To plan and film the sex scenes so that everyone knew exactly what would happen and so that everyone was safe, the production employed an intimacy co-ordinator – a role that has become more popular on film and television sets since MeToo. Intimacy co-ordinators’ jobs are multi-faceted. They start by speaking to the directors and producers to establish what the scene is trying to do for the story; to establish what kind of tone, dynamic and acts the scene requires. They also deal with actors’ management, checking contracts for nudity clauses. Ita O’Brien acted as the intimacy co-ordinator on Normal People, and Abrahamson can’t sing her praises highly enough.
“When I heard about this role, my first reaction was to be sceptical, thinking, ‘This isn’t stunts or car chases, it’s just human behaviour'. And then I thought: is this just like having a health and safety person on set, or just a response to MeToo – and of course I’m totally responsible and would never do anything to make anyone feel uncomfortable. But then I met Ita and she’s so great, funny, down-to-earth and brilliant at setting up a way of working that gives you space as a director to shoot in a way that’s really safe and positive for the crew and cast.”
The director reveals the simple tricks and communication techniques O’Brien used, and notes her skill at processing consent and being tuned into whether something is comfortable or not for an actor.
“She has brilliant tricks for making it look like things are happening when they’re not, she has pads and devices to make people comfortable but to make it look like things are real. She also has brilliant videos of all different types of every sort of animal having sex, so that if it’s useful for the actors, they can say, ‘Oh this is like slugs, it’s about twisting and turning around each other'. It gives a vocabulary and gets rid of that fear of people being asked to express things about their own sexual life, which is not something that anybody should be asked to do. It turns it into choreography, and we can talk about it very clearly, with no euphemisms, every body part is named. And after a while, it just feels real and grown-up and not silly and coy and worrying.”
For Abrahamson, this role is also vital for ensuring that the inherent power dynamics on set never leave his actors feeling under pressure to do anything they’re uncomfortable with – a reality all directors should be aware of and account for.
“As a relatively well-known director working with young actors, I don’t want to think that they’re doing things just to please me, or that they’re ever uncomfortable and don’t want to say. It creates an environment where everyone is totally tuned in to what everyone else is feeling.”
It’s remarkable to think of how many film sets have eschewed using intimacy co-ordinators, and what a vulnerable position it leaves actors in. Apart from the possibility that actors will feel physically violated, not being given clear direction puts them in a very vulnerable position as their options are to try and create an entirely new dynamic onscreen – or do what they personally would do in bed, which is an incredibly violating expectation of vulnerability.
More . . .