Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Hysterical "Hysteria"

Playing in Theaters

The Hysterical "Hysteria"

(from 5/17/12)

hysteriamovieposter.jpg Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy on poster
No, Hysteria is not a fifties horror movie by gimmick-crazy William Castle, but a new romantic comedy about the invention of a device that is far from being a gimmick--the vibrator--in Victorian England in the 1880s. Directed by Tanya Wexler (Ball in the House and Finding North), it is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser that was a hit at the recent Tribeca Film Festival and now opens this Friday in New York. Wexler's inspiration was a combination of Katharine Hepburn comedies and historical fact. Apparently in the 19th Century in uptight London nearly a quarter of the city's female population was diagnosed with "hysteria," which was a term applied to, as the film's production notes state, "a vast array of women's disorders, including such apparent feminine mysteries as unhappiness, restlessness, disobedience, impertinence, either too little or too much interest in sex, and even the desire for voting rights." After repeatedly being fired by clinics because they didn't believe in his progressive views in medicine, physician Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) takes a job with the staid Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Price, at the dinner table in the group photo), and together they try to relieve middle and upper class women "hysteria" with a medicinal massages of the female organs "to the point of paroxysm." Mortimer courts Dalrymple's dutiful and proper daughter Emily (Felicity Jones, at the dinner table with Price and Dancy) but becomes increasingly attracted to his older daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a firebrand social reformer who angers her father by running a settlement house for poor and sick women and children. He visits his rich, eccentric, technology-obsessed friend Edmund (Rupert Everett), and it is his invention of an electric feather duster that inspires Mortimer to conceive an electric vibrating massager. And his world and the world itself changed.
What follows are roundtable interviews I did with Wexler (with the cameraman), Gyllenhaal, and Dancy prior to the Tribeca Film Festival, for which I note my questions. In addition, following the Wexler roundtable is a one-and-one I did with the personable and very amusing director during the festival.
ROUNDTABLE WITH TANYA WEXLERQ: When you first screened the film in September in Toronto, what reactions were the ones you hoped for and what reactions surprised you?
Tanya Wexler: All the scenes with the "treatment" got the reaction I hoped for. When you do comedy you actually cut in a space for the laugh, so you have to get the timing right. With all films but particularly comedy, the piece isn't complete until you have an audience. It's constructed with the rhythm in mind. So in the scenes when the doctors are doing the treatment or testing the vibrator I knew how I wanted, if you'll excuse the pun, the rhythm to be, how each scene was supposed to build. It was mind-blowingly awesome to have a reaction with 2,600 people cheering. That's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. What I didn't expect was the reaction to the end credits. We did this history time-line of the vibrator which I thought it would be jokey and get people to stay through the credits. And over and over again people applaud when the Rabbit comes up, as if to say, "Yes, we're in the modern era, finally!" It was a transition out of the 1880s and bring us up to date. I didn't expect people to be so happy to see a familiar face.
Q: Can you share some of the behind-the-scenes moments when you were shooting the scenes with women in stirrups being treated? How did those actors react?
TW: It was great. We knew through the audition process that actors were going to react to that. Great actors are very game and want to do something fun and funny. It was really important for me to have the women who were the patients represent a diversity of ages. I couldn't have tons of diversity because they were all supposed to come from the British middle class in the 1880s. But we had women who were twenty, thirty, forty, and fifty to give that spectrum. In the first round of auditions, I thought I'd just let the women chat and then we'd see. I didn't want to see a bunch of bad versions of those scenes so I thought I'd do them in call-backs. But inevitably there were actresses who wanted to do the treatment scenes because they seemed like fun. They almost always nailed it. The ones who got nervous or took it too seriously didn't do as well. The movie is supposed to be fun and to give the message "It doesn't take a doctor. You're in charge of your own happiness." We only had a few days for rehearsal. We had a really fun read-through where I placed a little bullet vibrator with everyone's scripts. We had a couple of other days, when it was mostly logistics. I had no time, even though I had a lot more time than I did with my other films, because it is a period piece and there changes of locations. But we had orgasm rehearsal. It was really all props. All of a sudden you have this table that was articulated; and I invented the idea of there being a privacy screen so the men couldn't watch what they were doing; and we had a mock-up of the vibrator that was made in the prop-shop. For Jonathan and Hugh we wondered what they were going to put their hands on under the skirts because we needed their muscle to make it look they were working; they couldn't just fake it. So there was a lot of uncomfortable brainstorming and then Hugh said, "Can't we just use a sandbag?" So we put a little privacy sandbag down there that we'd used to hold down the lights. After two days of shooting Jonathan came to me and said, "I've rubbed the skin off the knuckle of my finger." I said, "I'm glad you're getting into it but maybe you should take it a little easier." Mostly we just had a lot of fun. I just told the extras to go for it. The sound was what concerned me, not the shots. I knew how to shoot it but I didn't want it to sound totally absurd. So we experimented a lot and people seemed to be enjoying themselves and laughing.
