22nd Sep 2019
A lack of clear on-set dialogue about how to film sex scenes can cause discomfort and vulnerability – but in the worst instances, the film industry’s lack of standards, supervision and support around sex scenes can lead to serious violations, and even sexual violence.
There’s a clip going around Twitter that will forever change your perception of sex scenes onscreen.
An actor lies on a bed, passionately thrusting, apparently in the throes of ecstasy. Except, instead of sharing eye contact with an equally enthusiastic sex partner, the actor is staring into the camera being held just inches from his face, gripped by a tall camera man in a t-shirt and jeans. The camera man is standing on the bed over the actor, as the actor writhes and bounces beneath him.
Though hilarious out of context, the clip does give an insight into the mechanics of how sex scenes are filmed. But this is an area of filmmaking that needs to be even more transparent – not for some viral Twitter entertainment, but for safety.
The question of sex scenes
Sex scenes have always been a matter of intrigue, with actors often facing questions from fans and interviewers about how the scenes feel. Are they awkward? Is the chemistry between they and their co-star real?
Keira Knightly revealed to Graham Norton that while she and James McAvoy were filming the famous bookcase sex scene in Atonement, usually mild-mannered director Joe Wright suddenly shouted “Keira, wank him off!” — an unexpected suggestion that was met with the actors’ silence, before Wright issued a sheepish apology.
Emily Blunt also laughed while telling Graham Norton that while she was shooting a topless scene in an early film, the rules about “closed sets” were completely ignored saying “I had to do a scene where I stood by a window, completely naked, and then I looked down and all the crew were like ‘Eyyyyyyy!’”
“Underlying these casual anecdotes is a worrying lack of clarity, communication, comfort and consent.”
Meanwhile, actress Amy Schumer used a Hollywood Reporter roundtable to bemusedly recount how a co-star once asked if she wanted their first kiss to be on camera, or if he should stop by her trailer for a practice make-out session.
These stories were told flippantly, but underlying these casual anecdotes is a worrying lack of clarity, communication, comfort and consent. What if Knightly had felt pressured to try follow Wright’s instructions or if McAvoy was uncomfortable with the unexpected instruction? Schumer was justifiably wary of her co-star’s intentions, but what if his suggestion was merely a clumsy attempt to allow the actors some off-camera rehearsal to ensure mutual comfort levels before the cameras started rolling?
These are merely some examples of how a lack of clear on-set dialogue about how to film sex scenes can cause discomfort and vulnerability — but in the worst instances, the film industry’s lack of standards, supervision and support around sex scenes can lead to serious violations, and even sexual violence.
Blue Is The Warmest Colour
The 2013 drama Blue Is The Warmest Colour is about two young women who share a passionate, tumultuous relationship. The acclaimed film courted some controversy thanks to its lengthy, explicit sex scenes between lead actresses Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos. But it was only after the film’s release that Seydoux and Exarchopoulos revealed that director Kechiche’s approach was exploitative and violating, taking 10 days to film one sex scene.
“Once we were on the shoot, I realized he really wanted us to give him everything,” said Exarchopoulos. “Most people don’t even dare to ask the things that he did, and they’re more respectful — you get reassured during sex scenes, and they’re choreographed, which desexualizes the act.”
Both actresses have stated that they would never work with Kechiche again.
Last Tango in Paris
Maria Schneider, the lead actress in Last Tango In Paris, revealed how she was violently violated by both a director and co-star while filming. An infamous scene in Last Tango To Paris shows her character being anally raped, and involved Marlon Brando applying butter to her genitals as lubricant — an act that Brando and director Bernardo Bertolucci agreed on without informing Schneider, and which Brando did to her without her consent.
Schneider said “I was crying real tears. I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.”
“Emily Meade asked HBO to hire a professional whose job would be to work with actors and directors to navigate the planning, preparation and performance of sex scenes.”
It’s shocking that the production of sex scenes has been so unregulated – particularly given the care and attention that is given to other physical acts onscreen, such as fight choreography, stunts or even dancing. In the wake of #MeToo and conversations about how women in the film industry frequently face objectification, harassment and sexual violence, it’s clear that the film industry has to change — and it is, albeit slowly and belatedly.
In January 2018, actor James Franco was accused of pressuring film students into performing nude or semi-nude scenes, and of removing protective guards from actresses’ genitals during an oral-sex scene — allegations Franco’s attorneys have claimed are “not accurate”.
When the allegations emerged, actress Emily Meade was getting ready to act opposite Franco in The Deuce, a HBO show about the sex industry, filled with sex scenes. Uncomfortable but understandably unwilling to surrender a covetable acting role when her disgraced male co-star wasn’t losing any opportunities, Meade made a request.
She asked HBO to hire a professional whose job would be to work with actors and directors to navigate the planning, preparation and performance of sex scenes in a way that was safe and comfortable for everyone.
Enter the intimacy co-ordinator.
Intimacy co-ordinators’ jobs are multi-faceted. They start by speaking to the directors and producers to establish what the scene is trying to do for the story; to establish what kind of tone, dynamic and acts the scene requires. Intimacy co-ordinators also deal with actors’ management, checking contracts for nudity clauses.
“His planning and preparation not only emotionally prepares actors for sex scenes, but also adds a layer of transparency and accountability.”
Intimacy co-ordinators will then speak with all parties involved in the scene about what they’re comfortable with – separately, so that actors won’t feel pressured into doing something just because the director or their co-star is pushing for it. There will be discussions with wardrobe about what types of nudity guards will be used, if any.
Intimacy directors then work on choreographing the scene, so that actors are fully prepared, and that they have each other’s consent for every touch. This planning and preparation not only emotionally prepares actors for sex scenes, but also adds a layer of transparency and accountability. Intimacy co-ordinators remain present during the scene’s rehearsal and shooting, carefully observing. They notice if anyone strays beyond the approved choreography, and watch the actors for any signs of discomfort, ready to tackle any issues that arrive.
Screen Actors Guild
Meade’s request for an intimacy co-ordinator on the set of The Deuce had a profound ripple effect. HBO soon implemented a policy that would require an intimacy coordinator for all shows that feature sex scenes. Platforms like Netflix followed suit and introduced similar policies of their own. The Screen Actors Guild is now working to standardise intimacy coordinator guidelines for all Guild productions from now on.
This immediate action and support from actors indicates that this a step that is a desired and long overdue redress of a highly dysfunctional and dangerous form of neglect.
Sex is complicated and emotional and nuanced and, well, sexy. It deserves to be represented onscreen it all its wonderful complexity. And actors and artists who help bring such truth, vulnerability and sensuality to a screen deserve to have safe sex scenes.
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