't like people were making the assumption that the director of The Meddler should be doing Hustlers, even when the script was completed. It was a long process of having my hand raised and just trying to get in the room for the job.

It was about a ten-month waiting game, where I refused to take any other directing jobs because I just didn't want to take myself out of the running. I was editing footage of strippers to Chopin, and various sequences of the movie, as a proof of concept. And then my editor, Kayla Emter, and I worked on this sizzle reel that was a visual presentation. It was a great tool to be able to show to the cast and crew later, to unify everyone with the vision of the movie. I'm so grateful that we did that, but it was certainly the means to get the job.

Director Lorene Scafaria and Jennifer Lopez on the set of 'Hustlers'Credit: Jennifer Lopez - YouTube

NFS: There's something about this film that's a little bit different than anything anybody's ever really seen before. Society tells women that a woman's strength comes from her sex appeal, but these women's strength doesn't come from their sexiness, their sexiness comes from their strength.

Scafaria: Yeah, I think that was kind of the point. When you say it's different from anything we've seen, I think it's because we're so used to seeing strippers in other movies. And gosh, almost any other movie or TV show has featured them in the background and this is obviously getting to walk in their shoes and seeing it from their perspective. But it's also about -- can we make this movie about women that's larger than life and can we make this movie about strippers-turned-criminals into something that people can see themselves in or at least enjoy the ride?

And I think it's about the value system that we're just valued for such different things. We're valued for our beauty and our bodies, whether that's for sex or motherhood, and men are valued for their money and success and power. And that power, in particular, was what I wanted to play with, as well as that theme of control that runs through the movie. We applied that back to the camera as well. So, we're seeing Ramona's big dance number, which certainly is sexy, she's using her sex appeal. She's in control; she's controlling the room. It's from Destiny's point-of-view; we're seeing Ramona from Destiny's eyes. So, we're up on stage with Ramona and feeling what it's like to control the room in that way, but we're also the audience being hustled by her in that moment.

Credit: Jennifer Lopez - YouTube

Scafaria: It was certainly a nice edge that we were trying to stand on. But I just thought there's a really beautiful story here that Destiny is telling. So, in that way, it's a bit of a fantasy and juxtaposed with the sobering reality of her interview with Julia Stiles' character. That was kind of the approach visually. We often just thought about which characters were in control and how that applied to the camera.

"We talked about gangster lighting for these women, giving them strong top light and backlight, and various resolutions that we could shoot them in to make a scene feel more human."

NFS: That's interesting that you say "larger than life," because your cinematographer, Todd Banhazl, described to Indy Mogul balancing the visual style to make it larger than life, but also very human. You have these very beautiful women who are in charge, and it's glamorous and Usher shows up, and it's absolute mayhem! But at the same time, you have these very sobering moments where they're shown as mothers, and they're flawed and vulnerable at the same time. How did you approach that visually?

Scafaria: We talked about gritty glamor and we talked about a 50-foot woman. We talked about gangster lighting for these women, giving them strong top light and backlight, and various resolutions that we could shoot them in to make a scene feel more human -- or make us feel like we're really in there with them to also highlight the performances from the neck up.

Credit: Jennifer Lopez - YouTube

NFS: That makes me think about the scene where Ramona is teaching Destiny the different pole dancing moves and Destiny is just sitting on the stage letting it all hang out. She looks like how every single woman looks after a workout. What was your thought process on depicting strippers and strip clubs? Again, that dichotomy between glamor and real life?

Scafaria: Well, that was what was exciting about it. The production design should be real. Everything in this room needs to feel real and money needs to be real. You know, everything that we're seeing needs to remind the audience of that time period and the authenticity of this space. We certainly thought we could have a little more fun with the costumes and get slightly heightened in that way, so we felt like the camera could go either way; it could be in that reality or in that fantasy, really. A scene like that, I think what's so beautiful about it was showing the ballet of it and to play the Chopin over this little training sequence in a way where I don't think people often are thinking of that. Highlighting the grace and the elegance of pole dancing, but also highlighting the athleticism of it and the strength and the power in it.

Scafaria: Then you get someone like Jennifer [Lopez], who was just such a strong dancer -- strong being the operative word, strong being what she is. So, to really see her do it, I mean, it's obviously beautiful, but it's also about the athleticism of it. And I think it helps to have actors who didn't have that vanity. To have Constance [Wu] just get on that stage like she did, and not try to sit up perfectly straight and keep everything as smooth and perfect as it would be. I think it came from exactly that. She feels very much like any of us looking at Jennifer Lopez, in awe.

NFS: Yes!

Scafaria: It put us in her frame of mind, and to be up on the stage with her rather than in the audience to see them on the same level. It's a little bit of a training sequence, obviously, but so much of it is about the relationship between them and the different relationships they have with their bodies and their jobs. I mean, that's really what Ramona is trying to remind her of -- [as if to say] "no, you don't have to be the best dancer, but you can still be in control and you can still feel in control." So, I think that's why that scene was so important. That was one of those scenes that came from rebreaking the script and smashing it on the ground and writing a new draft called "Destiny and Ramona". That was one of those scenes that I didn't have in earlier drafts, until I realized how important the central relationship between the two women was. This is the story. It was beautiful.

Credit: Jennifer Lopez - YouTube

NFS: Switching gears a little, Hustlers is a lot of movies in one. It's a heist movie, but it's also a sports movie. Were there any films that you were influenced by that helped you decide on the visual style?

Scafaria: Yeah, sports movies, in particular, was something. We certainly watched a lot of movies, talked a lot, went to museums together, and looked through photography and art, Todd and I. A lot of it came from our larger conversations about what we haven't seen in movies. Sports movies were a great example of that. I mean, certainly -- got our Scorsese in there, Raging Bull on one side and Casino on the other. The Wrestler and Black Swan are also great movies to watch. We also thought about A League of Their Own. It was also about the collective experience; that stripping can be seen as a solo sport or a team sport, depending on how you're doing it. When Destiny starts the movie, she's in a solo sport and gets pulled into a team. Then the locker room does feel like a locker room; it really does have a different vibe to it. But they don't stay in the club forever. And then we're into more crime movies and heist movies and things like that. But, I think for us it was really about the overall visual style of it, which, it helps that we wanted to shoot it in large format and be able to change the resolutions and be able to have moments where we are right in there with the characters.

A movie that we would reference...it doesn't even make sense...was First Man, just to speak to never being outside of the ship. So, we would often say that we have to stay inside the ship because perspective was everything. Even though we wanted to get the space right and have it feel authentic, I don't feel like we're often pointing the camera at what we could be pointing at. It was really to highlight the job, show how mundane it can be, show how wild it can be, and everything in between. So, that gritty glamor was something that we were really trying to land on, but we didn't have as much of a roadmap for that.

Credit: STX

We made the movie in 29 days, so it was a really crazy shoot. Even though there was sort of a long runway before the green light, once the gun went off, we were just running. This year was quite a mad dash after a marathon. Todd and I had done everything going into it, as well as knowing which scenes we wanted to step out, which ones I wanted to feel more alive by letting the girls improvise, and which moments could feel fresher than that. We had to be really dialed in with what we wanted. I knew it wasn't about hosing down TV coverage with this one. This needed to be a run-on sentence, kind of a freight train from beginning to end.

Hustlers is now available on Digital and Blu-ray    

All images were pulled from Making a Movie in 29 Days! | Hustlers BTS Part 2.

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2 Comments

You forgot ”tried and failed” in the title

December 15, 2019 at 3:27AM

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Rory Ryan
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Such a great interview! Really enjoyed it :)

January 2, 2020 at 7:36AM

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Pankaj
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