Interview: Tanya Wexler on Creating “Hysteria”

The director causes a sensation with the new comedy about the invention of the vibrator and tries her hardest to avoid puns in talking to us about it....Read More
Hugh Dancy and Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Hysteria"

You could say Tanya Wexler was born into the business of giving pleasure. A niece of the legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler and half-sister to Daryl Hannah, the gregarious Chicagoan realized quickly in her family, people were either shrinks, in real estate or in the film business, so while at Yale, she majored in psychology while still harboring the desire to carrying on the acting she had done as a youth, writing herself a part in a short with no intention of getting behind the camera.

“Some friends of mine who were going to make it said, “Oh, but you’ve written “The camera dolly’s here… – take that out. That’s for the director,” Wexler recently recalled. “And I went, ‘But that has to be in there.’”

Her friends wouldn’t budge and needless to say, it wasn’t long before Wexler found herself in Columbia’s film studies program, an experience she describes as being “like I had come home. The set of my first short film in film school, I finally felt comfortable in my skin.”

Feeling comfortable happens to be the idea at the heart of Wexler’s third feature “Hysteria,” a crowdpleasing comedy about the invention of the world’s first electric vibrator. But lest you think Wexler is working blue, she’s far more interested in tickling audiences pink with the story of Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), a wide-eyed physician fresh from medical school who finds the only taker for his newfangled techniques in Victorian England is the practice of Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who pays the bills by offering “medicinal massages” to women suffering from the titular malady, a condition thought at the time to be a nervous system disorder but in reality affected only the sexually deprived.

Naturally, a wellspring of puns and sex jokes follow, but more surprisingly, so does an intelligent discussion about women’s strides toward equality in public and private (more on that here) and a tender romantic triangle between Granville and Dalrymple’s daughters, the traditional Emily (Felicity Jones) and the progressive firebrand Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal). As I noted when I first saw the film at the Toronto Film Festival, the film manages to be weighty even as it’s light on its feet in opening up a frank discussion about sex from a female perspective. But it’s no wonder how it was accomplished given the sharp, gregarious nature of its director Wexler, who was happy to share anecdotes about her first film in a decade, having to call the medics to treat a “massage” injury and the difficulty of getting ducks to mate for a crucial scene.

There’s an obvious hook in the invention of the vibrator in such prim and proper society, but after you might’ve stopped laughing after your producer Tracey Becker gave you the one-line pitch, how did you know there was a feature in this?

She had a two-page treatment, but I think that we hear things like high concept movie and we go eeeeeee…cheesy. But sometimes high concept movie just means a clear idea that communicates something clearly like a good headline. So she just said, “Romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England” and I said sign me up. You could see the movie in it, but if you just make a movie about the invention of the vibrator, it’s funny, but it’s a sketch. That’s why it’s “Hysteria,” really and not just “Vibrator” because it’s the fact that the vibrator is invented really as a labor-saving device for a guy.

It seems like such a ludicrous concept in contemporary terms. Was that something you had to get over in the writing process?

No, because there’s always some truth that’s right in front of your face that you don’t look at. I imagine in 20 years we’ll all look back and go, “Do you remember when we were all injecting botchulinum toxin into our foreheads?” I don’t actually do that, but there’s all sorts of crazy things we do with a different set of glasses on. It’s surprising now, it’s surprising then, but that’s what all the comedy grows out of is that sense of can you believe they did this? We spent a lot of time getting everything kind of historically accurate as much as possible because we wanted to kind of root the movie in this sense that it really, really happened because that’s what’s funny.

You had my favorite line at Toronto about how this was the film that launched a thousand T-shirts.

