Lorene Scafaria on 'Hustlers,' Pole Dancing and Directing Cardi B (Exclusive)

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Hustlers, Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu
Courtesy of STXfilms

It was only six months ago that writer-director Lorene Scafaria officially rounded out her Hustlers cast, enlisting Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart and Cardi B to join Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu in the story of former strippers teaming up to bilk their Wall Street clientele. And then we collectively blinked, filming had wrapped and now it's in theaters. "That's true," Scafaria laughs over the phone. "We shot it in 29 days, so it was a wild prep and shoot and quick post, but it's even crazier that it's coming out now. I can't believe I'm talking about it already."

In reality, Scafaria had been hustling to get the film made for far longer than that, first as a screenwriter when she was hired to adapt Jessica Pressler's New York Magazine article, "The Hustlers at Scores," and then as a director, when she convinced the powers that be that she (whose last effort was 2015's wonderful mother-daughter dramedy, The Meddler) should be the one to helm it. In the end, Scafaria made a film about more than stripping and scamming; Hustlers is about that, sure, as much as it's about the 2008 financial crisis, the gender pay gap, race and class and sociopolitical status, the American Dream and the intricacies of female friendship. It's smart and sexy and now a bona fide Oscars contender. Ahead of Hustlers' release, Scafaria talked with ET about the impending awards season, pole dancing and what it's like directing Cardi B.

ET: I want to start out by confirming what I believe is the most under-discussed aspect of this movie, which is that Hustlers is a Christmas movie.

Lorene Scafaria: Thank you. Thank you very much. Yes, I hoped it was going to be released at Christmas, because I think it's a Christmas movie, too. [Laughs]

It's canon. With one sequence, we have a new Christmas classic.

I appreciate it. I was so excited to shoot that scene. And honestly, it was my favorite day on set. It really felt like Christmas morning to see all of them in that space together, to see, like, this all-lady Christmas was actually a really beautiful thing.

By virtue of the fact that you're premiering at TIFF, people will start discussing potential awards season runs for this. Is that something you'd been thinking about or hoping for? Is that something you think the Academy is ready for: Best Picture nominee Hustlers?

It's all gravy, to be honest. I hope people like it. I hope that people who see it, like it, whether they're critics or an audience. Obviously, I don't just make it for myself. [Laughs] But I think this cast is really incredible and if their performances get noticed, that would bring me great joy.

I'm ready to start the For Your Consideration campaign here and now. For my money, Jennifer Lopez has never been better, and I'll be pulling for her as a Best Supporting Actress -- or whichever -- contender.

I support that support!

Naturally, there has been endless talk about all of the stripping and the dancer outfits, and yes, that's in the movie. But we talk a lot about the male gaze; knowing you were going to be behind the camera for those scenes -- the scenes in the club -- what was your approach? What were you hoping to do?

I was really excited to explore this world from the dancer's perspective. Because I felt like we'd seen so many scenes in strip clubs and so few stories have been told from their points of view. So, I was really excited to just walk in their shoes and capture that feeling of going from the locker room out onto the floor. I just knew that if I could tell a human story about what they do for a living -- at least where they start, not necessarily where they end up -- that people might understand this world a little bit better, that they maybe think they know or possibly judge or look away from.

But as far as the scenes went, it just felt like, you know, it's Destiny's movie about Ramona in a way, but Ramona is always in control. So in a scene like Ramona's dance number, I think Ramona told me where the camera went and not the other way around. [Laughs] We treated it like a sports movie, to highlight the athleticism of it, to show the strength and the grace that's involved. Just really physical work that is incredibly hard to do, even for Jennifer Lopez who is obviously an incredible dancer, in amazing shape. She still felt like the training was so hardcore for it, and she was just covered in bruises from doing that. So a scene like that, we treated it like a stunt and shot it with as many cameras as we could. So, I don't know, it wasn't that hard to tell a story about these people in their jobs in that way.

I certainly think that came across. Especially Ramona's big dance number, I think that in the hands of another director, it could be played as gratuitous or leering. But in that scene especially, it is sexy and you do focus on the requisite "T" and "A," but it's because Ramona is directing the eye there. You are looking where she wants you to look, like she's doing the cinematography from the stage.