Q: Charlotte is very strong-headed and independent. Did you develop her with the average woman of today in mind so she could relate to her in some sense?
TW: I don't know about that. I wanted to see who I would have liked to have been back then. I think Charlotte's way braver than I would have been in that circumstance. If she were transplanted to today her politics aren't particularly advanced. But back then she was really brave in what she wanted such as the vote. We didn't really develop her as an Everywoman. I wanted a young Katharine Hepburn and got her in Maggie Gyllenhaal. She's stunning. I'm crazy in love with my cast. I'm amazed I got to work with these people. But I made a wish list and people would say yes. It took a long time to get to them, but there is nothing more exciting than a director and actor meeting each other and connecting. I developed this script over several years and then I got to sit and have drinks with Jonathan Pryce and think how in high school I was writing a paper on Brazil. I cannot tell you what a dream-come-true that was. I had a really clear mandate in the casting Charlotte--I wanted to cast an actress who women love. So the list went from all the actresses who could green-light it to six women who were the right age and had the right vibe, and Maggie was at the top. Judy Cairo came on board as producer and she had produced Crazy Heart and said she'd like to give the script to Maggie. You don't even dream of stuff like that. I said, "Yes, send it right now! Send it to her yesterday!" It was awesome that Maggie loved the script and wanted to do it.
Q: Talk about the tone you wanted to establish in the film.
TW: We were very clear in the writing how it wanted to feel. But when we were raising money that was a question that came up. It was tricky. You kind of had to nail it. I didn't want it be a sex farce and I didn't it to be serious like homework. I wanted it to be fun. I'm a mom with four kids and was really tired. There are many worthy movies that I'd find too depressing or would make me feel even more tired. I wanted to laugh. And I wanted to make a movie I wanted to see. I didn't want to make another movie that just has wedding dress. There are great fluffy movies that do that but I wanted something that I could sink my teeth into a little bit but was mostly fun and that I could see with my girlfriends and have a good time. If Merchant-Ivory, Jane Austin, and Richard Curtis had a movie baby, that's the movie baby I would want to make. It was clear to me but I had to find a way to answer that question beforehand. The tone was the thing I was most conscious about.
hysteriawexlerworking.jpg Tanya Wexler on set (Sony Classics)
Q: Were you worried about censorship?
TW: The great thing about independent films is there is no censorship. I loved my producers. They were really protective of the piece and we had great, frank, smart discussions in which we'd challenge each other. An upside of the movie taking so long to get financed, is that you're constantly perfecting the script, so by the time we made the film it was pretty well honed and we had no fear of censorship. I was fascinated to see what rating we'd get. There's no bad language, there's no violence, there's no nudity...BUT. I didn't know what rating it should get. I was very open and thought it was Sony Classics call.
Q: Did you worry about budget?
TW: I was hyperprepared because I knew about budget and how fast we had to go. It was lightning fast so I lost a transitional scene I'd like to have but in no way is crucial. It was a passing shot of the settlement house at night. It would have given a little more light to Charlotte's world. But we ran out of time, partly because it had children in it and they can shoot only at specific times. My kids were all in the movie largely because I could make them stay later. "I know you're tired, honey, but you can have dinner after the set-up." Q: Has Sony Classics always been behind the film?
TW: Yes. It's wonderful that Tom Bernard and Michael Barker are championing the film. After the film was screened at Toronto, we sat down and in our discussion, Michael said, "I have two daughters and they need this movie. That point of view and understanding is very progressive. I love seeing the joy it brings and the sense of empowerment it gives to women in the audience. It's just a romantic comedy. It's not going to change the world but it's appealing that it will increase the scope of conversation.
Danny Peary: Could you have made a serious film with the exact same script?
TW: If you read the script by Stephen Dryer and Jonah Lisa Dryer you'll laugh so I couldn't have made a serious film from it.
DP: I was watching the film and thinking it could be done seriously.
TW: I think the topic could be done seriously but not the script.
