Truth is stranger than fiction…or is it?
Based on journalist Jessica Pressler’s December 2015 story for The Cut titled The Hustlers at Scores, Hustlers tells the story of the four exotic dancers, led by Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona and Constance Wu’s Destiny, who conned at least four men out of over $200,000 by drugging them in 2014. Released on Friday, the highly anticipated film over-performed at the box office, bringing in $34 million, as movie-goers learned the harsh truth about the culture of strip clubs while also gasping over J.Lo’s impressive pole-dancing skills/abs.
Of course, there were some changes that had to be made by Lorene Scafaria when she was taking the too-wild-to-be-made-up story from the page to the screen, with the director and writer explaining in interviews that she wrote the script based more on Pressler’s article than the court records, wanting to focus on the relationships and reasoning behind the crime.
“I wanted to stay true to what happened: The crimes themselves, the punishments. I didn’t want to water down what they did,” Scafaria told Vox. “But I also didn’t feel like I needed to embellish the really bad behavior in the club or the daily microaggressions and aggressions that these women faced—maybe all women face, but typically at the clubs.”
Here’s what Hustlers changed from the IRL story…and the details that didn’t make it to the big screen…
What They Changed
Obviously, the first thing they changed were all the major players names. Lopez’s Ramona was the stand-in for Samantha Barbash and Wu’s Dorothy/Destiny becoming the fictional version of Roselyn (aka Rosie) Keo, the main subject of Pressler’s piece. Lili Reinhart and Keke Palmer’s characters, Annabelle and Mercedes, were the avatars for Marsi Rosen and Karina Pascussi, the exotic dancers who became the bait in the fishing scheme (with both landing sentences of weekends in jail for four months and five years’ probation.
In the film, Wu’s character is a bit more of deer (wobbling in inch-heels) in headlights, initially just wanting to make money to take care of her grandmother, who factors into the story in a major way. However, Rosie’s grandmother isn’t mentioned all that often in the article, nor is (Spoiler Alert!) her death, which comes at the climax of the film. Also, the heartbreaking scene in the film in which Destiny reveals in an interview she gave a client a blow job believing he is giving her $300 (he only left $60) is not in the article.
“Writing is always an exercise in empathy, so it was easy to look at them and think, ‘They’ve got bills to pay, they’ve got relationships, they’ve got feelings, and relationships with their own bodies and relationships with each other,'” Scafaria told Vox. “And it’s all really complicated. I felt a real responsibility to tell a human story.”
It’s right after that shocking encounter with the client that a devastated and down Destiny runs into Ramona again, eventually taking her up on her offer to get in on their scheme. In real-life, Rosie said she wanted in after she “started noticing, these b–ches make a lot of money, and they don’t even really work.”
During an interview scene, Julia Stiles’ character Pressler-based character Elizabeth states she believes Destiny joined in the scheme because just wanted to make friends after a lonely and traumatic childhood, but Rosie, at least as she is portrayed in the article, is much more calculated, with her rough upbringing attributed to her parents leaving her and her brother with her grandparents to run off to Atlantic City.
Rosie started running their operation like a proper business, keeping detailed notes and records of their clients, with the real-life version was much more self-aware, ambitious and willing than her on-screen counterpart.
“My big advantage over the other girls is I don’t look like a stripper,” she said, with Pressler noting Rosie gestured down to her Lululemon outfit she was sporting in their interview, “I look like any girl who could be getting off work, relaxing after a long day by having a glass of wine.”
She also boasted, “There were nights and weeks where I brought in the club 100 grand. Without me making the effort to go out and market and promote, [the clubs] wouldn’t have business.”
While the trailers initially made it seem like a caper film with strippers, the heart of Hustlers is really the relationship between Samantha and Rosie, with the former becoming a mentor and mother figure to the latter.
“I was also really interested in the friendship story,” Scafaria explained to Vox. “It felt like there was something more in between the lines—the story of these two women who became friends and formed this business together, and then here they are being interviewed separately years later.”
The key phrase there is in between the lines, as the film definitely embellishes the Samantha-Rosie relationship as it was relayed in Pressler’s piece. (Scafaria also found the dynamic between the interviewee and her subject just as intriguing, resulting in the interview scenes between Elizabeth and Destiny driving the narrative of the film.)
The family aspect of the crew, including the scene of the four women, their family members and some of their employees, spending Christmas together, explaining gifts and laughing, was also heightened.
“I was so excited to shoot that scene. And honestly, it was my favorite day on set,” Scafaria told ET Online of the holiday scene. “It really felt like Christmas morning to see all of them in that space together, to see, like, this all-lady Christmas was actually a really beautiful thing.”
What They Left Out
Scafaria actually managed to get most of Pressler’s account into the film, including a lot of direct quotes from Rosie, some of the men who were targeted in the scene and the police officers.
The scene in which Rosie, Mercedes and Annabelle bring one of their clients to the hospital after he tried to jump into his pool from the roof, only to hit his head, was taken directly from the article: “One hedge-fund manager had gotten so wasted he’d bumped his head in his pool and suffered a concussion.” Another was left out: “One of the girls had ended a night covered with bite marks.”
According to Rosie, they left out this pretty iconic exchange that went down in the police car after she was taken into custody:
In the car on the way to central booking, she and the cop bantered. “He was basically like, ‘How did you get wrapped up in this?’ ” Rosie told me. “ ‘You’re smart, you’re pretty.’ ”
“Maybe when all this is said and done, I’ll take you out for a drink,” Rosie said offhandedly.
In the rearview mirror, his face changed. “I ain’t never taking a drink from you,” he said tersely.
Rosie laughed. “Don’t worry, hon,” she said. “You don’t have no money for me to take.”
The film did feature one of the men who would ultimately come forward against the women: Doug (Steven Boyer), a recently divorced man who was left to take care of his autistic child, but ends up losing everything after a night out with the ladies. While the character revealed he had lost his job because they maxed out his corporate card, the film didn’t detail just how much damage the scheme had done to his life, both professionally and psychologically.
“Later, after starting a new job, he was informed his name had been reported to an agency that tracks white-collar crime, and he was fired again,” Pressler wrote. “Since then, he’s been fortunate enough to find a consulting job, but he lives in fear of being found out by his current employer. ‘I wake up in the morning thinking about it,’ Fred told me. ‘Every day, once or twice a day, I feel the barrel of the gun against my head.'”
While Destiny was distraught over choosing to take a plea deal rather than stay strong with her “sisters,” Rosie really didn’t have any issue looking out for herself in real life.
“I thought about it, and I’m, like, the only one of those girls that’s normal, with a brain on my head, with a child and a future,” she said of taking the deal that ultimately helped her avoid any jail time.
As for any impact it could’ve had on Samantha, who learned about the deal from someone else and texted her former partner-in-crime “good luck,” Rosie simply said, “She’ll have a crew in jail. I was watching Orange Is the New Black. She’ll be like Red. She’ll be like V.”
Finally, they also left out Rosie eventually denying everything she had told Pressler, claiming she made it all up by the end of the viral piece.
“Right now, I am telling you everything is fictional,” she told Pressler. “If you want to write the fictional story I told you, you can…I am saving myself. I am out for myself.”
Hustlers is in theaters now.