‘Hysteria’ Director Tanya Wexler On Making Her Vibrator Movie And Casting Maggie Gyllenhaal
«Hysteria» director Tanya Wexler hadn’t made a movie in years when producer Tracey Becker approached her with an idea: a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator. «I’ve made teeny little movies. Then I made a bunch of kids and so I was in the mom cave for a while,» Wexler says. But when she learned about Joseph Mortimer Granville, the doctor responsible for the world’s most popular sex toy, she couldn’t resist. «Oh my god, Tracey and a friend of hers mentioned that this weird historical fact existed. She wrote up a two-page treatment idea, and I was like, ‘OK, I’ll get the writers. I’ll find our co-producers. I don’t care what it takes. I have to see that.'»
The resulting movie, starring Hugh Dancy and Maggie Gyllenhaal, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September and opens in theaters this weekend. Wexler spoke to HuffPost Women about her reasons for making the film, working with her «dream cast» and rehearsing orgasm scenes.
What was it about this film that made you say, “OK, it’s time to make another movie”?
I feel like there are these frothy romantic comedies. There are good ones too, but a lot of movies are just like every girl wants to get married and have a big rock and a pair of nice heels. I like those as much as the next girl and the good ones are great, but I just don’t think it’s the only thing that should be out there. I love «When Harry Met Sally» — I don’t think that’s light at all. It’s a romantic comedy, but it tries to talk about issues, you know? The best way I think this movie plays is people go in with their girlfriends or husband. They have a fun time and enjoy the ride, so to speak. Sorry, there are like a million puns and they will never stop.
Yeah, I was going to ask you about that.
[Laughter] The writers used to joke that there are women doing research all over the world.
I’m sure I’ll constantly be saying, “Oh, that’s not how I meant it.”
Well, welcome to my life.
So did you know anything about the history before you made the film?
I was a psych major in college, so I knew about hysteria — it was this catchall diagnosis — and I knew there had been very severe treatments like hysterectomy and institutionalization. I didn’t know about the manual massage, which is like, god, if you’re gonna get a massage, it’s the probably the best one to get. [Laughter.]
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character is the only one who seems to get it. She’s the only one who uses the word pleasure — for everyone else, it’s «treatment.» And they never use the word orgasm.
I think that lots of men and lots of women didn’t get it because their frame was, it’s sex if there is a penis, right? I think that happens today. One of my roommates in college had a boyfriend in high school for two years, and she had never had an orgasm. And I was like, “Um, what? OK, you need a little education here. Why don’t you tell him?” She was like, “Well, then he will think he’s bad.” I’m like, “He is — you’ll be doing him a huge service.” My partner’s a woman, but the guys in my life are not so frail and weak to be threatened by a vibrator or to be threatened by knowledge and good information. They love the women in their lives and they want them to feel good and be happy. I gave [a vibrator] to everyone in the cast. It was like, “Are you giving the guys too?” And I was like, “Yeah, mostly because it’s funny.” But then they were like, “I don’t want the competition.” And someone goes, “It’s not your competition, dude — it’s a member of your team.”
Can you talk to me a little bit about casting?
You kind of fantasy-cast and you try to pick people who have aged out or who aren’t alive, so that you’re not writing a specific actor today and you get obsessed with that. The parts were written for Katharine Hepburn and young Hugh Grant. I think Maggie Gyllenhaal is the most Katharine Hepburn-y person out there right now. She’s strong and leads with her heart. And Hugh Dancy is awesome. He was on every day of that shoot, and his ability to make that physical Chaplain-esque comedy look like the most natural thing — it’s the hardest thing to do. You don’t get to audition movie stars. You just hope they bring it, you know? And they brought it.
I had never seen the actress who plays Molly the Lolly before. She was great.
Sheridan Smith is the best. She’s a big star in Britain. She was on a sitcom called “Gavin & Stacey.” And she was on this show “Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps.” And she was Elle Woods in the musical “Legally Blonde” over there. I watched her and my jaw dropped because she took something that is fun and campy and there was pathos. I was like, «I can’t cry in ‘Legally Blonde.'»
She’s the one who tests the vibrator for the first time. What was it like filming that scene? What was the comfort level on set?
