It’s clear Jac Schaeffer is going to be a writer we’re following for a long time, since she wrote a screenplay for Black Widow and is running Marvel’s WandaVision for Disney+. Even now, her current film captures the hearts of ‘80s movie buffs like me. The Hustle is a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with Rebel Wilson and Anne Hathaway in the roles originated by Steve Martin and Michael Caine.
Penny (Wilson) is a petty con artist catfishing guys. Josephine (Hathaway) is a high class European working the long con. When Penny comes to town and threatens Josephine’s game, she tries to take Penny under her wing instead. Ultimately, they pick a target to see who can con first and win the territory.
Schaeffer took a break from developing WandaVision to discuss The Hustle by phone. Schaeffer was also a writer on Captain Marvel and wrote the short Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, and directed her own screenplay, TiMER. The Hustle is in theaters now.
Did changing the genders of our dirty rotten scoundrels change the con?
Yes, it changed the nature of the con. It was really a lot of fun to write because it’s an exploration of how to men manipulate women versus how women manipulate men, and the different tools in the toolbox. So yeah, a lot of the con shifted a bit.
Is there a revenge fantasy element to it? Aside from the original Dirty Rotten Scoundrels it’s a fact of society that men can be pigs.
I would not characterize it as any kind of a revenge fantasy. I think it’s more the opportunity, especially right now at this moment, that women can play all kinds of characters. So women can play dirty rotten scoundrels too and they can be selfish and conniving and complex and manipulative and flawed. So I think it’s more about that I think it also speaks to more women can be good at things that maybe are considered outside their sphere. So these women are excellent liars and excellent con artists and they delight in that. Hopefully the audience does to.
Part of their con though is they’re counting on men to be sexist, aren’t they?
Yes, they’re using men who are shortsighted, men who aren’t woke per se. They target those men and use that shortsightedness, that sexism I guess. I think there was an attempt at that in the original, that Lawrence and Freddy were targeting women who were wealthy and kind of silly and ridiculous. But I think with The Hustle it goes a step further. In some cases, the men and women are culpable a little bit in being swindled.
The original sort of touched on perhaps a misogynistic underpinning to their cons but those guys pull it off because they’re so charming.
I would never want to disparage the original. I think it goes a long way on the charm of Michael Caine and Steve Martin and on their intelligence as performers and what they imbued the characters with. Freddy’s character, Steve Martin’s character, has a speech about how essentially it’s our turn to be sugar babies. It’s our turn to be supported by women, which I think maybe at that moment was kind of an interesting remark and a wink. But they don’t do anything in that movie that crosses any kind of line. The tone of the movie and the hijinks of the movie is all in good fun. With The Hustle, the moment at which it’s coming out, the moment at which we’re filming it, it’s a little more intentional but still the comedy is the point at the end of the day.
How did the idea of not only remaking Dirty Rotten Scoundrels but evolving and flipping it come your way?
It came from Rebel. She’s a producer on it and it was something that she was developing with MGM. It was a property that she saw as an incredible opportunity for herself to be a vehicle, and she’s also a terrific producer. She and I had met on something else and she asked for my thoughts on it. We had a great meeting and she hired me. I consider myself lucky.
How faithful did she want The Hustle to remain to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels?
She’s a huge fan of the original and really wanted to stick to it fairly faithfully in terms of the structure. We all felt that there was so much opportunity in the gender swap of it that we didn’t need to tinker hugely with the narrative of the original because there would be so many drastic changes in the actual scene work and characterization. I will say it’s really faithful, more so than I think other remakes and reboots that we’ve seen in the past couple years.
How much do Penny and Josephine resemble Freddy and Lawrence?
We kept with the basic high class con artist and low rent con artist. That is there. Rebel’s brand of comedy is incredibly distinct to her as of course Steve Martin’s is to him. So we built that character around Rebel and her incredible strength and timing and what works for her voice. Then for Annie, in the original, Michael Caine is doing high class Michael Caine which is incredible and nobody has a problem with that because we would all watch Michael Caine read the phone book. For Annie, because of her facility with accents and her connection to wardrobe as an extension of the character, we added so many layers and so many more intricacies and details to the con and to the different guises that she wears as Josephine.
