Tanya Wexler on the set of Hysteria
After premiering at last fall’s Toronto Film Festival, Hysteria was picked up for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics, and received a great deal of buzz as the so-called “vibrator movie.” Hysteria chronicles the period of Victorian England when Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) accidentally invents the vibrator and suggests that it may be the cure for the female condition know as hysteria. What ensues is a romantic comedy and drama of manners involving Granville’s wealthy and eccentric best friend John Smythe (Rupert Everett), Granville’s employer Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), and Dr. Dalrymple’s two daughters, the suffragette Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and the more passive Emily (Felicity Jones). Hysteria is the third feature from director Tanya Wexler, whose first two films Finding North and Ball in the House (aka Relative Evil) played well on the festival circuit and have received greater audiences since being released on DVD. In anticipation of Hysteria’sNew York and Los Angeles May 18th release, I recently enjoyed an in-depth conversation with Wexler, and she provided a no-holds-barred look at what she learned from making her first two films, and the process of making her most recent. Here’s what she shared with me about developing the project from an initial pitch, preserving though the great challenges of independent filmmaking, and crafting Hysteria.
Jackson Truax: How did Finding North come to be your first feature, and what was the most important lesson you took from the experience?
Tanya Wexler: I finished film school. I knew I wasn’t a writer/director. Most people coming out of, especially the New York film scene, were writer/directors… Some people, that’s how they think. And I don’t. I really think more directorially. If you put me in front of a computer screen for four hours and said, “Write,” you’d get two really good pages, and then you’d get four pages about boots and an article on the Galapagos. I can’t do it for that long… I can do lots of little bits, which I guess is what movies are made up of, but still somehow one big piece. It’s not in me. I’m too ADD or something, so I was looking around for screenplays that had something really strong at their core, but needed work and were willing to take a risk on an unknown director who just said, “Okay, I’m going to go get this made.” A friend of mine is a theater producer. She’d get lots of scripts. She didn’t really want to make movies, which is weird because I think everybody wants to make movies. She said, “You should read this. There’s something to this.” She handed it to me. I met the writer. We moved into my living room for six months and worked on the script… Then we went out and raised the money. It was pretty low-budget, like $400,000 or something. It was really good fun. I learned a lot. It is funny, how the thing you learn most is how to make that movie. So you think, “So that helps me with nothing going forward.” But you do learn a few big, salient lessons. On Finding North, I definitely learned that anything in the script that you feel isn’t super-solid, or that you don’t know how to work out, is only amplified by the filmmaking process. It’s not like, “We’ll fix it in post, or with a good performance.” That can help. But that’s a bit of hoping for a miracle or something beyond your control. So I’ve become much more vicious about getting the screenplay right before you shoot… So that was a big lesson. And I had these great New York theater actors. Some of them are very prominent now, John Benjamin Hickey’s on The Big C now… But I would say, the lesson you learn is that you need to have someone in your movie that people know. It helps to get it out there in the world, to have credibly recognized famous people. It was very hard to get the movie out there…especially now. Back then, it was one thing. But now, so much is competing for [the audience’s] attention.
JT: How did that screenplay evolve in the six months you spent working on it? What specifically did you bring to it?
