The Secrets Behind On-Screen Intimacy. Hello everyone, I hope you are well. In today’s post, I will be exploring the secrets behind on-screen intimacy. Have you ever wondered how your favourite actors manage to film the spicier scenes in your favourite film or series? Did you know that there is a whole role dedicated to ensuring the well-being, and often the safety, of your favourite actors and actresses during intimate scenes? The contraceptive brand Hana has asked Louise Kempton, intimacy coordinator, movement director, and actor behind the scenes, how intimate scenes are filmed and how such a role is helping to combat power dynamics on sets.
The Secrets Behind On-Screen Intimacy
Did you know the 1964 TV show Bewitched featured the first on-screen couple to be seen (shock, horror!) sharing the same bed? It may sound weird in 2023, but even married couples in real life and on the screen were traditionally shown in twin beds to remove the connotation that they might be having sex.
Whilst it’s good that we now live in an age where the realities of life – including sex – can be portrayed on the big screen, filming explicit content is complicated and can be detrimental to the cast if not handled correctly. Stars of Game of Thrones (which first aired in 2011) have since spoken out about the chaos, lack of consent and feelings of overwhelm and coercion they experienced on set. Power dynamics can make standing up for your boundaries difficult, especially if you’re new to the screen and don’t want to mess up your big break.
Since the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements highlighted the lack of and need for consent and agency on and off set, a new role dedicated to ensuring intimacy on screen is handled correctly has sprung up. Welcome to the age of intimacy coordinators!
We spoke to Louise Kempton, an intimacy coordinator, movement director and actor, to learn more about what an intimacy coordinator does.
What Does An Intimacy Coordinator Do?
Intimacy coordinators are brought on by TV, theatre, or film productions as movement specialists to help choreograph and support intimate work. The easiest thing to equate us to is stunt coordinators. We understand the body, choreography and how people work together, and we are there to mitigate risk.
So, with a fight scene, the stunt coordinator ensures it is done safely, with consensus and agreement. They ensure it’s fulfilling the creative vision of the director and the cast while staying within the boundaries of the actors and their physical capabilities. It’s the same with the intimacy coordinator. We hopefully help produce something beautiful and exciting and serve the story’s narrative but also acknowledge and respect the boundaries of the cast.
How Long Have Intimacy Coordinators Been A Thing?
I think the US has had intimacy directors since 2015/2014. I’ve been doing it since 2019, relatively early in the UK. I suppose it was starting to pick up pace after the Me Too movement. We haven’t reinvented the wheel: intimacy coordination has developed from directors, movement directors, and stunt coordinators. Many people had been working with these best practices and doing the job before the intimacy coordinator role was explicitly made.
How Much Agency Do Actors Have Over What They Will And Won’t Do On Set?
Intimacy coordinators are advocates for the cast and crew because it can be challenging for them. It depends on experience, and there is as much power and status as with any job. Sometimes, more experienced actors don’t have that power struggle with the directors and producers.
I’m working with many relatively young actors who are new to TV. I’m that middle person. I go to the production, I talk to the director, I try to understand what their vision is and what kind of story the writer wants to tell. And then, I meet with the actors and the cast to individually check in with their boundaries.
Hopefully, they can trust me enough to say no if I’m offering them that no. Lots of coordinators talk about how actors are often yes people. So saying no – or pausing to think – can be difficult. It’s not necessarily the standard procedure. I hope we allow actors on set to have advocacy and autonomy over their work. Sometimes, it’s more about facilitating the actors’ conversation with the director, so we’re the people in the room to enable those conversations. We are there to help nurture that collaborative space. And sometimes we are the third party that they can come to independently.
Do You Think Actors Are Safer And Have More Agency On Set Than They Used To?
Having an intimacy coordinator helps promote the actor’s agency before they even get the job. Actors can ask what intimate content will be in the show. Is there any nudity? Will my character be expected to have sex? They should be able to ask those questions and consider if it’s right for them.
I think we’re making it a safer, more collaborative space for actors, particularly new or young ones. There’s still more to do. There still needs to be more diversity within the community, but it’s growing and getting better. When I first started intimacy coordination in 2019, no one knew my role when I stepped on set. Now everyone knows. Understanding your role is a massive step up in appreciating the work overall. I think it’s improving.
Are There Any Laws Or Regulations Around Intimacy In Film, TV And Theatre?
Obviously, for children and young actors under 18, there are specific laws around what they can and can’t do, from how many hours you’re allowed on set to child protection.
Regarding adult actors, they have agents and lots of productions have legal teams. I help create nudity riders and simulated sex riders. These riders usually are only written for scenes of simulated sex or sexual foreplay and degrees of nudity and undress. So, for example, an actor agrees to full back nudity, including buttocks and gluteal cleft, and no frontal genitalia. And you do that for each scene requiring that kind of attention. An actor can sign the rider.
