The first sound you hear in Lorene Scafaria’s fact-based “Hustlers” is all about control — literally: It’s the opening lines of Janet Jackson’s 1986 banger “Control.” The placement of the song seems a bit incongruous at first, picking up backstage at a New York City strip club where it doesn’t seem as if anyone, especially shy exotic dancer Destiny (Constance Wu), is in any kind of control.
She’s not, but Scafaria’s clever crime thriller eventually finds a woman who is: Jennifer Lopez as the formidable Ramona. Based on Jessica Pressler’s viral New York magazine story “The Hustlers at Scores,” Scafaria’s third film follows Destiny, Ramona, and a pack of some of their stripper pals — all loosely based on the very real women that populate Pressler’s 2015 story — as they move from pole dancing to glorified pickpocketing.
First, however, there’s a lot of dancing (both on the pole and off), as “Hustlers” reimagines not only how a movie about strippers can look, but who it can actually be for. Exploitative dramas and gritty genre films be damned, “Hustlers” is the first contemporary film — hell, maybe even the only film — about strippers that comes to its audience with a distinctly female gaze, a movie about women (who happen to be exotic dancers) that’s for other women.
“There’s a theme of control throughout the movie that I think we tried to apply to the camera as well,” Scafaria said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “There are moments where Ramona is totally in control; I’m not sure it was me, I feel like Ramona wanted the camera to be where she wanted it to be. So we put her in control and gave her that power.”
The first time we meet Ramona, she’s pole dancing, but while the sequence itself is sexy, it’s not at all exploitative. It’s empowering and creative, and it’s easy to see why both men (read: slobbering, appreciative customers) and women (an obviously envious Destiny) are so in awe of Ramona. She’s the one in control of it all.
“When it came to the gaze and how we thought about the camera, a lot of it has to do with control, a lot of it has to do with just me and these women’s perspectives,” Scafaria said. “Naturally, just seeing their point of view helps us view them differently. No scene was about an actor’s body. It might’ve been about a character’s body, because she wants it to be.”
Set to the dulcet tones of Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” — an incendiary jam, but hardly the kind on heavy rotation at your local strip joint — the scene also required the use of 300 extras, which only added to the electricity in the air and the sporting spirit Scafaria was aiming for.
“The sort of [‘Attack of the] 50 Foot Woman’ gaze is what we were giving it, and showing that strength and power and the athleticism of it,” Scafaria said. “Pole dancing is so rigorous and she trained so intensely for it. We wanted to treat the movie kind of like a sports movie and treat her dance like a stunt and have as many cameras going at once [to capture it], because it’s just so intense what she’s doing up there.”
Both the “sports movie” comparisons and reliance on the strength of its leading ladies extend off the club stage. While the firepower of Lopez and Wu would be enough to drive any film, Scafaria was intent on kitting out the rest of her cast with a wild assortment of big names (Lizzo, Cardi B), reliable performers (Mercedes Ruehl, Julia Stiles), rising stars (Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Trace Lysette), and even some actual strippers (Jacqueline Frances, better known as “Jacq the Stripper”).
Scafaria has been endearingly open about chasing Cardi and Lizzo for months, but she’s got an obvious affection for the rest of her cast. “It was like, how do we assemble this group of people? And what stroke of luck is it going to take to have them all be available on the same day?” she said.
Lopez, Wu, and some of their key compatriots first gather together in the club’s cramped backstage, part dressing room, part locker room, and all the domain of women. The effect of seeing so many different kinds of women — all ages, sizes, races, backgrounds, hardly the kind of cookie cutter selection you’d except from a stripper film — is profound.
“That’s where the women are pumping each other up for the night and where you can really see the camaraderie and the sisterhood that is sort of required to do this,” Scafaria said. “I felt like I was casting for that locker room scene. It was so exciting to see not only all these different kinds of women, but also all these different kinds of performers, all in the same room together and actually coexisting in the same movie.”
After a fast-paced opening act in which Ramona teaches Destiny (almost all of) her best techniques, the real world comes crashing into the cash-soaked, diamond-encrusted world of “Hustlers.” When the financial crisis of the late-aughts arrives, the ladies’ biggest spenders — Wall Street bros with money to burn — suddenly don’t hit the club anymore. Their financial hardships trickle down to the gals, and so they hatch a plan to heist big bucks from a few remaining deep-pocketed customers (it involves light credit card fraud and significantly heavier drugs).
As much as “Hustlers” is about the self-defined women that populate it, it’s also about coming to grips with the misdeeds such wonderful characters are capable of. Scafaria doesn’t offer easy answers, and even her own characters have very different takes on the morality of what those eponymous hustlers manage to accomplish with their wiles and wit.
“I feel like we all know the difference between right and wrong, so I didn’t feel like I needed to paint anything in a different light than it just is,” she said. “Obviously, these women face a lot of microaggressions on a daily basis with their jobs. They just put up with a lot. It introduces us to a world that I felt like people don’t really think about, even though there’s been a scene in a strip club in every single TV show and movie. It felt like you never really saw this from their perspective.”
At its heart, “Hustlers” isn’t just a movie about strippers, or crime, or credit cards with terrifyingly high credit lines. It’s about real people, the kind who do and do not make the right choice, who do and do not have all the answers, who do and do not have control.
“I wanted to tell a deeper story and a fuller story about moms and working moms and what happens when women are really seen as earning money and providing,” Scafaria said. “I can empathize with all of us who are trying to navigate this really broken system of values and women being valued for their beauty and men being valued for their money.”
It’s a little bit like Hollywood, really, and as Scafaria added with a laugh, “You know, I certainly dance for money.”
STX Entertainment will release “Hustlers” in theaters on Friday, September 12. The film premieres at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday, September 7.