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.