Film and Television are cornerstones of our culture. We have all been sitting on the couch, wrapped in the world and story of a movie or television show. Then things on-screen start getting steamy, and the gorgeous actors drop their clothes for a passionate love scene.
Most people tend to think one of two things when watching simulated sex:
- How do they make it look so real?
- Why does this happen every time I watch a movie with my parents?
While the average person is more media-savvy than ever, there is still a mystery as to how actors and directors shoot nudity and sex scenes. Most aspects of filmmaking are still analogous to the early days of Hollywood, but the emerging field of Intimacy Coordination has brought much-needed change.
What is an Intimacy Coordinator? Is It Just About Sex Scenes?
According to The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Actors (SAG-AFTRA), the Intimacy Coordinator is “an advocate, a liaison between actors and production …in regard to nudity and simulated sex.”
Intimacy Coordinators, or ICs, are most known for nudity and sex scenes, but the term “intimate” is rather broad. The big argument scene in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story can be seen as far more intimate than the average bone session.
And what about scenes of racialized violence or sexual harassment?
According to Chantal Cousineau, an actor and Intimacy Coordinator from Canada, “intimacy” really means anything that can drudge up or cause trauma. During an interview on the YouTube channel Merideth for Real, Cousineau explained:
“…anything emotionally charged. Like childbirth or a physical altercation, an emotionally charged altercation, between two characters.”
To be clear, ICs are NOT therapists.
Even with training and certification, Intimacy Coordinators are not qualified to treat actors as patients. Barry Jenkin’s miniseries The Underground Railroad, a fictionalized story about escaping slavery, had both Intimacy Coordinators and a team of therapists on set to help the predominantly Black cast and crew process the horrors of that subject matter.
Basically, an Intimacy Coordinator collaborates with artists to advocate for the safety and well-being of actors when shooting anything that can traumatize or trigger them. They ensure everyone is consenting to what is being filmed and that the cast and crew are on the same page.
Making (Recent) History on the Scene
Sex on camera was invented probably two seconds after the invention of the camera itself. Surprisingly, or sadly, the field of Intimacy Coordination has only been around for less than a decade.
In 2016, Stunt and Fight Coordinator Alicia Rodis joined fellow Fight Coordinator Tonia Sina and Siobhan Richardson to form Intimacy Directors International, now called Intimacy Directors and Coordinators. The Canadian group began making waves up north before adding Claire Warden, who is based in New York.
Having bad-ass Stunt professionals handle sensitive moments may seem odd, but IC Trainee Kiami Nichols summed up the position as “emotional Stunt coordination.”
The timing might also feel appropriate, considering The #MeToo movement began garnering worldwide recognition in 2015, but the idea of Intimacy Coordination had been brewing for a while. Both Rodis and Sina had experiences as up-and-coming actors that compelled them to create the trailblazing position.
It wasn’t until 2018 when ICs were brought to America for the second season of HBO’s The Duece, a show set in the sleazy world of 1970s porn. Soon after, HBO announced all of their productions would have Intimacy Coordinators as part of the crew.
As of 2022, hiring ICs is not required for a show to get the green light, but it is encouraged.
It makes sense – the rise of homemade OnlyFans accounts and cam sites has happened partially as a response to the manipulative (and sometimes abusive) power dynamics at play for actors in porn films (especially women).
It seems similar action is needed in the fictionalized porn world too.
Is This All Really Necessary?
Why would a major studio production even need an Intimacy Coordinator? Aren’t there already strict rules about simulated sex and nudity?
Oh, my sweet summer child.
The reality can be easily summed up by pointing out the Weinstein-shaped elephant in the room. Hollywood has a long and detailed history of actors being taken advantage of on and off the set.
There are actually no iron-clad rules when it comes to filming sex scenes. A performer may have a clause, also known as a “rider,” in their contract about what they will and won’t do, but that’s about it.
Going beyond butts and boobs on the silver screen, acting can be emotionally and psychologically taxing. Actors need to draw from a well of emotion to convincingly portray things like sorrow or fear.