Well, the jokes were unprintable. But we did orgasm rehearsal. I had this idea, like a privacy screen, like when you are giving birth, and it ended up looking like a theater curtain, and so we had the screen and the table and then the vibrator. And we were sorting out, what are they going put their hand on? I was like, “I don’t even know how to ask that question.” Thank god for Hugh Dancy. Hugh goes, “There are a million sandbags holding down all the lights — why don’t we just put a sandbag under?” So there was a modesty sandbag. Jonathan Pryce rubbed all the skin off of the knuckle on his fingers, like really getting into the role. The thing I was the most concerned about was the sound. I thought if it sounded too, uh, porny, it was not going to be funny, and if it sounded like comedy, it wasn’t going to be believable. Sheridan just kind of went for it. I remember one direction she just looked at me like, «You’re nuts.» I said like, “Not quite so real.” [Laughter] She was like, “What am I supposed to do with that?”
«A Dangerous Method» came out last year and also dealt with hysteria. Do you think that’s a coincidence? Or, if not, why do you think there’s such an interest in this topic?
I think that the bigger zeitgeist is kind of women and their bodies, whether it’s all the reproductive-rights talk that’s going on but also there are vibrators available on drugstore shelves. I feel like we are like, “It’s not so taboo for women to have desire anymore and women’s sexuality to be kind of be acknowledged.” I think that happens because the culture tends to shift. It is going to be very interesting to see where it goes.
Correction: The original version of this interview misspelled Katharine Hepburn’s first name.
Из истории истерии. Часть II. Arc de cercle
Герой дня: Сергей Шевкуненко
Возможно, я не прав, но полагаю, следует различать понятия "истерия" и "истерика". Истерия скорее относится к психиатрическому диагнозу, однако термин "истерика" используется чаще всего в социальном и политическом смысле, а в медицинском отношении истерика представляется, как частное проявление истерии. Надеюсь, не очень сложно объяснил.
Вечер добрый, Альфред!
Можно и так рассматривать: истерический синдром, МКБ-10……..F60.4 и др.
Ф.Ф. Спасибо за согласие.
Получается, что истерики хорошо владеют искусством перевоплощения, то есть то. чему учат в театральных институтах, им дано от природы,возможно — с избытком, что и превращается в болезнь?
День добрый, Флора!
Если "раздвоение" творящей природы артиста является неустранимым, то следует использовать его во благо артиста. Пусть тайна останется тайной, бессознательное-бессознательным, интуитивное — интуитивным…
Интересная тема, Филип Филипыч! Мне вот еще интересно, что Вы думаете про синдром Мюнхаузена, который некоторые особы успешно делегируют в той или иной степени и детям. Это психиатрия в чистом виде или что? Помните фильм "Похороните меня за плинтусом"-
— У меня золотистый стафилоккок, пристеночный гайморит, синусит, фронтит, тонзилит, хронический панкреатит с рождения, почечная недостаточность и что-то с печенью, не помню, что.
— Это потому что своими болезнями я расплачиваюсь за грехи матери-потаскухи.
— Видите, ребенок, а все понимает. Бросила она его. Променяла на алкаша-мазилу, повесила мне ребенка на шею тяжелой крестягой, и вот я его уже тащу 6 лет.
Вечер добрый, Лесная Вода!
Ф.Ф! Я уже упомянула"истеричность" Цветаевой-применительно к женской истеричности. Однако подумала- а Блок, да и и вообще ПОЭТЫ. Наверное, действительно, поэзия требует некой доли истеричности. Блок на последнем своем выступлении сказал, что поэт умирает, он больше не слышит стихов. Даже когда ему дали разрешение на выезд, неврастенические симптомы не давали ему возможности поправиться- просто угасал. Он был обречен не столько из-за болезни сердца, сколько из-за понимания своей ошибки, причем любил Россию настолько сильно, что это понимание "снесло крышу".
Под насыпью, во рву некошенном,
Лежит и смотрит, как живая,
В цветном платке, на косы брошенном,
Красивая и молодая.
И далее К.Юнг пишет, что «психология творческого индивида — это, собственно, женская психология, ибо творчество вырастает из бессознательных бездн, в настоящем смысле этого слова из царства Матерей».
Уважаемый Филипп Филлипыч! Должна заметить замечательную особенность стихов и Пушкина, и Блока — они запоминаются с первого прочтения — как настоящее, на всю жизнь.
Вот именно- все замечали, что "женственность "лирики Блока и были магией его стиха. Ведь его воспитывали одни женщины. и это якобы сыгграло такую роль. Вообще, Блок- это такой многогранник- типа Булгакова. Мне они кажутся "братьями"
=== его воспитывали одни женщины ===
Андрей Николаевич Бекетов (дед Блока) был вечно погружен в свои книги и гербарии…
От знанья жизни огражден.
Дни проходили безмятежно,
Как голубой весенний сон.