That was how we felt. With all the themes of control -- there are obviously more vulnerable moments than others for the character -- but a scene like that where she's in total control and she's in control of all of us. She's hustling all of us in that moment. So, the camera is very much dictated by what Ramona wants. And it certainly is Destiny seeing the power that she has, you know, looking up at this other woman and saying, "How does she do it?" Obviously, she's a gifted dancer, but there's something else going on, too. She is in control. And to see that sort of lovestruck moment by Destiny also played a card in where the camera went and the visual storytelling of it, because it's a bit of a love story between two friends.

And then you cast Cardi, who ostensibly knows this world better than any of us. Working with her, do you turn the camera on and let her go? What is directing Cardi B like?

You know what? She obviously is such an incredible personality. She's so smart. She's so funny. I wanted to capture something alive and real, and I encouraged everybody to improvise and talk over each other and make it feel as alive as possible. But to her credit, she also played a part and read scripted lines and played off of other actors and coexisted in this movie and in these scenes in this locker room together. It was very impressive, to be honest. Musicians and singers, in general, maybe have that natural timing and rhythm, but she's obviously a force in so many ways. So, of course, she brought that authenticity to it and of course, she could make any line her own. And I gave her the freedom to do that because why wouldn't I? She's incredible.

But I gave everybody that room and they're all amazing improvisers and made the lines their own. Lizzo and Keke and Jennifer, really everybody kept it alive. But to Cardi's credit, she played a part. She read scripted lines of dialogue. I want to give her credit for improvising, but I also feel like it's really worth noting how much she played Diamond. She based Diamond on a girl she used to dance with. She really played a part and really stepped into the time period, too. That was so fun to see her be this version of her former self, maybe, from 2007, 2008.

My favorite Diamond line is "Drain the clock, not the c*ck." Was that one of yours, or is that a Cardi-ism she brought?

[Laughs] That is me.

Oh!

But I would say she made it her own, no question. And the button of that whole scene is all Cardi. But yes, "drain the clock" is... I don't know, unfortunately, mine? I don't know what to say! That was scripted. [Laughs] It's good advice.

Cardi told ET that she was supposed to play a larger role but couldn't make it work with her schedule. Was that going to be more Diamond in the movie? Or had you been eyeing her for a different role?

I don't know what she and Jennifer had spoken about. I was always interested in as much Cardi as we could get, so if there was an opportunity to give her a bigger role, I would have done it. If there was an opportunity to set Diamond out even more, I certainly would've taken it. But I was pleased we could get as much of her as we could, considering her schedule and Lizzo's schedule and everybody's wild schedules. That is truly how the stars aligned is just the fate of scheduling. We got really lucky with that. But I would've always taken more Cardi, no question, but I'm grateful we got her for Diamond, that's for sure.

The soundtrack features Big Sean and Britney Spears and -- I don't think anybody could predict this -- so much Chopin. And it works brilliantly. What was the inspiration for that?

I had written all of those cues into the script, so we shot with all of those cues in mind. Chopin, specifically the Études, specifically the studies that are the hardest things to play on the piano were really interesting to me. I think the arpeggios have this beautiful quality to them that, up against the pole dancing just shows off the grace and beauty and elegance of what they're doing.

The Chopin cues themselves became the kind of love story and romance between Destiny and Ramona. So the cooking scene, let's say, all of those scenes, whether they were part of the rise or part of the fall, the Chopin was always the sound of this movie. Most of the cues were played by Thomas Leyer, and I've been editing footage of strippers and stripteases and various scenes in the movie to these cues as proof of concept to myself. So I'm just so grateful that we got those actual recordings.

Having J.Lo and Cardi and Lizzo in the same movie, did you ever discuss having them record a song for this?

I mean, I still hope they record something together because I would crank it, obviously. I certainly hope they collaborate forever. I would love to hear a song. But our rushed schedule was what it was, and it's also a period piece, so it would've been one of those songs that was in the end credits -- which again, I would've loved to have, but it wouldn't have been featured within the body of the movie anyway. So I'll take it whenever they want to record it.

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