Interview: Hysteria Director and Co-writer Tanya Wexler

The fact that Hysteria is a costumed rom-com provides a fresh hook, but of course it’s not the main reason the indie comedy is grabbing attention. The film, directed by Tanya Wexler (Finding North, Ball in the House) and co-written by Wexler and Stephen Dyer, takes a fanciful but historically based look at the invention of the vibrator in late Victorian London.

Hugh Dancy (Confessions of a Shopaholic, Martha Marcy May Marlene) is young doctor Mortimer Granville whose idealism about treating patients with more than leeches and tonics is sidetracked when he goes to work for Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce). Dalrymple’s lucrative practice involves treating women for “hysteria” through “manual massage” and “release.”

Working for Dalrymple, Granville becomes entangled with both his daughters: the proper marriage prospect Emily (Felicity Jones, Like Crazy) and the crusading progressive Charlotte (a shining Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart, Secretary). And from laying hands all day on his patients, Granville also develops career-threatening repetitive stress injuries. His mechanical salvation comes in the form of a steam-powered feather duster invented by his caddish roommate Edmund St. John-Smythe (a scene-stealing Rupert Everett) and quickly adapted by the doctor for more “hands on” use in his treatments.

The “Victorian Vibrator Rom-Com” tag is a catchy hook, but Hysteria has more on its mind than naughty titillation. Through Charlotte’s relentless campaigning on behalf of women’s rights and the poor, Wexler’s film gets somewhat serious about the budding Progressive movement, the forward march of both medicine and women’s rights, and how “hysteria” was used as a catch-all diagnosis for any female behavior outside Victorian society’s norms.

I sat down with Tanya Wexler this month in Chicago to talk about Hysteria, her winning cast, and releasing the nice little historical rom-com in the midst of a newly resurrected cultural debate over women’s rights.

Hysteria is playing in select theaters across the country.

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How did this project get started?

Tanya Wexler: I’d made two little movies a decade ago, and then I had a bunch of kids, and so I was trying to survive the crazy war that is having four kids under six. And a producer friend of mine said, “I know the next movie you’re doing,” and I said, “I don’t know what I’m having for lunch,” and she said, “It’s a rom-com about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England,” and I said, “Sign me up.” I just felt if I never make another movie again, I have to make this movie.

Do you feel like you were using the catchy vibrator topic to bring up some serious issues?

Wexler: We knew the movie wasn’t really about the invention of the vibrator—that would be a short comedy sketch. The movie’s called Hysteria because it’s about the diagnosis of hysteria, and the vibrator is really just a device, so to speak. You have this fake disease for the condition of being a woman—if you want too much or want to live in any way outside of this small, prescribed circle that society wanted you to be in Victorian England, then you were sick and had to be cured. One of the nicer treatments was manual massage; some of the less nice treatments were hysterectomy and institutionalization.

People ask, “Is there a message?” but I really wanted to make something that was entertaining and that wasn’t just fluffy. I wanted a film for me. People say if you want to be entertained, and you want to laugh, and you want to have fun and some romance, well then it can’t be about anything. I think that’s bull. My life is full of laughter and romance, and hey, I don’t live in one genre.

I knew it was rom-com first, and that’s what I knew I had to deliver to make it a satisfying movie for me. No one was making this movie, and I wanted to see it, so I had to go make it. So it’s not like I was trying to make this worthy film and trying to make it funny—I was trying to make this rom-com about the vibrator, and it happened in the most buttoned-down time.

And by looking back at Victorian England in the form of a rom-com, it makes it easier to serve up some of the serious issues Charlotte is promoting, rather than preaching about them in the here and now.

Wexler: I wanted it to be fresh, and it was important that it was authentic and felt period-accurate because it has to feel like it really happened. But I wanted the pace and the banter to keep time with our viewing expectations today. I don’t think they sat around going “Aren’t we quaint?” I think they sat around going “We’re on the cutting edge of science, we’re on the cutting edge of human rights, we’re changing things.” Everything’s about to burst free for the Victorians, but they don’t know that, so it’s very much a moment of expectation and energy.

You made the film over the past few years, but now all of a sudden it’s being released in the middle of this new politically motivated “War on Women” debate. Do you feel that’s a burden for a small rom-com?

Wexler: It’s very strange to have made a movie about 130 years ago and to know those arguments Charlotte was making are still not sorted. That’s surprising to me. When we were developing it, there was the sense of “Yay, see how far we’ve come, sisters–all of us together, we did this!” And now there’s a layer of “Geez, we still have to fight the fight.” I had intended the film to be more of an uplifting thing, and now it’s a little weirder.

I do think all those issues now are too much for a little movie to carry. I wanted something that was entertaining but had a little meat on the bone, had something to say that I cared about. Not because it was a message, but because I really wanted to dig into these characters—I wanted them to have something to do that I understood and believed in.

You have a tremendous cast. What were you looking for in your actors?

Wexler: I wanted great actors who had comedic chops, because it wasn’t a broad comedy, but it wasn’t drama. So I needed people who could play it straight and let the comedy evolve out of the situations, but still deliver these great performances. When we were working with the writers we’d be like, “Okay, if you could cast anyone in the history of the world, who would it be?” And we were saying Katharine Hepburn and young Hugh Grant. Because something my writers told me is you want to get a voice or a distinct character in your head, and if you have past actors in mind as you write then you don’t get attached to any specific current actors. But it didn’t matter because we got the people on my wish list, which is crazy. We were unreasonably fortunate.

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