И жизни (редкие) уродства
(Которых нельзя было не заметить)
Возбуждали удивление и не нарушали благородства
И строй возвышенной души.
День добрый, Лесная Вода!
Тоньше стана нет.
— Вы любезней, чем я знала,
— Вы не знаете по-русски,
На плече за тканью тусклой,
На конце ботинки узкой
Дремлет тихая змея.
Интересно, кто же из женщин больше повлиял на Блока.
мне кажется, что мать (которая, судя по всему. и была натуральной истеричкой). Вообще. эта скользкая тема странных увлечений Блока для меня понятна (при полном отсутствии секса с женой ходил по публичным домами проч., включая наркотики).
Я пригвожден к трактирной стойке.
Я пьян давно. Мне всё — равно.
Вон счастие мое — на тройке
В сребристый дым унесено..
Интересная тема. Постараемся её продолжить. На первый взгляд Садовская могла бы быть Анной Карениной… которая пошла другим путем, мимо вокзала… В психологии много анализировали Толстого. И есть противоположные взгляды на Каренину…
Что женщине не следует «гулять»
Ни с камер-юнкером, ни с флигель-адъютантом,
Hysteria: Tanya Wexler interview
Hysteria director Tanya Wexler may be the niece of powerhouse cinematographer Haskell Wexler and the half-sister of actor Daryl Hannah but it’s not as if she was going to rest on any family laurels.
“My family is very loving and there wasn’t any pressure regarding my future career,” she admits. “In the end, you succeed or fail on your own merits.”
Wexler had made a selection of short films and two low-budget features, Finding North (1998) and Ball in the House (2001), though hadn’t worked for a while when producer Tracey Becker approached the openly gay mother of four to make a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England.
“As a mum you have to make the decision as to when you’re going to go out and not be with your kids,” she explains. “I don’t go out a tenth as much as I used to and I just wanted a laugh. I also wanted to see a kind of idealised version of who I might have been up there on screen.”
While as a suffragette and volunteer social worker, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Charlotte (pictured, right) is certainly the driven woman of the piece, she’s surrounded by doddering English men, most prominently her august father, Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) and his buttoned-up assistant Dr. Mortimer Granville. The film’s writers, Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer, conceived the Charlotte character as a young Katharine Hepburn, while a young Hugh Grant was the basis for Hugh Dancy’s Granville.
Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville, the only real-life person in the story, invented the vibrator as a general muscle relaxant, and not as a means of delivering orgasms to relieve so-called hysteria, a practice which rather horrified him. Incredibly, it’s true that husbands would send their middle class wives along to doctors in the belief they were ill, when mostly they were just bored and sexually frustrated.
“I don’t think the women thought, ‘I am going to get masturbated’,” says Wexler. “They thought, ‘I am going to get diagnosed. What is wrong with me?’ And this was the cure that was prescribed.
“The comedy grew out of the fact that this really did happen. Yet if we started injecting actual historical characters in a comedic way, it would have moved over to farce and there would have been a lack of believability. We wanted the movie to make audiences sit forward; we wanted to draw them in. I wanted the person next to me to go, ‘Can you believe that this really happened?’ So we created characters we really liked and we wanted to see their story told but we wanted to have a political agenda as well.”
Certainly the audience reaction at the film’s world premiere in a packed 2000-seat Toronto theatre had to be heard to be believed. The predominately female crowd was seeing a movie about the invention of the sex toys, when they thought they knew it all. They laughed nervously and frequently.
“The reaction has been astonishing,” admits Wexler. “It just shows the paucity of information out there. And what is truly subversive is that it’s a movie you can bring your mum to!”
There is no nudity though a lot of talk in the movie, which moves along at a brisk pace, notes Gyllenhaal, who dons a convincing English accent here. “In some scenes Hugh and I would have tonnes of dialogue and it was important to make it have that fast- paced romantic comedy feeling. We’d be walking through a party and dropping off a champagne glass and picking up something and turning and going over here while we were talking, talking, talking, talking. Because of the style of the movie, if the rhythm was off, you’d have to start the scene again. Actually, I think it was technically really difficult.”
One of the film’s highlights comes at the very end as vibrators throughout history are listed in the final credits. It was fun research, says Wexler. “We got the images from a couple of sources but mostly from an antique vibrator museum called Good Vibrations in San Francisco. I did a lot of that kind of research with my assistant mostly for fun.”
Indeed, Wexler is keen to spread the word that vibrators can be fun. She also wants to dispel the myth that the sex machines are used for frigidity or a need that can’t be filled “the good old-fashioned way,” as she puts it.