DP: Did you feel you restricted because it's a comedy, and that you couldn't go farther with the serious, political parts?
TW: I set out to make a comedy. The way the script developed is that we knew the mechanical vibrator was invented in Victorian England somewhat as a labor-saving devise. The vibrator was not for a man, right? Then we said if we did a movie just about the invention of the vibrator, it's a fifteen-minute movie. So we asked who were all the people in the world who orbit around that nucleus. What made me laugh and want to make the movie was the juxtaposition with the denial. The core joke and humor for me is not the vibrator, oohs and aws, or ducks having sex--although I think that's a really good microcosm and metaphor for the movie--but the denial that we all are in about something. In one scene a doctor can masturbate women in his office and think that this is a completely nonsexual event, and in the next scene he can barely hold the hand of the woman he's courting. To me that is funny. I view the world as a funny place that makes me laugh.
DP: But you have Charlotte talking positively about socialism; this is the only American film that would do that.
TW: Yeah but there's a difference between seriousness and solemnity and great comedies have incredibly serious moments but don't have to be solemn. I've talked about this a lot with friends--there's a reason it's called Four Weddings and a Funeral and not Four Weddings. I think it's because sober moments and serious moments are what creates the contrast and relief. There's always a moment when the characters sober up and say, "Oh, my God, we've been such assholes," in some shape or form. It was really important for me that the stakes mattered. I remember that we were struggling to figure out how to get out of the second act and into the third act. And I asked, "What's the closest thing we can threaten Charlotte with that's threatening her life?" And that's when we came up with "hysterectomy." It's an unusual word to say when you're writing a romantic comedy. But good comedies go to that serious place.
I met my wife in college twenty years and I fell in love because we made each other laugh. We went through serious stuff, but in the end I want my life to be filled with laughter. Hopefully, both can exist in the same thing.
Q: Does Charlotte have a modern counterpart?
TW: The woman who wrote Infidel pops into my head. Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She's so amazing. She was in the Dutch parliament and when the filmmaker Van Gogh was killed and there was a note stabbed into his chest the note was to her. She's unbelievably interesting and phenomenal. That's the level of bravery that is beyond. There are so many brave people who give of themselves beyond what they have to get through life. They are inspirational people.
SPOILER ALERTQ: I heard there was more than one ending that you had in mind. Did you film them?
TW: We filmed a scene where we see Charlotte and Mortimer after they're married. I love poor Mortimer because I'm not really interested in us-against-them, guys-against-girls, because I have a son and I'm not interested in vilifying guys. I'm interested in working things out together. But poor Moritmer asks two women to marry him and neither says yes. Charlotte says, "We'll see," and it's implied she'll say yes. So we had a little scene but I left it out because I wanted it to be a bit open at the very end, I wanted to have a sense that it's a new beginning so I didn't want it too be conclusive.
END SPOILER ALERTDP: Is being at the Tribeca Film Festival important to you?
TW: It's so awesome. It has been fantastic. I haven't shown my home town the movie yet. I'm a downtown girl who lives in the village, so this is my community, including parents from school. I'm so psyched.
Danny Peary: Did your uncle Haskell Wexler ever talk to you about filmmaking?
Tanya Wexler: Oh, sure. It was dinner table conversation. I'm super close to him. He's my dad's brother. My dad died when I was twenty-two and particularly after that he has been in my life. I remember being on the set of my first film, about halfway through a four-week shoot, and I had no idea how hard it was going to be. I'd made a couple of shorts. I remember calling him in tears. I'd wanted nothing more in my life to be on the set of my first film and I told him, "I want to go home." He talked me off the ledge. He gave me some pointers, like sticking close to my DP and working hand and glove with him. He told me to trust myself and just be there, not check out of the process. If it gets hard, just stand there until you get it right. He is just a very practical guy. Not only was he a director but was one of the best cinematographers in the world. Some of the most amazing stuff he's done came out of his just trying to figure out what he wanted to do. It was like putting a camera on his shoulder and getting on a helicopter. He just did it.
DP: Medium Cool is one of my favorite films. Did you realize how much impact it had on people?
