The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Hustlers.
This film is very inclusive and focused on women. Were you aiming to make a film about female empowerment? What was your concept about the story, initially?
I like the idea of making something that people can take away from it whatever they want. I think we all know the difference between right and wrong, but I like the idea that we don’t necessarily have to paint anyone as a hero or a villain. We can tell the story of what happened and perhaps a fuller story just to get to know these people better. For me, writing is always an exercise in empathy. I empathize with all of us who are navigating this really broken values system, certainly for women. I think depending on who you are, you have a different amount of hurdles in front of you just to get to the starting line. Some have more than others. I kinda wanted to tell a story about the people who are already out of breath at the starting line. I wanted see how we can all finish at the race.
we don’t always get the family we want or need
Everything came together really well. It feels great to watch this cast interact. Everyone has a certain chemistry…
Yeah the locker room is what I was casting for. That is where I think this sisterhood comes from. I wanted to treat it like a sports movie in a way: It can be a solo sport. It can feel really lonely and isolating. Or it can be a team sport. Strippers work in pairs or teams. There is more safety in numbers and it is a little more lucrative when you’re working together. Destiny definitely starts in this place of loneliness and isolation until Romana pulls her into the fold. I was really excited about seeing her pulled in and meet all the other girls.
As you were thinking about this, knowing it was based on a true story, did you reach out to the women whose characters are depicted in the film?
I wanted to all along. I think when you have large corporations involved, they are kind of scared by things like that. I wanted to, because truth is stranger than fiction. I think they had their own complicated feelings about it. It was about a third of the way through filming when I started to receive calls. There was Rosie, and Carina, another girl who was in their group. I’ve spoken with both of them and really like them a lot. They are just on the other side of this. Rosie’s a Mom and Carina’s on a different path in her life, so they’re really reflective of this time in their lives. They are all hustlers and I think they have books coming out. So look for Rosie’s book! It was hard for me not to get the chance to talk to them before making the film, but I did a lot of research, of course the article provided a lot. I think reading between the lines of the article provided a lot. Because it was a years-long process, there was a lot of research that went into it. I met with a lot of strippers and sex workers and former strippers. We talked about the effect the financial crisis had on them. There were friends of strippers. There were friends who graduated high school and college and became strippers, where they were paying off their student loans forever. I felt like I grew up with these girls and guys. I worked in a “boiler room” when I was 17, answering phones only. It was a room full of phones. There were these guys on headsets, selling bad stocks to old people on off off Wallstreet, somewhere in northern New Jersey. My mother worked there for a little bit. A guy was totally going to hit her in the head with a baseball bat. The boss just basically said “bottom line… can you keep working with him? Because he makes us a lot of money and you just code.” It was a really wild environment and that was the ’90’s. The auts did not feel that much different than then, so that is part of why this very recent period piece. It was to talk about where we are now without really being in the now. I never thought I would be nostalgic for 2007. I never thought I would wish for 2007, but here we are.
Most of the men in the film are minor characters. Was there any point in the process where you got pushback to add a male character in a more prominent role?
That did not happen. I certainly got a lot of notes how to water down what these women did or how to embellish what these men did. To me the takedown of the global economy was pretty bad, along with all the aggressions and microaggressions these women faced on a daily basis. Obviously some guys are better than others. There’s good behavior in a strip club and there’s bad behavior in a strip club. I was happy there was nothing forced on me as far as that went. It was pretty obvious who this story was about. I was really excited about the Christmas scene. That was probably the happiest day on set. It was like Christmas in April. To see all women sitting around the table giving gifts to each other for me was like seeing your chosen family, because we don’t always get the family we want or need. Sometimes we have to create our own. I felt like that was a scene where you really got to see that this was their family. Maybe they don’t have other people in their lives to support them. So they are there for each other. I kind of like that a whole relationship can happen in a montage. I kind of like the idea that Johnny can come in and out of her life in a flash, and that Romona does not even bother. All of them have their own agency and they are all seeking independence in different ways. I like that the relationship that Mercedes has with Dragon is the real one. Trace and her boyfriend have a relationship, but in a way I didn’t want to have characters that only serve certain functions. I’m glad I did not get that kind of pressure. I was very lucky to work with a studio, STX, who was incredibly supportive of the vision because it took a long time to get the movie made and so it landed in the right hands thankfully.