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Hustlers Director Lorene Scafaria Made the Best Movie of the Year—Here’s How She Did It

“We’ve seen so many scenes in strip clubs in other movies and TV shows, but so few from a dancer’s perspective,” Hustlers director, writer, and producer Lorene Scafaria tells me. The film, based on a New York magazine article by Jessica Pressler, stars Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez as the ringleaders of a group of strippers who scammed their wealthy Wall Street clients using a mix of drugs, smarts, and sex appeal. “I was just really excited to walk in their shoes, literally, tell the story through their eyes, and explore a world that maybe we think we know but don’t really unless we’ve worked there.”

That desire to tell the women’s lives from their perspective—and understanding the limitations and challenges in doing so—is why Scafaria was the best person to put this story to screen. In another’s hands, the film could have easily turned into an over-sexed romp a la Showgirls or a weepy cautionary tale. Scafaria hits the right tone, though: She doesn’t shy away from all the fun and nudity one might find in a strip club without sacrificing the gravitas that happens as the dancers’ lives spin out of control.

Lili Reinhart, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, and Constance Wu play a group of strippers who con their wealthy clients.

Barbara Nitke/STX Entertainment

Scafaria says she did a lot of research beyond the source material to get it right. In addition to meeting with dancers and other club employees who worked during the movie’s time period (roughly 2007 to 2013), she hired a stripper consultant to read an early script and be available on set during filming. She also looked at the article in a new light. “Reading between the lines of the article, I got inspiration because I thought, This is a really interesting friendship story,” she tells me. “I wanted to incorporate that part of it as much as anything else.”

All that research and careful attention to tone paid off: The film has an 87% approval rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, and critics are already calling it a serious Oscars contender.

So what does it take to create the movie of the year? Scafaria breaks down the film’s biggest moments and themes, below. Some spoilers ahead.

The Athleticism

When Lopez’s character, Ramona, first teaches Wu’s Destiny how to pole dance, it’s set to Chopin. The message: Pole dancing is an art form, requiring as much skill as any master classical pianist. Scafaria tells me she wrote the Chopin music cues into the script because the classical composer’s songs are frequently taught to student pianists—a fitting comparison to Ramona, who shows Destiny the ropes of the strip club. “These are songs that require a lot of flexibility and sincerity,” Scafaria says. “To me, that felt like what’s required of these dancers on the pole. The Chopin pieces were always the sound of the movie, and the sound of the work that the women do.”

But they’re not just artists—they’re athletes. Watch Lopez’s pole-dancing workout videos for proof of that. “I wanted to show these women in power and in control,” Scafaria says. “In a lot of ways, I approached it like a sports movie because I wanted to highlight the athleticism of what they do, the strength that’s involved. There’s a lot of beauty and grace to it.”

The Cameos

The inclusion of music’s hottest names Cardi B and Lizzo in Hustlers has been much publicized, but they’re doing more than just lending star power to the IMDB page. Both women play strippers at the club during its last glory days—right before the economic recession hit—and their time on screen is equal parts hilarious and nuanced. “It was very exciting to see women like Cardi and Lizzo just come and coexist in the same movie as all of these other performers from a lot of different walks of life,” Scafaria says. “Actors, singers, dancers, strippers…to see them all in one room together was really something.”

Cardi B was particularly brilliant casting because she’s famously worked as a stripper before. Scafaria says Cardi brought her signature high energy to the set. “I wanted her to make the lines her own,” she says. “If anything didn’t feel authentic to her, I wanted her to call it out. But it wasn’t until we were there shooting scenes that I really got to see her bring it to life. She’s such a natural. Everybody knows how funny she is—she’s an incredible personality—so I’m sure nobody’s surprised that the kinds of improvisation she could throw around [was amazing].”

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