What better way to launch the 2020 edition of Film Independent’s Directors Close-Up series than with a deep dive into the sexually charged, cash-hungry world of pole dancing—but as seen through said dancers’ perspective? Infused with themes of female partnership and loyalty in service overturning systems of male-dominated power and control, Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers is not your typical stripper movie, featuring a Film Independent Spirit Award nominated performance by multi-faceted superstar Jennifer Lopez, who co-stars alongside names including Cosntance Wu, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Lizzo and Cardi B, among others.
The January 13 panel—held at The Landmark Theaters, titled “Creating the Visual Language of a Film”—featured Hustlers writer/director Scafaria (The Meddler) and a key member of her creative team, costume designer Mitchell Travers (Eighth Grade, In the Heights), offering insight into the successful creative collaboration required to bring Hustlers to the big screen.
The panel was moderated by acclaimed Hollywood screenwriter and Scriptnotes podcaster John August, a friend of Scafaria’s and thoughtful appreciator of the film’s subtly complex construction and execution. Here are some highlights:
Scafaria, on the origins of Hustlers: “I was sent the [original news article] the summer of 2016. I went in, gave my spiel for how I would adapt it to the screen. I was told to stop talking about wanting to direct it so I could get the writing job.”
Based on that inauspicious start, you can probably guess that the journey for Scafaria to actually helm the $20 million crime drama was a long and drawn-out one. “I think it took 10 months to just get the meeting to put myself out there to direct it, [then] I got that and worked to get Jennifer Lopez onboard.”
She continued, “The movie fell apart a number of times. Then [production company] STX stepped up and kind of saved the day.” The film was green-lit in January of 2019, and it was off to the races for Scafaria—who relocated to New York City from LA to direct the eventual box office sleeper hit.
What about Travers? While the costume designer was on the set of 2018’s Eighth Grade, Scafaria (whose partner is Eighth Grade director Bo Burnham) roped Travers in immediately. “I sort of just told Mitchell, ‘I’m so sorry you’re doing this movie that I’m going to someday actually see made,’” said Scafaria, adding: “He had no choice!” she exclaimed, as the audience laughed.
“I remember being on the set of Eighth Grade and having a wonderful conversation with Lorene, and moments later Bo came up and was like, ‘So you’re doing Lorene’s movie?’ and I just went along with it and figured, why not?” said Travers, adding: “I’ve never seen a stripper movie like this.”
August characterized Hustlers as a film defined by the exaggerated glamour of the late 2000s—the era in which the film’s real-life inspired narrative takes place. Scafaria spoke to the role of wardrobe in storytelling: “There were a lot of lines in the script about Destiny’s [Wu] jewelry making noise, in order to show her anxiety or nervousness, how uncomfortable she is during a scene.”
“We share a love or a nostalgia for this time and it can be looked down upon and be sort of trashy and unglamorous,” Travers said. “But there was something about it that we just kept loving—I would send her pictures of Kim Kardashian with the ugliest handbag in the world, and she would get it instantly,” he said. So a shared love over “cultural mistakes,” as Travers puts it, bonded the creative collaborators together and built “a love letter to the time in our lives and these women’s lives”—one often considered a tacky and over-the-top era of fashion.
“I think early on I said to everybody it felt like the production design needed to be as grounded as possible, and the wardrobe felt like an opportunity to be a little more heightened,” said Scafaria.
Scafaria and Travers acknowledged that Hustlers’ color and rich contrast of film tones are thanks to DP Todd Banhazl, whose involvement in the film Scafaria also credits to Travers. “I met with so many DPs and talent and [our] dispositions didn’t necessarily line up. The day after I thought I was going to pull the trigger on someone, I saw that Janelle Monáe video ‘Make Me Feel’ and I was like who the hell shot this, who is she,” she said, laughing. “Her name is Todd Banhazl.”
Assuming that the DP of the video was a woman because of its gorgeous aesthetic and intuitive depiction of female bodies, Scafaria wanted to be put in touch instantly.
Said Travers, “I had done a film with Todd—a very small film—but it was shot so romantically, even though the subject didn’t ask that of it.” Mentioning that Banhazl’s work really stayed with him over the years, so going through the script Travers thought, “This is Todd’s movie,” saying, “maybe he’s working, maybe he doesn’t remember me but this is his movie [to shoot].”
With Scafaria, Travers, Banhazl and the rest of the Hustlers cast and crew onboard together, the newly established team—with their work cut out for them—was now set to collaborate!
Watch the entire panel below:
Directors Close-Up continues tonight, January 22. All Directors Close-Up panels will take place at The Landmark (10850 W Pico Blvd) on Wednesday evenings at 7:30 pm, followed by a post-panel reception.’ The 2020 Directors Close-Up is sponsored by the Directors Guild of America, Landmark Theatres and SAGIndie. The official photographer is Getty Images. Additional support provided by BRICKTOWN.