Evening Standard: Sex Education creator Laurie Nunn: It’s so important that teens see themselves reflected on screen
This tussle — between reason and the hormone-addled monster of adolescence — is just one of the arresting themes strung through a season that also covers (deep breath) chlamydia, bisexuality, middle-aged desire, douching in the gay community and, memorably, baba ganoush-based dirty talk.
However, Nunn (who, alongside the show’s other writers, works closely with intimacy co-ordinator Ita O’Brien) is conscious that Sex Education’s unflinching frankness never tips over into prurience that may worry actors.
“We’re constantly having open conversations, navigating the sensitive material, and if anybody did feel uncomfortable then it’s a very safe space for them to be able to voice that,” she says. “I also have a rule that sex scenes have to push the story forward or be educational in some way. That stops the show ever teetering into a gratuitous space or being titillating which, when you’re dealing with teenage characters [is a line] you have to tread very carefully.”
Last year, Game Of Thrones’s Emilia Clarke spoke of her “terrifying” early nude scenes on the show and inadvertently launched a wide debate about the pressure placed on inexperienced female actors to strip off on screen. Was Nunn conscious of this?
“It’s something I take very seriously,” she says. “Working with the intimacy coordinator is key to it. I feel that there’s a very interesting conversation to be had about whether we need as much gratuitous nudity on screen or whether we could pull back on that. Not just in our show but the industry in general.”
Nunn feels that there is a “purpose” to the show’s graphic content, both dramatically and — as per its name — educationally. Her decision to make horny sci-fi obsessive Lily (Tanya Reynolds) a sufferer of a sexually inhibiting condition called vaginismus has led to “quite a lot of messages” from grateful sufferers who didn’t realise they had a highly treatable medical condition. Tellingly, one of the most praised subplots from this new batch of episodes concerns a character who experiences a traumatising sexual assault that she initially tries to brush off with humour.
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Ita O’Brien’s work started long “before Weinstein.”
She drops the phrase “before Weinstein” like everyone is supposed to know what it means and everyone with any interest in show business does: that was the world before sexual harassment accusations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein finally surfaced; before the birth of the #MeToo movement.
O’Brien, who has a master’s in movement studies and works as a movement director, didn’t plan on becoming an intimacy coordinator—someone who coaches actors and filmmakers through sex scenes for stage and screen. It is a role O’Brien pioneered as she worked on her own material exploring the perspective of an abuser. “I knew that I needed to put in place practices and processes to keep my actors safe to help them explore that dynamic in a really healthy way,” she said. Soon, she was teaching her guidelines at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, one of the leading drama schools in the UK “That was in April 2015, and by the time Weinstein happened, I had already brought together the guidelines and subsequently, the role the intimacy coordinator has come from that. It certainly wasn’t my intention and it’s incredible that this is where I’ve ended up.”
Before Weinstein, said O’Brien, she was teaching drama students how to talk to directors about intimate content.
“With Weinstein happening, and then therefore, the whole of the industry going, ‘We’ve got to do better,’ suddenly it was invited, and that’s what was incredible.”
“Sex Education” was the first television project to hire O’Brien as an intimacy coordinator—a revolutionary and fitting move by a show that espouses openness and consent when it comes to sex. “She’s a very good part of the team,” said director and executive producer Ben Taylor.
Laurie Nunn, the show’s writer and creator, added, “It was important to know that everybody felt safe and secure and that if there was a problem, they could raise it.”
O’Brien loved working on the show. “It was an absolute pleasure and privilege and delight.”
In a show like “Sex Education,” there is an abundance of intimate scenes and to get the young cast members ready, a number of whom were going to be in front of the cameras for the first time, O’Brien began with open communication and transparency. “Nothing’s hidden, nothing’s left to the last minute, there’s clear communication. That’s what’s brilliant with Laurie’s writing. She really writes the intimate content clearly. We’re looking at why that scene is there, how it serves that characters’ storyline… all of that work is done before we even get to set.”
She asks the actors these questions: “What are you happy with? What are your concerns? What are you worried about? What’s a no for you?”
“Once that preparation is done it means that we can come on set and everybody knows what’s going to happen and we can work efficiently with the freedom to really create good scenes.”
O’Brien stresses how essential “consent of touch” is. “The process allows us to choreograph the intimate content clearly to allow everybody to be professional, serve character and serve storytelling. It means that everybody knows nothing’s going to be asked of them beyond what they’re happy with. That process was trusted and we were able to, as you can see, create exciting moments of intimacy,” O’Brien said.
