The crime movie Hustlers, which arrived in theaters Friday, has already gotten a considerable amount of hype. Part of that has to do with its celebrity-studded cast of women, including Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Cardi B and Lizzo. There’s also the film’s source material, a 2015 New York magazine article by Jessica Pressler about a group of strippers who embezzled Wall Street bankers, and its writer-director Lorene Scafaria, a woman filmmaker helming a movie with Oscar buzz.
But when Hustlers premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last week, Lopez’s grand performance as veteran stripper Ramona focused on a scene where she’s introduced to the audience through a sultry, intense pole dance to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.”
“I’d like to think that it’s a song that Ramona chose for herself,” Scafaria tells Rolling Stone.
“Criminal” wasn’t always intended for the scene, and in fact wasn’t even written in the script. Lopez initially requested a different song, and although Scafaria thought the tempo was too slow, she “knew what [Lopez] was going for.”
“As soon as I suggested Fiona Apple’s ‘Criminal,’ she said, ‘Oh hell yeah,’” Scafaria recalls.
Lopez and Hustlers choreographer Johanna Sapakie edited the song down to the two-minute version heard in the film and worked together on the accompanying pole dance. But Lopez actually began pole-dance training two-and-a-half months prior to shooting, training rigorously with Sapakie two to three times per week, with no dance double.
Even with Lopez being a world-class dancer throughout her career, training for the pole in such a short amount of time was challenging. According to Scafaria, Lopez called up her co-star, the rapper and former stripper Cardi B, ahead of her scheduled training to ask for advice. When Lopez asked if Cardi was good at pole dancing, she responded, “I’m great at it now!”
“From the moment we started talking about it, [Lopez] knew that it would require a bit of a transformation,” said Scafaria.
Due to the constrained shoot schedule on the movie – the whole film was shot in 29 days – Lopez and Sapakie began choreographing the “Criminal” scene before Apple had even given permission to use the song. “It was one of those things where it felt like, gosh, we are in trouble if we don’t get the rights. We didn’t really have a backup while we were shooting.”
Jason Markey, the music supervisor on the film, got a call from Scafaria while Lopez was workshopping the scene in Miami. “Lorene was like, ‘It’s working beautifully!’,” he says. “And I was like, that’s great, but I don’t know if Fiona will license this for film or TV.” While Apple has, on rare occasion, licensed out her music – “Paper Bag” appeared in Bridesmaids – “Criminal” had never specifically been licensed out for a film before.
Scafaria and Markey pulled out all the stops to get “Criminal.” In addition to two letters that Scafaria and Markey each sent to Apple, the crew was able to get a rough edit of the scene sent over to the musician, so she could see how “Criminal” would play out in the film. After that, Apple gave them the green light.
“The film did the heavy lifting for us,” says Markey. “I think that the cast really helped us, and the fact that it was all women – and all very revered women – it really helped everything to the millionth power.” On the anticipation that the scene has gotten, even before Hustlers was in wide release, Markey said, “This is something you dream about, as someone who chooses music for film … people are excited about it, and that feels exuberant.”
Most of the songs in Hustlers were scripted, with various needle drops acting as the film’s score. But when it came to Ramona’s big entrance scene, Scafaria left it open to interpretation.
“In the script, it said, ‘Ramona does one final flourish and then crosses the room,’” she said, laughing. “But when you cast Jennifer Lopez, you get the whole enchilada, the full monty … That scene didn’t really exist until Jennifer Lopez was on board.”