TW: Oh, yeah. My dad was in real estate in Chicago and he joked, "We'll have to pay him more money to take our names off the film or we'll never work in this town again." It had an impact on my family. Haskell doesn't have any sacred cows, like film versus video. He's a storyteller and that's what I learned from him. Having snobbery about anything doesn't help you tell a story. I sent him a draft of Hysteria and got his feedback. He's very young at heart. He's a vegan, he exercises for an hour a day, he's in way better shape than I am, and he's never going to disengage. I had a screening in L.A. a few weeks ago and told Haskell and his wife Rita I'd love to have them there. He calls me, and says, "Hey T, how important is that screening on Wednesday? Because there's something I want to shoot and it's going to conflict." Still, that chance to shoot excites him. I said, "Dude, I'd go shoot! Would you like me to talk to Rita and tell her I won't be disappointed you're not coming?" He says, "Would you do that for me?" I said, "Of course.!" He said, "Oh, you get me!" It's family.
DP: If someone asks you what Hysteria is about, what is the first thing you say?
TW: It's a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England.
DP: So it's not first a film about the inventor of the vibrator, but a romantic comedy?
TW: Absolutely. When the idea showed up in my life, I'd made two little movies, I'd made these four little kids, I was happy but tired. I was desperate for a night out but my partner [Amy Zimmerman] and I wondered how that was going to happen. I like this vast array of films, from experimental films to Some Like It Hot. I have huge, eclectic taste but at that time, emotionally, there were some films I just couldn't handle watching. I was too drained. I just wanted to laugh. And my friend Tracey Becker said, "How about a comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England? I have a two-page treatment." I said, "Done!" It's a movie I wanted to see because it would make me laugh. I was looking for a movie that you'd walk in thinking you'd have a fun night and walk out having an interesting conversation. I wasn't looking for a movie where it was the same as going to a history class or a women's studies class. I already went to college. I think movies are these transporting things. Some are more intellectually engaging but I like when you go into a dark room and turn off part of your brain and enjoy the ride with a lot of strangers.
DP: As I said at the roundtable, I believe your film could be a serious film with almost exactly the same script. You made a really good comedy, but I want to ask again: did it restrict you from going into really serious areas that you might have wanted to go? Did you ever pull back and say we can't go farther?
TW: No. We pushed to see how far we could go. I feel there is no funny without ouch. Comedy comes out of pain or at least has to have pain, whether it's physical pain or emotional pain or Charlie Chaplin pain. Working with the writers, we always knew it was a comedy. There has to be stakes when Mortimer breaks out of convention. It's funny that it's a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England but in some ways it's a feminist romantic comedy about a guy. A guy is the main character. In many ways it's a true believer who loses his way and finds it again.
DP: Yes, and I see it as a movie about a guy who thinks he's progressive but then meets someone who really is progressive.
TW: Absolutely. That's why I always say if you talk about themes and the characters, it's a story about progressives--progressives in medicine, progressives in technology--Edmond has the money and creativity--and Charlotte, this firebrand Katharine Hepburn, does amazing things at the settlement house. I'm from Chicago, and what she does was born out of my knowledge of the Hull House in Chicago that was founded by Jane Addams, and its sister house called Toynbee Hall in London. So when we talked about the genesis of the movie and the medical "treatment" and the denial, and we thought about who'd populate that world. We went through history books and the writers happened upon the settlement house and I said that I grew up near Hull House.
DP: When I was watching the film I felt transported into a different world. It wasn't necessarily Victorian England, there was kind of an alternate universe feel to it for me.
TW: Really? Hopefully in a good way. We really worked to have period details, and I hoped that people would turn to their friends and say, "I can't believe they really did this." Because reality is most absurd. I thought about that question you asked more than any other, "Could it have been done as a drama?" Because it had the same facts. But again, it's Four Weddings and a Funeral, not Four Weddings. At the end, everyone goes, "We've been such jerks, we've been wrong about all this stuff and what's important." There's a sobering moment. The writers and I sat down and kind of went, "How far can we push it? What are the stakes?" And we had to loop into the main themes--women, hysteria, freedom over your own body, and problems manufactured--and we said threatening Charlotte's life didn't seem to fit into the movie's storyboard construction. There were certainly women given hysterectomies or institutionalized for "hysteria." Well, it's the title of the movie, so let's go there. We didn't pull any punches as long as it felt right. The tone I was going for was Merchant-Ivory meets Jane Austen meets Richard Curtis who wrote Four Weddings, Love Actually, and all those movies and started Blackadder. I wanted to get the balance right and have modern banter.
DP: This is the only American film where there is a character, Charlotte, who offers a defense of socialism, saying it's just people doing things together. You snuck that in and you get away with it.
TW: I know. We asked ourselves about that scene but more about whether it was boring for a character to go on a political rant at that moment. But it's true to her.
