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Strip Teed Off - Meet the Producing Team That's More In Sync Than A Pole-Dancing Routine

Posted By Kevin Perry, Friday, October 11, 2019

As the battle of the sexes rages through our human condition, we struggle to understand the other while simultaneously clamoring to define our own community. Who are we, what are we capable of, and how can we achieve the next stage in our collective evolution as the constant refrain of us-versus-them clouds our progress?

These questions are at the heart of Hustlers, and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas’ office is a hotbed of finger-pointing—but in the most gloriously upbeat way imaginable.

“These are two female producers who embraced each other’s strengths,” Goldsmith-Thomas beams as she points admiringly toward her producing partner-in-crime, Jessica Elbaum. “Make no mistake, this woman …”

“And this woman!” Elbaum can’t help but interject with her own declaration of solidarity, gesturing right back.

Maneuvering the praise train back on track, Goldsmith-Thomas continues, “I would work with her in a heartbeat. She has great taste. We make movies for everyone; we just happen to be women.”

The two producers pooled their considerable talent to bring Hustlers to lascivious life. The bad-girls-gone-worse tale depicts a cabal of opportunistic exotic dancers who prey upon their male clientele to bilk them of their cash made in the glitzy underbelly of Wall Street, circa the onset of the Great Recession.

“This is a movie, in my estimation, about the American dream. It’s about power, it’s about greed,” says Goldsmith-Thomas.  

Finishing the pitch, Elbaum adds, “The rise and fall.”

Their words dovetail effortlessly as Goldsmith-Thomas forges ahead. “It’s about people, who in this case happen to be a group of women, who played the game and then played too far, not unlike the Wall Street guys. Only these women probably got more punished. I wouldn’t say it’s female empowerment. I would say it’s about …”

“Getting what’s yours.” Elbaum once again punctuates her partner’s sentiment with femme finality.

Much like the characters in Hustlers, this producing pair has been alchemizing adversity into cinematic gold ever since they began charting their own respective filmmaking tracts. Goldsmith-Thomas worked as an agent for years, which is how she started her whirlwind collaboration with Jennifer Lopez. Meanwhile Elbaum had been yukking it up with comedy moguls Adam McKay and Will Ferrell.

Soon their destinies would converge around a true crime exposé about a gang of vigilante strippers.

Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York Magazine article, “The Hustlers at Scores,” set in the midst of the global economic meltdown of 2008, was going viral. “I had the article sent to me from Adam McKay,” recounts Elbaum. “And Jessica Pressler had sent it to him because she interviewed him right around The Big Short. So he forwarded it to me, and I knew right away that there was something there. I sat with Pressler and got the rights. We were off to the races. Shortly after, we hired Lorene to write it and then eventually direct it.”

Elbaum is referring to Lorene Scafaria, the visionary helmer of Hustlers, who was also on the radar of one Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas. “I had heard about Hustlers, I was tracking it, I was sort of doing my legwork, so it was divine providence that Lorene loved it and I was chasing it. It was one of those things where the ‘yes’ was within grasp, because for me everything is, ‘How hard do I have to work to get the yes?’ In a business of no.”

Jennifer Lopez gets direction from Lorene Scafaria on the set of Hustlers

One way to pave your path with success is to enlist the help of a true icon. “Lorene said from day one, ‘This has to be Jennifer Lopez. Ramona has to be Jennifer Lopez. She’s all I see when I write this, she’s all I see when I think about shooting this,’ and the dream came true.”

Goldsmith-Thomas echoes her director’s words, reminiscing about how J-Lo was “All in as a producer, all in as a star, understood and embraced it as a supporting role, saw it for what it could be and immediately gave notes. I can’t stress how involved Jennifer was and how much she believed in both Lorene and what this project was saying. It’s one of the things I love most about Jennifer, because she’s super smart. She didn’t do this for money; she did this because she knew who Ramona needed to be and the many layers of this very complicated character.”

Complexity proved to be a mighty sword, and its edges soon began to cut both ways. “What was tricky about this script is that the women, y’know, you root for them and then they go too far. They’re drugging people!” exclaims Goldsmith-Thomas. “We were uncompromising. We didn’t want to say that they only went after the rapists or the bad guys. They started with the bad guys, then they got greedy, much like the bad guys. It’s Wolf of Wall Street.”

Elbaum concurs, “The Wall Street guys didn’t only go after certain people. They didn’t give a shit! They went after innocent, gray-haired, anybody. It was like feast or famine.”

