By Shirley Li
Just when you thought you had heard everything, along comes ‘Intimacy co-ordinators’ they have become popular guides on TV and film sets during the #MeToo movement. But in this new socially distanced world, they run the risk of being sidelined.
In a world of social distancing, touching can be a turnoff—even on screen. With productions being allowed to resume in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and abroad, industry guilds and labour unions have drafted proposals for new on-set safety protocols during the coronavirus pandemic. A common recommendation? Limit the amount of time actors have to closely interact.
That’s an issue for intimacy coordinators, people whose jobs are dependent on, well, intimacy. The role, which involves coaching and facilitating sex scenes and nudity on television and film sets, is relatively new, pioneered in the mid-2010s but growing in demand after the #MeToo movement, in late 2017, inspired the industry to rethink the vulnerability of actors during sex scenes. Despite usually being filmed on closed sets with a limited number of crew members present, such scenes traditionally lacked protocols, traumatizing many many performers physically and psychologically.
Given the novelty of the position, most intimacy coordinators finished their training and landed their first jobs in the past two to three years. Jean Franzblau, for instance, began her training only in January 2019; she had just wrapped one of her biggest jobs, the erotic thriller Deep Water, starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, when the pandemic hit in early March. “Many of us are like, ‘What just happened?’” Franzblau told me over the phone. “‘Did we just pivot into a new career that’s going to disappear?’”
Hopefully not. In fact, the work of intimacy coordinators could prove even more necessary amid the pandemic. Beyond choreographing explicitly intimate scenes, the coordinators assist actors in defining boundaries and “interrupting the power dynamic,” explains Amanda Blumenthal, an intimacy coordinator who also trains people for the position through her organization, the Intimacy Professionals Associations. The role is therefore well suited for guiding casts and crews through pandemic-induced unease around touching, and for collaborating with the proposed coronavirus “compliance officers” who will oversee medical safety. “This position’s going to be more important than ever in a COVID world in which we’re trying to navigate intimacy,” Blumenthal says. “Part of the job of the intimacy coordinator is we have these really difficult discussions around informed consent and making sure that actors have the information they need in order to make the decision that’s right for them.”
But as filming begins to pick up, the essential work of intimacy coordinators runs the risk of being overlooked. As much as the #MeToo movement led to more interest in guidance and oversight around sex and nudity, intimacy coordinators haven’t been the most welcome on sets. Creating a space to talk about boundaries can feel burdensome for filmmakers, like added pressure on top of the already exhausting task of making a shoot run on time and within budget. All of the intimacy coordinators I spoke with recalled being seen as wet blankets by men and women alike, as human-resource staffers sent to police artists, there to check a box on a form so a production could move forward with a clear conscience. On call sheets, they remain listed under “miscellaneous crew,” as if their presence were optional, rather than a requirement.
Yet, to the intimacy coordinators I interviewed, ensuring actors’ safety during sex scenes should be considered mandatory. All of them told me of their past life on sets—some as actors themselves—where they witnessed the dangers firsthand. Franzblau told me that her previous work as an actor and her personal history as a sexual-assault survivor help her empathize with performers in a way that other crew members likely can’t: She recalled a moment on the set of an independent film when an actor struggled through dialogue recounting her character’s history of sexual violence. “She started to look off into the distance,” Franzblau said. “We stopped production for a bit, and we did some exercises to help her become more grounded and connected to her body and to feel her sadness as a person, not as an actor. There was something in the chemistry of my being present for her as a person [that] actually helped her feel more ready to tackle the scene as an actor.”
Intimacy coordinators can also help collaborate creatively. Ita O’Brien, a U.K.-based intimacy coordinator who helped establish guidelines for the job abroad, remembers an instance on the set of Netflix’s Sex Education when two actors admitted they were uncomfortable with a scene in which they had to spit on each other. She then worked with production to figure out a way to film the actors separately just for the shots involving spitting, using camera tricks and a spitlike substance to avoid making the actors do the deed. She likens her work to choreographing a dance in a larger show: “At the end of the day, that’s what an intimate scene is,” she says. “It’s two people moving together physically at whatever rhythms, to tell the story. And that needs a professional who is practiced in the whole art of the dance … When their personal body is being taken care of, it means that professionally they can bring all of their skills of acting to the intimate content.”
HBO Hires intimacy co-ordinators for all its productions.
Given the strides they’ve made in just a handful of years, intimacy coordinators don’t want to lose their momentum. So, even without a union representing their work, they’ve continued working during the shutdown, brainstorming ways to sustain their work and help intimate scenes survive social distancing. Blumenthal has been front-loading her training program with lectures and saving the practical component—shadowing established intimacy coordinators and gaining on-set experience—for later in the course. In meetings, coordinators have worked on proposals to pitch productions on revising schedules to save intimate content for later months, “carrying” an intimacy coordinator with the crew for the full run of filming rather than bringing them on as day players, and handling pre-production work—as in interviews with actors, directors, and producers to discuss boundaries—virtually. O’Brien told me she’s been involved in the creative process for one production since the start of the shutdowns, assisting in choreographing ways to reduce touching between the actors ahead of time, without writing intimacy out entirely. What’s hot on-screen, she pointed out, doesn’t need to be hot on set.
Still, none of the intimacy coordinators I spoke with have lined up on-set work just yet. Most productions remain in limbo, mired in working out the logistics around testing, social distancing, travel, insurance, scheduling, and acquiring personal protective equipment. The ones that have resumed production abroad, even soap operas, have been avoiding intimate scenes altogether. Throughout the pages of proposed guidelines that have been released, there’s little about how intimacy coordinators can continue to be integrated physically with the crew.
Plus, actors could be even more vulnerable to sexual harassment and misconduct; after being unemployed for months because of the pandemic, they may be more willing to compromise their personal limits in order to return to work. “Actors are very hardwired to say yes to everything,” the casting director and intimacy coordinator Marci Liroff told me. “They don’t want to ask for what they need, and they don’t want to speak up, because they’re not in control.”
Other intimacy coordinators take a more optimistic view. Alicia Rodis, who helped establish the position even before the #MeToo movement began, doesn’t think the industry will lose sight of the importance of performers’ safety just because productions will be harder to run. “I hate to think that because of the pandemic, we would now stop trying to continue to dismantle the problematic systems of power that we have on sets, that make an intimacy coordinator absolutely necessary,” she told me over Zoom. “Like, ‘Okay, we’ve had intimacy coordinators for a little while; I think we’re good?’ No, no, no … What a shame it would be if we just ignored the good that intimacy coordination has brought, just because something else reared its head.”
Besides, she added, even if Hollywood goes for months without intimate scenes being shot, “intimacy is intimacy and physical connection is a part of storytelling.”
If there’s a silver lining to the pandemic, the intimacy coordinator Katherine O’Keefe observes, it has to be the fact that people are having conversations about personal space: “I hope [the lockdown] makes people actually realize that it’s something they have to take seriously,” she said. “Sex and intimacy and nudity are a part of the human experience, and they are very powerful things, but like a stunt, they are high risk.”
Sarah Scott, an actor and intimacy coordinator, agrees. “That’s something that would never have been discussed before, like, ‘Are we going to touch?’” she says. “All of a sudden, people are a lot more aware of consent … Hopefully that sort of has an effect on Hollywood. I think, how can’t it?”