“I want people to think that whatever gets you there, as long as everyone is consensual, that is okay. There is no one way for however many billions of people to have sex.”
Given that the movie links the invention of vibrators to the women’s lib movement, does she perceive that men could be fearful that vibrators have replaced their functionality?
“No, she replies firmly. “We were doing another interview with Rachel Manes, who wrote The Technology of Orgasm, which is a really important reference for us. She was telling a story about how she was interviewed by one of the radio shock jocks who said, ‘I don’t want this competition’ but the other guy who was there said, ‘It’s not competition man, it’s a member of your team!’ This isn’t about replacing anything. This is about women, people, taking responsibility for their own happiness.”
Hysteria is released in cinemas July 12.
Interview with Tanya Wexler – Director of Hysteria
Interview with Tanya Wexler — Director of Hysteria
May 17, 2012 12:53 pm
Hysteria first premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and it recently screened at Tribeca. It opens in the US tomorrow, Friday, May 18.
Women and Hollywood: This movie feels very contemporary in terms of the issues, even though it was set in the 1880’s. How did you accomplish that?
Tanya Wexler: I’m glad you think so because that was the goal. People ask about the tone and what the movie would feel like and I always said that I wanted to make a film that looks like a Merchant Ivory film and feels like a Richard Curtis kind of movie. He has that great pace and it was important to me that it feel relevant, even though it was about an event in the 1880’s. They weren’t sitting around thinking they were quaint Victorians. They were thinking they were the cutting edge, and it’s a movie about Progressives. So it needed to feel like there was a new age dawning.
WaH: What drew you to the script?
TW: It was brought to me as a two-page treatment. My friend Tracey came to me and said, ‘I’ve got your next movie and it’s a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England.’ I thought that was the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. And I had a lot of kids at home and I was tired and I could not deal with a harrowing, searing, realistic, tortured tale. I wanted to laugh, and it this was a movie I wanted to see and no one had made it. That was it. Then I went and got the writers.
WaH: You put the film together?
TW: It was me and Tracey Becker and then there was a network of women. A husband and wife team — Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer — wrote it and producer Sarah Curtis, read it and fell in love with it. And then Judy Cairo, who made Crazy Heart, came on as we were finishing the financing and she brought in the money and Maggie. It was this great snowball of power women. It took a village.
WaH: How long did it take to go from the two page treatment to completed script?
TW: It was 18 months and then Sarah came aboard and we did more work. And then we started to cast.
WaH: How long after the 18 months did it take to get the financing together?
TW: Four or five years. It was like seven years total.
WaH: I read that you took some time off to have your kids. That’s always an interesting conversation to have with women directors because men don’t have to get off the merry-go-round. It’s really hard for women to get back on. How were you able to get back on? And what advice do you have for other people trying to get back on?
TW: Some of it was by choice and some of it was enforced by the world. I think if a movie had shown up that I wanted to make – I probably would have done it. With each film, there are a couple of big salient lessons I’ve learned. The first film was about getting the script perfect. The second lesson is about having great actors who can punch through the crazy noise that fills all of our lives. But the real lesson, is finding a film that is your voice. I think my first tiny movie was in my voice. My second film, which I’m really proud of, was a bit more in the writer’s voice. And when this showed up as an idea – I knew I had to do it. Whatever my voice was, and I wasn’t sure what it was, I just I had to do it. And it’s funny because I found another project that I’m about to join, and I thought the same thing about it.
So, with me and moviemaking and taking time off for kids was much more organic. I didn’t sit down and say I was going to take time off. At one point we had four kids under six, and we were insane. I have a wife, who is a stay at home mom, which is awesome and helpful, but I think my relationship to being home with the kids was really different then maybe a guy in a same situation. I still very much experienced that feeling that almost every mom has. That kind of working mom struggle where I felt like I’m not being a very good filmmaker and I’m not being a very good mom. Instead of feeling like I’m doing decently at both, sometimes I felt like I was doing a crap job at both.
But my advice is find something you have to make. For me, I have a fairly mainstream sensibility. I like esoteric stuff but it’s not my voice – it’s not what I have to make. It helps to make something that’s accessible. It’s an expensive medium and people put up a lot of money and you can’t take that lightly. It’s a privilege and it’s easy to be flip about it. There’s a lot of bullshit, but most people in the film business aren’t getting rich. They’re working hard.
WaH: When I was watching this film I was thinking it was about how women don’t fit into the conventional box and how things have changed for women. While many things have changed for women, many things have not, which is why this film feels so contemporary. Do you want to comment on that?
