Portraying sex in movies is notoriously tricky.
In addition to the logistical challenges of capturing simulated intimacy, there are creative pressures. Before the #TimesUp movement disrupted the Hollywood power dynamic, it was not uncommon for directors to encourage improvisation in sex scenes. At times, they’d charge ahead without even a warning — such as the infamous on-set abuse during Last Tango in Paris — seeking an authentic reaction by creating real fear and humiliation.
In response to such clear vulnerabilities, the role of the intimacy coordinator emerged over the past decade, and shot to prominence after the #MeToo tipping point. Actors are famously groomed to say “yes.” An intimacy coordinator is an on-set ally, helping players set boundaries and choreographing sex scenes as precisely as fight sequences.
As Harvey Weinstein’s trial began, intimacy coordinators were hitting their stride. They’re a staple on HBO productions. The Screen Actors Guild ushered in recommended standards and protocols for the profession this January.
Then, like everything else in 2020, things got a whole lot harder.
Film and television industries have struggled to reopen after COVID-19 shutdowns. In June, a sequel to Avatar resumed filming in New Zealand, but few countries have had that country’s success at controlling the spread of the virus.
After a long, dry spell, a handful of TV shows have begun filming new episodes. Productions have had to get creative. Viewers can expect more “bottle” plots, where the action follows one or two characters on a story arc using minimal sets, cast and crew. They’ll likely employ more editing tricks, such as scenes where the distance between characters is “cheated” by the camera angle.
But it’s hard to cheat the distance in a kiss.
Initially, some shows simply rewrote their scripts to omit intimate contact. But an industry that has long pushed the envelope on sex and nudity knows steamy scenes keep the fans coming back.
Intimacy coordinators could play a vital role in navigating actors’ comfort and consent around health risks during the pandemic. Suddenly, full-frontal nudity may be less fraught than sharing a kiss.
Some productions have considered alternatives to physical intimacy, such as phone sex, or relying on innuendo, infusing COVID-era productions with a retro nudge-and-wink vibe. Taking another tack, at least one soap opera has hired actors’ real-life partners, and even employed mannequins for intimate scenes.
Four Hollywood unions representing crew members, actors and directors have teamed up to develop The Safe Way Forward, joint protocols for working safely through the pandemic. The cornerstone is frequent testing, particularly within zones where people must share space without personal protective equipment.
They emphasize “performers are the most vulnerable people on the set.” For those involved in scenes with intimate contact or extreme exertion, daily testing is recommended, using rapid-result Cepheid tests administered on site.
As with the resumption of professional sports, the approach raises ethical questions of diverting scarce medical resources in the name of entertainment. Beyond asking if it’s worth it, we must satisfy the ongoing question: Is it working? Enhanced safety measures haven’t proved particularly effective in baseball, and those players are just swinging a bat.
Since 1972, the organization American Humane has been assuring audiences “no animals were harmed” in movie end credits. We should be able to say that much with confidence about the humans, too.