My new normal: Vanessa Coffey

As told to Frances Hedges
·5-min read
Photo credit: Courtesy of Vanessa Coffey
Photo credit: Courtesy of Vanessa Coffey

From Harper's BAZAAR

In normal circumstances, my job involves… going on set to oversee intimate content, which covers scenes with nudity, partial nudity, simulated sex or other forms of physical intimacy, for television and film productions. Beforehand, I will have had conversations with the producer, director, wardrobe team, first assistant director and the relevant actors about the intimate scenes that will be shot, and talked through precisely how they envisage these scenes. We also discuss where they fit into the overall narrative between the characters, any concerns the performers might have about the way the scene is to be shot, what kinds of modesty garments or barriers might be required, and the rehearsal process. I’m then on set for a pre-shoot rehearsal, during which the actors remain clothed and we walk through the precise choreography, followed by the actual shoot day to ensure the process is working as it should – that way, there are no surprises. It’s very much like fight choreography for film and television – we’re working to protect the actors and crew, but in this case emotionally as well as physically.

Since March, the biggest change to my day-to-day work has been… having to convert the talks I usually give on good intimacy practice to suit the online world. It’s no bad thing, really – rather than travelling and increasing my carbon footprint, I’ve been forced to think creatively about how to bring the world of intimacy to life using online platforms. Of course, there has also been a change in the way productions look at intimate scenes – the role of the intimacy co-ordinator is becoming increasingly recognised and valued by the film and television industry as a result of the #MeToo movement. Since March, there has been more preparation time, more discussion about keeping actors safe, more frequent conversations about where in the schedule these scenes should sit and a greater focus on carrying out risk assessments.

I’m adapting to working remotely by… setting up a positive space in my home from which I can do my online prep work. I didn’t give much thought to that before – I would typically grab my script, a pen and some paper, and go somewhere quiet to do my reading and phone calls. Now, I have bought a beautiful Japanese-style screen so that I can work from the bedroom and face the garden, while feeling I’m in a separate mental ‘zone’ for my work. Also, if I need to jump on a face-to-face call, I don’t have to worry that my pyjamas might be visible behind me!

The recent innovation I’m most proud of is… the work itself. The whole process of intimacy co-ordination remains very new, and many in the industry are still getting their heads around what it is and why it’s necessary. I’m really proud that people are starting to understand that once actors have boundaries that have been clearly communicated, they become a lot more creative because they know the parameters in which they’re operating. It means the actor can step away from what they’ve done that day and feel proud of the work they have undertaken, while being able to go back to their own, very separate intimate lives.

The most significant challenge has been… getting across the point that this role helps to facilitate truly brave work and can enhance the overall authenticity of a production. During their training, actors are encouraged to reflect on what their character might do in certain situations by analysing the text. They explore how their character might walk and talk, but rarely think about intimacy aspects – which are, of course, a big part of who we are and the choices we make. I think there used to be a perception that in my role, I might try to prevent intimate acts taking place in the way productions want them shot, or get in the way of an actor’s authentic response to the material. Ironically, because of Covid and the clear contribution I make to health-and-safety precautions on set, my role is now starting to be understood as one that safely and effectively facilitates these pivotal scenes and helps to realise the vision behind them.

For me, leadership during a crisis means… calmly steering the ship while communicating effectively and demonstrating respect, empathy and authenticity.

My role model for crisis management is… Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand. I watched an interview with her recently in which she was being asked about her country’s Covid response, and during the interview an earthquake started. She remained calm and collected, and continued with the interview, pausing only to acknowledge that things might be seen moving behind her. I aspire to that level of calm in a crisis.

The three most important values that will see my business through adversity are… open communication, respect and kindness. If we let fewer people get away with toxic behaviour in the workplace that has been tolerated simply because they are a ‘name’, or do great work at the expense of others, we will rightly see fewer such people thrive.

The biggest change I hope we’ll see in my industry post-crisis is… for the use of an intimacy co-ordinator to become standard practice whenever scenes of an intimate nature are taking place in television, film or in the theatre, and for us to be viewed as regular crew members, working in conjunction with other heads of department on the production.

The one thing I can’t wait to do when all this is over is… travel to see my mum, dad and friends in Australia, and give them a really big (consensual!) hug.

You Might Also Like