How the movie "Hysteria" came to be

Maggie Gyllenhaaland Hugh Dancy star in "Hysteria," about the invention of the vibrator.
Maggie Gyllenhaaland Hugh Dancy star in "Hysteria," about the invention of the vibrator.
Posted: June 01, 2012

I STARTED writing screenplays when I was 10 years old.

The first one was for a James Bond movie, and the producer sent it back unopened, for legal reasons.

In high school, I wrote a sitcom pilot that got me a meeting with the William Morris Agency. When they saw I was 17 and heading off to college, it was a short meeting.

In the late 1990s, I co-wrote the pilot "44 Wall," with my Wharton friend Milton Lewin, about a boutique Wall Street investment bank. When our pilot script received interest from Dustin Hoffman’s Punch Productions, and they told us we were brilliant and it was the best pilot they ever read, I thought I was in the door. Six months of rewrites later, Darren Starr, of "Sex and the City" fame, decided to do a show about Wall Street, and Punch decked us.

Then the executive who loved our show needed a kidney transplant.

Next, I wrote a screenplay that one of the producers of "American Pie" took a liking to, and we worked to develop the film for about two years. A legal settlement prohibits me from discussing what happened with that one.

There have been other near-misses over the years, and that’s why "Hysteria" (opening Friday at the Ritz Bourse and Rave New Jersey) is so special to me.

Against all odds, this one worked.

The genesis for "Hysteria" was a magazine article that had a couple of lines about the vibrator being invented in Victorian England for the treatment of the bogus, catch-all female diagnosis "hysteria." I thought the notion that what we now consider a sex toy came from the Victorians seemed kind of odd, and when I did a little research, the story got odder.

After the failure of "44 Wall," producer Tracey Becker asked me if I had any other ideas.

"I’m playing around with this idea about the man who invented the vibrator," I said.

"Hmmmm ..." she said.

And so it began.

I bought $100 worth of books on Victorian England, and Rachel Maines’ The Technology of Orgasm, and set about concocting the story of Dr. Mortimer Granville, the man who invented the medical device that became, quite unwittingly, a provider of pleasure. One version of my story started at the Salem witch trials, where the witches were most frequently seen as hysterics. One version went into the 1920s and the vibrator’s appearance in silent stag films. One version dealt with a 19th-century French mentalist who hypnotized hysterics. Finally, with Tracey’s help, we landed on a story set around 1880, focused on Granville and a love life we gave him.

I wrote a brief outline of the story and a lengthier 15-page version. The goal was a romantic comedy that mixed Merchant-Ivory "Remains of the Day" repression with Mel Brooks.

People loved the idea.

And then nothing happened.

For years.

We couldn’t get a nibble.

Finally, around 2004, Tracey, the relentless engine who powered this little vibrator movie for a decade, met director Tanya Wexler, who took an instant liking to the idea. Tanya had made two films ("North" and "Ball in the House") that were produced by Stephen Dyer, and she asked Tracey if Stephen and his wife, Jonah Lisa, could take a crack at the screenplay.

Tracey was kind enough to ask me if I would put my baby up for adoption.

"Do you think this will help move the project forward?" I asked. Yes, she replied. So it was sort of a no-brainer.

So Tanya was attached to direct, and the Dyers wrote an excellent screenplay that I thought stuck reasonably close to, but greatly expanded upon, my 15-page outline, (though I found out much later that no one but Tracey ever saw my 15-page outline).

And then nothing happened.

For years.

Meanwhile, Tracey helped bring Johnny Depp’s "Finding Neverland" to the big screen. Then she got the amazing casting director Gaby Kester to come aboard our idling ship. Gaby was followed by the well-known British film producer Sarah Curtis ("Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown," "Run, Fatboy, Run"). After meeting with Tanya Wexler, the terrific British actors Jonathan Pryce and Rupert Everett committed to "Hysteria," Everett trying to convince the director that he should play both the aristocratic bon vivant he signed on for — and said aristocrat’s mother. That was probably a little bit more Mel Brooks (or Monty Python) than anybody was ready for.

Then we stalled.


My oft-repeated line during the years of pre-preproduction, preproduction, production and postproduction on "Hysteria," was that making an independent movie is like doing a jigsaw puzzle — except all the pieces are moving.

When you have the cast, you don’t have the financing. When you have the financing, you don’t have the cast. Investors come and go. Actors take other roles because they can’t wait around anymore (Ashley Jensen, for instance, was originally committed to one role but did two seasons of "Ugly Betty" and had a baby before playing another role). And all the while, the producers and director are trying to find locations, maximize tax breaks (hello, Luxembourg), line up a crew and eventually, in our case, fit the shooting schedule into Maggie Gyllenhaal’s small autumn window before she started a play in New York.

The final moving piece of our puzzle fell into place when veteran producer Judy Cairo joined Tracey, Sarah and Tanya in our merry band of women. Judy — hot off the Oscar-nominated "Crazy Heart," starring Jeff Bridges and Gyllenhaal — helped wrangle the final dollars and got the script to Maggie.


About a year later, we were finally set to roll with Maggie, Hugh Dancy, Felicity Jones, Pryce and Everett — without question the best quintet of actors we ever had on the boards.

I had little to do with the lead-up to production and nothing to do with the actual making of the film, except for the week I spent loitering around the London shooting locations being charmed by the production’s hair and makeup women, who gossiped about all the movie stars they’d worked with while we all peered at a tiny monitor watching the day’s filming.

Whenever Tanya yelled "Cut!" they’d scamper back to the set to adjust wigs, pin hems and touch up rouge.

Six weeks after "Hysteria" began shooting in London, it wrapped in Luxembourg.

Ten months after that, and more than a decade after I pitched the story, "Hysteria" had its world premiere in September 2011 at Roy Thomson Hall at the Toronto International Film Festival. I’d never seen any part of the film on anything bigger than my iMac. Now it was playing on one of the biggest screens in Canada in a sold-out theater seating more than 2,500 people.


The red-carpet arrivals were covered on Canadian TV, and there was a beautiful green room where I got to wait anxiously with all the other people who had worked so hard to make "Hysteria" happen. What if people hated it? It would be like someone telling you your baby was hideous — after you’d spent a decade and millions of dollars conceiving that baby.

We were ushered upstairs to a private balcony to watch the film with its first paying audience. It was truly a crazy mental intersection of excitement and nervous breakdown.

But then there was a laugh. And another. Then a big laugh. And a bigger laugh. And by the time "Hysteria" ended, the audience was cheering.

Even the credits were getting laughs.

Our elated director and stars bowed. Women shouted for Dancy’s autograph. And we all went off to a hot, noisy, crowded after-party where no one could hear anything and most of the people outside the VIP rope hadn’t even seen the film.

But for the first time, after seeing dozens of premieres at festivals, I understood why filmmakers have that euphoric, glazed look when they debut their movies. The odds of making it from conception to reception are so slim it’s like running a marathon in a potato sack.

Soon after our laugh-filled Toronto screenings, Sony Pictures Classics picked up "Hysteria" for distribution in the U.S. and other distributors picked it up for different territories around the world. "Hysteria," fittingly, was going to get a release. It was, by the way, surprisingly big in Norway.

The whole decadelong process reminded me of the Butterfly Effect, by which a butterfly flaps its wings in China and there’s a windstorm in Ohio: Long ago, I pitched an idea for a movie; years later, that movie aided the economies of London and Luxembourg, and 10,000 people paid to see it in the Czech Republic.

Now it’s your turn, Philadelphia, to see what all the buzz is about.

If you like it, some of the people to thank are mentioned above.

If you don’t ... It’s all my fault.


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