Over the past several years, intimacy coordination has rapidly become one of the most essential aspects of production in Hollywood. The #MeToo movement exposed not only sexual assault and harassment prevalent in Hollywood, but the kind of environments and power dynamics that enable such situations.
At South by Southwest 2023, Regina Banall and Laura Rikard, two experts in intimacy coordination, hosted an hourlong Q&A for filmmakers on how to create better, safer sets while also filming sexual scenes. Banall is part of the Intimacy Coordinators Alliance for Film and Television, and Rikard specializes in theatre intimacy education.
The hour showed just how important it is to discuss sex scenes and intimacy coordination comfortably and openly, not just for actors and directors but for everyone involved in the filmmaking process and learning about it.
While it doesn’t need to be overly sanitized, Rikard noted that desexualized language can go a long way. That doesn’t mean shying away from sex-positive or explicit terms, but keeping things professional. She gave an example, saying one might direct actors to “open and close the distance between your pelvis over an eight-count.” While the act and action are still sexual in the context of the scene, this wording gives a clear breakdown of the necessary movement, and Banall noted that touch-levels (skin, muscle, bone) would already be established.
In other words: “We’re never saying make love, have sex, go fuck each other,” Rikard said.
In theatre intimacy studies, Rikard teaches her students how to talk through these situations, including to minors. The language and terminology might be different for a child than a teen than an adult, but what matters is that the cast and crew feel equipped to communicate what they want, what they’re doing, and what doesn’t work. Having those conversations repeatedly and at different ages normalizes the topic and helps actors set boundaries throughout their careers.
An intimacy coordinator should never direct a scene, the panelists noted, but instead work with the director to shape the scene. Communicating with actors is also highly nuanced, dealing with varying ages and experience levels. An emerging actor might respond to an intimacy coordinator very differently from an established veteran, and there might be resistance to this new set position or the caution surrounding it. All of that is tension that can be defused by the intimacy coordinator with the right care.
“If [your intimacy coordinators] don’t do an end of day report, don’t hire them,” Rikard told the room. After each day on set, intimacy coordinators should interview everyone present about what they did, the precautions they took, and — most critically — how everyone felt that day. The report is filed to whoever is the intimacy coordinator’s point of contact, usually a first AD or showrunner, and used to flag any mishaps and as a record.
Rikard and Banall also stressed that no one should hire an intimacy coordinator simply because they’re certified — not least because certification varies state-to-state. This is still a new position and evolving field which requires a thorough interview process. Whoever is hiring should be asking about an intimacy coordinator’s process and methods, even their essential toolkit (Banall’s includes memory foam and an exercise ball to keep actors from extra physical strain).
As beneficial as an intimacy coordinator can be to mental health and wellbeing on set, that is not their job. Intimacy coordinators cannot diagnose or treat, and cannot be held responsible or treated as a replacement for actual counseling.
Rikard told everyone present to watch “Brainwashed,” a documentary from director Nina Menkes that breaks down the relationship between Hollywood’s murky sexual politics and how sex is depicted on-camera. She often uses it as an example of why a shot will or won’t work, and sometimes to simply note to the director that something isn’t new and can be filmed more originally.
“And how about no more mutual orgasms?” Banall added to a chorus of laughter. “I’m old enough to know that’s not possible, so no more.”