TW: For me it was important that it was a fun romantic comedy, which is considered a women’s genre, but that it had to have a little bit more to it. What I love about movies is that you go into the dark with a bunch of strangers and you go for the ride. You laugh and you have fun. We all work really hard so it’s good for us to be able to have fun that also connects us. And if people ask what the message of the movie is, I say, you are in charge of your own happiness.
WaH: Your movie is really subversive at the same time as being really mainstream, which is what is so funny about it. You talk about women’s sexuality, which we still don’t talk about, and women wanting pleasure.
TW: If we get a criticism from a certain type of critic, it’s always like the film is not edgy or subversive enough. And I wonder is it because the women aren’t victims enough? I want to let women have fun and enjoy it and show their orgasms. For me, it’s much more subversive to make a film about the inventor of the vibrator that you can bring your grandma or mother to, than something that’s edgy and makes you uncomfortable. I want us to be comfortable with sexuality.
WaH: You were saying there were a lot of great strong women on this production. Talk a little about the fact that this was such a pro-women movie and having all these great women involved and what it meant for the shoot.
TW: I don’t know how much of it was because they were women, but Sarah, Tracey and Judy, my three producers, were my mommies. They were just incredibly supportive. What I mean is that when they read the material, they got it. They loved it and knew there was a huge audience. And if there was any struggle in getting the movie made, it was convincing people who wrote checks and put movies in the theaters. And they’re really good producers, having nothing to do with their gender. They’re just good and they supported me in my job and called me on my shit when they didn’t think something was working. And they fought for the like hell for the movie. They fought for more days on camera, and more prep time, and the best cast, and getting everything we could. For me, it was the biggest budget I had ever worked on.
WaH: How many days did you shoot?
TW: 33 days. There was no overtime and there was no money for reshoots. And it was a period piece so you lose time on camera with the hair, makeup, wigs, props, carriages, etc. It was crazy, but they just knew it had to be done right and I think my production designer Sophie is a genius. I think the movie looks like a twenty-five million dollar Hollywood feature. My team, my designers, my cinematographer – it was a credit to them, but part of that is having great producers who help you pick all of those people.
WaH: Since Toronto you’ve been getting more scripts and having more meetings. This is a already a big success for you.
TW: It’s a life changer. And that comes from the film and how people are perceiving it. I know there is a big audience for it. I know that women know about the film and they’re going to come see it.
WaH: What’s the line to bring them into the theater? What’s the tagline for you?
TW: The tagline is, “He made an invention that turned on half the world.” Mine is more like you’re going to laugh your ass off, and I think everyone needs a good laugh.
It’s funny because when I was handing out vibrators to some of the guys for a scene they would go, ‘I don’t want the competition.‘ I think the guys who are more comfortable, who did grow up in a co-ed world, who love the women in their lives, are not threatened by it. My guy friends are not so fragile. They want the women in their lives to be happy. In a way, the pitch is, ‘Do you want the women in your life to be happy?‘ I don’t know how to say that in a pithy way, but I think that for men, it is a kind of movie about the men who love the women in their lives. And I think that’s really the best way to go.
Director Tanya Wexler talks ‘Hysteria,’ vibrators, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Director Tanya Wexler was immediately intrigued when producer Tracey Becker approached her to make Hysteria, a romantic comedy about the invention of the electric vibrator in Victorian-era England. «It made me laugh,» Wexler says. The film tells the story of Mortimer Granville (played by Hugh Dancy), an innovative young doctor who has trouble finding work due to his modern theories on medicine. He eventually finds employment at the private office of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who helps women overcome «hysteria» by giving them a «medicinal massage of the female organs to the point of paroxysm.» Dr. Dalrymple also introduces Granville to his daughters, the sweet, even-tempered Emily (Felicity Jones) and the outspoken, social reformer Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
Granville loses his job after developing severe hand cramps from giving too many «massages.» So, he works with a friend (Rupert Everett) to develop a vibrating massage device. As Granville works to establish himself as a successful doctor himself, he is challenged by Dr. Dalrymple’s daughters on how he feels about hysteria, his career, and love.
City Pages sat down with Wexler to talk about vibrators, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and the making of Hysteria.
[jump] Did you know anything about the history of the vibrator prior to making the film?
No. I knew a bit about hysteria as the catch-all diagnosis of the time because I was a psychology major in undergrad, but I didn’t know anything about the history of the vibrator. Like most people, I was kind of shocked. When I googled «hysteria» and «vibrator,» I was flabbergasted. I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever heard. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
What was the craziest thing that you learned while doing research for the film?
