You may not be familiar with the name Tanya Wexler, but there are two things about the director that might ring a bell. The first is her last name. She is the niece of the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler, and both are Chicago natives. The second is her new film HYSTERIA, which is an account of the invention of the vibrator, which I discovered through the film was actually created originally to help male doctors who treated women with the "medical condition" that gives the film its name. You see, the doctors used to manually stimulate their patients most intimate of areas to relieve them, but their hands got tired after a long day's work.
One such doctor (played by Hugh Dancy) takes it upon himself to invent (along with his innovator friend, played by Rupert Everett) a handheld vibrator, which ran on electricity, so it had to be plugged in. That's the centerpiece storyline of HYSTERIA, but the film is about much more than that as it dives into the nature of what it was to be a woman in Victorian times when women we not expected to be capable of orgasms at all, and that the definition of "Hysteria" maybe have just been a polite way of saying that men at the time weren't capable of satisfying their wives.
HYSTERIA is Wexler's third feature (after FINDING NORTH in 1998 and 2001's BALL IN THE HOUSE. Wexler took time off after that film to have a few kids, but now she's back bringing to the screen a film that is strong, taboo-busting comedy and a feminist bow on a subject that I've never seen brought to the big screen before, at least not with such a strong cast, which includes Jonathan Pryce, Felicity Jones, and the great Maggie Gyllenhaal. The subject was too enticing for her to pass up, and we're all a little better for it. Please enjoy my quite enjoyable chat with Tanya Wexler…
Capone: So you've taken what could have been strictly a serious, very feminist outlook on the period and turned it into this Victorian rom-com.
Tanya Wexler: Right.
Capone: Why was that the approach you thought you should take with this material? Other than it’s just hilarious.
TW: That’s it! Basically, my producer who brought me the idea said “I know what your next movie is,” and I had made like two little movies and then four little children, and we were out of our minds, and I was in the mom cave [Laughs] and I said, “Really? Can anyone know anything at this moment?” And she said, “It’s a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England,” and I went “Ha!” So it came to me in that envelope and that it was a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England, both of those things were just too funny, you know?
So I don’t think we said, “Here’s this topic and it’s serious,” or “It’s neither serious nor funny.” It just naturally came to us that way and it made complete sense. I think I wanted, from a mood standpoint, I think I wasn’t in a place with life being so good, but intense with kids and this and that to be able to kind of go see it like a really challenging movie. Emotionally, I think I wanted to be entertained and laugh and wanted to see a movie that was fun and entertaining and made me laugh, but spoke to me and had a little meat on the bones, like had characters that I wanted to see and that I loved and sunk my teeth into.
I was a huge fan of like Emma Thompson and HOWARD’S END and those kinds of things, so I loved that world and those characters. And the fact of what the hysteria treatment was and that the vibrator was invented as a device for a guy really was just funny to me. And then no one was making he movie, so I made it. That’s kind of what happened. I wanted to see the movie and it didn’t exist, so… I just heard the idea and was like “I have to make it. I don’t know what else, I have to get it made,” and “I have to see this,” like “It’s too funny” and it just tickled me, so to speak.
Capone: Was it tough to get people on board, because of the subject matter?
TW: Yeah, and I don’t know why exactly, because of course we had a two-page treatment, so I brought it to my friends who wrote it, and that took a couple of years to really get it perfect, and I didn’t have a perfect record as a director. I couldn’t go “This is going to be it” and get someone to pay. So we had to just go and get it right, which is great, because it forces you to be really tough on the material. But then I thought once the script was done and it was so good, I was like “This is going to be easy,” and it’s never easy for lots of different reasons.
Maybe it’s because someone had to take a risk on me; I had made two little films, but they weren’t things that had busted out and so yeah I can work with actors and place a camera, but it doesn’t guarantee I can make this. And maybe it’s because it is a romantic comedy, but it’s set in a period and that’s unusual; maybe it’s because it’s about the vibrator and they think, “Is it going to be a broad comedy?” “Is it going to be a historical film?” People didn’t know where the tone was going to sit, so there were maybe just a lot of unknowns or maybe movies are just hard to get made.
