Victorians & the vibrator come together in ’Hysteria’
It isn’t every day that a movie comes out with A-list talent that concerns a mechanical device that is usually dealt with in a hush-hush manner, but the new film "Hysteria" tells a hilarious story about the invention of the vibrator with a cast featuring Oscar-nominee Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy, Jonathan Pryce, Felicity Jones and Rupert Everett.
In her chat with EDGE’s Jim Halterman recently at the Beverly Hills Hotel, director Tanya Wexler said that she knew early on that "Hysteria" couldn’t be a movie only about the vibrator. Instead it explores how the repressed Victorians viewed sexual roles and just how this pleasurable device came along to work its magic. During their chat, Wexler also touched on working with the talented Gyllenhaal and incorporating a gay character into the film.
Finding the tone
EDGE: What was the genesis of the project?
Tanya Wexler: Tracey Becker had a two page treatment [and] she had found the original material on ’Finding Neverland’ [Becker was a producer on the film] and we were Moms and friends together in New York and she said, ’I know what your next movie is!’ I said, ’Oh, really? What is it?’
I was planning on taking a bit of a break, I had many small children then and she said, ’it’s a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England’ and I said ’Sign me up!’ Seven short years later, here we are!
EDGE: It seems the subject matter lends itself to being a comedy but how much of a challenge was it to find the right tone for it?
Tanya Wexler: It was almost in the original idea. I think we all thought, the writers [Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer] said to me, and I had the same thought, if it’s just about the invention of the vibrator, the movie is seven, maybe eight minutes long. [laughs] After awhile you have to make every stupid joke.
But we had to figure out what it was about and decided it was about this idea that there’s something wrong with London’s women that a good [vaginal] massage apparently can cure. Not that I disagree... These guys, these doctors, were completely in denial about the nature of their job.
EDGE: How much of all that was real during that place and time?
Tanya Wexler: It seems to be pretty real. The fact that the treatment existed and that we combined the guy who invented the vibrator with the guys who procreated it for the treatment... [and] where Maggie’s character, Charlotte, works on the settlement house and that’s based on a real place. We took some license to be funny and to fit into an hour and a half but we did tons and tons of research, especially the writers. The big joke is that this really happened and so if it doesn’t have some sort of grounding in something of this veracity than you can just do anything. We really tried to do our best to get a lot of the history right.
EDGE: The movie says a lot about men and women back then but also about today. Even today, there’s still a struggle that women still come up against today.
Tanya Wexler: Yes, it took place in Victorian England but I wanted it to have this very alive, fresh, contemporary pace and feel. I think Victorian era people were not sitting around going ’Aren’t we quaint?’ They thought they were on the cutting edge. Electricity, science, it was all coming so I think it was a very exciting time to be alive, just like it is now. I think in that way, people are people and the struggles of communicating and trying to work it out and the power of dynamics is always going to be there and there’s this evergreen feeling.
But it’s tricky. I wasn’t interested in making a battle of the sexes film. I’m a gay woman so I’m not fitting either of those buckets exactly, right? And I have a son so I don’t think of guys as the enemy. I have three daughters so I think I was more interested in how we can all come together, if you can excuse the pun. [laughs] You can’t not pun!
It was interesting to work with the writers and try to figure out a way to get through a screwball comedy about what it really means to be a woman and it’s an empowerment narrative for both. We wrote a feminist comedy about a guy. [Hugh Dancy’s] character is the central character and he’s a true believer who kind of loses his way and finds it again. Yet people ask about the message of the movie. It’s a comedy, folks! I think the message is just that. You’re in charge of your own happiness, it doesn’t take a doctor, so don’t take yourself so seriously and have a little laugh.
EDGE: Why do you think Maggie was just the right person for the role? I can’t imagine anyone else doing it!
Tanya Wexler: When the writers sat down to knock out the first draft, we all sat down and imagined the ideal cast. We said a young Hugh Grant and Katherine Hepburn. I like to do that with no one you could ever get because I don’t want to get married to some actor and then the part changes or you do something different and that actor can do it. So I try to find the essence and the voice and my writers are really good at that and I think Maggie has that strength and integrity and honesty in terms of just being true for each moment in the way that Hepburn did. That strong, classic woman with heart. I think she just got it.
EDGE: How was directing Maggie?
Tanya Wexler: It was great. Like everybody on the set, it was one of those things where you go, ’Okay, you make my job easy. You’re fantastic.’ It’s that old cliché about casting being 80% of the job. The job of directing actors is very much about casting the right person for the right role and then trimming my sails. If you’ve got the right person, they can do it and then you just make sure everyone is in the same movie.
In the Mom camp
EDGE: As a director, do you feel a responsibility or any kind of commitment to put gay themes and gay characters in all your projects.
Tanya Wexler: Rupert’s character is gay but what I like is he’s gay and you don’t see him schtupping everyone, but there’s all the evidence. There’s the boy from the party the night before, his reaction to the first view of the vagina that’s he’s ever had, which said it all to me, but I like letting people be people. I’m a mom with four kids, I’m lesbian, I’m from Chicago... I’ll tell you, now with four kids, I find after thinking it would be this massive thing to be a gay mom that I’m in the Mom camp, whether I like it or not, way more than I’m in the lesbian camp.
Just like I don’t think this movie should stand for all things of that era like suffrage, women’s rights, sexuality and yet there’s a lot heaped on its shoulders because there’s not a lot of diversity of representation so I think when the stories make sense and you can have those characters, put them in. Or don’t! Rupert playing a gay dude in Victorian England is funnier to me and it’s a comedy and so my job is to make it funny. And it’s not making fun of him and he’s by no means disempowered or kind of a minstrel show of a gay person. He and I discussed that he’s gay but he’s not the chief governing... and that’s the tricky thing. For characters who are gay, does everything about what they do in that film be about them or elude to the fact that they are gay or can they just be gay characters who, in his case, it was much more important that he was rich, he was an inventor and he was his best friend.
EDGE: How did you go about directing the women having the orgasms? They were all distinct and fun in their own way!
Tanya Wexler: You audition and cast people who are very different. I knew I wanted to find a 20-year old, 30-year old, 40-year old... we haven’t seen that diversity of women and women’s experience with sexuality just out there like there’s nothing wrong with it. Then, the thing I was actually worried about is I knew how I wanted to shoot in terms of not every teeny shot but it was about the reactions of the women having this crazy old time and the doctors looking like they were polishing furniture. They were at work! There was no pleasure in it for them. It was just hard, tiresome work.
The thing I was most concerned about was the sounds. I thought if it was too porny it would sound like a cheesy voice over. If it was too jokey, it would take you out of it. I talked to the actresses and said ’Let’s try this. Let’s try this.’ In the end, what you realize is if people sounded like they were having fun and they were happy, it worked. If there were sounding like they were being tortured, which may have been hot in another context, it didn’t really work.
"Hysteria" is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles. It opens in more locations over the month of June. To see when it will open in other cities, visit the film’s website.
Watch the trailer to Hysteria: