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The Telegraph: Intimacy coordinator Ita O'Brien was the real star of the Baftas – and could save the TV industry
The standout winner at the 2021 TV Baftas was Ita O'Brien, and she wasn't even nominated for an award. O'Brien was the intimacy coordinator on Michaela Coel's I May Destroy You, which won best mini-series and Leading Actress for Coel. But O'Brien also worked on Normal People (with Leading Actor winner Paul Mescal) and Sex Education (for which Aimee Lou Wood won Best Female Performance in a Comedy Programme) as well as The Third Day, Gangs of London and I Hate Suzie, all of which were nominated.
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Michaela Coel and her hit drama I May Destroy You won big at the 2021 television Baftas on Sunday – with Coel dedicating her acting award to the series’ intimacy coordinator.
Accepting awards for a show that dealt with sexual abuse and consent, Coel said film and television sets were vulnerable places for actors and crew members. Not to have intimacy experts was “thoughtless” and showed a “lack of mindfulness”, she added.
I May Destroy You was one of the cultural events of 2020, in any genre, described by the Guardian’s Lucy Mangan as “astonishing, beautiful, thrilling”. The BBC and HBO series was inspired by Coel’s own experience of sexual assault by strangers after her drink was spiked. It is about the aftermath of a rape and is often called a “a sexual consent drama” but it is also a story of fun, friendship and more.
Coel was named best actress and dedicated her Bafta to the series’ intimacy director, Ita O’Brien. “Thank you for your existence in our industry, for making the space safe, for creating physical, emotional and professional boundaries so that we can make work about exploitation, loss of respect, about abuse of power without being exploited or abused in the process.
“I know what it is like to shoot without an intimacy director. The messy, embarrassing feeling for the crew. The internal devastation for the actor. Your direction was essential to my show and I believe essential for every production company that wants to make work exploring themes of consent.”
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"I was once asked to define movement. I reflected, if you are alive, you move.
We look for the rise and fall of the breath in the lungs.
Our fundamental dynamo is the heart beat, each one unique.
We inhabit a universe where rhythm is everything, the turning of the earth, the pull of the tides, the progression of the seasons, against which we experience ourselves in the chaos of life!"
The role of an intimacy coordinator is still fairly new in the world of film and TV but one that is fast gaining adoption in production houses including the BBC and Netflix. A pioneer and principal practitioner in the field, Ita O’Brien works to choreograph the complex rhythms of intimate scenes and ensure best practice on set and stage when performances include nudity and sexual content. Ita has worked on productions including Normal People, Sex Education, I May Destroy You, The Dig and It’s a Sin.
Joining Laura Barton from her home in Kent, Ita speaks about her work, physical rhythm and how she moved from dancing to acting to intimacy.
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New guidelines published by the Time's Up campaign advise actors to set out their boundaries for scenes involving sex and nudity before they are filmed.
The campaign says a so-called "nudity rider" or "simulated sex waiver" should be in place before filming begins.
Luther actress Ruth Wilson is among those to welcome the initiative.
"Everyone deserves to feel safe at work and these [guidelines] offer a huge step towards that becoming a reality," the His Dark Materials star said.
Riders are conditions or provisos added to something already agreed, like a contract of employment or a job offer.
Bond actress Naomie Harris also backed guidelines she said would "help arm people with the resources and information needed to determine the best path forward".
Time's Up was established in 2018 by members of the entertainment industry including Shonda Rhimes, Natalie Portman and America Ferrera to protest against sexual misconduct in the entertainment industry.
Ita O'Brien, founder of Intimacy On Set , said she wanted it to be "standard practice" to have an intimacy coordinator present at auditions.
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BY BECKY BURGUM
In the wake of the #MeToo movement and Hollywood’s continuing reckoning with sexual misconduct, intimacy coordinators have become a fixture on film and television sets. Their role is to ensure the safety, consent and comfort of performers when executing the vision of writers and directors.
And no one has received more attention and credit for doing so than Ita O’Brien, widely considered the original intimacy coordinator.
She spent years developing Intimacy on Set Guidelines, before founding Intimacy On Set, a service that provides intimacy coordinators, consultancy, advocacy and training for TV, film and theatre sets. She was first hired as an official intimacy coordinator on Sex Education season one in 2018 (a show widely praised for its realistic and inclusive portrayals of sex) and has since worked on other hit shows including Normal People, I May Destroy You, Industry and It’s A Sin.