TW: The process really was going through the script, asking questions, going through conversations with the writer, giving notes, and learning as much about that story and those characters and how to make you feel a certain way and drive the movie to a certain emotional truth… So then I made Ball in the House. The script was much further along initially. I think [both films] turned out well, but I didn’t have to wrestle as much. That lesson was a bit more about, “make something people want to see.” Not because it’s not a good piece. I’m proud of it. But because it’s a very hard piece to watch. Even though it’s kind of funny and ultimately has some very uplifting aspects to it, it’s very painful. And when you [cast] a great actor who portrays a character who goes through a lot of pain, it’s hard not to be empathetic. That movie’s about a character, a seventeen-year-old character who may or may not drink himself to death, and that decline. That’s a tough ride to ride. You kind of read it and it reads funnier. You’re like, “HA HA HA! Aren’t we witty and snarky?” Then you put a really sympathetic character, you put Jonathan Tucker (The Ruins) in there, and your heart breaks for him… The humanity of that is harder than what you read on the page. The script is not the final thing you’re striving for. A script is a working document. I now feel like there are a couple scripts that you get along the way. Once you get a great script nailed down, then you need a script that is a great read. Because that helps you get your money, your cast. It’s the document that brings everyone to you, if you’re lucky. Then you need a different script, which is your shooting script. And not just a shooting script, and making sure that everything you’re going to shoot is in there… It’s a communication tool to the various departments. People have to have something to rely on. They’ll say, “What do you mean, the big boat?” It doesn’t say, “the big boat” anywhere in the script. So all that stuff that’s in my head, if I can, I’ve learned that I really need to sit down and make the writer go and put all that stuff in. Largely just because now you’ve got the memo. Because people in this business are many things. There’s drama and high maintenance people, but they are passionate about their work. There are people who are not professional. But on the whole, they may be loose with their language, but they are surprisingly committed, passionate, and professional. And when they break down a script, they do not leave a stone unturned… So I think I learned that [my] job is to be incredibly clear. With the story. With the script. With all the ways that we’re doing it. Which is not the same as being obnoxiously hitting people over the head.
JT: Finding North successfully blends the road-trip movie with an odd couple film, a fish-out-of-water story, and a screwball comedy with all these other emotional elements at play. What was the biggest challenge of combining all these story elements and packing a lot of emotion and insight into 90 minutes?
TW: Kim Powers who wrote it, he’s a twin. His brother died of AIDS. It is his love letter to his brother, really. So I had a guide to the emotional core, through the writer. I felt very much like Wendy McKenna’s character, like I was supposed to be the Rhonda and he was the Travis. So we had that relationship in collaborative terms that mirrored the two main characters a bit. That was really helpful. I do love taking certain traditional ideas whether they be genres or movie structures that are familiar and that we like and love and relish, and using them, and then also subverting them at the same time. There’s some devilish, naughty girl part of me that loves it. My life is that. I’m married. I have four kids, a minivan, and a dog. I just happen to be married to a woman. If you just changed one thing, I would be the most boring person on the planet. But because she’s a chick, I get invited to the cool parties. I think it’s always funny. You just put one thing out of place, and it and can [completely change] the meaning of everything. That, to me, is great. So I do like mixing it up a little.
JT: With Finding North being your first movie, as you were coming up the festival circuit, people were looking to label you a “woman filmmaker,” or a “lesbian filmmaker” or call it a piece of “queer cinema.” Some filmmakers run away from those labels, and others really embrace them. What was your relationship to that process?
TW: That’s a good question… It was a big deal for me to make my first movie with an LGBT theme because I had a real struggle when I came out, with my family. It took a while for them to reconcile. So I was pretty much putting myself out there in a big way. Because it was the first thing out of the gate for me. In terms of the labels, as soon as I came out, I said, “Of course. I’m a lesbian. I’m a filmmaker. I’m a woman. I’m all of those things. And I’m not embarrassed or upset by any of them…” Amy, my wife now of almost twenty-one years…we’ve been together forever. We met in college. We were talking about when you come out, even just when you come out in the grocery store…I’ll talk about my kids, and they’ll say, “What does your husband do?” And I’ll tell them, “I don’t have a husband. I have a wife.” So you’re always coming out all over the place. When you have kids, you can’t be ashamed. You can’t think about it. You just have to be. Because you don’t want to ever transmit that to them. What I realized, is that it’s all in how you lead. So if I [respond matter-of-factly] with, “I’m gay. I’m a gay filmmaker. I made the vibrator movie.” They’ll [think] “Okay, we’re doing the “no big deal” thing. Then I’ll do the “no big deal” thing. To that question, I would say, “Of course, I’m a queer filmmaker. Of course I’m a woman filmmaker. Of course I’m a brunette filmmaker.” The brunette filmmaker, it’s a big label I don’t want bandied about… I’m happy to embrace the labels.
