The director of 'Hustlers' describes the 3-year struggle to make her gritty gangster movie, and not let it turn into 'Ocean's 8 with strippers'
- "Hustlers" writer-director Lorene Scafaria talked to Business Insider before the movie's world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival about her three-year quest to get the movie made.
- She talked candidly about what it took to even get the directing job and why she never compromised about how she wanted to tell the story.
- STXfilms opens "Hustlers" in theaters on September 13.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
In 2016, when Lorene Scafaria was asked to adapt a New York magazine article titled "The Hustlers at Scores" into a script, she jumped at the chance.
It wasn't because Scafaria wanted to add to her already impressive screenplay credits, but because she thought maybe it would be the first step to her also directing it. She would learn, however, that there was a lot of competition ahead of her.
At first, the producers at Gloria Sanchez Productions - the female-focused arm of the Will Ferrell/Adam McKay company, Gary Sanchez Productions - thought the story of a group of former strippers who drug unsuspecting men and then rack up large sums of money on their credit cards could be a good fit for McKay. But he was busy making his Dick Cheney movie, "Vice."
Then the producers went even higher up the Hollywood food chain. They asked Martin Scorsese if he would want to make it, thinking the story read like a female version of "Goodfellas." But that didn't work out either.
During this time, Scafaria had handed in her draft of the script, but was also dropping hints that she could be right to direct the movie. Actually, she dropped a lot of hints.
"It was a long process to convince them," Scafaria admitted when talking to Business Insider before the movie's world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. (The movie opens in theaters September 13.) "I tried to put as much visual language as I could in the script, like music cues. And I was constantly calling [the producers]. I even refused to take directing jobs. I wanted to be ready for if this ever came my way. All I wanted was the meeting."
She finally got one with producers and didn't squander the opportunity.
'Strip teases to the music of Chopin'
Scafaria is an actress-turned-screenwriter-turned-director whose 2008 debut script, "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," put her on the map. She then directed movies like the Steve Carell-starrer "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" (2012) and the Susan Sarandon/Rose Byrne dramedy "The Meddler" (2015), which showed the industry she could helm touching stories with name talent.
But could she convince people that the director of those movies could also make a post-financial-crisis gangster movie that follows women turning the tables on greedy Wall Street suits?
The reel highlighted how she wanted to portray the women beyond just a movie about strippers.
"I even edited footage of strip teases to the music of Chopin," she said with a laugh. That idea would later show up a few times in the finished movie.
Scafaria got the job and spent the next two years getting the movie off the ground: Annapurna Pictures came on to finance and distribute the movie; and an impressive cast formed, which included Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez.
This is where the story should end. Another underdog makes good in Hollywood. But this was just the start of the story for Scafaria.
Refusing to compromise
In mid-2018, Scafaria got word that Annapurna was pulling out of the movie as the company was rebounding from a string of box-office duds. "Hustlers" was now in limbo and due to Lopez's hectic schedule it wasn't clear if she could still be involved. For almost a year, Scafaria didn't know if she would ever be able to shoot a single scene of the script she wrote.
Scafaria was determined to find a taker for the movie, but also didn't want to compromise her vision of the story. She did a complete overhaul of the script twice and finally found a draft that she and STXfilms, which had become very interested in the project, could agree on.
"I did them without anyone paying me," Scafaria said of the rewrites. "But in doing them it got me to come up with scenes that I would never have had if I hadn't done it."
An example is the friendship storyline between Ramona (Lopez) and Destiny (Wu), which came out of that process and became the emotional core of the movie.
The outcome is a gripping tale (featuring a career-best performance by Lopez) that looks at a group of women who are so determined to have a better life than what they had "back on the pole" that they have no remorse doing something illegal. The movie is also a landmark work for Scafaria, who will no longer be looked at as a director who can only do dramedies.
But looking back at the years of trying to get the movie made, Scafaria said what drove her the most - and why she was so dead-set on telling the story her way - was that some people in the industry felt they had seen the movie before even reading the script.
"I felt people weren't judging these characters from where they end up but where they started from," she said. "That was really hard for me. I took it personally. So that led to me not wanting to compromise. To not have it suddenly become 'Ocean's Eight' with strippers. I want strippers and sex workers to like this movie as much as anyone else."