How to Film a Sex Scene In a Safe, Respectful, and Chill Way
The intimacy coordinator from Netflix's "Sex Education" explains how to approach even the raunchiest scenes with sensitivity.
Sex Education. Photo by Jon Hall/Netflix
At a Hollywood Reporter roundtable video in 2015, Ellie Kemper from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was one of six actresses brought together to discuss their careers in comedy. The discussion moved on to issues of professional boundaries, prompted by Amy Schumer’s anecdote of an unnamed male actor who asked if she wanted to have their first kiss off-camera. “This is going to sound totally simplistic,” Kemper said, “but when you kill someone in a movie or television, you don’t kill them.” The unsaid implication: Why should intimacy on set be any different?
“Somehow, everybody can understand an actor’s acting in all other realms of human expression, apart from the sex scene,” concurs movement director and intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien. “It’s that thing of ‘oh, how can it look sexy if they’re acting it’ but the sex scene is still acting—it’s not real life.” O’Brien has been developing ways to keep actors in safe in these scenarios since 2015. Through first engineering her own drama, writing a theatre piece focused around abuse, she began to examine the dynamic between the perpetrator and the victim, which led to broader thinking about the blind spot for potential abuse within the industry.
As she explains by phone, “I was aware I needed to put in place a clear practice and a process to help my actors stay safe.” The Intimacy on Set guidelines—which range from excluding sex scenes from screen tests to identifying specific body parts that can be touched—were born from this initial momentum, coupled with the work of a colleague at the Central School of Speech and Drama: Vanessa Ewan, a senior movement tutor who had noted the time and space afforded fight directors to create their sequences and suggested sex scenes and those with intimate content should be done the same way.
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Quietly employing these guidelines in educational workshops and across theatre, film, and television for the last five years, O’Brien’s work is enjoying wider prominence as a result of Netflix’s latest big hit, Sex Education. The series, which recently announced its second season, places Asa Butterfield’s Otis as an amateur sex therapist in a high school and features the corresponding scenes: first kisses, masturbation, and house party sex. Members of the cast have spoken about how each scene of this sort was played out like a dance, choreographed to a point that ensured everyone felt comfortable.
In the US, HBO show The Deuce called on intimacy coordinator Alicia Rodis—following a request by actress Emily Meade—for its second season, which began shooting in early 2018. Set in 1970s New York, the show follows the rise of the porn industry; Meade plays a young sex worker called Lori Madison. In October, the network announced that it would be hiring intimacy coordinators to work on all its shows with sexual content. (For context, HBO’s catalogue includes Game of Thrones, Westworld, and Insecure.)
“HBO has been a leader in the television network world,” says Claire Warden, an intimacy director and liaison for Intimacy Directors International, an American non-profit co-founded by Rodis in 2016. The company has developed a document of guidelines titled Pillars of Safe Intimacy as a standard for what it describes as “simulated intimacy.” Warden added: “They’re modelling the way we go forward, and what’s happening is that actors and directors are becoming aware of this resource for them and therefore knowing that they can ask for a coordinator when they have a scene like that. What I hope it that it’s setting an example in how we want to move forward in this industry and that other networks follow—and they are.”
O’Brien agrees. “It sends a really positive message out into the industry. HBO have realized that once a sex scene is choreographed the actor can actually release into the scene. They’re going ‘yes, we can see the value of this’. It’s brilliant, but it’s still slow, we still need more productions to really understand the process and take it on board.”
The advent of both Intimacy Directors International and O’Brien’s practice occurred before the Time’s Up and the #MeToo movement, but the trajectory of the latter has been the catalyst for the industry adopting its procedures. As Ewan and others previously acknowledged, physical scenes that involve fighting have long been protected. The British Stunt Register for example, which ensures “the highest standard in both stunt performances and safety,” was established in 1973, while the Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures and the Stuntwomen’s Association of Motion Pictures were formed in 1961 and 1967 respectively.
“The reason that it hasn’t happened before is due to the understanding of the psychological injury that happens when someone’s not treated well,” O’Brien tells Broadly, “when they’re asked to ‘just take off your pants and do the scene’ when it hasn’t been discussed; the shame and awfulness that comes from that. Post-Weinstein, the fact that people are saying ‘I have been seriously affected by how I’ve been treated’—that’s now been acknowledged and producers are going, ‘How do you put in place best practice?’ The biggest change is the industry acknowledging how it has operated [and] where it’s tolerated people in positions of power being belittling or abusive to someone they deem to be more vulnerable than themselves.”
Perhaps the most infamous of such situations is Bernado Bertoucci’s 1973 feature Last Tango in Paris, where it was later revealed that a violent rape scene between actors Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando was part-improvised without Schneider’s consent. “I was crying real tears,” the late actress told the Daily Mail in 2007, “I felt humiliated and, to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and Bertoucci.” More recently, Léa Seydoux used a similar vocabulary to describe her experience of shooting with director Abdellatif Kechiche for Blue is the Warmest Colour, which picked up the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2013.
“In the past a director might talk clearly about the scene and make sure they have a closed set, but not know the next stage about getting agreement of body parts. Instead they say ‘just go for it, improvise it’ and in that situation you’ve got actors who are doing their best, but don’t know what’s going to be in play,” says O’Brien. “That’s what the Intimacy Guidelines is inviting—you talk about [intimate content] upfront in an adult and open way using actual words for the body parts. It’s asking for open communication and transparency so you don’t get situations like Last Tango in Paris. As soon as somebody’s organized something that is not shared, that’s an abuse that’s happening there.”
Moving forward, O’Brien would like all producers to acknowledge the guidelines as inherent to codes of on-set conduct—not just an addendum. Any films seeking funding, she adds, should have the guidelines as provisos of the funding and show evidence that they have adhered to it. “The intention, from myself and Alicia Rodis, is in five years time, that someone wouldn’t dream—as HBO is saying—of doing a sex scene without guidelines.”
Warden, who is about to start work on Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune as the first intimacy director for a Broadway show, highlights, “Almost every actor that I’ve worked with now has said ‘I wish I had you last time’ and ‘I’m never going to do this again without an intimacy coordinator.'"