People won’t get this if they haven’t seen the movie, but I learned that ducks are the rapists of the bird world. That was the thing that made me go, «Whoa!»
We researched a lot of different things. There’s a bit in the film where Felicity Jones’s character does this phrenology exam. We kind of have a comic riff on it but that’s craziness, too.
This movie really isn’t about the vibrator. It’s about the cultural denial we go into over things. We all decide to consensually turn a blind eye to something that’s right in front of our face. Most of the details are based on historic facts, though, and it made me laugh.
You have said that the topic of the film is something that still makes people blush today. Do you hope that the film inspires people to talk about attitudes toward women’s sexuality?
I mostly hope that the audience has fun. In a way, the film is an empowerment narrative about you being in charge of your own happiness. If people take away more from the film, then that’s up to them.
Let’s talk a little bit about that. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Charlotte, a fearless, passionate, educated young woman who fights for what she believes in. Why was it important for you to have such a strong female lead?
I wanted a character in there who was someone I would have wanted to be if I’d lived back then. That’s what she was. Even as a little girl, I would see characters like that in a movie and think, «I want to be like that!» There probably aren’t a lot of little girls going to see this movie — maybe twentysomethings — but I think we always like to have models for behavior. I really wanted to see this story told, and it didn’t exist. So, I decided to go make it. In a way, it was an empowerment narrative for me.
Hugh Dancy joked that the hardest part of the film was answering the question, «What’s the movie about?» What was the hardest part of making the film for you?
Getting it financed was really hard. There was more resistance to this film than I thought there would be. Someone asked me what every film student needs to make a movie. I said, «Arrogance and naivete.» I think I had both. I thought, «Of course everyone is going to want to make this film!» Then I realized how hard it was. I thought it was funny and smart, and the writers had done such a good job. But it’s always a battle to get any movie made because it is such a speculative venture. You don’t know if it’s going to work or not.
You had such a talented cast in the film. What was it like to work with actors like Hugh Dancy, Jonathan Pryce, and Maggie Gyllenhaal?
They made my job easy in that regard. It’s cliche to say that casting the right people is 80 percent of the job, but it really is. They really bring thislife-infused, three dimensional person to the table.
In the editing room, we had so many choices as to what to include in the film, which was awesome. It makes you really spoiled as a director. To put people’s name on a wish-list and to have them say yes is crazy. It was awesome.
Do you have a favorite memory from making the film?
I have a couple of non-favorite memories. We were filming a scene in Central London outside of this famous, beautiful building and we didn’t know that the day we were going to shoot the
Pope was in town. There were no helicopters in Victorian England, but the day that we shot there were a lot of helicopters. It was crazy.
I think my favorite moment — aside from some stuff in the shooting — was when we did the score. We went to AIR Studios in London near Abbey Road. It’s where «Yesterday» was recorded. To sit and hear an orchestra play the score to your movie is the most moving thing you’re ever going to experience. I actually wept like baby when they were recording.
The first day you roll cameras is also amazing. It took us six years to get there, so that first day was pretty great.
Hysteria opens Friday, June 1 at Landmark Edina.
Таня векслер истерия
The fact that Hysteria is a costumed rom-com provides a fresh hook, but of course it’s not the main reason the indie comedy is grabbing attention. The film, directed by Tanya Wexler (Finding North, Ball in the House) and co-written by Wexler and Stephen Dyer, takes a fanciful but historically based look at the invention of the vibrator in late Victorian London.
Hugh Dancy (Confessions of a Shopaholic, Martha Marcy May Marlene) is young doctor Mortimer Granville whose idealism about treating patients with more than leeches and tonics is sidetracked when he goes to work for Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce). Dalrymple’s lucrative practice involves treating women for “hysteria” through “manual massage” and “release.”
Working for Dalrymple, Granville becomes entangled with both his daughters: the proper marriage prospect Emily (Felicity Jones, Like Crazy) and the crusading progressive Charlotte (a shining Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart, Secretary). And from laying hands all day on his patients, Granville also develops career-threatening repetitive stress injuries. His mechanical salvation comes in the form of a steam-powered feather duster invented by his caddish roommate Edmund St. John-Smythe (a scene-stealing Rupert Everett) and quickly adapted by the doctor for more “hands on” use in his treatments.
The “Victorian Vibrator Rom-Com” tag is a catchy hook, but Hysteria has more on its mind than naughty titillation. Through Charlotte’s relentless campaigning on behalf of women’s rights and the poor, Wexler’s film gets somewhat serious about the budding Progressive movement, the forward march of both medicine and women’s rights, and how “hysteria” was used as a catch-all diagnosis for any female behavior outside Victorian society’s norms.
