Director Lorene Scafaria On What Kim Kardashian & The Ladies Of Hustlers Have In Common

PHoto: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images.
At first glance, Hustlers doesn’t seem like your traditional awards contender. It’s a movie written, directed, and produced by women about a group of former strippers played by celebrities more likely to cover Us Weekly than Variety, and celebrates the moral complexity of its protagonists doing bad things to men. In other words, it defies expectations, skewers stereotypes, and forces us to confront our own biases in ways that can feel uncomfortable. And yet, those very things are what make it so compelling, vibrant, and nuanced. 
Based on a 2015 New York magazine by Jessica Pressler, Hustlers dives right at the heart of society’s most taboo topics: money, sex, class, and gender. Constance Wu plays Destiny, a young stripper who befriends Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), the den mother and shining star of the club they both work at. But when the 2008 financial crisis hits, their clients disappear, forcing them to come up with a plan to make enough money to get by — and get even. 
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But the flamboyant and salacious backdrop of Hustlers is only window-dressing. This is a movie about women using other people’s expectations to their own advantage, something writer and director Lorene Scafaria (who wrote Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and wrote and directed Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and The Meddler) found she could relate to all too-well. 
“We're all supposed to be virtuous and righteous,” she told Refinery29 in an interview on the eve of the Hustlers world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. “That was the reason I felt so compelled to tell this story, because I think that's the kind of pressure that we're all under.”
The road to Hustlers has been a bumpy one. Scafaria wasn’t the first choice to direct. She was brought on as a screen-writer in 2016, but the film’s producers, who include Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, originally offered the job to Martin Scorsese. He passed, and Scafaria was ready. What she wasn’t ready for was Annapurna Pictures dropping the film in spring 2018, on what happened to be her 40th birthday. And still, she refused to give up. She stuck to her vision, despite many requests that she simplify the ethics at play in the story (i.e. only let the Hustlers hustle very bad men), and ended up with a green light from STXFilms in 2019. Eight months later, the film is nearing its theatrical release, to deafening praise from critics. Like her protagonists, Scafaria knows how to hustle.
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Nothing is more emblematic of that ethos than a clip of a pre-Kanye Kim Kardashian West declaring, “I’m a princess,” from the very first season of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, shown during the first half of the film. Nine months before the pilot episode aired, a sex tape made in 2003 by Kim and then-boyfriend Ray-J was leaked. But rather than disappear from the public eye, she used the notoriety that stemmed from this public shaming as promotion for her upcoming project. On 14th October 2007, KUWTK was born.
Ahead, Scafaria tells Refinery29 what makes Hustlers stand out from other female-led blockbusters, and what she really thinks of the Kardashians. 
Refinery29: The original article by Jessica Pressler opens with the line: “In another life, Roselyn Keo might have liked to work on Wall Street.” How do you see class and privilege playing into the gender dynamics of the film?

Lorene Scarfaria: “If men are valued for money and success and power, and women are valued for beauty and our bodies — whether it's sex or motherhood — the trickle down of both of those is really terrible. It affects every aspect of our lives. Let's be honest about it. Women give birth. Women get pregnant. Women have babies. They're taken out of the workforce. They're put back into the workforce. They're not thought of as providers, were never seen as earning money, only seen spending and shopping. I don't think people made the connection that [strippers] are actually working for a living, that they're like paying their bills.
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“As salacious as the movie may seem, I also just saw it as this peace offering. We should all be a little kinder to each other, and probably to ourselves also because we all have an uphill climb. I've referred to it as being out of breath at the starting line. Certainly, for women and people of colour, there's so many hurdles, that [we’re] starting in a place where things aren’t fair and balanced and equal. [But] I wanted to have fun with that, too, and tell a story that feels like we're all in on this cosmic joke. I wanted us all to look at ourselves and go like, Wow, how did we get here? with this very recent period piece.”
Jumping off that, so much of the fun of the movie is getting to relive 2007. At one point, you show a clip of Kim from the first season of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Do you see parallels between the Kardashians, and what Ramona and Destiny are doing in Hustlers?
"Yeah! Kim did it, you know, she really did. I've never met her in my life, but I'm very impressed with what she's doing with her power, trying to get people out of jail. It’s actually remarkable, but the effect that the Kardashians had... that tape came out, and then nine months later was the first episode of KUWTK. She made the best of that situation, spun it on its head and turned it into a family empire. Were they rich before? Yes. Will they continue to be super, super rich? Definitely. But the effect on girl culture was really huge. [Kim] was capitalising certainly on what people thought was shameful. She's a hustler. They're all hustlers.”
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You’ve talked a lot about how difficult this was to get made. Are studios not receptive to stories about women, or are they only interested in very specific stories about women?
“I think studios are hung up on a very black and white idea of a female empowerment story. Women doing bad things is still hard for people to understand. We're all supposed to be virtuous and righteous. At its core [Hustlers] begins as a movie about strippers, and I think men and women judge strippers. There’s a huge stigma around what they do for a living. That was also part of it — it wasn't just a judgment of where the characters ended up, but where they started from. That was the reason I felt so compelled to tell this story because I think that's the kind of pressure that we're all under. I found it very relatable.”
An issue that’s come with a lot of female-led blockbusters is that they feel manufactured. There’s always this one line of dialogue screaming about female empowerment, instead of just showing us real stories about women. How did you avoid that here?
“In 2015 or 2016 I felt like I was suddenly receiving female empowering stories as their own genre. I found very strange for 51% of the population to suddenly have a “genre” tied to it. Of course I think we need empowered stories and we crave them, and we certainly like seeing ourselves represented on screen, whatever that may be, but I find it all condescending, as if we can't make mistakes, or we can't have drive, and ambition unless it's wrapped up in revenge or something. When I would receive these scripts, I would think to myself, Well, these aren't female characters. You clearly just took a script about men crossed off some names. I can enjoy those movies, but this is a movie where they have to be women, and we don't have to manufacture anything because this is what they do [and] these are the micro-aggressions to aggressions that they face.”
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This movie is also a love story between two female friends. How do you reconcile that with the rumours about drama or division between Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez on-set?
“It's so racist and sexist, to be honest. Nobody's perfect and nobody can say all the right things all the time. The idea that we're all under that scrutiny is terrifying. I've put my foot in my mouth a lot and I'm glad not all of it is on record, but I found all of that just to be such an insult to my set. Constance is one of those actors who's so prepared. She did so much work. It really could bring tears to my eyes when I think of what she did because it was not an easy role, you know? Certainly, Jennifer really bares her soul and then some, but you know, for Constance to slip into that character and really bring it in a dramatic way? she's obviously such a great comedic actor, but she's got such chops... I found all of that depressing.”
Movies with female casts tend to deal in broad strokes, in the sense that each woman feels a stand-in for a type, or trope. But there’s real specificity to each of these characters. Was that important to you, in writing the script?
“We're not all the same. There's certainly similarities in what we are probably all experiencing, and I find real value in the collective, but then you break it down and there's a thousand different ways to experience that, and a thousand different ways to be a woman, and a thousand different ways to be treated like one. I don't have kids, and I was told once, "You're not really a woman until you're a mother." The implications of that are really scary and yet, mothers are the most important job in the world. How can we celebrate our differences? How can we celebrate our similarities? How can we talk honestly about what we're all up against in the broken value system without tearing each other down?”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 
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