Capone: The tone must have been the hardest thing to nail down for you, because you can get wacky with it, but you can also make it dry. Those courtroom scenes, you have to take those seriously, because they are a little scary that that could even take place, that something like that could ever happen.
TW: I think some of the best romantic comedies tend to have very sober moments. If you think about FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, it’s called “Four Weddings And a Funeral,” because it's mostly about all of these weddings and it examines all of the crazy stuff we do in the name of love or out of ritual in a sense, out of weddings and things and then to look at why those same rituals are important, or when they come in really handy, when you really need them. And so it seems like such a light film, but there’s actually a reason the comedy works and a reason the drama works there.
So I did a study of a bunch of these things and I realized that when we were working on the script we were always driving to something where what Mortimer, Hugh Dancy’s arc is, which is basically a true believer who loses his way and finds it again. There's that moment that forces him to reconcile the fact that he’s this progressive doctor who’s going to stand up for germ theory and who’s sold out, right? So we need to push him to that situation. He’s our main character in this romantic comedy about a guy.
TW: And so that moment means it has to have some stakes and so we were sitting around and I’m like, “I guess we can’t threaten to kill her.” It has to be stakes that have to do with the conundrum. It’s pretty clear what those stakes need to be. That’s why you get to that moment for me, because it’s a moment in romantic comedies where all of the hilarity stops, and people are forced to take stock and go “Gosh, we’ve been such jerks.”
I think that is where Maggie’s character is so great, when she is the most earnest. He’s very earnest too, and they all play it very straight and let the humor revolve around them in a sense, but I think as the truth-teller character, her point, and it’s my favorite scene at the end of the courtroom when she says, “Mortimer Granville, you are a good doctor and you have made a machine that does harm to no one and makes everyone who comes into contact with it feel better.” She could have said “See, I told you you were a fraud, and now you’ve finally come around to my point of view.” But she doesn’t because I think she knows, as both a truth teller, and as a kind person who loves him, that there’s nothing wrong with pleasure and vibrators or whatever, and hysteria is not a medical condition , and it doesn’t take a doctor to "cure" it. < I think what she says leaves us knowing there are plenty of very serious things in the world, so it’s okay to have the serious moments--we’ve just seen that, and there are plenty of fun things and lighter things and “Let’s let the fun be fun and the serious be serious and not turn the fun into a medical condition.” I think that’s where it gets to in the end, and I love the absurdity of human behavior and I like laughing at ourselves and I think that if we can laugh at ourselves and have a sense of humor about ourselves it leaves space for change and connection and all of that stuff. None of us live in one genre, right? Like I don’t live in just a drama. [Laughs] I have a lot of drama, but you know we live in a comedy…I’d rather live in a bit of a comedy. Often the painful parts are the ones that make you laugh the most.
Capone: I don’t know how historically accurate the film is, but did you ever let historical accuracy get in the way of good story telling?
TW: No, but I felt that historical accuracy was good story telling, because I felt like the joke, the big joke, is that they really did this.
TW: So the more I can bed it in reality, the better. There were some specific choices, and we had a big debate. You would think with a comedy, like “Who cares?” But we had the same protocols and specialists as "Downton Abbey."
Capone: That’s interesting.
TW: Yeah, I know. I was like “That's crazy for like a comedy," you know? We had a big debate when Charlotte comes busting into the dining room, and he’s got his little fish fork or his knife…whether or not he would shake her hand back, because we were like “She wouldn’t shake hands, but she’s breaking all of the rules. Which is more polite?” We had this five-minute discussion. We had to shoot it both ways, because we were like “I don’t know, it might be weird.” That’s a crazy thing to stop shooting to get into a big thing about “Would he shake hands or not?” But I felt like we wanted to feel that this was really the Victorian era, and yes it’s a comedic take on it, but still all of these bits and mannerisms and all of that were important. They were really happening.
Capone: Yeah, yeah.
TW: And so the couple of anachronisms I let slide. When Maggie went to go try on her costumes, we had some talks and were looking at some things, and every time we she would particularly gravitate to some things, the costume designers would be like, “Those sleeves are a bit Edwardian,” like they were a little bit 10 years down the road. And then we developed this sense of style, but we kept going “It looks right, though!” We realized she is actually cusping; she’s that character who is ahead of her time. So we actually decided to cheat her stuff a few years forward on purpose to give that flavor of what’s coming.
