Ebertfest appearance 'a big personal first' for 'Hysteria' director

Ebertfest appearance 'a big personal first' for 'Hysteria' director

CHAMPAIGN — Halfway through directing her first feature film, "Finding North," Tanya Wexler felt as if she didn't know what she was doing.

So she called her uncle, the great cinematropher Haskell Wexler.

"He gave me basic and sage advice for anyone doing a big scary project or endeavor — it doesn't have to be filmmaking: 'You don't have to know everything. Just show up every day. Use your heart. Be the first one to go and the last one to leave.'

"It turned out very well. I learned a lot of lessons on how to prepare so things went a lot more smoothly."

Tanya Wexler made two more films after "Finding North," released in 1998 — "Ball in the House" (2001) and the rom-com "Hysteria," starring Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Pryce, Felicity Jones and Rupert Everett.

Wexler will bring "Hysteria," released in 2011 and her best-known film, to Roger Ebert's Film Festival on Thursday.

She and Dancy will be on the Virginia Theatre stage after the screening to discuss the movie and answer questions from the audience.

This will be Wexler's first appearance at Ebertfest, now in its 19th year.

She calls it "a big personal first."

"As a filmmaker, I always looked up to Roger Ebert when he was alive and I continue to love the work Chaz (Ebert) has carried on in his name," she said.

She's also psyched because as a Chicagoan by birth, she'll be returning to her home state — and will be in Champaign-Urbana for the first time.

That, even though lots of her friends attended the University of Illinois. Wexler instead went to Yale, where she majored in psychology.

"I'm interested in how the brain works, and how people relate to each other," she said. "I always liked biology, and psychology is an extension of that."

After graduating from Yale, Wexler obtained a master's of fine arts degree at Columbia in feature-film directing.

A director's dream

Of her work, "Hysteria" is the best known. It was shot in 33 days, in London and Luxembourg.

Wexler remembers that Dancy, who stars are Dr. Mortimer Granville, worked 32 of those 33 days.

"He and I were there day in and day out with each other," she said. "You can't ask for a better collaborator. He is so professional. He is every director's best friend. He gives you everything you need and more."

Some actors don't watch the video playbacks of scenes shot earlier in the day. Dancy would, and would come up with suggestions for improving them, she said.

"He has this ability to be in the part and in the moment and think a little bit like a director outside of the role in a way that would not affect his performance. I would work with him again in a heartbeat."

Wexler also would make, in a heartbeat, a blockbuster. She and "Jurassic World" director Colin Trevorro sparred a bit on Twitter after he tweeted that female directors are not interested in doing a piece of studio business for its own sake.

"These filmmakers have clear voices and stories to tell that don't necessarily involve superheroes or spaceships or dinosaurs," he tweeted.

Wexler tweeted back: "I cannot begin to tell you how naive & wrong it is. I have all the desire in the world. I would kill to make a blockbuster."

The two later made up.

Wexler told The News-Gazette she'd love to direct a blockbuster if it was the right one for her.

"I would love to do 'Wonder Woman.' There are certain things you love that connect to your childhood and are meaningful."

The gender gap

She believes statistics on female movie directors, producers and screenwriters are "pretty abysmal" right now.

In general, most people don't care if a woman makes a certain movie or not, she said, but Wexler believes it's important because female creators have in their movies or TV series more roles for women.

"Now, only one-quarter of lines said in any movie are spoken by females, and only 26 percent of roles are female. So when you have female creators, you get more equal representation.

"Without certain people being represented, we don't understand their lives, especially now with how strong television is going. It's how we digest and understand our world — the stories we tell.

"If the characters don't look like us, we really have to take a leap. I think it's the way we learn from one another and build on each other. If we're not represented in the narrative as much, then we matter less."

That's why Wexler, who also directs for television, believes it's necessary to have a diversity of creators in film and TV.

"Females, people of color. I'm an out lesbian. I'm a hybrid of a lot of different things. I bring a lot of different perspectives," she said.

"Now, watching the country roiling, I think, 'Which way do we go?' Change comes in a lot of different ways — politically, socially, culturally."

'Ellen' paved way

Wexler remembers that when she came out as a lesbian to her family, it was easier because of the coming-out episodes that had aired, 20 years ago this month, on the popular ABC series "Ellen," starring Ellen DeGeneres.

"Ellen is a person everyone likes," Wexler said. "She's beloved, and her talk show ('The Ellen DeGeneres Show') is beloved. People invited her into their home (via 'Ellen') and then it became OK."

Wexler is married to her college sweetheart, Amy Zimmerman. They've been together for 25 years and have four children.

Zimmerman is in her final years of law school. The children are in school too, so they won't accompany Wexler to Ebertfest. She'll be here only a couple of days, though she'd like to stay longer.

After the festival, she'll return to New York and then Los Angeles to work on TV and film projects in various stages of development and production.

Among those she can mention: the Amazon Studios TV movie "Tough Love," about a kidnap survivor who is reunited with her family and seeks help during her recovery with a psychiatrist who's also a dominatrix; a film adaptation of Erica Jong's best-selling novel "Fear of Flying"; and "Girl With No Name," a revenge Western movie set in the Old West starring Sophie Turner, from HBO's "Game of Thrones."