Intimacy is a powerful and valuable storytelling tool, but it requires a great deal of care and can become problematic if not handled properly. When Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan’s film 50 Shades of Grey came out in 2015, it created a great deal of buzz around its steamy sex scenes and encouraged healthy conversations about kinks and consent—even though the film’s portrayal of such as been criticized by some experts.
Intimacy is a complex concept. At the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien, author Lisa Taddeo (Three Women, Ghost Lover) and Barry Jenkins (Producers, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, Moonlight), participated in a frank discussion about what intimacy looks like in artistic collaboration and how to navigate a space of great closeness in a professional environment.
When talking about intimacy, we’re not just talking about sex. “There are different levels of intimacy,” said Jenkins at the panel. “It’s important to break down and distinguish the levels and kinds of sexual, spiritual, intellectual and emotional intimacy that exist and what they look like on screen.”
What does an intimacy coordinator do?
To ensure that certain scenes are shot in a way that is safe, respectful and consensual, many productions are now turning to intimacy coordinators, like O’Brien, to oversee the process. Intimacy coordinators are professionals who meticulously work with actors, directors and production teams to plan and execute “choreography” that all participants feel comfortable with. This also means creating scenes that follow the fundamental tenets of the Intimacy on Set Guidelines.
“The most important aspect of the guidelines is that intimate content is akin to a stunt or a fight. Just as in a fight scene, preparation, rehearsal and bringing good technique is vital,” O’Brien told StyleCaster. “An Intimacy Practitioner (IP) will work creatively with the director, just as a stunt coordinator does, to serve their vision and create a brilliant piece of work.”
When it comes to intimate content involving nudity, or simulated sexual content, O’Brien explains that there is a risk of participants feeling harassed, abused or awkward if not handled professionally. Therefore, the fundamental tenets of the guidelines are open communication and transparency, and agreement and consent of touch and consequently creating clear steps so that the actors are all aware of what will happen.
Before the filming of any non-consensual scenes begins, all of the discussions exploring areas that might make an actor feel vulnerable have already taken place.
Even with clear instructions and choreography, coordinating intimacy onscreen can be intimidating for talent who are often shooting scenes where a number of people (cast, crew, lighting, camera operators, etc.) are watching or involved. Content that involves darker content like sexual assault or rape differs from coordinating consensual, loving moments between actors, in that it requires heightened awareness and care concerning the actor playing the victim and the actor playing the perpetrator.
“Before the filming of any non-consensual scenes begins, all of the discussions exploring areas that might make an actor feel vulnerable have already taken place and we create the risk assessment accordingly. Of course, there’s a possibility that this could be triggering and not just for the people who are performing, but possibly anyone who’s involved. It’s important that everyone involved feels safe and that actors can ask for ‘time outs’ during filming,” she added. She also intentionally checks in with the actors for any support they need a few days after the filming.
O’Brien is the implementer. She brings her skill and knowledge of anatomy and choreography to work with all involved participants to create a scene that is realistic. Sometimes that means creating scenes that are not frequently seen. “I worked with Michaela Coel on I May Destroy You and choreographed all the different intimate encounters and explored the different aspects of consent, power play and boundaries. The period sex scene was so exciting, showing the reality and the paraphernalia of engaging with intimacy whilst we are menstruating. This is rarely seen and yet is a fundamental part of all women’s lives. It’s this kind of content that really excites me as a practitioner and it’s so important this reality is shown on our screens.”
O’Brien’s work is not limited to adults, either. As part of her work with the hit show Sex Education, she worked with parents and guardians of minors to navigate the scenes and ask for their guidance. “I must remain open and flexible if it’s not quite right for that production or only a part of the process is required. I must then adapt to support the actors or director in a way that is right for them. Our job is to serve, to be a conduit and to facilitate open conversations,” she explained.
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