“I worked as hard as I’ve ever worked to help Lorene maintain her vision, to not compromise the truth of the story or the commerciality,” says Goldsmith-Thomas.  “This is hard, but it’s OK. It makes us work harder. It creates more of a mountain for us to blast through. There was a cartoon when I was young—this little kinda funny-lookin’ guy would go up to a mountain and scream, ‘Vavoom!’ And the mountain would blow apart. Like a little Super Mario guy. Then he’d sort of walk through and reach another mountain and go, ‘Vavoom!’ And I think that imprinted on me. It’s not like I shout at the mountains, but I look at them and strategically think, ‘OK, how do I get over this one?’”

As this question rang through the metaphorical creative canyons, a cavalry rode in to answer it. “Everybody brought something to the table,” adds Elbaum. “That’s what was so great about this team.”

“Lorene had a DP that she fought for,” extols Goldsmith-Thomas, heralding the cinematographic virtues of Todd Banhalz.

Producers Jessica Elbaum, Elained Goldsmith-Thomas (front) with executive producers Alex Brown, Pamela Thur

“Fought for!” seconds Elbaum. “She reached out to him, met with him very early on and they started setting the look even before we were green-lit. They had been working on this for years. We had a very truncated prep and it was go, go, go, but thankfully Lorene and Todd had been really at this for several months.”

In addition to their A-plus crew, there was more star wattage behind the scenes of Hustlers than most movies have on the screen. Will Ferrell was one of the film’s champions, and fellow producer Jennifer Lopez tried to entice him to join their proverbial lap dance. Goldsmith-Thomas recalls, “Will showed up on the set and everybody was so excited. Jennifer was like, ‘Put Will in the movie!’”

Lopez was also instrumental in wrangling one of the world’s hottest musicians to enlist in the mayhem. “Jennifer said, ‘You know who should do this—because she understands this story and she doesn’t judge these women, and she fundamentally inhabits it—is Cardi.’”

The Cardi in question is Ms. B herself, the first solo female artist to snag a Grammy for Best Rap Album, so she knows a thing or two about beating the men at their own game. “That’s why we wanted Cardi in it,” says Goldsmith-Thomas, “not just to make it an event, but she had great empathy for who these women were and was unapologetic. She understood why they did it. That’s hard.”

On the topic of difficulty, fitting into Cardi B’s calendar proved to be a herculean task. “Her schedule was so challenging, and she had concerts, and our schedule was so condensed,” Goldsmith-Thomas explains. “Cardi would do live Instagrams, and I would go, ‘Do Hustlers!’ I would go on Instagram.”

“That’s how we knew where she was,” Elbaum continues.

“And I would track her!” finishes Goldsmith-Thomas.

This zeal would soon pay off with a cast that rounded out the producers’ vision. The headliner was fresh off a year of acclaim and ceiling-shattering of her own, so they were thrilled when Constance Wu said yes. She was clearly right for the story. Crazy Rich Asians star Wu brings her signature mix of humor, savvy and vulnerability to the Hustlers leading role.

Surveying the resulting star power of their troupe, Elbaum calls the film “a movie that will be eventized so that people will leave their houses to go see it.”

“It was a very bumpy, rocky road,” she continues, “but really Elaine got this set up.”

Eschewing the spotlight in favor of humility, Goldsmith-Thomas responds, “We’re all sort of dancing, right? We’re all doing the dance, and I guess I would sort of pull back and say, ‘What does it take to get a movie made now?’ Forget about female or male. What does it take to get a movie, that isn’t a Marvel film, made?”

Gleefully answering the rhetorical throwdown, Elbaum sings, “Some dancin’!”

The exchange elicits a shared laugh between the two before Goldsmith-Thomas elaborates, “And it takes hustle. So you’re looking at the hustlers behind Hustlers.”

“It was a journey,” admits Elbaum, “but a journey that led us to finding each other and finding all the right people, and I think that it finally landed in the hands that it needed to be in.”

In fact, the quest often led the team upstream(ing), but they survived the deluge together. “I’ve never seen it as difficult as it is now, because we’re in transition,” Goldsmith-Thomas assesses. “We’re slowly becoming a streaming industry, which is fine, by the way. The streamers saw this script and loved it, but wanted it to be black and white, no shades. It’s not tied up in a bow. I would love to know what people think. It’s an amorality tale, so our heroes sometimes slip.”

When asked to predict their post-release fortune, she once again turns to Elbaum. “By October, I hope I’m in production, I hope you’re in post. I hope the world is a little bit happier and richer and clearer and that the mountains —for a minute—don’t need to be scaled.”

Mountain or no mountain, things are really looking up for the women who conquered Hustlers.

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