I sat down with Tanya Wexler this month in Chicago to talk about Hysteria, her winning cast, and releasing the nice little historical rom-com in the midst of a newly resurrected cultural debate over women’s rights.
Hysteria is playing in select theaters across the country.
How did this project get started?
Tanya Wexler: I’d made two little movies a decade ago, and then I had a bunch of kids, and so I was trying to survive the crazy war that is having four kids under six. And a producer friend of mine said, “I know the next movie you’re doing,” and I said, “I don’t know what I’m having for lunch,” and she said, “It’s a rom-com about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England,” and I said, “Sign me up.” I just felt if I never make another movie again, I have to make this movie.
Do you feel like you were using the catchy vibrator topic to bring up some serious issues?
Wexler: We knew the movie wasn’t really about the invention of the vibrator—that would be a short comedy sketch. The movie’s called Hysteria because it’s about the diagnosis of hysteria, and the vibrator is really just a device, so to speak. You have this fake disease for the condition of being a woman—if you want too much or want to live in any way outside of this small, prescribed circle that society wanted you to be in Victorian England, then you were sick and had to be cured. One of the nicer treatments was manual massage; some of the less nice treatments were hysterectomy and institutionalization.
People ask, “Is there a message?” but I really wanted to make something that was entertaining and that wasn’t just fluffy. I wanted a film for me. People say if you want to be entertained, and you want to laugh, and you want to have fun and some romance, well then it can’t be about anything. I think that’s bull. My life is full of laughter and romance, and hey, I don’t live in one genre.
I knew it was rom-com first, and that’s what I knew I had to deliver to make it a satisfying movie for me. No one was making this movie, and I wanted to see it, so I had to go make it. So it’s not like I was trying to make this worthy film and trying to make it funny—I was trying to make this rom-com about the vibrator, and it happened in the most buttoned-down time.
And by looking back at Victorian England in the form of a rom-com, it makes it easier to serve up some of the serious issues Charlotte is promoting, rather than preaching about them in the here and now.
Wexler: I wanted it to be fresh, and it was important that it was authentic and felt period-accurate because it has to feel like it really happened. But I wanted the pace and the banter to keep time with our viewing expectations today. I don’t think they sat around going “Aren’t we quaint?” I think they sat around going “We’re on the cutting edge of science, we’re on the cutting edge of human rights, we’re changing things.” Everything’s about to burst free for the Victorians, but they don’t know that, so it’s very much a moment of expectation and energy.
You made the film over the past few years, but now all of a sudden it’s being released in the middle of this new politically motivated “War on Women” debate. Do you feel that’s a burden for a small rom-com?
Wexler: It’s very strange to have made a movie about 130 years ago and to know those arguments Charlotte was making are still not sorted. That’s surprising to me. When we were developing it, there was the sense of “Yay, see how far we’ve come, sisters–all of us together, we did this!” And now there’s a layer of “Geez, we still have to fight the fight.” I had intended the film to be more of an uplifting thing, and now it’s a little weirder.
I do think all those issues now are too much for a little movie to carry. I wanted something that was entertaining but had a little meat on the bone, had something to say that I cared about. Not because it was a message, but because I really wanted to dig into these characters—I wanted them to have something to do that I understood and believed in.
You have a tremendous cast. What were you looking for in your actors?
Wexler: I wanted great actors who had comedic chops, because it wasn’t a broad comedy, but it wasn’t drama. So I needed people who could play it straight and let the comedy evolve out of the situations, but still deliver these great performances. When we were working with the writers we’d be like, “Okay, if you could cast anyone in the history of the world, who would it be?” And we were saying Katharine Hepburn and young Hugh Grant. Because something my writers told me is you want to get a voice or a distinct character in your head, and if you have past actors in mind as you write then you don’t get attached to any specific current actors. But it didn’t matter because we got the people on my wish list, which is crazy. We were unreasonably fortunate.
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The buzz about Tanya Wexler’s “Hysteria”
Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) sees signs of success in “Hysteria” (All film images courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)
Tanya Wexler admits it’s hard to keep a straight face when talking about her movie “Hysteria.”
“The puns are numerous and I go headlong into them,” she said when she visited the MPR studio recently.
Why? Well, her film is a romantic period comedy about the machine which she says was granted just the third ever patent for an electrical device, and has been sold ever since as a “muscle relaxer.”
She got the idea from a producer friend who turned up at her doorstep and announced she had the perfect topic for her next film.