She recalls one of her favorite memories from the set. “I was really proud of the fight into the kiss with Ncuti [Gatwa] and Connor [Swindells]. I really loved working in conjunction with the stunt coordinator. That kiss was nominated for one of the top 10 kisses of the year.”
The very first scene from season one is also memorable for O’Brien. “Working with Aimee Lou (Wood, who plays Aimee Gibbs) was just gorgeous. That very first scene, full on, isn’t it? Everybody knowing and being really empowered with not only what that scene was saying for the characters’ storyline, but also knowing where it’s placed within the whole production, knowing it’s the very first 30 seconds people were going to see… it was gorgeous, it was great.”
In Season 2, O’Brien shared her intimacy coordinator work with someone from her team. “That’s joyous in itself,” she said. “A lot in this series were male gay exploration and he did most of those which was really superb. The masturbation scene with Ola and Otis was great, the comic timing. I created the structure and they lifted it to another realm. Watching their skill as actors was just really fantastic.”
Today, O’Brien trains other intimacy coordinators and she’s had people come from all over the world—New Zealand, Australia, Finland, Germany, Canada, LA, New York, South Africa—to learn from her. “I now have about 20 practitioners around the world who I’m mentoring… we absolutely need more.”
There’s a growing demand for intimacy coordinators, said O’Brien. “This autumn has just been mad. I obviously can’t do everything, there’s some days that I’ve had my practitioners on five different productions on the same day.”
For her and her team, the learning never stops. “We share all of our experiences and write that back into our processes.”
We had to ask—what can nonactors learn from an intimacy coordinator? O’Brien said, “Open communication is the baseline. If you communicate openly with your intimate partners, it’s always the best. It’s not always easy, is it? But be able to ask for what you want, be able to say no to what you don’t want. It can be challenging but if you have open communication then that leads to healthy relationships and then would allow you to to healthy expressions of your intimate loving of your partners.”
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It’s a strong storyline for a show that is essentially a comedy, but Sex Education is unique. It dares to go where no other teenage drama has been before and portrays young sex (gay and straight) realistically and graphically . The assault story is expertly driven forward by a team of talented young actors, supported on set by the intimacy co-ordinator Ita O’Brien and an excellent script.
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While the intimate scenes in both seasons are always done tastefully, there’s no denying that even the most PG-13 of sex scenes require utmost care and precision — especially when working with young actors. The practice of hiring intimacy coordinators has become more and more commonplace in Hollywood, and “Sex Education” had some of the best from the jump. For Season 1, the cast worked with Ita O’brien, a theatrically trained actress and intimacy coordinator who has worked on shows such as “Gentleman Jack” and “Electric Dreams.” Her assistant David Thackeray was on hand for Season 2.
“Ita [O’Brien] was the intimacy coordinator, and before we started filming we had a whole day [with a] big ‘ole conversation with producers, directors, cast, about intimacy scenes, about our fears and worries, just a general conversation, really in depth, for hours,” series star Emma Mackey told IndieWire during an in-person interview. “Then in the afternoon, we had a workshop where we physicalized it more and we did animal rhythms and mating rhythms and stuff.”
As Maeve Wiley, the sexually liberated brains behind the sex therapy operation, Mackey had some of the most explicit intimacy scenes in Season 1.
“The most important thing is physical consent,” she explained. “So it’s like a dance. We learn a dance. My scenes with Kedar [Williams-Stirling], who plays Jackson, for example — we would have Ita talk us through it, and then when we were on set we would put a dance together and we would talk about it with Ben [Taylor, the director] and we would be like, ‘Right, so we’re gonna kiss for three beats, and then you’re gonna put me against the wall, and you can touch me here, and then we’re gonna make out more and then you’ll lift me after four.’”
If it doesn’t sound very sexy, Mackey says that’s kind of the point. “The whole point is it demystifies sex scenes. It makes them more practical and actually more fun, because then suddenly you’re like, ‘Oh, actually this is fine,’ ’cause you’re almost making it mechanical. And the whole aim of the game is to make it look as real and truthful and messy as possible,” she said.
“Just making people feel really safe and comfortable is the most important thing,” added Asa Butterfield, who plays series lead Otis. “Establishing that conversation and knowing you can have that conversation if there’s anything you’re worried about. … Some people are naturally more confident or comfortable in those situations than others, so you’ve gotta find that balance and meet in the middle.”