JT: You said Ball in the House read funnier on the page then the ultimate film. Was there a lesson you learned, either about knowing how something is going to translate from page to screen, or how to better facilitate that process?
TW: I think if there’s a salient lesson I learned from that movie, it’s, “Make a movie in your voice.” I would say that in many ways, and I love that movie and I love the actors, but it was really the writer’s voice. And I did make that film and make it personally. I have family members who have alcoholism. It was a kind of homage to them. But it wasn’t really my struggle or what I was trying to work out. So I think I was maybe bit more outside the experience with the heart of it than I was in my other two films. For me, when Hysteria came along, just the idea when Tracy [Becker], who’s one of our producers…said, “I know what your next movie is… A romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England…” I [said] “I have to make that movie…” That is me, right? It’s funny and saucy and has something to say… I know what it looks like. I know what it sounds like… Then we got the writers. The script was really great. I was hyper-prepared. We got the cast we wanted. All those lessons did get learned… That’s what raised the game for me.
JT: From what I can tell, the original title was Ball in the House and then it became Relative Evil much later. When and why did the change take place?
TW: It was originally called Ball in the House. But it suffered an identity crisis. Because after Toronto, I guess the people who picked it up [for distribution] originally decided they wanted a better…thriller-sounding title. So they called it Relative Evil… But it showed on Showtime, they changed it back. It was a branding nightmare.
JT: All three of your films feature incredible performances from a range of actors. What’s the process been for you of working with actors, and ensuring these great performances each time out?
TW: I watch everything I can get. Because most of them you can’t audition. I did audition Jonathan Tucker for Ball in House… But for the bigger names, they tend to be beyond the world of auditioning. But I auditioned a lot. When I can, I watch every single thing I can get my hands on… Unless I just know. I haven’t even seen all of Maggie’s films. But I knew. I knew that she’s this person. I knew she could do it. So it wasn’t a question. I think that’s the trick. You just need to know before you go in that they can do it. And then you don’t have to get a performance out of anybody. Because they bring it.
JT: Hysteria feels like a perfect mix of romantic comedy, a Victorian comedy and drama of manners, and an examination of issues that are still very relevant today. Was that part of the initial pitch? What about that excited you as director? Did you immediately know how you would execute this unique material?
TW: There was the framework, but the writers went in and looked about for a structure that would really tell the story. We changed a lot from the pitch. But the bones were really good… I read the two pages and I said, “I have to make it.” It wasn’t a question. I knew what it sounded like, what it felt like, everything. Really what was amazing, was the screenwriters execution on that was insane. This was the first screenplay they had produced. They had a few other spec scripts, but I think this is the first thing they’ve actually made money on of any sort. So that’s a big deal for them. Sony just booked them to write a big Reese Witherspoon vehicle. They’re awesome. They deserve it. Because they worked really hard and they nailed it.
JT: Stephen Dyer has been a producer on your previous films, but this is the first writing credit for him and Jonah Lisa Dyer, who has done a lot of uncredited rewrite work on various produced screenplays. I’m sure it was easy to pitch the project to them, but how did you know they would be the ideal writers for this material?
TW: They volunteered to work for free… Stephen and his wife, Jonah Lisa, they already had started writing when we were in post on Ball in the House. He was always, even with Finding North, he was always a very involved producer in terms of development. So he had a natural sense. I think he had written a lot of fiction in college. I don’t know if he had any professional designs. So when we were in post, I think they decided to write something. They wrote a spec. I don’t think it got bought. But I think it got them an agent, got them a lot of notoriety. So they were looking for stuff. I think they knew that if you were lucky, you could get a career of doing rewrites…and never have a movie produced. So when they heard a good idea… I actually brought this to them, I’d remembered hearing Stephen say, “I don’t like period movies. I hate all that Howard’s End stuff.” So I [wasn’t going] to bring it to him. So I said, “I’ve got this great idea. We’ve got to make this movie. We need to find writers.” And he said, “Well, we’ll do it. What is it?” I said, “Well, you don’t like period pieces.” He [said], “Tell me.” I told him. He said, “Oh My God. We’re doing it.” So that was how it worked. And the price was right. And they got it. Stephen had gone to English school as a kid. His Dad was an international lawyer so he lived in Holland… So he had that in his ear. Jonah Lisa had been a stand-up. So she had a really good comic sensibility.