DP: She simplified the meaning of socialism for three people who couldn't think any deeper.
TW: Absolutely. She was saying that it's easy to vilify but the bottom line is it's just people doing things together. Britain is more socialist than we are.
DP: If you had a trailer on tv with a clip of Charlotte saying, "Socialism is just people doing things together," it would anger people I bet.
TW (laughing): But that's not really what the movie is about. Whether it's politics or gender politics, it all has to grow out the characters who populate that world and I think that line is just true to the character. So it felt totally right. There was a socialist model between me, the producers, and writers. We all sat down and said, "Socialist pact." We made our deals together and nobody gets more than anyone else." And we kept to it.
DP: The Dalrymple sisters are named Charlotte and Emily, after the Brontes. Was there a thematic reason for that? Because they seem more different than the Brontes were from each other.
TW: In the treatment given to me, the sisters were Charlotte and something else that didn't sound right. Probably the writers made a nod to the Brontes. Our literary nod that didn't make it into the film was Oscar Wilde; for a while Wilde made his way into the party scenes because he was trying to date Rupert Everett's character, Edmund. But we cut it from the script.
DP: Charlotte seems to be her mother's daughter and Emily seems to be her father's daughter, but they're not opposites. They're both accomplished. That's harder to write.
TW: You're right. The hardest thing was not making Emily a shrew. It would have been easy to make her one. The difference is that Charlotte can't help being who she is; Emily has more of an ability to hold it in for awhile, although by the end we get the sense that she's not going to be able to do that for much longer.
DP: If you're going to spend a year and a half making a movie, what kind of men are you are you comfortable having as your protagonists?
TW: It's truly dependent on the story. Mortimer was the perfect guy for this story. There was something he had to learn. He had almost an ingnue quality to him, a that I really love. He's very honest, very bright, and funny and kind of charming, but he has some arrogance and naivete combined. So it takes him a while to learn what he needs to learn.
DP: There seems to be a gentleness to your guys.
TW: Yes. My dad is my total hero. He died when I was twenty-two and I miss him every day. He was a real "guy's guy" in many ways. He loved sports, he would have loved to have been an NBA coach but there aren't many 5'8" Jewish basketball coaches in the world. He ended up getting sick because he had a job collecting rent. He was a suit and tie guy his whole life but he'd put his arms around you and give you the biggest hug. I remember being on the beach with him and I was telling him my crazy, big dreams and he had tears in his eyes. And I said, "Dad! You're crying!" He said, "I'd never want to be a guy who couldn't cry. I love that I can feel stuff. I love my family and I love you. You remind me of my dad and he was my hero." And he gave me this big hug and it was the best moment of my life. The last thing I want to do in my movies is vilify guys. I'd rather make a movie about how we work it out together and have things in common rather than how men and women are so different.
DP: Was that a Wizard of Oz-Margaret Hamilton reference when Charlotte is dressed in dark clothes and riding her bike?
TW: It wasn't meant to be a filmic reference but when we were setting up the shot, everyone was humming the riding music.
DP: You filmed a scene in the settlement house with your kids, right?
TW: There's a scene when they're playing ball. I didn't cut anything, we just ran out of time to shoot it. There was a scene we filmed with Mortimer and Charlotte in their room in the settlement house. If we didn't run out of time I would have filmed a scene in the settlement house we're they're all at dinner, serving soup. I would have killed for it because it would have brought such richness to the work.
DP: What I wanted was for Mortimer to finally be seen doing meaningful work and the marriage thrives because of that.
TW: Absolutely.
DP: There was no moment where he offers her a vibrator and she asks, "Will I need it?"
TW: I don't think it's either/or. It's not his competition; it's part of his team!
Q: Did you do any research and base Charlotte on anybody?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Not really. If this had been a realistic drama about suffragettes at the turn of the last century, then I'd have to do a different kind of research to be historically accurate. The research I did was more inside myself, challenging myself to be as wild and free and strident as I could be. That's really why I did the movie. I thought it would be fun to see how wild I could be. It's funny: I've played characters who are a lot wilder but in the constraints of that time, wearing those clothes, I just thought it would be cool to see how far it could go.
Q: Did you like that it is primarily a comedy?
MG: Not only that it is a comedy, but I really like the style of comedy that it is. It is English with clever, really tight dialogue where you have to pay attention and use your brain--as much as there are jokes about women cumming, which is great. (Charlotte doesn't have much to do with that.) I liked the mix of intellectual comedy with women having loud orgasms.
