Hustlers opens with Janet Jackson’s Control. Appropriate for a film about a group of New York City strippers who take control back from the Wall Street types who think of the strip club as their playground. Starring Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, and Julia Stiles, the film is based on a New York Magazine article titled ‘The Hustlers at Scores,’ by Jessica Pressler.’
Cinematographer Todd Banhazl discussed with director Lorene Scafaria about how to shoot the women in ways normally reserved for men. In other words, he used visual clues we’d normally see in the crime or heist genre when men are in the lead roles. Banhazl also looked at sports films to see how to shoot the women with a certain type of athleticism.
I spoke to Banhazl about lighting choices, his influences, and creating the image of Hustlers
The visual world of Hustlers is a gritty and yet so glamorous too. Where do you begin visually to create that image?
It is just that: a lot of grit and a lot of glamour. A lot of the conversations that Lorene and I had were all about striking this balance of something that is glamorous and firmly rooted in this insanely excessive fashion of 2007. It’s at the height of fashion, music videos, wealth, the economy, and pop culture. At the same time, we wanted to make something that was gritty and rooted in the emotional experience of these women.
We landed on something where the world was so bold and so loud and so excessive. The environments they spend their time in are so bold. The outfits are bold. The visual style could contrast that with something more gritty and could be more emotional. That was the initial conversation.
We also talked about control and the idea of these characters trying to hold on to control and gain power. There’s this idea that male characters traditionally in film are allowed to want power for the sake of power. That’s what we celebrate in all these gangster movies. With women often, there has to be a reason. In a lot of these early meetings, when they were trying to find the money for the movie, they were like, “Something more terrible happens to these women so we can root for them.” That is something that never would have come up if it were men doing the crime.
Where were the colors of glamour and grit for you?
The color story for us starts with the strip club. It’s where the women are working. It’s where they’re originally hustling their clients. It’s the first place of power for them and them weaponizing the male gaze comes from that. It comes from pinks, purples, blues, and reds that are put onto their bodies. It’s designed to make them look like this objectified ideas of women for these men in this club. That’s where the color story begins.
The Wall Street guys are in this other idea of wealth. It’s all the financial district. It’s glass and metal. It’s white and devoid of color. In the middle is money, so we tried to remove green from the movie and have it only exist in the money.
As the women rise to power and start buying big beautiful places, following the American Dream, their spaces start looking a lot like their male counterparts. They start buying apartments in Manhattan with white walls and glass. What you see is their world starts getting drained of color.
By the end, when their world starts coming down and the system eats them up, they’re outside City Hall. It’s this concrete building with no color. The color story is this great tragedy of the American Dream.
The outfits are their own characters. How does that work with what you’re framing?
Mitchell Travers our costume designer is an actual genius. Lorene would say this, “His work is the other actor in the film.” The wardrobe in this movie has everything to do with ideas of how women can feel sexy and powerful in ways that are meant for men, but also meant for themselves. It’s not necessarily about the female gaze. For me, it’s more about weaponizing the male gaze and taking control of the male gaze.
Mitchell and I collaborated on this idea that we wanted the characters to pop without having to light them like a music video. Mitchell made sure there was a lot of shininess, sequins and plastic. He made sure there was glitter, jewelry and all these surfaces that we could light the environment like it was natural and dangerous. Anytime, the light hit the characters, they would just pop in this big 2007 way without it feeling artificial.
In the champagne room, we wanted to insinuate nudity without showing nudity. Mitchell had this idea to dress Constance in red. Then we matched the color of her red to the lighting, so when you soak her in this red light it becomes naked. She becomes this completely objectified idea of the female form and it’s really powerful.
What was one of the biggest challenges in terms of lighting?
It was a miraculous amount to do in 29 days. The movie is like this giant montage and it’s being told in an interview too. There was so much we wanted to do and had to move through at such a visual pace. That was one of the big challenges, making sure we pulled it off.
We had to get the balance right. We wanted the sequences to be fun. In Ocean’s Eleven when they’re breaking into the bank, there’s a lot of joy when the caper is being committed and so we wanted that. There’s this fine line between laughing at the guys when the guys are being drugged. You feel bad for them, but then you don’t feel bad for them because they suck. We tried to strike that balance where you are allowed to laugh at everyone and observe the gender wars as opposed to abuse the women. That balance was the challenge.
When you’re lensing it, did you look at other movies for influences?
We wanted to make our favorite movie when we were growing up. We talked about Boogie Nights and The Wolf of Wall Street. Of course, we talked about Goodfellas and Flashdance. We talked about movies that are like big gangster epics with the big Scorsese way of moving the camera where the camera is moving at the pace of the movie.
We looked at a lot of sports movies. We designed the back room to look like a sports locker room. There are stripes on the walls. It’s all fluorescently lit, and it was designed to look like you’re walking with these gladiators out onto the stage.