Co-ordinating intimacy: making sex scenes safe

At the 2019 BFI London Film Festival, two film directors and two intimacy coordinators shared notes on what they’ve learned filming up close and comfortably for actors and crew.

Rebecca Harrison

Left to right: Halina Reijn, Ita O’Brien, Tom Cullen, Yarit Dor, Anna Bogutskaya

Left to right: Halina Reijn, Ita O’Brien, Tom Cullen, Yarit Dor, Anna Bogutskaya

Approaching the second anniversary of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, the London Film Festival hosted a panel discussion about the rise of the intimacy coordinator on film and TV sets. In the wake of the MeToo movement, is the industry finally waking up to consent and the comfort of cast and crews?

Introduced by Anna Bogutskaya (who reminded the audience that intimacy “isn’t just the sexy bits”), the panel featured Pink Wall writer-director Tom Cullen, actor and Instinct director Halina Reijn, and intimacy coordinators Yarit Dor (Adult Material) and Ita O’Brien (Sex Education). Here are some of the edited highlights.

What makes a good sex scene?

Ita O’Brien: Pushing the story forward. I want to be able to stay enjoying the characters in those moments and not go into feeling awkward.

Tom Cullen: Like any moment or any line in the film, it should be honest. Any moment it feels unnecessary or voyeuristic it doesn’t work.

Yarit Dor: Is it something that makes me think about the character? Whenever there’s a dance or a fight or a sex scene, words aren’t enough, and we have to go into action. The next line or image is really substantial.

What are the practicalities of shooting intimate scenes?

Tom Cullen: Acting is intimacy. You’re asking your actors to strip themselves bare emotionally everyday… they should feel safe every minute of every day.

[It’s also important when] choosing your crew. Whoever you have looking through that lens, your actors will feel it, and that’s not just sex scenes, that’s every scene. Kindness and listening are the most important things.

Yarit Dor: When you [as an actor] knows what’s going to happen mechanically, that makes me feel safe. [Making Adult Material I performed the scene as the director and then the actors.] They watched us, and they could re-enact that choreography. One director in the Netherlands would just say “Just do something, it’s supposed to be super-hot.” You worry your own sexuality is weird. Everybody [needs to] contribute to this feeling of safety emotionally and physically.

Ita O’Brien: Open communication and transparency and a process that allows for agreement of consent to touch, which starts way before you get to set.

Why is the role of an intimacy coordinator important?

Ita O’Brien: Anyone predatory isn’t acceptable. It’s working with respect and being kind. Post-Weinstein there’s an acknowledgment that in a moment of intimacy there’s a risk – to your personal and private body; a risk of someone feeling harassed and abused. [I’ve spoken to actors long after shooting] and they were in such trauma they’ve walked away from being an actor.

[When it comes to writing sex, we ask the writers to be clear because] if it were a musical the writers wouldn’t just write ‘They sing’…We speak to the director and the actors. By then everybody knows what’s happening and the actors can act their socks off. We’ve already spoken to the director, then actors, wardrobe – to work out nipple coverings and modesty garments. Then we see the first-assistant director to see how they run a closed set.

Yarit Dor: Ideally the producer and director would start talking to us way in advance. Does that happen? Not really, if I’m honest. It’s a new thing and new things take time. Ideally [an intimacy coordinator joins a production before shooting because] so all of the pre-production work is already done, because that makes people comfortable.

What are your experiences and processes in intimate scenes?

Tom Cullen: [One film I worked on] was handled such love and care and consent. The actors drove it… I’m straight, appearing in a homosexual scene, and was being guided through it by the other actor who was gay, and I’ve never felt so safe. We had so much ownership.

Ita O’Brien: Sex Education had a young cast and the writing is absolutely about openness and sex positive messages… We ran workshops for the directors, producers, writers, wardrobe and cast that were signed on at that point and they could share experiences… That was joyous, and seeing the results was joyous.

Halina Reijn: I would love to have someone like Ita O’Brien on set! Then you can be free and you are not ashamed.

We’ve talked a lot about sex scenes – but what about kissing?

Halina Reijn: French kissing is the most intimate thing because you can’t fake it. [And you’re] worrying: tongues or not, guys asking “Don’t you find me attractive?” I’ve been through some shit. It’s hard. Either you fall in love with the guy or you fall out with the guy. There’s nothing in between when you have nothing to coordinate it.

Yarit Dor: It starts with the history [of the characters – who, why, etc?]. We don’t necessarily need tongue… you get connected because your tongue is something that connects you to another person. We find that there’s no need for it… People need to look hungry for each other et cetera, but for us there are issues of health and safety.

We have a non-contact kiss. I promise you it looks just as hungry! There’s a difference between a kiss and something going in your mouth.

Ita O’Brien: Guidelines state no tongues unless the director wants it and the actors have both consented to it. [There are issues of communicable diseases] and no one should be at risk.

Tom, can you speak to intimacy in Pink Wall, which [in the clip shown] doesn’t involve kissing or sex, and hardly any touching?

Tom Cullen: [The work] to create that level of intimacy between two actors started two months before production… The more vulnerable I can be on that set, the more I can participate in their experience and strip back and make sure that they know I’m right there with them.

Also the camera is another character in the film. I didn’t want Tatiana (Maslany, the actress) to feel that the film was through the male gaze… The eyes through the camera were also female and the crew was split 50/50 on gender.

How is intimacy coordination important for actors?

Ita O’Brien: One actor I worked with came back the next day saying, “I felt clean,” and that’s what you want.

Tom Cullen: [Playing a sexist alpha male with no intimacy coordinator involved] really made me feel like shit. I stopped wanting to follow impulses that were right for the character because I started to blur it with myself.

Yarit Dor: An intimacy coordinator is not a therapist. We’re a first port of call… if an actor doesn’t say anything we can’t act on their behalf, it’s about creating that safe space for communication. It’s great that there’s a successful harassment hotline on call sheets; I hope that there will be a mental health hotline on call sheets.

[There are also different processes for different situations…] For instance, with method actors I will have gestural communication or a safe word to communicate with the actor under the character.

 

Audience questions

How are you involved if a scene shifts from intimacy to violence?

Yarit Dor: Intimacy and stunt coordinators need to talk way before, so that the intimacy and stunt styles don’t feel like two separate things.

What are the procedures if there’s no intimacy coordinator?

Ita O’Brien: Take responsibility yourself. If you see that there’s going to be intimate content, speak to the director way before you get to set; get the guidelines and bring them with you. [It’ll help] if you’re offering a solution and a structure rather than a problem… also ask for a rehearsal.

What day-to-day issues arise?

Ita O’Brien: Periods: they are natural, normal and should be spoken about. [I recommend to first ADs that they] find out a woman’s menstrual cycle and schedule intimate scenes in the middle two weeks [to make the actress more comfortable].

Yarit Dor: Erections and vaginal discharge [are normal for everyone in these scenes but don’t mean anything, and modesty garments are essential].

Tom Cullen: From a male perspective an erection is the biggest fear [for both actors]. Believe me, it’s the last thing I want to happen. There is so much embarrassment around sex and there doesn’t need to be.

And finally… what’s your take away for everyone?

Yarit Dor: Talk with everyone: actors, directors, casting agent, crew.

Tom Cullen: Communication, I think. Create an environment where it’s okay to say ‘No’ and ok to say ‘Yes’.

Ita O’Brien: Open communication and transparency. Implement the guidelines.

Halina Reijn: It’s something positive, not negative, to have someone coordinating these things.

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