Q: How important was historical accuracy in this film?
MG: People's names and things are shifted and changed but the fact is the vibrator was invented to masturbate women to orgasm who were considered hysterical. That makes one wonder if it was really true that these people who couldn't look at a woman's ankle thought that they give a woman an orgasm and that was considered a medical procedure. Really, don't you think men have known what a woman's orgasm was for a long time? It's not that it just happened in 1925. Either there was a massive amount of disassociation running rampant, which was probably partly true and what led to "hysteria," or there was a sexuality in it--how could there not have been? People have been having sex for a long time and enjoying themselves. Both Mortimer and Charlotte's father walk a very difficult line, believing somewhere that they're doing something that is medically necessary and also knowing somewhere inside them that they're giving women a sexual release. It's complicated.
Q: How far do you think we've come in regard to women's sexuality?
MG: I think we've come really far. It would thoughtless to say we were in the same place we were then. I've seen Hysteria all the way through only one time, which was when I was in Toronto, where there was mostly an American and Canadian audience. And then I watched the end in Rome and I've done a lot of international press on it, in Italy and Scandinavia, all over, and I have been surprised by how shocking the movie is. In some ways it's just a sweet romantic comedy but the orgasm stuff and women cumming and thinking about their bodies in sexual ways...I wasn't a part of shooting any of that stuff because Charlotte doesn't use the vibrator ever, so when I watched it I was kind of flushed and people in the audience were laughing hysterically. Nobody was used to seeing stuff like that. Even I felt that way, and the first movie I ever made was an S&M movie. I don't think of myself as prudish at all. I'm interested in sex, I'm curious about it, I think of myself as pretty open, but I was surprised by my own response as well as the audience's response. It still makes us uncomfortable. At the same time we've come really far.
Q: You'd never think Europeans would be so prudish.
MG: People keep saying and that we're the prudish ones, but I think we're pretty even. I had some pretty interesting conversations with women in Italy about it. My favorite one was when a woman asked me which I thought had done more for women's rights and the women's movement--the vibrator or the dishwasher? I think I have to go with the dishwasher.
Q: You have a great English accent in the movie.
MG: Thank you. People tell me I sound like Emma Thompson. [Laughing] Yeah I learned it watching Nanny McPhee. I've done three plays with an English accent. That accent comes quite easily to me. I like talking like that. So what I do is talk like that all the time when I'm working, even in the car going to work. I say, "I know this is silly, forgive me, but I'm going to talk like this all the time." And people get used to it. The truth is that it's fun to talk like that.

Q: In the beginning Charlotte and Moritmer seem like opposites.
MG: They're supposed to be like couples in 1940s movies who say, "We hate each other, we can't stand each other," but there's something under there that looks like love.
Danny Peary: Did you talk in thematic terms about Charlotte and Emily being the names of the two daughters?
MG: No, we never talked about why they were named after the Brontes. It was a light-hearted set. You'd have to ask Tanya if it was meant to have a Victorian literary bent.
DP: Did you think about the mother who was connected to Charlotte, like Emily is connected to her father?
MG: I did think about her. There is a big section about her in Charlotte's story. There is a scene where Mortimer says, "You're mother would be proud of you" because she's hocking her diamond earrings to help the settlement house. Nobody else seems to be particularly proud of her, there's not a lot of support. So I think that when he says that to her is an important moment because she doesn't have support or guidance.
DP: In the courtroom scene, Mortimer agrees with all of Charlotte's views and vindicates her. You had a choice of how she was supposed to react to him and you play it pretty impassively. Was that your decision to not have tears running down your cheeks or big smiles.
MG: Mortimer has been a huge asshole. He refused to help Charlotte in any way with sick children, even only once a month. That's kind of how he left it. So he has a lot of work to do in order to move her. In that scene, I had tons of reactions to him, although not tears running down my cheeks, but what is in the film is what was chosen by the editors. I wasn't speaking so they could cut to me any time they wanted.
The following scene when he comes to meet her at the jail and asks her to marry him, I made a choice, which was not to have Charlotte accept him until the very, very, very last minute. It was a long scene, maybe seven pages. I could have played it with Charlotte reacting as if he'd already won her heart. But Charlotte had begged him to help at all and he said no, so to come back from that was difficult for her.
Q: How do you think you would be if you lived in that time?