Ncuti Gatwa, who plays Otis’ best friend Eric, pointed out the importance of actors feeling safe on set. “There’s not a human resources department in acting. You can’t file a complaint,” he said. “So putting these structures in place is important to help us do our job better. It’s important, because we are asked to do things that are absurd.”
In addition to feeling comfortable, Mackey said that choreographing a sex scene down to every minute movement actually freed her up to play her character more authentically.
“It separates you from your character, that’s the reason why it helps as well. ‘Cause all the noises and the things that turn your character on are different to what turns you on in your life,” she said. “So it separates you from the character. Which means you’re more free because you’re crafting a character as opposed to using something very personal. So it’s kind of like an experiment in a way — it’s quite cool.”
Lad Bible: Sex Education Creators Hired A Dedicated ‘Intimacy Director’ To Help Coordinate Sex Scenes
Taylor and Nunn approached a woman called Ita O'Brien, who set up a company called Intimacy on Set, which provides 'services to TV, film and theatre when dealing with intimacy, sexual content and nudity'.
"When we first started making series one, when we met we said, 'I wonder if a character like this exists'," Taylor explained, referring to the possibility of someone who could help with how intimate scenes are conducted.
"After a bit of research we found this lady called Ita O'Brien who came in and met us. We told her what we were making and how we wanted to approach it, and the sort of duty of care of what is primarily a really young cast - and that there were some quite difficult and specific scenes written.
"She came to us very much on the same page, as she had a manifesto that was sort of it tied in with the #MeToo movement.
"It was something that a number of people had been working towards - the way she explained is that if you have a fight scene on a show you have a fight coordinator, and if you have a dance scene in a show you have a choreographer, and why do we not approach intimacy scenes like that?
"That's the role that she and her team fulfil, which they are there to help you do it really well, help you do it really safely and they take care of the cast and the crew before during and after those scenes and hopefully take away some of the fear and anxiety that can come up around shooting sex scenes."
Taylor explained that since hiring O'Brien for the first series, she's seen her line of work 'boom', and she's had to grow her team.
Taylor said: "She's at the forefront of it - she's now the busiest woman in show business.
"During this series she just wasn't always available, so she has since trained up other people.
"An amazing guy called David [Thackery] came on board and did several days with us.
"It was great, it was a big help to the new cast this year, but also continue support the old cast who were used to having Ita around."
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Butterfield even credits his time working on the series with helping him feel more comfortable talking about sex, and realising "that it's all normal. You don't have to be embarrassed by it." What has also helped him and other cast members not just open up more, but create a more comfortable and safe space for filming sexual scenes was having intimacy director Ita O'Brien on set. The role of an intimacy director or coordinator has been a welcome addition to Hollywood sets in recent years, with shows like The Deuce, Euphoria, Watchmen, and Crashing employing Alicia Rodis and her nonprofit Intimacy Directors International to ensure safety and comfort for performers doing sex scenes.
"It was a real support," said Gatwa. "We never felt alone. They could be quite isolating and scary and intimidating, those scenes, but you always felt you had someone in your corner."
Prior to filming, Gatwa explained, O'Brien led a workshop in which the actors broke the ice by emulating various animals mating. They gathered and pretended to be monkeys, lions, slugs, and other members of the animal kingdom straight up doing the deed.
It was to help us loosen up a bit and get to know each other, but also it helped us think about how sex is so personal and everyone has a rhythm, or noise style. So it helped us find your character’s animal, so to speak," said Butterfield. "It’s not like you’re going to have sex like a monkey or slug, but you just use bits of it."
Gatwa thinks the mission behind Sex Education is important. ""As much as sex positivity is great, teenagers feel a lot of pressure. You need to learn how to fall in love with your body as well, and you’re doing that as a teenager," he said. "These storylines are so empowering. It’s an honour that we get to portray them."
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The Telegraph: Sex Education’s Emma Mackey, interview: ‘We’re lucky our show isn’t about ridiculously passionate intercourse’
“I’m really glad I had Sex Ed to kick me off, because on Eiffel I’m naked,” she says. Sex Education was among the first shows to publicly announce the appointment of an “intimacy coordinator”, Ita O’Brien, to coach young actors through delicate scenes and safeguard against any pre-MeToo behaviour on set. O’Brien’s first ice-breaker for the cast was to have them watch videos of animals having sex, and attempt to imitate them. The stars could find the animal they felt best meshed with their character, and choreograph their sex scenes accordingly. “Honestly, I was watching it thinking, what the hell is this job? It’s absurd,” says Mackey. “But it was also a really good way of bonding. It was a great day, like being part of some really odd drama school.”
