Did you know the 1964 TV show Bewitched featured the first on screen couple to be seen (shock horror!) sharing the same bed? It may sound weird in 2023, but even couples who were married both in real life and on the screen were traditionally shown in twin beds to remove the connotation that they might be having sex.
Whilst it’s good that we now live in an age where the realities of life – including sex – can be portrayed on the big screen, filming explicit content is complicated and can be detrimental to the cast if not handled correctly. Stars of Game of Thrones (which first aired in 2011) have since spoken out about the chaos, lack of consent and feelings of overwhelm and coercion that they experienced on set. Power dynamics can make standing up for your boundaries difficult, especially if you’re new to the screen and don’t want to mess up your big break.
Since the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements highlighted the lack of and need for consent and agency on and off set, a new role dedicated to making sure intimacy on screen is handled correctly has sprung up. Welcome to the age of intimacy coordinators!
We spoke to Louise Kempton, an intimacy coordinator, movement director and actor, to find out more about what an intimacy coordinator does.
What does an intimacy coordinator actually do?
Intimacy coordinators are brought on by productions – whether TV, theatre, or film – as movement specialists to help choreograph and support intimate work. The easiest thing to equate us to is stunt coordinators. We have an understanding of the body, choreography and how people work together, and we are there to mitigate risk.
So with a fight scene, the stunt coordinator makes sure it is done safely, and with consensus and agreement. They make sure it’s fulfilling the creative vision of the director and the cast, but also staying within the boundaries of the actors and their physical capabilities. It’s the same with the intimacy coordinator. We hopefully help produce something that is beautiful, interesting and serves the narrative of the story, but also acknowledges and respects the boundaries of the cast.
How long have intimacy coordinators been a thing?
I think the US has had intimacy directors since 2015/2014. I’ve been doing it since 2019, and that was quite early on in the UK. I suppose it was starting to pick up pace after the Me Too movement. We haven’t reinvented the wheel: intimacy coordination has developed from directors, movement directors, and stunt coordinators. Many people had been working with these best practices, and doing the job before the intimacy coordinator role was specifically made.
How much agency do actors have over what they will and won’t do on set?
Intimacy coordinators are advocates for the cast and crew, because it can be challenging for them. It all depends on experience, and there is as much power and status as with any kind of job. Sometimes more experienced actors don’t have that power struggle with the directors and producers.
I’m working with a lot of quite young actors right now, actors who are quite new to TV. I’m that middle person. I go to the production, I talk to the director, I try to understand what their vision is and what kind of story the writer wants to tell. And then I meet with the actors and the cast to individually check in with their boundaries.
Hopefully, they can trust me enough to be able to say no, because if I’m offering them that no. Lots of coordinators talk about how actors are often yes people. So saying no – or pausing for a moment to think – can be difficult. It’s not necessarily the normal procedure. I hope that we allow actors on set to have advocacy and autonomy over their work. Sometimes it’s more about facilitating the actors’ conversation with the director, so we’re that person in the room to enable those conversations. We are there to help nurture that collaborative space. And sometimes we are the third party that they can come to independently.
Do you think actors are safer and have more agency on set than they used to?
I think having an intimacy coordinator helps promote the agency of the actor before they even get the job. Actors can ask what intimate content will be in the show. Is there any nudity? Will my character be expected to have sex? They should be able to ask those questions and then really consider if it’s right for them. I really think that we’re making it a safer, more collaborative space for actors and particularly new or young actors. There’s still more to do. There still needs to be more diversity within the community, but it’s growing and it’s getting better. When I first started intimacy coordination in 2019, no one would know what my role was when I stepped on set. Now everyone knows. Just having that understanding of your role is a massive step up in appreciating the work overall. I think it’s definitely improving.
Are there any laws or regulations around intimacy in film, tv and theatre?
Obviously, for children and young actors under 18, there are certain laws around what they can and can’t do, from how many hours you’re allowed on set to child protection and things like that.
With regards to adult actors, they have agents and lots of productions have legal teams. I help create nudity riders and simulated sex riders. These riders are normally only written for scenes of simulated sex or sexual foreplay, and degrees of nudity and undress. So for example, an actor agrees to full back nudity, including buttocks and gluteal cleft, and absolutely no frontal genitalia. And you do that for each of the scenes that requires that kind of attention. An actor can sign the rider.