MG: I think a lot of us who live in this time would like to believe we'd be like Charlotte if we lived during her time. I like to imagine that. But I think it would have been incredibly difficult to actually be like that and survive. I wasn't concerned playing her that she'd be historically accurate, I just wanted her to be alive and wild and full of being a woman. She can be from any time and any planet. There are so many things in the script that gave me clues that that was the way to go. For instance, when Mortimer asks her if she'll be all right spending a little time in prison, she says, "Yeah, I have tons of friends in prison." But in truth would she have been all right in a Victorian prison? Maybe not! The politics that she's talking about in the movie are so simple and are about things we take for granted now in this country--women should be able to go to college, women should be able to have jobs, women should be able to vote. So if I took her literally, she'd be kind of boring today.
ROUNDTABLE WITH HUGH DANCYDanny Peary: Is Mortimer's story known in England at all?
Hugh Dancy: Not dramatically more than it's known here in America.
DP: It's not known here at all.
HD: Well, there you go.
DP: So there are no vibrator-shaped statues of him?
HD (laughing): No, no, there are no monuments to him. And nothing you can put a coin in to make it work.
Q: Was there something in the script that made you feel you wanted to be a part of the film?
HD: What drew me to it initially was that it made me pause and wonder how I could make it work. It was a challenge finding the bridge for Mortimer between the serious stuff with Charlotte and physical comedy. I thought that would be difficult to do but was interesting. I also liked that the movie retained that element of the period but undercut it with a raucous aspect. I enjoyed that being combined.
Q: What was your favorite things about going back to that era as an actor? Was it the mannerisms, the locations, the costumes?
HD: All of the above. It's a fun era to visit because there's still such formality there. What we're probably the most aware of in the Victorian era was the stiffness, the etiquette, and the rules. That applies to the costumes as well because half the work is done for you just getting dressed up in waistcoat and collars--and that's just for the men.
Q: Did you snag anything from the set?
HD: No. Oh, yes, I took a scarf that I liked. There was nothing naughty to take home.
Q: Would you have done the movie it were a historical drama, emphasizing the sexual and legal aspects of the story?
HD: If it was a good script, sure. I certainly don't think it's a story that has to be treated comically. In fact, if it had just been that I think I would have been hesitant to do it. What redeems the movie for me is that it does try to have its cake and eat it, too. It presents the preposterous elements of these uptight Victorian doctors who are completely oblivious to what they're doing--it's the best joke in the movie but true. But it also respects the more serious aspects.
Q: Did you have a reservation about starring in a movie about the vibrator?
HD (laughing): No, that was the appeal. I didn't have strong reservations. I just wanted to make sure I had a stab at making it work and getting all the tones to unite. I didn't want to be stuck in the middle as a cipher, not being funny or serious. I didn't want to feel like a straight character in Dickens who is surrounded and lost when surrounded by wild, fantastical characters. So I had to try and not fall into that trap.
DP: Mortimer considers himself a progressive until he meets Charlotte, a real progressive. Why doesn't he help her at all at the settlement house?
HD: Because he's nervous about his career at that point. His decision hasn't been put into stark terms, and ultimately, when she is facing a severe penalty, he reconsiders. For now, it's more a take it or leave it thing. He'd like to help her but...
DP: But will he?
HD: I think he will. He can see she's on to something good and doing good work, and he's having a great time with her. But before he commits himself, he realizes at the last minute he can't afford to jeopardize his employment with her father. He's made the decision a lot of people make. He's spent the first five years of his career pursuing his idealistic vision and dreams of what he can be, and that came to nothing. So he gave in. He saw the writing on the wall and needed to get serious and earn a living. That's the track he's on and the first time she asks for his help, he's not ready to go back to how he was before and give up everything.
Q: What do you think is the tipping point where Mortimer is willing to risk his job and comfortable position because of Charlotte?
HD: Love. At the beginning of the movie, he tries to make clear he's progressive and forward thinking and he keeps coming up against that head-in-the-sand Victorian attitude, where the status quo is preferred and no one is interested in modern medicine or theories. So he gives up, but that is still in him and I don't think it takes too much to reignite his more liberal qualities.
Q: Do you think Charlotte has modern-day counterparts?
HD: The issues Charlotte is agitating about, we're pretty much in agreement about. The truth is that those people usually aren't recognized until years later for their bravery and at the time are considered pariahs.
Q: How was it working with Maggie Gyllenhaal?