However, if on the day, it feels entirely out of their comfort zone, something is triggering them, or they’re unhappy, they can still say no. If we’ve already recorded some content, then the production can use that content. But you can still say no, and producers and directors should aim for an environment in which your cast and company can say yes freely. We may not necessarily have laws, but we have many protocols and guidelines for working.
How Do Intimacy Coordinators Help With Sex Scenes?
So I get sent the whole script of a series or a film, and I go through the script with a fine-tooth comb. I underline, highlight and draw out anything deemed as intimacy, from hand-holding intimacy to full-on penetrative sex.
Intimacy could look like somebody in the shower or sitting on the toilet; it could be people getting stripped down to their underwear – anything beyond the ordinary, fully clothed person. It’s essential to highlight everything and have conversations to cover all bases. Some productions may want you for three intense scenes, and other shows may ask you to weigh in on anything considered intimacy. So, I highlight everything. And I go through and outline whether it’s essential, recommended, suggested or cast preference to have support because that’s where risk assessment comes in.
Depending on how the director works and how the cast wants to work, I can be entirely involved with the choreography and the movement. In some scenes, I’m creating the whole choreography beat by beat. With other scenes, I’m purely there to facilitate how they want to work, and I’m just the person in the room doing check-ins, so it varies from project to project. Then I’m there on the day of filming to ensure that everything happening is what has been agreed to.
Work on Set
I also help with the set, so say there’s a scene of nudity in the shower; you must work out what is in the shot. Is it going to be frosted glass? Is the curtain see-through? Do we know what body parts we’re going to see? I find all of that out. Then I liaise with the wardrobe department. Are there any modesty garments that need wearing?
I work with the makeup department if there are, for example, tattoos we want to be covered. I’m often in touch with the location department about temperature. If we’ve got scenes outside, are there tents for privacy? Is there any public access? Do we have that cornered off?
There are many things to consider when doing intimate scenes that people might not realise they need to prepare for. There’s nothing worse than setting up for the day, and you suddenly go: “Oh, we’re doing this outside scene, but there’s a whole load of houses there; we need to let them know that something’s happening on the lawn at the front.”
People Who Are Having Simulated Sex On Screen Aren’t Having Sex, But It Can Look Very Real. How Do You Prevent Sexual Contact When People Look Very Naked?
In a scene I was working on recently, there are two actors, and they’ve got some kissing scenes and a simulated sex scene. In the kissing scene, they are kissing. There’s lip contact; we’re just not using any tongue. So that is a physical thing that’s happening. Whereas with simulated sex, we are finding the physical shapes and finding the physical rhythm. But we will never have genitalia touching.
How we do that depends on your framing, props, and set. Are you in bed? Great! You’ve got covers to cover your genitals so we can have a cushion or barrier between them. Other things are more complicated. So, if you’ve got two naked bodies, we must be clever with body positions, legs, and camera angles. They will have a modest patch at minimum. They might be wearing leggings or tracksuit bottoms if they’re under the covers.
Why Do You Think Intimacy Coordinators Are Important?
They help make perfect storytelling moments and help an audience feel safe. Audiences are savvy now, and they know these intimacy coordinators exist. Suppose you’re going to watch a film or programme. In that case, you’re sitting there going: “Oh, are they doing that?” and it can be worrying, but then if the audience sees that they’ve got an intimacy coordinator, they feel more comfortable about it somehow, you know like people don’t want to watch a real fight.
Everyone wants to watch a perfect stage fight. You want to believe the actors are acting. We don’t just help the cast and crew, but it’s the audience on the other side when the show is out there to appreciate the craft and skill of an actor and to appreciate storytelling.
What Shows Are You Working On At The Moment?
I’m proud of a lovely show that’s on Amazon Prime called Fifteen Love. That’s out now, with some fantastic actors. It’s about a tennis coach taking advantage of his young protege. And about the horror stories that have come up through sports coaches and their stars. That was a grey area concerning age, consent and intimate relationships. The whole programme is about their intimacy. So, that was a job that I was very much involved in.
I was also involved in an indie film that’s just come out now called Hoard, directed by Luna Carmoon. I think it’s seriously arty, wicked and very different from what I’ve worked on before. I’ve had varied experiences with intimacy, which is always fun.
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I hope you enjoyed that.
About Louise Kempton
Louise is a freelance intimacy coordinator working in TV, theatre & film. She is an active member of the BECTU Intimacy Branch and is currently on the BECTU Training Working Group. She is also SAG-AFRA registered. Louise trained for her BA in Acting at Rose Bruford College, a Masters in Movement and a PGcert in Performance Teaching at Guildhall School. She trained in intimacy with IOS and has worked as an intimacy director/coordinator since 2019.
Louise regularly facilitates workshops and seminars, introducing guidelines and safe practices to trainee actors and directors, film crew and production. Louise’s work enables the creation of dynamic and exciting choreography within a safe and supported environment.