However, if on the day it feels completely out of their comfort zone, something is triggering them or they’re really not happy, then they can still say no. If we’ve already recorded some content, then the production is entitled to use that content. But you can still say no, and producers and directors should be aiming for an environment in which your cast and company can be saying yes freely. We may not necessarily have laws, but we’ve got lots of protocols and guidelines in place on how to work.
How do intimacy coordinators help with sex scenes?
So I get sent the whole script of a series or a film, and I go through the script with a fine-tooth comb. I underline, highlight and draw out anything that is deemed as intimacy, from hand holding intimacy to full on penetrative sex.
Intimacy could look like somebody in the shower or sitting on the toilet, it could be people getting stripped down to their underwear – anything that’s beyond the normal, fully clothed person. It’s important to highlight everything and have the conversations to cover all bases. Some productions may just want you for three intense scenes, and other shows may ask you to weigh in on anything that could be classed as intimacy. So I highlight everything. And I go through and outline whether it’s essential, recommended, suggested or cast preference to have support because that’s where risk assessment comes in.
Depending on how the director works and how the cast want to work, I can be quite involved with the choreography and the movement. In some scenes I’m creating the whole choreography beat by beat. With other scenes I’m purely there to facilitate how they want to work and I’m just the person in the room doing check-ins, so it really varies project to project. Then I’m there on the day of filming just to make sure that everything that is happening is what has been agreed to.
I also help with the set, so say there’s a scene of nudity in the shower, you need to work out what is in the shot. Is it going to be frosted glass? Is the curtain see-through? Do we know what body parts we’re going to see? I find all of that out. Then I liaise with the wardrobe department. Are there any modesty garments that need wearing?
I work with the makeup department if there’s, for example, tattoos we want covered. I’m often in touch with the location department about temperature. If we’ve got scenes outside, are there tents for privacy? Is there any public access? Do we have that cornered off?
There’s lots of things to think about when you’re doing intimate scenes that people might not realise they need to prepare for. There’s nothing worse than setting up for the day and you suddenly go: “Oh, we’re doing this outside scene, but there’s a whole load of houses there, we need to let them know that something’s happening on the lawn at the front.”
Obviously people who are having simulated sex on screen aren’t actually having sex, but it can look very real. How do you prevent sexual contact when people look very naked?
In a scene I was working on recently, there’s two actors and they’ve got some kissing scenes and a simulated sex scene. In the kissing scene, they are really kissing. There’s lip contact, we’re just not using any tongue. So that is a physical thing that’s actually happening. Whereas with simulated sex, we are finding the physical shapes and finding the physical rhythm. But we will never have genitalia touching.
How we do that depends on your framing, it depends on the props and the set. Are you in bed? Great! You’ve got covers to cover your genitals, so we can have a cushion or a barrier in between them. Other things are more complicated. So if you’ve got two naked bodies, we have to be clever with body positions, legs, camera angles. They will have a modesty patch at minimum. If they’re under the covers and might be wearing leggings or tracksuit bottoms.
Why do you think intimacy coordinators are important?
I think they help make really good moments of storytelling, and they also help an audience feel safe. Audiences are savvy now and they know these intimacy coordinators exist. If you’re going to watch a film or programme, you’re sitting there going: “Oh, are they really doing that” and it can be worrying, but then if the audience sees that they’ve got an intimacy coordinator, they feel more comfortable about it somehow, you know. Like people don’t want to watch a real fight. Everyone wants to watch a real good stage fight. You want to believe the actors are acting. We don’t just help the cast and crew, but it’s the audience on the other side when the show is out there to appreciate the craft and skill of an actor and to appreciate storytelling.
What shows are you working on at the moment?
I’m really proud of a lovely show that’s on Amazon Prime called Fifteen Love. That’s out now, with some fantastic actors. It’s about a tennis coach taking advantage of his young protege. And about the sort of horror stories that have come up through sports coaches and their and their stars. That was sort of a grey area to do with age, consent and intimate relationships. The whole programme is about their intimacy. So that was a job that I was very much involved in.
I was also involved in an indie film that’s just come out now called Hoard, directed by Luna Carmoon. I think it’s seriously arty, wicked and something very different to what I’ve worked on before. I’ve had varied experiences with different kinds of intimacy, which is always fun.
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Louise Kempton does not endorse any products or brands.