If you’re going to talk about a film over and over again, this is great because it has both the fun, jokey side and the more substantive side too. There’s all sorts of conversations to be had and I find that I’m still learning all the time about my own kind of lines, which I have very few left…[laughs] Pretty much everyone [enjoys] making ourselves feel good or the people we love feel good. Why is that supposed to make us uncomfortable or blush? I do it too. I get kind of Beavis and Butthead about it, like heh heh heh, and yet think well, why? Why are we ashamed or programmed or uncomfortable about something so completely part of us? As a result, I find it very valuable and fun to talk about. I learn more about what the movie’s about myself even having made it.

That begs the question of what you might’ve discovered about this film that you didn’t realize until after it was finished?

I would say always pack your charger…

You’ve wasted another pun on me, but go on.

[laughs] That’s a good one, I’m going to use that again. I love watching the range of ages of people it appeals to because I’ve had 16-year-old girls come with their moms say it was great. It’s this vibrator movie you can bring your mom to. Then there was a great screening we just did in New York. It was an older audience and this really sweet old Jewish guy, who came in from Staten Island, said, “I didn’t think this was going to be for me. I looked at my wife, vhat? Vibrator movie? Vhat?” He goes, “I loved it. I loved it! Loved!” He just had this big smile because we are about bringing people together and not pushing people apart. People feel there’s a place for them when they watch the film and it’s about warmth, inclusion and happiness. I’m sure there’s people who don’t like it and that’s fair, but we’re one little movie trying to make you laugh and maybe think a little bit and my hope is that there’ll be more different, diverse images out there.

Since this is actually your first film in ten years, did anything change?

I had less children! [laughs]

Does it give a new perspective?

I don’t know is the answer. I think I’m more of a grown-up, which is not saying much because I’m pretty much a big kid. But I’ve noticed that the forties are a great time for women. We get kind of ripe if you will and feel more confident in whatever issues there are about being a woman out there working. I don’t feel as insecure. As a result, I’m actually more open and happier and more collaborative and feel less threatened. I’m probably more fun to work with and will stand by an idea or thing I know is right longer to get it right. I think that confidence in not apologizing for yourself and being able to very warmly and kindly kind of insist on things being right, that comes with age. Look, I’m not taking it from my eight-year-old, so… [laughs] Actually, they totally run me ragged.

Since your previous films “Finding North” and “Ball in the House” were both modern and domestic, was going off to Victorian England somehow invigorating?

There’s something incredibly cinematic about doing a period piece. You have to find those buildings, you have to get those costumes, you have to get it all right, so you have to be much more prepared. They have a certain amount of costumes on the truck — you can’t go, oh, I have to go meet a couple more extras. In that way, you have to think everything through. Yet there’s still room for improvisation. Rupert would still throw off lines and it was so funny. I just loved it.

My favorite thing about working in the UK, aside from the people I really loved, is that they have a real, legitimate workday. We went over very little. But that means the schedules are properly done and the budgets are according to that schedule and they don’t build in the assumption there’ll be overtime. As a result, it’s still really long, really hard hours, but people get sleep and have lives. As much as we often in the movies feel like it’s the most important thing in the world, it’s a movie which you kind of have to feel because it’s a little bit like going off to war without the dying, it is only a movie. So that was really fantastic and I hope that we can bring that kind of workday and work ethic here more because it’s really not fair on the crew and the cast to push them in that way.

You sound like your uncle who made that great documentary “Who Needs Sleep?” about that very subject a few years ago.

Right. I saw it as well before we made the film and it was just so clear that it’s such a bad idea to work people into the ground on something that requires incredible amounts of care and physical labor and creativity. It’s counterproductive, just purely from the profit motive and it’s not very humane.

Oddly, that seems to be a wonderful metaphor for this film that there had to be discipline and at the same time, a bit of creativity…

Right. The poor doctors worked their hand into the ground. Thank God, they invented the vibrator…no, oh…that’s not what you were saying…[laughs]

Well, I did have a question related to that. I’d heard about how you were insistent about finding an accurate yet practical way of shooting the massages. As a result, Jonathan Pryce injured his hand being too aggressive.

