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Interview with Tanya Wexler - Director of Hysteria

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by Melissa Silverstein
May 17, 2012 12:53 PM
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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.

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