JT: Anytime a filmmaker makes a Victorian period piece, there’s always a danger that it could easily feel like an episode of Masterpiece Theater, or feel very stuffy and distant. How did you make sure the drama felt very cinematic and also very unique and fresh and exciting?
TW: Throwing a vibrator in helps… I think in a sense, we never tried to make it feel stuffy, but we tried to make it feel like the best of Masterpiece Theater, or Merchant-Ivory. Because I think there’s a sense on the audience’s part that that is authentic. So I wanted to use our biases, because to me, the joke is, “This really happened.” So to make that big joke, the joke is not a vibrator. The joke is this treatment and then the vibrator, as a result of this treatment, really happened. So you have to make it feel incredibly authentic, so all the designs, with everything, we were incredibly fastidious on set. We’d have arguments on set. This is a movie about the invention of the vibrator. This is a ridiculous, ridiculous movie. We had a five-minute argument about whether or not Charlotte, Maggie’s character, should shake Hugh’s hand. We were just arguing. “She would never touch a man.” And someone [said] “It’s the movie about the vibrator.” And I said, “Okay. We’re doing takes both ways.” We can’t settle this. So we did a version of the dinner table scene where she shakes his hand and a version where she doesn’t… I just think, now that you’ve reminded me of that, gosh, we really had our heads up our asses. But I think it helped. I think it helped the movie and the pace… I really thought, the tone is a triangle between a Merchant-Ivory film, a Jane Austen story, and a Richard Curtis (Love Actually) script. If I can make that movie baby, that’s the movie baby I want to make. Hopefully, it has a bit of all of that.
JT: Actors and film crew will often look to a director to set the tone for what the vibe on set is going to be. How do you keep the vibe on-set easy and relaxed and fun, when you’re always up against needing to make your days, and meeting the challenges inherent in making a period film?
TW: I just made a decision, early in the process, in pre-production, I was going to enjoy it. I had waited too long. I just thought, “If I never make another movie again, this is the movie I have to make.” I said “I’m going to enjoy it. I refuse to be miserable. Because…I’m making my movie.” So my producers came up to me on about the third day…and said, “The rain’s falling, the carriages aren’t working. And you still have a shit-eating grin on your face.” I said “I refuse to be miserable. This is the thing that I want more than anything. I’m not going to be made miserable by it.” I just decided. I took an attitude of “We’re ridiculous. We get to dress up for a living…” So I had to have a musical number a day… Because I thought, “ Musicals! Then everybody can sing a song and laugh…” By the end of the shoot, even people who hated musicals by the end were saying “What’s the musical of the day? What’s the trivia? What are the songs?” You get people dancing. You give everyone a vibrator. That also made them happy. Men and women alike, they all got one. There’s always joking and bawdiness…on a set. I encouraged that and was totally inappropriate. I have no filter, that also helps… Total boundary-crossing, but in a Mom kind of way. I’m always a hugger. And saying “You’re great.” And people say “She weird. A high-praise director.” As I’m saying, “I’m proud of you today.”
JT: There are all these very dramatic ideas at play in the film about health care for the less well-off in society and a woman’s place in a home and the women’s place in society. How did you decide how to present those ideas, and how farcical or dramatic the film should be?
TW: I was lucky. I had amazing writers… They say all the time, “The cure for writer’s block is research.” So anytime they [said] “We don’t know how to get from here to there.” They’d look up something else and [realize] “Charlotte works at a settlement house.” It was based on a settlement house in London… They [said] “We need a thing that this woman, who was maybe a suffragette, that she can do that’s about women.” They knew that work needed to be about women and women’s real problems. So they just started looking. And the answer comes back. The world’s a rich and idiosyncratic and weird-ass place. So if you just look to the world, the answer will be much more interesting than anything you can concoct in your head. So the fact that they kept looking for more answers than just whatever stock thing [people] would come up with, I think is where it got some of that texture… For me, the real comedy came out of the situation. So we just tried to make the situation as authentic as possible, which then [made it] as absurd as possible. Because the reality was totally absurd. Then asked the actors to play it straight. I think that’s why we got a range of dramatic to silly things. Because the world ranges from dramatic to silly.
