'Hysteria' Director Tanya Wexler On Making Her Vibrator Movie And Casting Maggie Gyllenhaal

"Hysteria" director Tanya Wexler hadn't made a movie in years when producer Tracey Becker approached her with an idea: a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator. "I’ve made teeny little movies. Then I made a bunch of kids and so I was in the mom cave for a while," Wexler says. But when she learned about Joseph Mortimer Granville, the doctor responsible for the world's most popular sex toy, she couldn't resist. "Oh my god, Tracey and a friend of hers mentioned that this weird historical fact existed. She wrote up a two-page treatment idea, and I was like, 'OK, I’ll get the writers. I’ll find our co-producers. I don’t care what it takes. I have to see that.'"

The resulting movie, starring Hugh Dancy and Maggie Gyllenhaal, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September and opens in theaters this weekend. Wexler spoke to HuffPost Women about her reasons for making the film, working with her "dream cast" and rehearsing orgasm scenes.

What was it about this film that made you say, “OK, it’s time to make another movie”?
I feel like there are these frothy romantic comedies. There are good ones too, but a lot of movies are just like every girl wants to get married and have a big rock and a pair of nice heels. I like those as much as the next girl and the good ones are great, but I just don’t think it’s the only thing that should be out there. I love "When Harry Met Sally" -- I don’t think that’s light at all. It’s a romantic comedy, but it tries to talk about issues, you know? The best way I think this movie plays is people go in with their girlfriends or husband. They have a fun time and enjoy the ride, so to speak. Sorry, there are like a million puns and they will never stop.

Yeah, I was going to ask you about that.
It’s unending.

So how much research …?
[Laughter] The writers used to joke that there are women doing research all over the world.

I’m sure I’ll constantly be saying, “Oh, that’s not how I meant it.”
Well, welcome to my life.

So did you know anything about the history before you made the film?
I was a psych major in college, so I knew about hysteria -- it was this catchall diagnosis -- and I knew there had been very severe treatments like hysterectomy and institutionalization. I didn’t know about the manual massage, which is like, god, if you’re gonna get a massage, it’s the probably the best one to get. [Laughter.]

Maggie Gyllenhaal's character is the only one who seems to get it. She's the only one who uses the word pleasure -- for everyone else, it’s "treatment." And they never use the word orgasm.
I think that lots of men and lots of women didn’t get it because their frame was, it's sex if there is a penis, right? I think that happens today. One of my roommates in college had a boyfriend in high school for two years, and she had never had an orgasm. And I was like, “Um, what? OK, you need a little education here. Why don’t you tell him?” She was like, “Well, then he will think he’s bad.” I’m like, “He is -- you’ll be doing him a huge service.” My partner’s a woman, but the guys in my life are not so frail and weak to be threatened by a vibrator or to be threatened by knowledge and good information. They love the women in their lives and they want them to feel good and be happy. I gave [a vibrator] to everyone in the cast. It was like, “Are you giving the guys too?” And I was like, “Yeah, mostly because it’s funny.” But then they were like, “I don’t want the competition.” And someone goes, “It’s not your competition, dude -- it’s a member of your team.”

Can you talk to me a little bit about casting?
You kind of fantasy-cast and you try to pick people who have aged out or who aren’t alive, so that you’re not writing a specific actor today and you get obsessed with that. The parts were written for Katharine Hepburn and young Hugh Grant. I think Maggie Gyllenhaal is the most Katharine Hepburn-y person out there right now. She’s strong and leads with her heart. And Hugh Dancy is awesome. He was on every day of that shoot, and his ability to make that physical Chaplain-esque comedy look like the most natural thing -- it’s the hardest thing to do. You don’t get to audition movie stars. You just hope they bring it, you know? And they brought it.

I had never seen the actress who plays Molly the Lolly before. She was great.
Sheridan Smith is the best. She’s a big star in Britain. She was on a sitcom called “Gavin & Stacey.” And she was on this show “Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps.” And she was Elle Woods in the musical “Legally Blonde” over there. I watched her and my jaw dropped because she took something that is fun and campy and there was pathos. I was like, "I can’t cry in 'Legally Blonde.'"

She’s the one who tests the vibrator for the first time. What was it like filming that scene? What was the comfort level on set?
Well, the jokes were unprintable. But we did orgasm rehearsal. I had this idea, like a privacy screen, like when you are giving birth, and it ended up looking like a theater curtain, and so we had the screen and the table and then the vibrator. And we were sorting out, what are they going put their hand on? I was like, “I don’t even know how to ask that question.” Thank god for Hugh Dancy. Hugh goes, “There are a million sandbags holding down all the lights -- why don’t we just put a sandbag under?” So there was a modesty sandbag. Jonathan Pryce rubbed all the skin off of the knuckle on his fingers, like really getting into the role. The thing I was the most concerned about was the sound. I thought if it sounded too, uh, porny, it was not going to be funny, and if it sounded like comedy, it wasn’t going to be believable. Sheridan just kind of went for it. I remember one direction she just looked at me like, "You’re nuts." I said like, “Not quite so real.” [Laughter] She was like, “What am I supposed to do with that?”

"A Dangerous Method" came out last year and also dealt with hysteria. Do you think that’s a coincidence? Or, if not, why do you think there’s such an interest in this topic?
I think that the bigger zeitgeist is kind of women and their bodies, whether it’s all the reproductive-rights talk that’s going on but also there are vibrators available on drugstore shelves. I feel like we are like, “It’s not so taboo for women to have desire anymore and women’s sexuality to be kind of be acknowledged.” I think that happens because the culture tends to shift. It is going to be very interesting to see where it goes.

Correction: The original version of this interview misspelled Katharine Hepburn's first name.

Scenes From 'Hysteria'