‘Nobody gets hurt’: Hustlers director Lorene Scafaria on stripping, shady dealings and a ‘broken value system’

There’s a wonderful scene in the new movie Hustlers in which up-and-coming stripper Destiny (Constance Wu) meets been-round-the-block Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). They find each other on a chilly roof atop the club where the elder woman opens her voluminous fur coat and invites her in to share the warmth. It’s a literal “let me take you under my wing” moment, and a perfect metaphor for the almost mother-daughter relationship that grows between the two characters.

“That was the first scene I wrote and the last scene we shot,” says Lorene Scafaria, the film’s director, at the Toronto International Film Festival for the world premiere of Hustlers ahead of a general release on Sept. 13. “To see that happen all at once — to see Ramona open up her fur coat and then wrap her up in it like a little baby kangaroo or something — that was always the idea. To have her go from nobody to that enveloped, immediate intimacy with another woman.”

And, Scafaria adds with a grin, “I feel like if Jennifer Lopez invited you into her fur coat you’d probably do whatever she said after that.”

I feel like if Jennifer Lopez invited you into her fur coat you’d probably do whatever she said after that

Hustlers, based on a New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler (played by Julia Stiles in the film), tells the story of a group of strippers who turn the tables on their male clients by drugging them and then maxing out their credits cards. In a milieu where rich clients routinely drop huge sums on exotic dancers, Ramona argues that this side hustle is basically a “short cut” to what happens anyway. “Nobody gets hurt,” she adds, though that isn’t always the case.

As a storyteller, Scafaria isn’t troubled by the women’s shady dealings. “I think we all know the difference between right and wrong,” she says, “so I wasn’t trying to convince anyone that wrong was right or right was wrong. I didn’t want to convince the audience that they should root for them or root against them.”

Lorene Scafaria seen at the premier for Hustler at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival.

Jaime Espinoza/WENN.com

But as a woman who watched several friends turn to stripping as a way to pay off high school or college student debt, she also felt a certain responsibility to be true to that experience.

“As soon as people started to pass a certain amount of judgment on the characters, I felt very personally invested in telling their story,” she says. “I feel that female characters are scrutinized in ways that women in general are scrutinized. I felt like people were judging the characters for not just where they ended up but for where they started.”

She adds: “It’s hard to judge anyone for navigating within this broken value system. I think writing is an exercise in empathy and I like taking characters who are often misunderstood and trying to understand them more.”

After writing the screenplay, Scafaria faced an uphill climb getting the film made. “It wasn’t just getting a directing job; it was proving to people that this was a story worth telling.” But between the state of global finance and the upswing in stories about women’s experiences, “it felt like every headline … was only making it more relevant.”

And star power never hurts. “It was a lot easier once Jennifer Lopez was attached,” she says. “I met Lopez and Wu separately, so I only imagined them together until the camera test when I saw Jennifer put her arm around Constance for the first time. I just got chills; I was so excited to see the two of them together.”

Hustlers opens across Canada on Sept. 13

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