And the goggles, at one point one of our producers, she was like “The goggles, are they period? Why would we have them? They didn’t do them in this other scene,” and I was like “That’s just funny. That shit is funny,” and that was when I was like “I've got to do the goggles, and I want one of them to have the little extra magnifying glass on them.” They’re like “Why?” I’m like “Because it’s funny.” [Laughs] And that was just purely like my indulgence and my little homage to Terry Gilliam, you know?
Capone: Jonathan Pryce wasn’t enough of an homage?
TW: I know, right? Well I got to meet Terry at Jonathan’s house at brunch and had like an hour-and-half talk with him and I showed him that still on my phone. I’m like “Look, it’s my homage to you,” and he goes, “I don’t just do goggles; I also do funny hats.” I’m like “Oh, we got them too.”
Capone: I’ve got to ask about shooting the therapy sessions, because you’ve done it in a way that’s about the least sexual that it could possibly be, even though that’s really all it is. I do love the red curtain.
TW: The “privacy screen.”
Capone: Yeah, but it’s like a little stage, like there’s like a little performance happening down there.
TW: There’s definitely like the semiotician in me was enjoying the theatricality of it, yeah.
Capone: Did it take a while to come up with it?
TW: No, I just knew. Really, I just did. I think that’s also like being a chick. People ask me “Is it different being a woman directing this?” and I’ve never particularly known how to answer that.
Capone: How would you know?
TW: Right, exactly. A couple of things that I imagine are slightly different is maybe the actresses could relax a little bit more. Any director who was going to make this probably wasn’t going to exploit the lovely 50-year-old actress who is doing it, but I think that that cut-loose ability may be a little easier for the actresses with a woman. I know a producer who went and saw the film who didn’t know what it was about until she got there, but knew she was seeing it to look at me as a director. She turned to her husband and was like, “They’re not… Is that? Oh my gosh!” She loved the movie, but she said, “Knowing that a woman directed it, I was never anxious about where it was going,” which I was like “Most filmmakers are not going to torture you with squeamish images.”
No, but when I read it, I knew like in my head, having had babies and going to the gynecologist, they don’t always have paper to cover your up. “And now they're opening the door to the entire waiting room.” Being on both sides of the transaction, I was familiar with both sides, but isn’t that funny? I just said, “I need this and I want it to look like this.” I just knew it in some recess of my brain and I was like “That’ll be really funny,” when someone is deconstructing it later in like film theory class.
Capone: Speaking of which, my favorite scene involves that curtain. It’s the one time that it is sort of sexual, which is when they're testing out the vibrator for the first time.
TW: When Rupert says “Olé.”
Capone: Yes, and I have no doubt in my mind that he just improvised that on the spot. And it just sort of points to like what’s so great about him and has always been so great about him.
TW: He is so irreverent.
Capone: Just weird. In a weird way, we're all thinking that, the way Hugh whips the tablecloth off the table, and it’s this perfect throw-away line.
TW: That was the great thing about all of the actors; they were incredibly present. You would think that would be tough with all of the starched collars and corsets and the language being so precise, but in a way once they nailed all that, then they could play within the little bits and moments. But we figured out even the physical setup we liked. We knew he cleared off the table and grabbed whatever, you know cushions from the couch.
I didn’t construct exactly how that was going to work. In getting that scene, rehearsing and getting it prepped, there was this same spirit of what they actually did. We were like “I don’t know, let’s grab this from here.” We didn’t want to over prepare, because we knew there was going to be all this stuff in the room, and they would have to kind of put it together, because they were figuring it out on the spot, right? We were all like “I don’t know, grab those cushions” and “Is there a blanket anywhere?” So we just kind of took that idea of how we were figuring out the blocking and just roll that into the scene, so that naturally evolved right? “Olé.” He just throws it over her knees. He tried something different every take.
Capone: Yeah, I was going to ask if he said something different or didn’t say anything in some cases.