There are so many heartbreaking stories of Directors mentally torturing their actors, almost always women, to the point of life-long damage.
Kubrick’s infamous, and disgusting, treatment of Shelly Duvall while filming The Shining, where she endured hundreds of takes of emotional abuse and on-set bullying by Kubrick himself, could have been avoided with an Intimacy Coordinator standing nearby to stand up for Duvall.
ICs help provide a safe space and after-care, so the talent doesn’t carry their character’s trauma with them when the cameras stop rolling.
And a 1, And a 2…
Intimacy coordination does not mean being a buzz kill. Like any good party host, they are there to ensure everyone feels free to have fun while staying safe.
Making sure a sex scene is both hot and safe requires more than just talking through emotions but also choreography.
Greg Daniels, co-creator of Parks & Rec and the American version of The Office, talked about his first experience working with an Intimacy Coordinator on his Amazon show Upload:
“I assumed she was going to put some maturity in there and ask everyone to tone it down, and she was just thumbing through the Kama Sutra, like, ‘How about this? What if we did that?’”
The idea of blocking out every move doesn’t sound very sexy, but much like preparing for stunts, it is paramount that everyone is on the same page and can perform as comfortably as possible.
Kiami Nichols points out a more practical reason for this lack of spontaneity:
“On set, time is everything. So, [actors and the crew] need to be able to get shot after shot quickly and keep continuity.”
Having every touch and pump planned out doesn’t mean there is no room for improv or changing things up on the day. The choreography does, however, keep things from going off the rails and on schedule.
For the Intimacy Coordinator, understanding the etiquette of working on a set is necessary. Their job is not to override the Director’s vision or interrupt takes to check on the actors. Preparation and communication keep everyone happy and the production running smoother than a dolphin coated in K-Y.
Speaking of all things kinky…
Going Beyond Vanilla – Exploring Kink, LGBTQ People & More
The concept of representation is also at the forefront of Intimacy Coordination. Just as there is a wide variety of entertainment genres, there is a cornucopia of sexual activities and cultures.
BDSM, kink, dude-on-dude, lady-on-lady, they-on-them, dude-on-lady-on-they, the list goes on.
The wide world of sex and intimacy is complex and can be poorly represented if done by a well-meaning but uneducated Director.
Those training to become ICs take classes in BDSM not only to learn how to portray it accurately but also about the importance of consent when engaging in such activities. Further education on Trans and Differently-abled bodies is also encouraged.
Another field of study that is encouraged is other modern cultures. For example, a white hetero male probably doesn’t know the, ahem, ins and outs of interracial sexuality. No matter what their search history says.
Mia Schachter, co-founder of the training program The Centaury Co., told The Hollywood Reporter about an experience on the set of HBO’s Insecure that highlights the importance of diversity and cultural sensitivity:
“I was working on a set with a white woman director and two Black actors. The director asked the male actor to run his fingers through the female actor’s hair. I reached out to a Black colleague to ask if intervening was something within my domain as an IC, and she told me, ‘Yes, because that’s not how Black people show care and intimacy and love.’ This reinforced for me that I’m not the right person for every gig and that we desperately needed further representation in the field in Los Angeles.”
As with any new and rapidly expanding field, there will be growing pains. That is why there is such a strong emphasis on training and education for aspiring ICs.
That’s a Wrap
Every studio wants a mega-franchise on the level of the MCU, and that can make commercial artists wary of pushing the envelope. Additionally, creators and producers fear becoming the center of a scandal and can choose to avoid tough subjects such as sex and trauma.
No matter the gender, race, or orientation, ICs advocate for everyone’s well-being and help bring art to life.
Intimacy Coordination professionals are here to keep hot and hard-hitting stories alive with empathy and collaboration. It can be disheartening to think that they have not been around since the beginning, but we can all be grateful the position exists now.
Hopefully, this is a role that will continue to flourish and gain popularity.