US producer Judy Cairo talks to Screen about her latest project, Hysteria, a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian London starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy.

Crazy Heart producer Judy Cairo has just wrapped her latest project, Hysteria, for her LA based production company Informant Media.

The film chronicles the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England, when it was originally used by doctors to cure the medical condition “hysteria” in women. The film, which is directed by Tanya Wexler from a script by Stepyhen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer, stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy, Jonathan Pryce, Rupert Everett, Ashley Jensen and Anna Chancellor.

Cairo is one of three female producers on the film, along with Forthcoming Films’ Sarah Curtis and Beachfront Films’ Tracey Becker. Elle Driver is handling international sales and Tom Ortenberg’s One Way Out Media is representing North American rights.

How did you get involved with the project?

I had just produced Crazy Heart. Tracey [Becker] knew it was a similar kind of project. They had been trying to fund Hysteria for years and we had a similar thing with Crazy Heart, because it was a serious drama with country music. It had large stars, but at the time, before his Oscar win, Jeff Bridges was still, believe it or not, not enough to get the movie financed.

 So she sent me an email. It actually went into my spam catcher and I always without fail erase them all, because I get deluged with scripts. But for some reason, I don’t know why, I let that one through. I started reading the script and on page one I knew. I just couldn’t stop reading it. That was summer 2009.

What was it about the script that grabbed you?

You don’t often find scripts that are as smartly crafted, funny, touching, moving, and dare I say it, important. It’s not just a love story, it’s not just a romantic comedy, it deals with women’s’ liberation in the 1880s, it deals with women’s sexuality, which is so rare. When was the last time you saw a movie which allowed women to express anything about their sexuality?

I think putting it in the context of a rom com and putting it in Victorian England, somehow makes it more accessible to talk about the issues that are still current. Did you know that even as late as the 1950s, the vibrator was still listed in the “medical” section of catalogues?

Is it going to be graphic?!

Not at all! It is actually very sweet and romantic. Although..remember the scene in When Harry Met Sally with Meg Ryan in the café? Well, we are going to replace that in people’s memories..But it’s all done under the don’t see anything!

How did you go about financing the film?

Through my company, Informant, we raised all the private equity and re structured. And we also made the decision that we needed to shoot in more than just the UK to take advantage of the largest tax incentives that we could. So we are shooting half in the UK, half in Luxembourg.

All of our private equity investors are first time investors in film. But they were encouraged by our success with Crazy Heart..which was a $7m dollar movie that took $47m at the box office.. And the subject matter didn’t put them off at all. It actually attracted them. It is such an intriguing fresh new idea that it is drawing attention. And it’s not often you find a story that has not been told.

Most of our investors have come over to the set and seen the process. It’s helpful for them to see how dedicated people are working on a film in the cold and rain!

Speaking of cold and rain, would you shoot again in the UK?  

In a second. I am actually looking for projects to shoot here. It’s important to find something that can broad enough to be appealing to an Americna audience as well as the Brit audience and the rest of the world.

Did you always have Maggie in mind?

When I read it, I saw that Maggie could be a feisty, perfect Charlotte. It’s a wonderful role for any actress, but the relationship with Maggie was such that I could get her the script..and her manager Courtney read it first..and then Maggie read it.

So, she wasn’t scared to take on a film about the vibrator?

Are you kidding? Maggie Gyllenhaal? Star of Secretary. She is not afraid  to deal with social issues. It’s very important to her that her movies push the envelope a bit and say something. She is very political herself, she has just come back from a trip to India with her husband. She is a humanitarian. The fact that it deals with more than just a rom com, appealed to her.

Making a period drama always comes with extra challenges..

It’s a romantic comedy, so we didn’t want it to be too dark and gritty, but we did want it to have a sense of realism. It’s about making everything feel realistic and gritty but beautiful at the same time, that’s the fine line you have to walk. It’s about making it accessible to a 2010 audience, but still staying true to the period. So Maggie’s costumes are a little bit Victorian, but also a little bit Kathryn Hepburn in the 40s..her character is very much like Maggie in terms of being feisty and strong and out spoken.

You recently moved into producing features after a long career producing TV movies..Why did you make the switch?

I had been working in TV for 15 years and made 20 of them..but there were fewer and fewer TV movies being made every year. The first year I lived in LA, back in the 90s, there were over 300 TV movies made that year. Last year it was maybe 50.a huge drop. I also felt that it was good to take that skill set, making tv movies, and move into features. It’s the same exercise.

Did you expect Crazy Heart to do so well?

You always hope, you have confidence in the material and the team you put together, we knew it had the potential if it just got to the right distributor, if we could get it out to the marketplace. Fox Searchlight were brilliant at doing that.

What’s next for Informant?

We are just getting ready to move on to a new project, The Ex Patriot, with Aaron Eckhart. We are shooting in Brussels and Montreal for tax breaks and also it is so important to make sure films have international appeal and one way to do that is to shoot outside the States. It’s a thriller in the vein of Taken. A CIA agent turns up to find his office gone. He is targeted and he goes on the run.

We are going to continue focusing on independent features, we think it’s a real niche’s a tough business, but there are very few people who are left standing. And I think it’s really important that those films get made. No one is making films for adults. The studios have abandoned them; they are targeting 16 years olds, people with braces.

It’s really tough to get the financing and to make them on these low budgets but now we have a strategy that works and we know how to get them done, we want to continue making two or three a year.