Wexler gets good vibes from ‘Hysteria’
Chicago native Tanya Wexler directed “Hysteria,” which takes place in Victorian England.
Updated: May 29, 2012 6:52PM
Tanya Wexler clearly loves to laugh. She laughed when her producer said “I’ve got your next movie” and proceeded to describe how the personal vibrator was invented in Victorian England. And she still laughs about that wonderfully strange irony, years later. Some juxtapositions, it seems, never cease to amuse.
That delight shines through in “Hysteria,” Wexler’s first feature film in over a decade (after taking time off to start a family). The romantic comedy involves an idealistic, yet somewhat priggish young doctor (Hugh Dancy), an outrageously outspoken suffragette (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her doctor daddy’s extremely prosperous practice devoted to treating the malaise of well-to-do London ladies diagnosed with hysteria with a certain highly specialized form of massage.
And much deep denial.
Pioneer caught up with Wexler, who spent summers in Long Grove while growing up in Chicago, for a quick chat (and more than a few laughs) about famous family members (including her half-sister, ’80s star Daryl Hannah), about feeling like she’s starting over with each new film, and how there are worse things in life than the Victorian treatment for hysteria.
Q: Looking back, does it seem unlikely that you and your sister would both find your way into the movie business?
A: I don’t know, now that you mention it. . . Maybe not. But maybe so. Our uncle was the cinematographer Haskell Wexler (who won Oscars for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “Bound for Glory”) and my cousin Mark also got involved in making documentaries. When you have family in any business, it might start to look like a viable career path. But that can make it seem easier than it really is . . .
It’s been hard, actually. It’s taken quite a long time for me to feel that I have anything like a real career in the movies. Each project has made me feel that I’m starting over again.
Q: How much of an influence was Haskell Wexler on your career?
A: He’s actually been more of an influence in terms of politics and getting out there and fighting for what you believe in. That’s a big deal in our family.
I didn’t really get to know him well until I was older. My dad died when I was 22, and Haskell stepped into my life more after that. He’s been very, very helpful though, I must say.
When I was making my first feature, about half-way through the shoot I was horrifically miserable. It was SO hard. I’d made two shorts, so I thought, “This will just be a longer version of that.” But no. Shorts are sprints. Features are marathons.
I remember crying on the phone to Haskell: “I don’t want to do this anymore!” I was talking about the thing I wanted to do more than anything else my life, basically, but I wanted OUT. And he calmed me down and gave me some very basic advice: Stick by your director of photography, take deep breaths. . . (Laughs.) And that really made all the difference. Because I knew he’d been there.
Q: If your first feature was such a nightmare. . . .?
A: I guess I’m the kind of person who thinks, even if something was too hard, way too much for me, I want to try it again. Weirdly, I want to go back for more. But that’s about learning, right? Once you learn how something works, you start to think about mastery.
Q: What was your first exposure to movie-making?
A: I was an actress as a kid here in Chicago. I did local commercials and stuff like that. And a few theater productions, including a pre-Broadway run of a musical when I was about 8. And I would go visit Daryl or Haskell on the set. I remember, among other things, visiting Daryl on the set of “Blade Runner.” I was 12 or 13 at the time and I was going “Omigod! That’s Harrison Ford! That’s Han Solo!”
Q: What appealed to you most about “Hysteria”?
A: Oh, it was such an exciting idea. The first time I heard about it I laughed out loud, so I knew there was something special there.
I think the thing that makes me laugh about this movie is the denial that’s going on. “Here’s the truth, right in front of your face, and you can’t see it.” That applies to the doctors and the very-proper women who were their patients. You had this diagnosis of hysteria at the time, which was basically a catch-all diagnosis for the condition of being a woman. The condition of being a woman, that is, who doesn’t fit into the very small box of what society imagined a woman was supposed to be.
If you were unhappy or upset at the limitations that were being placed on you, something was wrong with you. And the treatment consisted of doctors massaging you in a very personal way and inducing “paroxysms.” Which was a pretty decent treatment, when you think about it. (Laughs.)
You know, another thing that makes this movie so funny, to me, is that we still think this topic is such a big deal.
Q: How did you make the transition from acting to directing?
A: Well, I was going to be an actor, for sure. Then, while I was taking some acting courses in LA, I wrote a short film, thinking I could be in it and work toward creating a reel. And a friend at the American Film Institute said, “We’d love to make this. You just have to take out all the shot instructions, like ‘ Dolly here, and over here do this and that.’ So I said, ‘Why?” And he said, “That’s what the director does.”
So, I finished up at Yale a little later and applied to film school to learn directing. In a split second (snapping her fingers) I had realized: That’s what I really want to do.
Q: What do you look for, in general, when you’re considering potential projects?
A: I look for actor magnets. Things that draw great actors to roles. Because I think great actors are what draw us into films. So, I look for roles actors want to play. I also look for well-written scripts, which are very hard to find.
And I think I’m also drawn, right now, not to genre, so much, as stories that have to do with unveiling identity in some way or other. What makes us who we are. What makes me, me and you, you and us, us. And what makes us different from each other. I don’t know why. I’m sure that’s for my shrink to know (laughs), but that’s where I’m coming from.