The funniest scene in the original is when Ruprecht pees at the table. How did you approach that moment in The Hustle and was Rebel willing to go there?
[Laughs] Well, I don’t want to spoil anything that’s in the movie but we did a lot of different versions of it. I think we all agreed that that was going to be the biggest challenge because that’s the big expectation. How do you up it? How do you best Ruprecht? And I think at the end of the day, we really felt like it wasn’t about besting Ruprecht because that is its own piece that exists in comedy canon. We tried a lot of different things on the page. There were huge ideas and ultimately we went with something that worked with Rebel’s particular comedy stylings and it makes me laugh, so I hope it’ll make everyone else laugh.
It looks like the free food on the train con is faithful but adds some modern elements to get men to feel sorry for her. Is that accurate?
Yes, that is accurate. A lot of the different pieces are like that where it’s similar to the original but with added layers, with added nuance that are specific to the gender swap and specific to Rebel herself.
For people who know Dirty Rotten Scoundrels backwards and forwards like I do, do you have surprises in store for them?
Yes, there are new surprises in this film.
You mentioned the scene work. How much did change from what you wrote to when they were on the set and improvising?
I was lucky enough to be on set myself so I was involved in some of that which was great. I adore our director, Chris Addison who is a deeply funny man with wonderful instincts and just the best guy to work for. In the writing process it was just Rebel and me early on and I would deliver things and she had great ideas for enhancing, for putting things more in her voice, for joke alts and punches and that kind of thing. Then when we were on the set, there was room for improv because that is very much her specialty. We would decide this is a moment for a bunch of alts so Chris and I would come up with a list of 10 insults for this line. A lot of the movie is the two of them insulting each other, and of course Rebel would come up with her own and Annie is actually a tremendous improviser but it’s not what she’s known for. I think she perhaps even surprised herself but she is deeply funny because of how she immerses herself in characters and because she’s so game for the accents and for all the moving parts. She actually came up with a number of really great things on set.
This will be your second produced film. I know how the industry works. Have you been working a lot since TiMER?
Yes. It’s funny how that works, how you can be a gainfully employed screenwriter and filmmaker and producer for many, many years and not everything makes it to the screen. The short answer is yes. I’ve worked on a number of different things and am currently very busy, but just the two official screen credits so far.
When you got hired to run WandaVision, did you get to be privy to the end of Avengers: Endgame early?
Now we’re getting into territory where I’m really afraid. I think shouldn’t get into that. Thank you for your patience with that. We sign our lives away here at Marvel.
I understand. We interview tons of Marvel people so try to think of things you can talk about and not get in trouble. Could you speak to working with Disney+?
I don’t work with them directly. I’m very excited to be working on a show that will be on that platform. I can’t actually speak about working with them.
How about the process of being a showrunner?
Sure, I can talk about that. I love it. When I first started out in my career, I was an assistant to an executive producer who had a deal at ABC. So I was with him for about two years and a handful of shows that I watched go into various stages of development and production. At the time, I realized it wasn’t for me, the network model of developing and producing television so I left and went into features and stayed there. So it’s a huge surprise for me to be back in television after so many years and having just written, directed and produced features. I think it’s unique to this moment of peak TV and the streaming model and doing limited series. It’s very different than what it was when I first started out and I adore it. I have an incredible room full of writers that inspire me and who are good people and talented people. I really enjoy working for Marvel and I respect what they’re trying to do. The characters are infinitely interesting so I’m grateful to be doing this.
We’ve heard about Marvel’s writers program. Were you by any chance part of that?
I was not. I came in actually right after finishing The Hustle. I was hired to write Black Widow and that’s how I landed here.
Is that the Black Widow script they’re going to make?
I can’t answer that.
Right, of course. Do you see yourself as a comedy writer or just a writer?
That’s an interesting question. When I was on The Hustle, I thought oh, I guess I’m a comedy writer. Now that I’ve been working on these Marvel projects that’s not really how I identify. I think everything I do has a comedy piece to it but now I’m very much in action space. As you know with Marvel movies, there is a surprising amount of drama and pathos. I think if pressed, I would say I am a screenwriter.
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