‘I take no credit in the incredible writing that is already in the shows I’ve worked on, but my role is to help facilitate. I make sure the sexual content isn’t gratuitous, that it’s serving the character and storyline,’ says Ita O’Brien over Zoom. ‘I make sure the actors are fully aware on what is being asked of them and I create clear choreography for them to follow, so they feel safe and empowered.’
With the help of better scripts and more female directors, O’Brien is leading the charge ensuring there are more relatable, un-glamorised portrayals of sex on screen which directly transcend to what viewers are home can learn, consider and put into practice in their own lives.
Here she talks to ELLE UK about seven lessons we can learn about our own relationships and sex lives through the overhauling and updating of tiresome, outdated and harmful depictions on TV.
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By Abigail Glasgow
Cue Alicia Rodis (High Maintenance, The Deuce), who, in her intimacy coordinator role at HBO, is the first intimacy coordinator in the US to be employed by a mainstream network. She and Ita O’Brien (Normal People, I May Destroy You) are widely considered to be the original intimacy coordinators, simultaneously having developed their techniques on opposite sides of the world.
Though the job is only in its third year in the limelight, Rodis underlines that the “industry has grown considerably and continues to today.” And while not every network requires its projects to retain an intimacy coordinator on set, the industry’s evolution is evidenced by coordinators’ employment beyond HBO at Netflix, Hulu, and elsewhere — like Lena Waithe’s production company, which announced last summer that it will use intimacy coordinators on all of its projects. Schachter estimates that there are 80-plus intimacy coordinators in training or graduated in the US as of late 2020.
Since production in Hollywood has restarted after a wave of shutdowns earlier in the pandemic, intimacy coordinators like O’Brien, Rodis, and Schachter have seen their work in communication, consent, and boundaries become an important pillar of successful Covid-19 prevention measures. On what is to be expected of the intimacy coordination role for the remainder of the pandemic and even after it, HBO’s Rodis anticipates being called in more frequently. “It’s even more important to define consent and be specific. I think we’re going to find a lot of those tools being used.”
“Since March [of 2020], a lot of my time has been devoted specifically to the protocols and processes around reopening the industry,” says Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, general counsel and COO of the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the labor union commonly known as SAG-AFTRA. These protocols are vast and granular, specifically tailored to alleviate risk as much as possible in an environment where central workers have to take off their masks to successfully perform their jobs.
SAG-AFTRA has brought in outside consultants, epidemiologists, and industrial hygienists. And according to Crabtree-Ireland, it was having pre-production meetings for every project — up until the unions reached an agreement with the studios and streamers in September. This diligence stems from the fact that reopening affected every staff member, from the camera crew to the wardrobe department to the showrunner and producer.
“With Covid,” Schachter says, “what we’re doing is predicting a lot more.” Now, there’s a need to go beyond the questions of consent and comfortability embedded in sexual choreography, with coordinators facing the question of health and actors’ anxiety when re-entering work after isolation.
When asked about this responsibility, O’Brien — who is renowned for her intimacy work, perhaps most famously on Normal People — dovetails the pandemic and sex in a way that could melt any gender studies theorist: “We are not health experts, but we can pose to the actor, ‘Are you happy with this? Do you have any concerns we can help facilitate?”
O’Brien explains that the beauty of the intimacy coordinator role in the Covid-19 era is that it was already established prior to the pandemic, unlike newer roles created to oversee Covid-19-specific safety protocols and provide their stamp of approval for, say, staff bringing their own masks to work. Intimacy coordinators’ training has set them up for success; their onus to communicate comfortability and safety can now incorporate actors’ health apprehensions, making them well-suited and prepared for a Covid-19-conscious set.
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By HAYLEY ANDERSON
In the first episode of Behind Her Eyes, subscribers get a taste of the awkward relationship between David and Adele.
As she tries to seduce him, David reluctantly gives in and there is an intense sex scene where she says she loves him and her husband doesn't respond.
There is then a shift in the scene where the camera goes from one end of the mattress to the other and the next thing viewers know, it's gone from the evening to the following morning.
When talking about her favourite sex scenes, Behind Her Eyes' intimacy co-ordinator Ita O'Brien said this was one of the best.
O'Brien explained to Express.co.uk: "The scene in the first episode, we were going 'yes!'
"It's juicy, it's fun and I loved it because we had the intimate content, the detail of that and then [it went] from night to day.
"That felt like a really exciting moment when setting up and there were a couple of those, back when they [David and Adele] were young in Scotland.
