"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 oversexed romp à 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, but she also doesn't sacrifice the gravitas that happens as the dancers' lives spin out of control.
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."
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.
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 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]."
There's another cameo that's stayed a bit more secret. At one point in the film, Destiny reminisces about her last good night at the club. Cut to Lizzo rushing into the women's locker room, screaming that Usher is there. The women stampede past her to get to the singer. And there he is: the real Usher, in a cameo rivaled only by Keanu Reeves's surprise turn in Always Be My Maybe.
"I had written Usher into the script and only dreamed that we'd ever get him," Scafaria says. "When you get people like Jennifer Lopez on board, it gets a lot easier to get the kind of cast that we assembled." She tells me the singer wasn't sure at first about playing a younger version of himself. "I think he had some apprehension about whether or not he would look the same as he did in 2008," she explains. "Of course, he does look exactly the same as ever, but his hair has changed. There was a day where I was googling Usher in hats and sending Usher pictures of himself in hats in 2008." Once he arrived on set, though, he had fun with it—even bringing a chain and jacket from that time period.
"It was the most electric moment," Scafaria says, laughing. "All the girls were up on stage together, looking like a Renaissance painting, and Usher was having, I think, a good time."
If you're looking for Easter eggs in Hustlers, pay attention to the soundtrack. There's the aforementioned Chopin, of course. When Usher arrives, his song "Love in This Club" plays. An emotional reunion between two of the dancers is set to Flo Rida's "Club Can't Handle Me." Scafaria says most were written into the script. "I had imagined scenes to these songs, and we shot to them, but you never know if you're going to get the rights."
One example where that worked out: Ramona's arrest scene. She's wearing a Juicy sweatsuit with a crystal crown on the back as Lorde's "Royals" blares in the background. "Lorde, I was told, had never licensed one of her songs for anything before," Scafaria says. Despite this, she filmed the scene with the song in mind—even timing it out to the beat. Before filming it, Scafaria says she told Lopez that she was picturing it in her head. "I only had to play like eight seconds of ['Royals'] before she was like, 'Yeah, I got it.' [She had the] rhythm in her head and walked to the beat. We timed it out. It was a miracle that something like that came through."
Another success was Britney Spears's "Gimme More." The 2007 hit is set to a montage that shows both the women and the Wall Street guys doing their hustle. "That was a song that was really a perfect time capsule of that era, both of the Wall Street guys and the girls working," Scafaria says. "Being able to intercut to that song was crucial."
Scafaria says she knew early on she needed costume designer Mitchell Travers on board. "I think that was the only way this movie was going to be the period piece I had dreamt that it would be," she explains. The mid-aughts time period in which the movie takes place is fairly recent history, but she still wanted to create a time capsule of that era. Scafaria had only one instruction for Travers: "I didn't want any green in the movie unless it was money."
"That was the only rule that I applied; everything else was, 'Let's have so much fun.'"
Scafaria wanted to give each character a style icon—and ironically enough Ramona's was Jennifer Lopez herself. "We had a lot of fun with playing with the nostalgia of what we were all wearing then," Scafaria explains, "but also a little bit of a wink and a nod to the J.Lo fashion back then. We just wanted to show the authenticity of the world and have as much fun with it as we could."
There's no romantic subplot in this movie, and that's a good thing. Instead the movie is about the chosen family these women become to each other. Even when things get bad—and they do get bad—the women still have respect and love for one another. "Jennifer, Constance, Keke [Palmer], and Lili [Reinhart], the four of them really felt like a little family," Scafaria says. "The four of them just really had a natural, easy time together. It was great that we were on the same page with how a set should be and making sure everybody's having a good time while hopefully doing their best work."
In fact, the first scene Scafaria wrote spoke to the friendship between Ramona and Destiny. In it, the two sit on the club's rooftop smoking cigarettes and sharing Ramona's fur coat for warmth. "A lot of it's about how Destiny has been, up until this point, having physical contact with men and strangers, but not any relationship with any other woman in the club," Scafaria says. "[It was an] intimate moment, to be invited into Ramona's fur coat, the warmth of that on a cold New York night. It was very important that coat be grand and luxurious but also this warm, safe place and the beginning of their immediately intimate relationship."
One of Scafaria's favorite scenes takes place in the club's locker room. The women are getting ready for the night, sharing tips, giving each other compliments, and joking about sex, money, and men. "I felt like my mood board had come to life," Scafaria tells me. "To see the actual women that I had written roles for all in the same room at the same time and bouncing off each other was incredible."
Another favorite: the all-lady Christmas that takes place at Ramona's apartment. "Maybe people who haven't really considered where these women may go on the holidays will realize they all are choosing to be together here on Christmas," Scafaria says. "To see them sitting around the table and exchanging gifts, there's so much joy in seeing the family that they've pulled together. Destiny is at the head of the table, and every seat is filled. That was one of the most fun days on set. It felt like Christmas in April."
Yes, Lopez gets her own category. Though Wu is technically top-billed in the movie, there's no question this is a highlight of Lopez's career as an actor. Ramona feels so perfectly cast, in fact, that it's surprising to learn Scafaria didn't write the part with Lopez in mind. "I didn't think of her until I reopened the script to try to see who would play these roles," Scafaria says. "And it was just so obvious that Ramona was Jennifer Lopez. She just leapt off the page. I just knew it had to be her, so we chased her." The two met at Lopez's house and talked about the role, and the rest is, obviously, history.
Once on set, Scafaria says, Lopez became a ringleader for the actors. "She loves for everybody to have a good time and feel comfortable," she explains. "She would always check in with everybody and make sure everybody was feeling good. She does have that momma-bear quality, like Ramona does in the movie, on set."
Scafaria continues, "In a way, Hustlers ended up being a love letter to Jennifer without knowing it when I was writing it," she says. "Obviously, she knows New York and this time period. She's an incredible dancer, of course. I've been a fan of her work for so long. You could watch her in any role. She's such a singular actor, such a singular performer. I just knew it had to be her."
Originally Appeared on Glamour