Sex Education: the rise of Hollywood's 'intimacy coordinators'

Alice Vincent
Dos and don'ts: Emma Mackey (Maeve) and Kedar Williams-Stirling (Jackson) in Sex Education - Day One Episode 2-23.CR2

How do you film a sex scene in the MeToo era? By hiring an industry professional who will talk you through the finer details

For decades, sex on screen has thrilled, fascinated and caused complete outrage – but rarely has it been demystified. It took Donald Sutherland 45 years to pour cold water on the rumour that he and Julie Christie weren’t really acting during Don’t Look Now’s famous fornication. The tragically premature death of Brittany Murphy, meanwhile, has kept the schoolyard whispers that she and Eminem didn’t fake it in 8 Mile firmly in the pop culture playground.

Now, in the wake of the MeToo movement, there are fears that such scenes might be causing actors, or more often actresses, emotional and psychological harm. Cue the rise of “intimacy coordinators” – professionals whose job it is to monitor sex scenes and ensure that they are filmed with the utmost respect for the feelings of those in front of the camera.

In October, HBO, the US network responsible for such sex-laden as Game of Thrones and Westworld, made headlines when it announced it was hiring intimacy coordinators to monitor the filming of sex scenes across all of its shows.

For those in entertainment who have been pushing for better codes of conduct around intimate performance, it was a watershed moment. “We’ve felt like we were yelling into the void for many years,” explains Claire Warden, an intimacy director based with Intimacy Directors International in New York. “Finally, the industry is listening to what we've been saying for decades.”

“Before Weinstein happened, acknowledging the emotional and psychological injuries that could be inflicted on set just didn’t happen,” says Ita O’Brien, a British intimacy coordinator who is responsible for the many provocative scenes in a new Netflix comedy drama, Sex Education. “Now people want to change that.”

Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris Credit: AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Historically, the problem with filming intimate scenes has been that little consideration is given to what unfolds within them. “In many situations you’re pretty much just left to get on with it,” explains O’Brien. “You’ll get to the sex scene and be told, ‘Now you two just work it out for yourselves’ or, ‘Just go for it’.”

For Fatal Attraction, Michael Douglas and Glenn Close were plied with champagne and margaritas and left to crack on with it. In 2014, Jean-Marc Vallée, the director of Wild, told The New York Times: “It wasn’t specifically planned for this guy to take Reese [Witherspoon], to turn her on her back, and [simulate sex] from behind, but it just happened as we were shooting.”

Bernardo Bertolucci and Marlon Brando notoriously came up with the butter stunt for Last Tango in Paris at breakfast – an idea that left the unprepared Maria Schneider feeling like she had been “a little raped”.

Intimacy coordinators set out to better prepare everybody involved – from the costume designers to the cast – for what is about to happen and help choreograph the sex scene to the satisfaction of actor and director alike.

O’Brien, who trained as a dancer, compares it to a waltz where, instead of steps and turns, “you might have someone saying, ‘I’ll get on top of you, I’ll stare into your eyes, I’ll put my hand around your neck, I’ll gaze into your eyes once more and then we kiss’.”

It was Warden’s colleague, Alicia Rodis, who was the first intimacy coordinator to be brought on by HBO for The Deuce, a drama about Manhattan’s sex trade in the Seventies. There, her changes ranged from the small and practical, such as supplying actors with covering underwear or pads to kneel on, to the more profound – namely making actors feel they had power over their own bodies.

In 2014, actress Anne Greene was counter-sued by production company True Crime LLC for breaching the terms of her "nudity rider" after she refused to do nude sex scenes for them. She ended up dropping her initial suit. Just this week, Desperate Housewives actor Neal McDonough was in the news after revealing he had lost six-figure jobs for refusing to kiss other actresses. Both Warden and O’Brien discuss the importance of establishing where an actor’s boundaries lie. 

“There’s a real taboo on the word ‘No’ in this industry. If an actor says it, they’re being difficult, or a diva, or not dedicated enough,” says Claire Warden, of Intimacy Directors International, in New York.

Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Deuce

“We’re saying, ‘Where’s your no? Where’s your yes?’,” explains O’Brien. “Then we positively can work with the ‘Yes’. It means both actors know that their bodies are being respected and they don’t need to worry about touching their partners somewhere they’d be uncomfortable with, because everything’s been discussed.”

O’Brien was responsible for overseeing the many vigorous sex scenes in Sex Education, a new teen drama on Netflix. The show, which follows the repressed son of a sex therapist (Gillian Anderson) as he doles out advice to his anxiety-addled, promiscuous classmates. It makes Skins, the edgy teen drama that ran on Channel 4 for several years, look tame. There is much full-frontal nudity from a cast barely into their 20s.

“Because it was a young cast, everybody knew they had to take good care,” says O’Brien. Boundaries were drawn, scenes were well rehearsed and, when it came to filming, it was done on a closed set – meaning just the director, the director of photography and the focus puller (responsible for maintaining image sharpness) were present. “The actors knew what they were doing, everything was in character and the storytelling is in the director’s vision.”   

Such control can prove controversial. As director Judd Apatow has said: “If it’s overly rehearsed or overly thought through, it seems like bad soft-core porn.”

Warden says she’s “come up against that a lot” and argues that a well-directed sex scene requires proper acting just like any other.

“People think that we’re dumbing down or sanitising stories of sex,” she says. “Any actor who says [scenes shouldn’t be overly rehearsed] wouldn’t like someone to improvise violence on them. There’s a difference between real and authentic. ‘Real’ is an actor who has just met her co-star and is really scared. That’s not the story in the rom-com you want to tell.”

While proper intimacy direction leads to swifter takes (“filming of it is more streamlined and quicker because everybody knows what they’re doing”), O’Brien says that she has met with resistance: “I’ve had both actors and directors saying, ‘You don’t need to make such a big thing of it, we just want to go for it’. People put on bravado, they’re a bit embarrassed.”

Intimacy co-ordination is far from being the rule across the industry. O’Brien says “there’s a long way to go”, but insists, along with Warden, that further uptake would be better for actors and make for more realistic results on screen. “When it’s not all left to chance, we can really find those shifts in emotion,” she adds. “It creates a way better sex scene.”

Sex Education begins on Netflix on Friday January 11