"That again was another one on the track that goes around, so those things that are complex but you nail it and everyone feels like they've got something really special."
Another key moment for O'Brien is when David and Louise are having sex on the sofa in her flat.
Once again, this is because of the unique camera angles used where viewers get to see what's happening from a birds-eye point of view.
O'Brien said: "One of the many things that I loved about this was the voyeuristic aspect of all the intimate scenes.
"So it sometimes meant that you would have a scene and they would want to have a camera roving up and that's what made it challenging.
"You had the scene and then it's about where you shift the bed, where you shoot it all. "
O'Brien continued: "It's this image that you're always being watched and that was an added aspect of this production which I loved.
"The very fact that you saw it from that view and you see her go 'oh' and then you go 'so who is watching from that view?'"
Another key moment in the series for O'Brien is the dream sequence where Louise and David are having sex in her childhood bedroom.
She added how actors Brown and Bateman "nailed it", during this performance.
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BY SAM DAMSHENAS
It’s A Sin also became the first television production with an LGBTQ+ script in the UK to utilise an innovative new method of intimacy coordination for its sex scenes. Intimacy On Set, founded by Intimacy Coordinator and Movement Director Ita O’Brien, provides services to television, film and theatre productions that include scenes of sexual content and nudity, to make sure the actors involved aren’t pushed into a place of discomfort.
Ita tells GAY TIMES that her idea for these guidelines came to fruition in 2014, as she researched “the dynamic abuse in our society”. After one of her fellow colleagues at Mountview, one of the UK’s leading drama schools, asked her to teach the method to their students, Ita spent the next three years honing the technique so the entertainment industry could “do intimate content well”. Following various accusations of sexual misconduct aimed at Harvey Weinstein, and the subsequent Me Too movement, Ita’s guidelines were in high demand. Soon after, she landed work as an Intimacy Coordinator on Netflix’s Sex Education and BBC One’s Gentlemen Jack.
“We’re making sure there’s open communication, talking about it right from the get-go, way before the day on-set, putting in place agreement and consent. That’s across the board of touch, nudity and making sure there’s really clear choreography so there’s a physical structure, so all the actors know exactly what they’re gonna do, serve the writing and the director’s vision,” Ita says. “The intention is that nothing is left unsaid; everything’s communicated with clear details. We do our homework so that we make sure we’re honouring whatever the storytelling is and whatever physicality is asked. Then, we can create the best work.”
In the past, Ita reveals that she’s been on several problematic productions where the actors were in “fear” over filming sex scenes, due to a significant lack of “communication” with the director, who failed to outline what the scene should look like and how they should perform. “While they’re putting their clothes on, they’d be shaking. They’d walk on set and wouldn’t know what was going to happen,” she recalls. “Very often, they wouldn’t have even met the person they’re having the sex scene with. They’re told, ‘Get in front of the camera and do it.'” On numerous occasions, Ita would be told by a producer to ‘Check in with the actors, do waivers, stand back and do nothing.’ Ita remembers one specific incident where she attempted to help an anxious actor in the middle of their scene, which resulted in an unnamed, disgruntled director stepping in and shouting, ‘Just let her act it!’
“Before the guidelines, there was this unspoken place where it was like, ‘Everyone does sex, so we don’t need a specialist,’ when it’s actually a body dance. These are two people moving together with a rhythm. It’s just like a tango or a fight,” she states. “There’s a risk, when someone’s intimate and private body is at play, if it’s not done well, they can feel anything from awkward to harassed and downright abused. That impacts, not just someone’s artistry and craft, but their lives.”
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Today’s subject: Ita O’Brien, an intimacy coordinator for film and television and key player in reshaping the entertainment industry’s practices regarding intimate content. O’Brien has worked on a multitude of high-profile (and highly celebrated) projects that feature prominent themes of sex and intimacy, including Netflix’s Sex Education, HBO’s I May Destroy You and Hulu’s Normal People, and is the founder of the consultancy/advocacy organization Intimacy on Set that works with major studios all over the world. We spoke with O’Brien about ushering in a new era of communication, boundaries and safety around intimate content that the industry has lacked for far too long.
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By Casey Mink
Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You” struck a nerve with audiences, in part because of its hyper-realistic, challenging sex scenes (which depicted instances of assault). Fortunately, actors on the HBO miniseries had intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien as an advocate every step of the way. O’Brien, a leader in the field who has also choreographed for series including “Normal People” and “Sex Education,” spoke with Backstage about collaborating with Coel and how she protects performers’ psychological wellbeing.
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