TW: It’s why you shoot your wide shots first, so that you can grab stuff like that in the wide shot and then you pic which take you’re going to match to rather than saying, “Oh, I’m going to get this piece and this piece” You shoot a master and this sort kind of thing partially because comedy plays better in a wider shot, if you can get all of that stuff to happen, like that flippy fish bit. We all were just like “How did you do that?” and he could never do it again. Do you know what I mean? I had set up shots so that we could do just the hands and just the face thinking “We'll never get it all in one.” I don’t think he even knew he was going to get that thing. That was just purely magic.
Capone: Do you remember any of the other things he said in that moment?
TW: He just said so much great stuff, it’s almost impossible. And he would sometimes just make little weird like “oooh” noises and sometimes you would go like “What is he doing? That’s so weird,” but then like you get in the cutting room and it’s all just you’re spoiled for choice, it’s all gold you know? And Hugh is just so great being like the straight man, you know? You know, and the like weird reactions and…
Capone: He has great reaction shots.
TW: That physicality, that almost like Chaplin-esque thing he can do. There’s a teeny bit that we cut out at the beginning when he’s gotten the sack and he’s going to all the different horrible doctors to try and get a job. We had another shot where he is walking down the street and looking at the numbers trying to figure out where the next interview is and he does a total bit where a woman with a pram comes out, and he’s so engrossed and stressed that he like walks into the pram and flips around. We didn’t need it, but it was one of those things I was like “I don’t know how he did that,” because he got all the timing, but he made it look like he had not seen her and hit his mark and stayed in focus, which is really hard. I’m just like “I don’t know how he makes that look natural.” I don’t know how he does it. He's brilliant.
Capone: I was going to ask a separate question about Hugh, because I don’t remember him being this funny before, especially since he doesn’t ever look like he’s trying to do it. It seems like he is playing it straight.
TW: The whole movie is about his learning, yeah.
TW: I think that is a gift. That’s when you knew he is actually a really amazingly gifted comedic actor, but also a great actor. What really blew me away, when I knew he was like someone who could do just about anything, it was a dramatic role I saw him do on Broadway in a play called JEREMY’S END, and he was just phenomenal and he could have been really stuffy rather than playing. And I had seen him do comedy, but I think that was that thing, it was magic, like I had seen him do comedy, I had seen him do drama, but that kind of play-it-straight, befuddled reaction was new. And he’s crazy bright too, so you could have these really high-level discussions. He’s that actor who looks at the camera and looks at the lighting and is like “If I turn an eighth of a turn more when I do this, you’ll be able to catch me, and we can combine those two.” And I’m like, “I love you so much. I want to kiss you full on the lips.” He’s always stretching and pushing and trying to get the best, and it’s so awesome.
Capone: The interesting thing to about Felicity’s character in relation to him is that I think a lot of people aren’t really going to think about her first, because of Maggie, because of Rupert. But her character is really like the everyday woman of this time. By the end, she is at the beginning of that transition into something a little more free. I think that last scene...I don’t want to ruin it, but that’s a great moment. That’s a moment where it’s just her taking a little piece for herself.
TW: Thank you. Yeah, that was the hardest scene in the whole film.
TW: From a performance standpoint and that made it so hard to cast. My casting director knew that Felicity… I think she was shooting LIKE CRAZY or she was shooting something at the time. And getting her in the room was just like “finally.” The casting director was like “Just wait. Just wait. Just wait,” and I’m just like, “I’m just going to cast this other girl.” She’s like, “I want you to wait,” and she came in, and that scene was the one that like she nailed it. It was that moment where somehow she’s neither [pretends to cry] “Oh, I’m going to miss you” nor is she angry. But basically does the, “Okay, we had something that was really nice, and now it’s something else and we are both better for it, because we weren’t meant to be.” That is hard to do.
Capone: That’s a great scene that really moved me in a way I hadn’t anticipated. Do you have anything else lined up after this?
TW: I have a bunch of stuff.
Capone: I have to imagine.
TW: I’m cooking up something with Paula Patton, who I’ve gotten to know really well. And I’ve got a biopic I’m signing on to that I can’t talk about, and a surreal dramedy that is from my own original idea about a guy who tries to win his wife back from himself. Yeah, it’s really weird. It’s awesome.
Capone: All right, well it was great to meet you. Thank you so much.