Yeah, we were like what are Jonathan and Hugh going to massage? I had all sorts of horror shows in my head about how do we do this. Hugh just very sensibly said, “How about a sandbag?” Because there’s sandbags all over the set holding lightstands down. So we just popped a “modesty sandbag” as we called it under the curtain and it had a nice little piece of duct tape with the word “vulva” on it. [laughs] And to get the kind of physical vigor and sweaty brow and all of that, Jonathan was really working that sandbag hard. He rubbed all the skin off the knuckle and we had first aid come and do a little number on his finger. [laughs] It was crazy. The first manual massage injury in a movie, I think!

That’s fantastic you had first aid on set for that…

Yeah, “medical! Medical!” Over there, they call it “health and safety.” They’re like, “Wait, everyone stop. Health and safety. Health and safety. You need to stop filming and attend to his poor, overmassaged knuckle.”

[Minor Spoilers Ahead] Another tale from the set you alluded to in Toronto, but said you didn’t have the time to talk about was filming the ducks in a compromising situation. Do you have time now?

If people haven’t seen the movie, I don’t want to give it away, but there’s a bit where some ducks do what ducks do and to get footage of that was impossible. We looked into animatronic ducks – too expensive. CGI ducks – too expensive. Puppets were not an option. And we had a duck wrangler and real ducks, but you can’t make ducks do what they don’t want to do really.

I’ve heard all sorts of horrible things about ducks. Ducks are the rapists of the bird world. They’re really horrible creatures. Really, I talked to one of the foremost duck genitalia reseachers…I went a little crazy with the research because I wanted to figure out the animal behavior behind what made ducks do it so that we could get our duck footage. In the end, we could not find it. It was about three days before we locked picture, I just did another search [online] and a naturalist had posted some duck footage a few days before. I just slapped down my credit card and bought the high-res version and it was perfect.

One friend, who had worked on the film, was training to be a naturalist cinematographer, so the production paid him ten days, [to go to] a rookery [for] duck shagging footage. It was crazy because it was like there was two breeds of ducks and the ducks that were doing the crazy head-bobbing dance that’s really funny were one color, and the ducks that were shagging were another color, so I couldn’t get a match. I know some obsessed continuity guy is sitting going, “Those ducks don’t match!” I knew that it wasn’t going to work, so I had a hard drive full of duck porn. I thought I’ve really got to get rid of this and it was so tragic because the first day of shooting I held up a vibrator golden duck – I rub my duckies, this was a golden one. I said, okay, everyone. I said whoever gets my duck footage gets the golden duck and I won this bloody golden duck. It really pissed me off. [laughs] I really wanted to give that thing away to somebody who found it, but it was me.

To go back to the question about the 10-year gap between films…

It sucked.

But this also took a long time to develop. What were you feeling when you got back into the director’s chair?

My partner and I, between the two of us, we had four children. There was a certain amount of the gap that was on purpose, then it just took a long time. I had a couple of other things I was developing but this was the one that was like I have to make this. Like a lot of films, we were pretty much ready to go when the financial collapse came, so then we had to restart.

We definitely had a phoenix-like resurrection. I was so hyper-prepared because I had time. My producers kept going [while we were shooting], “You have this shit-eating grin on your face. It’s raining. The carriage won’t start. Why are you still smiling?” I just thought because this is awesome. I’m on the set of this great movie with this great dream cast. It was such a good environment and we were happy. I just thought I’m not going to be miserable on something that I’ve worked too long for. People let themselves get miserable very easily and I just refused.

I think I had one or two moments just as we rolled into shooting where I [thought] I hope I’m not completely bullshitting myself that I can do this. My producers were great. They’re like “You’re so ready.” But then I remembered a couple weeks in, my British producer Sarah took me aside and goes, “I knew you knew everything about it, you could talk about this and had the intellectual capacity, but you know…” she said, “Two days in, I went, “Oh, thank God.” I said, “Me too.”

“Hysteria” opens in New York and Los Angeles on May 18th before expanding into limited release.

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