How to Pitch a Movie About the History of the Vibrator - Pacific Standard

How to Pitch a Movie About the History of the Vibrator

Hysteria director Tanya Wexler reflects on the challenges she faced in funding a film about the history of the vibrator, and how the film shaped her career.
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In Hysteria, Hugh Dancy (center) plays electromechanical vibrator inventor Dr. Mortimer Granville and Maggie Gyllenhaal (right) the suffragette warden of a halfway house.

Victorian physician Mortimer Granville’s invention of the electromechanical vibrator in the late 1800s was cause for celebration not just among women, but also among their male physicians.

Prior to Granville’s vibrator, doctors had been using so-called “pelvic massages” to treat women for hysteria—a debunked medical diagnosis for women whose symptoms included sexual desire, bloating, and insomnia — since as early as 450 B.C.E. But that treatment proved to be tedious work: According to Victorian-era medical journals, it sometimes took patients up to an hour of manual stimulation to reach the desired “hysterical paroxysm” (a.k.a. orgasm). Doctors embraced Granville’s invention as a means to spare their hands and arms from such straining work. That the device allowed women to reach orgasm in just a few minutes, without paying expensive visits to the doctors’ office, was really a secondary development. Fast forward a century and several decades and vibrators are now a $1 billion industry in the United States.

It’s an ironic story that is bound to make women roll their eyes, which is why it was such a delight when director Tanya Wexler adapted it as the feminist screwball comedy Hysteria in 2012. Hysteria follows Mortimer Granville (played by Hugh Dancy)—a composite of Granville himself and several other Victorian-era hysteria healers—as he joins a posh women’s-health private practice and learns to give manual pelvic massages, which give him hand cramps. Electric entrepreneurship ensues.

Unfortunately, Hysteria didn’t make quite the same splash as its source material, earning just $1.8 million at the American box office and receiving middling reviews. Looking back, however, Hysteria has the trappings of a semi-revolutionary mainstream film about women’s sexuality: Often described as a rom-com, the film preceded a number of popular network and streaming shows about the regulation of women’s sex lives, including Showtime’s Masters of Sex (whose first season premiered in 2013), Hulu’s 2017 series Harlots, and the upcoming Hulu series A Handmaid’s Tale. Hysteria’s subdued take on women’s sexuality remains a progressive anomaly in cinema to this day: The film’s female characters do not wear sexually revealing clothing, nor are they nude in any scenes, though many are shown having orgasms. Its heroine (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a suffragette who is more concerned with feeding the children at the halfway house she operates than with landing a husband.

Last Thursday afternoon, the large daytime crowd at Champaign, Illinois’ 1,463-seat Virginia Theater embraced the film, whooping and laughing during a scene where a female patient announces that her treatment has been completed by shouting “Tally ho!” Later, gasps and titters followed a scene in which Granville and a potential love interest (Felicity Jones) pause on a bridge, during a date, to overlook a tranquil pond, only to see two ducks having sex—thereby awkwardly confronting the desired end result of their courtship.

As Dancy put it after a recent screening of Hysteria at Ebertfest in Champaign, a festival that highlights films that were overlooked upon release: “The best joke in the movie is the reality.” On Friday, Pacific Standard spoke further with Wexler about pitching stories about women’s sexuality in Hollywood, navigating restrictive Motion Picture Association of America ratings, and why it’s a mistake to romanticize the Victorian era.

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Tell me a little bit about how you came across the original idea for Hysteria and what drew you to the material.

I’m pretty sure it was a friend of mine who had a treatment that she thought would be a great film based on that little-known historical fact. There had been some scholarly work done a few years prior, and there were some people looking at this idea, but she already had it worked out as a rom-com, screwball comedy. I thought it was hilarious, and so went about getting the script and getting it made.

I don’t imagine that studio executives and investors get pitched ideas like this one very often. What was it like to get this film off the ground?

I naïvely thought that it would be easy because it is such a great idea, funny, and rare in its own kind of way — it’s very high-concept. Hollywood in a weird way does like a fresh, original idea if they can see a more commercial movie within it. Of course, I was wrong: It was pretty challenging to get financing — and not because of the subject matter. Yes, we occasionally encountered a certain amount of prudishness, but it was really much more about people not totally getting it. Some people were uncomfortable, but more people didn’t know how to take it — was it a farce, was it a drama about women’s rights? It took the right kind of sensibility and sense of humor, and so it took us a while to get the financing together, put together all our various partners that helped finance the film, and get our cast. People don’t like to join in until other people have, so you’re always trying to put one piece into play and get another one before you lose that [original] piece. Finance is a really challenging game in that way.

