The role of the intimacy coordinator has become more important in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations and the broader #MeToo movement. Ita O'Brien works on the set of a short film, Keep Breathing, breaking down the choreography of a sex scene to ensure the wellbeing of the actors and create a clear language and process.
Ita O'Brien, an intimacy coordinator based in England, said that sex scenes often get handled poorly — not out of malice, but avoidance of what many feel is an awkward situation. "Actors being left vulnerable, or feeling harassed and abused, hasn't been [the result of] a director or producer not wanting to do well. It's because they're not comfortable talking about the sexual content," she said.
In one of the most poignant scenes in Netflix’s hit series Sex Education, Eric — the loveable french horn player with eccentric wardrobe taste — is pinned to the ground by Adam, a boy that has bullied him relentlessly for most of his school life. In an act of defence, Eric spits directly into his bully’s face. Adam retaliates with the same. Then they stop. A second passes. Suddenly, they kiss.
It’s a moment that can’t help but leave you electrified — by its tenderness, its innocence, but, above all, its spontaneity. A kiss is the last thing the viewer expects to see, and, by the looks of things, it comes as a bit of a shock to Eric and Adam, too. However, the truth is, of course, that hours of planning went into these brief few seconds. Each beat of the scene was choreographed with detailed precision.
Ita O’Brien begins with the basics. Where will the two boys be positioned? What areas of their bodies will be touching? How long will the kiss last? How many kisses will there be?
Then there’s the more complicated stuff. The spitting.
“Somehow, everybody can understand an actor’s acting in all other realms of human expression, apart from the sex scene,” concurs movement director and intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien. “It’s that thing of ‘oh, how can it look sexy if they’re acting it’ but the sex scene is still acting—it’s not real life.” O’Brien has been developing ways to keep actors in safe in these scenarios since 2015. Through first engineering her own drama, writing a theatre piece focused around abuse, she began to examine the dynamic between the perpetrator and the victim, which led to broader thinking about the blind spot for potential abuse within the industry.
As she explains by phone, “I was aware I needed to put in place a clear practice and a process to help my actors stay safe.” The Intimacy on Set guidelines—which range from excluding sex scenes from screen tests to identifying specific body parts that can be touched—were born from this initial momentum, coupled with the work of a colleague at the Central School of Speech and Drama: Vanessa Ewan, a senior movement tutor who had noted the time and space afforded fight directors to create their sequences and suggested sex scenes and those with intimate content should be done the same way.
To prevent harassment on TV and film sets, production houses are hiring so-called intimacy coordinators to oversee sex scenes. NPR's Michel Martin speaks with Ita O'Brien, who serves that role on Netflix's Sex Education.
They range from a boy who does creative things with a warm melon and a girl who vomits on her boyfriend’s penis, to a teenager with rampant pubic hair (“I’m like a wolverine”) and a virgin who writes a sci-fi comic whose heroine goes “on a quest for an alien dick to deflower her”. All of adolescent carnality is there in Sex Education, the super-stylised Netflix comedy that has seized the imagination like no British school series since Skins and which the streaming service claims has been watched by 40 million households around the world.
If you’re a member of the twentysomething cast, how do you prepare for such a kaleidoscopic bombardment of rumpy pumpy? Well, as the Bloodhound Gang once sang: “You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals/ So let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.” Yes, before shooting started, the actors took part in an animal-inspired shagging workshop.
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Aimee-Lou Wood: We had an intimacy coordinator there all the time – she was so helpful. And there were conversations going on for weeks, so you were kind of ready for it when it happened. It was well prepared, those scenes felt the most cathartic and the most rewarding. I was probably more prepared for the sex scenes than I was for any other scenes. It was harder to do just talking..
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“I believe there is always another way to do a scene where no one is vulnerable, so I tell them their ‘no’ is a gift.” . . .
To do so, Netflix relies on a crew of writers, directors and producers who’ve brought a keen sense of fluid, inclusive teenage sexuality to a series about a 16-year-old son of a sex therapist, Otis (Asa Butterfield), and his enterprising friend Maeve (Emma Mackey). Together they team up to give sex advice to their perpetually inflamed cohort at Moordale Secondary School. (Ncuti Gatwa and Gillian Anderson round out the show’s stellar leading cast.)
But scenes like the one between Hewkin and Newmark unravel seamlessly, thanks particularly to the show’s intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien, who works with the actors before, during and after their sex scenes to ensure that standards of safety are met and that the delightfully complicated choreography is performed efficiently.
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