Does Mackey think O’Brien’s role is necessary? “Yes, it totally demystifies and desensationalises what might be a really intimidating sex scene. And getting to know each other beforehand is a real luxury, because sometimes you rock up and you have to film an intimate scene and strike up chemistry with an actor you’ve never met before in your life. Luckily, too, our show isn’t about ridiculously passionate, romantic sexual intercourse.”
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Hollywood Reporter: 'Sex Education': How an Intimacy Coordinator Helped Change the Show's Approach to Love Scenes
The show’s commitment to approaching female pleasure in an unbiased, non-judgmental way shouldn’t be surprising considering Sex Education was the first Netflix series to employ use of an intimacy coordinator. Ita O’Brien, a trained dancer, actress, movement director and intimacy coordinator, helped develop the Intimacy On Set Guidelines that have sparked a change in the way TV and film approach filming scene simulating sex and nudity. While O’Brien spent years training theater groups in these practices and developing the now widely referenced guidelines, Sex Education marked the first series to seriously use her expertise.
“The idea of creating time and space for rehearsal of the intimate content wasn't there, and there was pushback from that. The production, if there's a fight or a dance, they will make time, they'll know they have to put in a schedule time to choreograph, time to rehearse, and that's the shift that we were asking for in the industry,” O’Brien explains.
It was an ask that Sex Education director Ben Taylor eagerly said yes to.
O’Brien held a workshop for the cast a crew a few weeks before filming began. “I share how the guidelines work, and then they get up on stage doing a warmup,” O’Brien says. “Each of the actors look at the different scenes that they had and then I put them into groups, and we worked through the various scenes, helping them find the structure, the guidelines. And it was a joyous day, it was so lovely. And, of course, in asking people to get hot and sweaty together, physical work just helps to make a connection with each other, to help to open that ensemble feeling.”
From there, O’Brien stays in constant contact with the actors, directors, assistance directors, and wardrobe technicians, mapping out scenes away from set, walking talent through choreography, and assisting on the day of shooting, acting as an advocate for the young cast members, many of whom have never filmed an intimate scene before.
For Wood, who got her big break playing the lovable Aimee, having O’Brien there to guide her through the mechanics of shooting a sex scene like the one series one opens on, meant she could forget about any embarrassing hang-ups and focus on acting out her character’s desires in the moment.
“I feel really grateful and also quite sad for the people who didn't have that because even if the director is amazing and open and lovely like any of the directors on Sex Ed, it is still nice to have someone who you can run stuff by,” Wood says.
One hurdle she still encounters when working with directors, something she hopes seeing how Sex Education handles its intimate moments will change, is the myth that an intimacy coordinator is there to stifle spontaneity.
“Some of the fear from directors is that if you choreograph the scene, one, you're taking away their direction, and two, that you're stopping creativity but actually, it's the reverse,” O’Brien explains. “I'm not directing them how to act, what I'm doing is giving a shape, a pure form; there is agreement and consent to touch and there's a clear shape to the physical journey. And then it means the actors are free to then act. The actors can be comfortable and free to bring different aspects to each and every take because there's a clear physical frame, they know that where they're touching their fellow actor is okay, they know that they're not going to be touched anywhere that's not okay for them, so they really can release into enjoying serving a scene.”
It’s something Wood thinks helped her character’s sex scenes come across more authentically which, in turn, helps young women watching the show to identify with their own sexual desires.
“I want people to watch it and relate,” Wood says. “Not watch it and go, ‘Oh, why is this girl wanking in a private space with sexy lingerie on looking all made up?’ The desire for it to be relatable and human kind overrides the vanity.”
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Sex Education doesn’t shy away from raunchy scenes seeing Otis and the gang get steamy between the sheets. But while both teenage angst and dreams are at the heart of the binge-worthy series, we can’t help but feel some of the more seductive scenarios might get awkward on set. Talking about the secrets behind those ‘realistic’ sex scenes, intimacy co-ordinator (yes, that’s a thing) Ita O’Brien has opened up on how they keep the cast as comfortable as possible.