HD: She was great fun to be with on the set. Maggie is so strong as an actress and that helped her play such a strong character. Her commitment to her character was remarkable and the degree she maintained her English accent was astonishing. When she looked over a scene, she did it from the perspective of her character, which gave her a real integrity in what she's doing. There are many great actresses, but they don't necessarily bring that particular power and wouldn't have been as good in the role.
Q: Is there anything about Mortimer that you relate to?
HD: Other than his idealism, kind of what makes Mortimer interesting is his friendship with Rupert Everett's character Edmund. He's not just this straight-laced guy but somewhere underneath that's a mischievous quality to him. And I'd like to think that's true of me as well.
Q: Your scenes with Rupert Everett are a lot of fun. What was it like working with him?
HD: It was great. All of my stuff with Rupert was done during the last week of shooting. I was kind of exhausted so he was the exact person you want to walk through the door and give you a burst of outrageous energy. He's really good company.
Q: Did anything funny happen behind the scenes that you can share with us?
HD: No. [Laughing] In order to make it light there's actually a lot of hard work that goes into it. Tanya ran a very happy set, partly because of who she is and partly because of the people she picked to work on her movie. There's a very long gag reel for this movie. It was hard to keep a straight face on virtually every scene.
Q: How did you handle the sandbag scenes?
HD: The sandbag was there mostly for the sake of modesty. Jonathan Pryce put such power into his acting that he took the skin off the end of his finger because of the roughness of the sandbag. I didn't have to do anything so sustained.
DP: Mortimer squeezes a ball at times? Was that in the script?
HD: I think so. He squeezes the ball because he's developed carpal tunnel syndrome from his job.
DP: There's no sexual frustration or tension?
HD: I think there's some of that. If someone gives you a ball to squeeze you make the most of it over the course of the day. It's not exactly sexual tension; it's more that he's becoming increasingly awkward and uncomfortable in what he's doing.
Q: How much feedback were you getting from Tanya about how to play Mortimer?
HD: Not so much, but that was good. We had talked a lot before we started and that's when I put in my five cents worth about the script to make his relationship with Charlotte a little more convincing. We had to add a little more friction to it because if you don't have that in a romantic comedy it tends to be boring. I tried to give him a bit more of a spark. But all that happened before we started filming. Once we started filming it was pretty easy.
Q: Do you think Hysteria will start a trend in American films and more will explore sexuality as a theme?
HD: No, I don't. It is still a taboo, a strange taboo. I think we tried to treat it honesty, while approaching it through comedy. For whatever reason, people are squeamish about it.
Q: Are you then surprised at the positive reaction to your Broadway hit, Venus in Furs?
HD: I thought the play was great when I first read it but I'm not going to claim that I understood it immediately. Now that I know it very well I understand the reaction to it. There is a degree of titillation to it but actually it's a play of ideas dressed up as a play about sex. It demonstrates very clearly to me that sex is about the mind and that's a pretty powerful concept. I'm delighted the play is successful but I'm not completely taken aback because the writing is so strong.
Q: Have you gotten surprising reactions from people who saw the film?
HD: Not to sound self-serving, but I'm pleased at what a crowd-pleaser it is. You make a movie like this where the premise isn't well known and there's the anxiety of doing a comedy where you're having a great time but wonder if it will translate. It appears that it does and not in a nervous and naughty giggle way. Frankly, that's the biggest surprise.
Q: I'm surprised that at screenings Europeans have been more prudish about the film than Americans.
HD: The Brits invented prudishness! There's a difference between prudishness and Puritanism.
Q: When you guys were doing research, were there case studies you looked at?
HD: No, there was no case study. The diagnosis for hysteria for all these women was completely spurious. It covered so many women who were just unhappy or frustrated. This was pre-Freud (and it turns out that many of his diagnosis were kind of spurious). But physically, the idea of shifting the uterus by pelvic manipulation is ridiculous. This still baffles me. Because we know that some men by the late eighteenth century had figured out that women can enjoy sex. We've all read Byron and other romantic poets. Yet there was a whole body of men who weren't in denial but truly didn't realize what they were doing--and that astonishes me.
Q: Were there any other novels or films that dealt with similar subjects?
HD: The short answer is no. So many films try to stick to a recognizable genre or tone, but I thought what was fresh about this is that it tried to cover new ground.
Q: Tanya talks about filming a scene in which we see Mortimer and Charlotte happy together.
HD: I think they'd have a great time being together. Because they not only love each other but also like each other. He's a doctor and she's liberated so they've got a good chance!


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