“She said ‘It’s a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England,’and I laughed and I said, ‘No, really. What’s it about?’ And she said, “No, really!’ And I said ‘That’s amazing. You are absolutely right!’” Wexler recalled.
Despite said device’s long history, and wide use, it’s still not considered a polite topic of conversation in many places, which Wexler admits made the movie a tough sell. She spent a long time getting the tone right in the script: bawdy but not puerile, entertainingly informative but not lecturing.
It took seven years from that initial conversation to the point now when the movie, which stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy, Felicity Jones, Rupert Everett and Jonathan Pryce, is opening in the Twin Cities.
“It was really, really tricky,” Wexler said. “I don’t know why really because (the movie’s) fairly innocent. Truthfully, there is no bad language, there is no nudity. The women are wearing hats for God’s sakes!”
Tanya Wexler in the MPR studios (MPR photo/Euan Kerr)
The story revolves around on Dr. Mortimer Granville (Dancy,) a forward thinking young physician in London in the 1880’s who keeps losing his job for insisting things like germs exist, or that many patent medicines prescribed by his bosses are quackery.
He is very pleased to get a job as an assistant to Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Pryce) who has an extraordinarily successful clinic treating what was then known as hysteria. It was a catch-all diagnosis only applied to women which covered everything from headaches and cramps to depression.
“I say it was a diagnosis for the condition of being a woman, and some of our characters say that possibly half the women in London at the time were effected,” Wexler said.
Hysteria, which was believed to originate in the female reproductive system, was taken very seriously and in some cases was used as an excuse for confinement, hysterectomy, and even lobotomy. However in the movie Dr Dalrymple is an exponent of a simpler, hands-on approach which Wexler said many clinics offered at the time to deal with what we would now recognize as sexual frustration.
“They would do ‘manual massage to paroxysm,’ as they called it,” she said.
According to Wexler it wasn’t considered sexual as most doctors seriously believed women were incapable of sexual response.
“Hysteria” follows young Granville’s initial meteoric success at the clinic. Yet his life is soon complicated by the attentions of his boss’s two daughters.
There’s Emily (Jones) a demure young woman and enthusiastic phrenologist who believes she can predict a person’s lot in life through feeling the bumps on their head. There’s also Charlotte (Gyllenhaal) a headstrong activist who dedicates her life to caring for the needy at a nearby settlement house. It has to be said that as advanced as Granville’s medical thinking may be, when it comes to other matters he is very much in the Victorian mold. He quickly finds himself engaged to Emily but fascinated by Charlotte.
“I made somehow a feminist romantic comedy about a guy at the center,” Wexler laughed. “I don’t know how I did that!”
Mortimer (Hugh Dancy) and Edmund (Rupert Everett) take a scientific approach in “Hysteria”
The film is a lot of silly fun, particularly as the young doctor becomes so successful at what he does, that he develops carpal tunnel syndrome. He turns to his eccentric inventor friend Edmund (Everett) for help. What Edmund produces makes them all a lot of money – all in the name of medical science of course.
“For me really the big joke was the cultural denial,” Wexler told me. “You know this sense the truth was right in front of your face, and we are going to medicalize it, we are just going to just pretend it’s something else, not call it its name.”
While the story seems outlandish now, Wexler says it’s made her think about some of the things people do today, like Botox treatments.
“Sometime in the not-to-distant future will we look back and say ‘can you remember when everyone was putting botulism in their forehead? It’s just crazy!” she laughed.
While “Hysteria” is mildly risque and laugh-out-loud funny at times, it is also about some very serious issues about how women were treated at the time.
“I think in many ways it’s a story about women’s right to their own happiness, maybe,” said Wexler, shown here during the shooting of the movie.
When I told her “Hysteria” reminded me of “A League of Their Own,” she liked the comparison. She sees it as sharing the same cultural space as “The Full Monty,” being a little bawdy, but with heart.
As a mother of four she said she knows there is an audience out there comprised of parents who rarely get out to the movie theater because of the young ones in their houses, and who don’t want to squander the opportunities they do have. These are the people for whom she made “Hysteria.”
“I wanted something that spoke to me as a woman, that had a little bit more to say, but was entertaining,” she said.
Wexler says she didn’t want to make a battle of the sexes movie, and she’s been surprised how well the movie has done with men, and young men in particular.
While she admits her movie still faces some obstacles even now over the subject matter, she has a plan she thinks could well work for “Hysteria.”
“If I can get every woman who went to the Avengers for their boyfriend to now bring their boyfriend to our movie then we’ll do just fine,” she said.