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Director Tanya Wexler on set. (Photo: Sony Picture Classics)

You’ve said before that your top-of-the-line collaborators ended up being a “network of women.” Was that coincidence, or a premeditated decision on your part?

It wasn’t [either]: I just think that’s who fell in love with the piece, which tells you a little bit more about why we need more female voices out there making stuff. We had three producers, all women, and they were amazing: They all got it and all fell in love with the piece. Your producer is your collaborator, your constant champion of the film, and fights for it with you to the very last. And there was an all-female sales company that fell in love with it called Elle Driver. It’s named after, weirdly, my sister’s [Daryl Hannah] character in Kill Bill — that was just total coincidence, like everything else on this movie.

Shifting to the tone of the film, a lot of women have orgasms in this movie, and yet otherwise it’s quite subdued — there’s hardly any nudity, no sex scenes, there’s very little coarse language.

Which was why I was always like: “Really? You’re giving it an R rating?” But then, in the end, we were really like, “Really, do you want to make a movie about the vibrator and have it rated PG?” It’s not like I’m embarrassed by [a PG rating], but that wouldn’t be as fun to go to.

But yes, there were no body parts, there was no language: I’m not averse to it, it just wasn’t the way to tell the story. It was really just accurate to the time. There was no part of the story where it would have [required] nudity, and it wasn’t about sex — I think that was one of the most hilarious things. The state of being a woman was so medicalized that, in that moment, they were able to not take clothes off to get to the parts they needed to get to.

Were you concerned about making the film audience-appropriate for multiple demographics? Because it’s not explicit, it seems you could take your mother, even your grandmother to this film.

Isn’t that funny? But no, I don’t think so. That’s the upside of making an independent movie — we knew that we wanted to make a movie that we wanted to see and that would manage to be fun and entertaining. I didn’t think there was anything to be grossed out by — we went with just what was funny and made us laugh. And I think, because we were women making it, it was a laugh of recognition rather than laughing at it. When I would talk to actors or designers on the film, I would be like, “You know when you go the gynecologist, and….” I wanted the various set pieces around the vibrator to evoke different familiar experiences of being a woman — the weird things that we all go through in our culture. Like how long everything took — especially when Granville was using his left hand to produce the orgasm, so to speak, and the classic jokes of, “This has never happened to me before,” but finding a new context for them.

What do you hope the film will say to viewers about sexuality, as it was interpreted then and now?

What I always felt about the film is that it’s not against fun or sex — it is for all of those things — it is really just against denial. A vibrator is a fun thing that people should be able to enjoy, and the full range of women’s emotional experience doesn’t need to be pathologized and medicalized, and we can set about the work of trying to help solve a problem and keep fun things fun instead of turning them into problems.

So many Victorian films romanticize the period — this film tries to strike a balance between making the period look beautiful and also terrible for women’s rights.

When people say, “Oh, it was so romantic,” I’m like: “Boo. Do you really want to live back then?”That’s why our [female] heroine is a really forward thinker. My favorite thing about her is that she says stuff like, “One day I’m going to see a woman have a right to vote” for several issues. She’s looking at all the things that can be achieved, and she’s trying to play one small part in making that come about.

We actually dressed her as a forward thinker. The one conscious anachronism we have in the whole piece was that we dressed her five to 10 years ahead of the actual period, and tipped her clothes slightly forward in the Edwardian period, like with her little boater hat, the way her sleeves were, and even with her gown [for her sister’s engagement party]. The gown is based on this famous John Singer Sargent painting, Madame X. If anyone had worn that gown in 1881 it would have been like she had walked in naked, with her shoulders exposed, it would have been like, “What the fuck?” But we did that on purpose because, for that context, she was a provocateur. That character is the woman I would want to be if I had lived then; she was way braver than I feel, and she was willing to put herself out there and give up a lot of creature comforts to do the right things, even if it was in a small way.

How did making a film like Hysteria affect your career?

It was very helpful to get me to a new level in the eyes of the industry, but only in a kind of intro way, and then it’s been very hard to get the next movie made. I think if I had wanted to make a certain kind of movie that was more regressive — like a more traditional chick flick — I could have done that. There’s a very famous conundrum that women have a hard time capitalizing on their success because of the whole “people take chances on women based on their experiences, whereas people take chances on men based on their potential” thing. But every movie is its own, new, bespoke thing. A new paper has shown that 80 percent of women who make a movie make only one in 10 years. So it helps, but it’s still challenging.

I hear your next film is an adaptation of Erica Jong’s book Fear of Flying. Did that project have anything to do with your work on Hysteria?

Yeah, if you’re going to do a movie about women’s sexuality, I’m going to be someone they’re probably going to consider. The script is already written, it’s pretty funny — it’s kind of like a postmodern Deadpool. It’s like women’s-empowerment Deadpool.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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