JT: There are these social issues at play, but it never feels like a “political film” or an “issues film,” or like you’re a director who’s trying to communicate a social message through the film. What was your compass point for how subtle or blatant you wanted those themes or those messages to be?
TW: The thing I said to everyone else, because we’d get into huge [discussions] about gender…and “What does this mean?” and historical accuracy. Every time, it was like a mantra, “Let’s remember, it’s a romantic comedy. First and foremost, it’s a romantic comedy. It’s what I want to see…” I wanted to make one that spoke to me… I wanted to make a satisfying romantic comedy. I wanted to make something that I’d like, that was interesting, that was also entertaining.
JT: Like your first two films, Hysteria was made independently without any being setup at a studio. What were some of the choices you made or freedoms you had that you wouldn’t have if the film had been a studio project?
TW: I don’t know… I hear it varies from studio to studio. So I can’t answer that, really. Except to say, I had amazing producers. I probably had more freedom than I realized… My producers were the closest thing [I had] to a studio. It was the four of us. We satisfied ourselves. We had a goal, which was to make it appealing to as big an audience as we could without changing the movie. You want an audience to get it and for it to be clear. But that’s really different than “They like when so-and-so does this funny thing. Put more of so-and-so in” for no reason… So you use feedback from an audience…but that’s different from letting the audience direct the film. What was great with having a lot of experienced producers who have made a lot of independent films was they knew that difference… I had no censorship about…language, [anything]. We had a fight about how many poop shots to put in. But I knew how many I had to have. So I put in extra poop shots. So that when they made me cut some, it was fine… It was horse poop. That was the weird thing, the prop department made faux poop, filled with hay and flour and all sorts of weird things.
JT: There’s a line of text before the film that says the movie is “Based on a True Events.” But the usual disclaimer after the film that says everything therein is fictitious. Where was reality used as a jumping off point, and where did the story become a work of fiction?
TW: All the medical history and science and socio-political stuff is based in history. Yes, the guy who invented the electro-mechanical vibrator was called Mortimer Granville. But, even that’s a composite of a few different doctors. Because Mortimer Granville didn’t do the hysteria treatment. Other doctors who did the hysteria used his invention to do it. All the people are who we thought would have populated this world. All the stuff underpinning it is true, which is crazy.
JT: You’ve have plenty of experience as a filmmaker taking your films to festivals and engaging with audiences. What has the response been to Hysteria so far? What has the dialogue with the audience been?
TW: It’s been awesome. It’s been really fun. When we premiered at Toronto, I think I’d seen it with one other audience. It was a cast and crew screening. And that was it. Maggie and Hugh had seen a rough cut. But they hadn’t seen the final film. I’m sitting there, in a 2,500 seat theater, dressed up in heels, which I’m not good at. My friends [ask] “What’s the red carpet like?” The red carpet is like this. Here’s internal monologue of Tanya on the red carpet: “Don’t fall down. Don’t fall down. Please God, don’t fall down. It will be on the internet forever. Just keep walking.” That was it… The nice thing about film festival audiences is, that… They love movies. So they want to enjoy themselves. So they’re just the most lovely, embracing, curious [audience]. I love it… For me, the festivals are the film community. The filmmakers, the filmgoers, the film lovers. And that is great… If you’re in there, you’re in there because someone saw your movie, and they saw something in it they wanted to make sure that people got ahold of. That makes you feel great. It’s such a neat thing that it’s become such a rich tapestry all over the world.
JT: When Hysteria opens on May 18th and more audiences get a chance to see it, is there anything particular you’re hoping audiences are thinking or feeling as the credits roll?
TW: That was so funny. I want to come back tomorrow.
Filed under: LiC Interview