In the last few years, the coordination of intimacy has quickly become one of the most important aspects of Hollywood production. The #MeToo movement has exposed not only the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in Hollywood, but the kind of environment and power dynamics that enable such situations.
At the 2023 South by Southwest event, Regina Banall and Laura Rikard, two experts in intimacy coordination, held an hour-long Q&A with filmmakers on how to create better, safer sets while filming sex scenes. Banall is a member of the Intimacy Coordinators Alliance for Film and Television, and Rikard specializes in theater intimacy education.
The class showed how important it is to have a comfortable and open discussion about sex scenes and intimacy coordination, not only for actors and directors, but for everyone involved in and learning about the filmmaking process.
1. Language matters
While it doesn’t need to be overly sanitized, Rikard noted that desexualized language can go a long way. This doesn’t mean shying away from sexually positive or overt expressions, but keeping things professional. He gave an example, saying that actors can be instructed to “open and close the distance between your pelvis on a count of eight.” While the action and action in the context of the scene are still sexual, this formulation clearly breaks down the necessary movement, and Banall noted that the levels of touch (skin, muscle, bone) are already established.
In other words, “We never say make love, have sex, fuck each other,” Rikard said.
In theater intimacy studies, Rikard teaches his students how to negotiate these situations, including minors. The language and terminology may be different for a child versus a teenager versus an adult, but what matters is that the cast and crew are equipped to communicate what they want, what they’re doing, and what does not work. Having these conversations repeatedly and at different ages normalizes the subject and helps the characters set boundaries in their careers.
2. Collaboration is key
An intimacy coordinator should never direct a scene, the panelists noted, but work with the director form The scene. Communication with actors is also highly nuanced, dealing with varying ages and experience levels. An up-and-coming actor may respond very differently to an intimacy coordinator than a seasoned veteran, and may encounter resistance to this new set position or the caution surrounding it. All of this is tension that the intimacy coordinator can relieve with proper care.
3. End of day report
“If (intimacy coordinators) don’t do an end-of-day report, don’t hire them,” Rikard told the room. After each day on set, intimacy coordinators should interview everyone in attendance about what they did, what precautions they took, and, most critically, how everyone felt that day. The report is submitted to the Intimacy Coordinator’s point of contact, usually a first AD or showrunner, and is used to flag and record any mishaps.
Rikard and Banall also stressed that no one should hire an intimacy coordinator just because they are certified — not least because certification varies from state to state. This is still a new position and a developing field that requires a thorough interview process. Whoever hires you should ask about the intimacy coordinator’s processes and methods, even their basic tool kit (Banall includes memory foam and an exercise ball to protect actors from extra physical strain).
4. Intimacy coordinators are not therapists
As helpful as an intimacy coordinator can be for mental health and well-being on set, that’s not their job. Intimacy Coordinators cannot diagnose or treat and cannot be held responsible or treated as a substitute for actual counseling.
5. Do your homework
Rikard asked the audience to watch the documentary “Brainwashed” by director Nina Menkes, which breaks the connection between Hollywood’s murky sexual politics and the way sex is portrayed on camera. He often uses it as an example of why a shot will or won’t work, and sometimes simply notes to the director that something is not new and can be filmed originally.
“And what if there were no more mutual orgasms?” Banall added a chorus of laughter. “I’m old enough to know it’s not possible, so no more.”
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