DP Todd Banhazl on ‘weaponizing’ and ‘taking control’ of the male gaze in ‘Hustlers’ [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

When Todd Banhazl received writer-director Lorene Scarfaria’s script for “Hustlers,” he knew immediately he had to be its cinematographer.

“I just fell in love with it for the same reasons I think audiences are connecting to it. I just couldn’t believe that someone had written this and wants to make this movie. I just knew that I had to make it,” Banhazl told Gold Derby at our Meet the Experts: Cinematography panel, moderated by this writer (watch above). “When we met, we hugged. I felt like I had the job within five minutes.”

Based on the “New York” magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores,” the film tells the true story of a group of strippers who, after the 2008 financial crisis, decides to swindle their Wall Street clients by drugging them and ringing up their credit cards. It’s a gritty, glamorous crime drama with an unlikely group of antiheroes at the center — people who are typically portrayed in a sexualized, one-dimensional light. Banhazl and Scafaria wanted to avoid this by treating and shooting the women as athletes and the art of stripping as a grueling athletic feat.

“We looked a lot at sports movies. Strip club movies, they don’t do a lot. They’re kind of all the same visually and actually not that interesting to us,” Banhazl shared. “We talked a lot about the women stepping out onto the stage like gladiators stepping out into the arena or football players stepping out into the field. It was a conscious effort to make it feel like that. … It came from the lighting as well. We lit a lot of the strip scenes so that you could feel their muscles and you could see the power behind the actual physical activity.”

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One such scene is Jennifer Lopez’s entrance as mother hen Ramona, who performs a jaw-dropping striptease to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” Unlike most strip scenes, the camera never makes it about the men ogling Ramona, but rather focuses on Ramona’s performance in a non-gratuitous way and newbie Destiny (Constance Wu) being in awe of her pole heroics.

“There’s this conversation we had of, there’s the female gaze and then there’s the weaponizing of the male gaze, and I think that scene, especially, is Ramona, is Jennifer taking control of the male gaze,” Banhazl explained. “There’s power in that. It’s not like negating her sexual power, but it’s like she’s owning it for the camera. It’s also the placement of camera. We spend a lot of time up on stage with the women, so you could feel like the muscles it takes to be on the pole and things like that. But that scene in particular, we’re often down low looking at her, which is a slippery slope — looking like we’re just objectifying her — but I think by rooting the camera in this feeling of Destiny being in awe of her, it becomes specific.”

Banhazl also developed a color palette and arc to signify the women’s rise to power and control. Throughout most of the movie, they’re bathed in eye-catching neon colors — blues, purples, pinks, reds — but never green, the color of money. The rich dudes they’re fleecing? They had the opposite aesthetic.

“The whole film for us is about trying to obtain power, the struggle for control. So at first, they’re soaked in these neon colors because they work in a club and it’s their first place of power and control. And the Wall Street dudes, their indications of wealth is like white and browns and glass and all these austere colors, devoid of color,” Banhazl said. “So as [the women] rise to power and start making more money, their spaces start losing color and start looking more like their male counterpoints.”

By the time they’re arrested at the end for their misdeeds, there’s no color around them. “When the system has come down on them and they’re outside City Hall … they’re surrounded by concrete,” he pointed out. “The color story of the film is the American Dream — the tragedy of the American Dream.”

Video by David Janove.

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