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Quiet on Set Please!

The Impact of Intimacy Co-ordination on Production Sets.

By Durga Sharma

a film slate
Picture courtesy of Cottonbro studios on Pexels

I love a night in; fluffy socks, a film or TV show, a snack assortment… It was during my

latest cosy evening that I started thinking about how much the production industry has changed since its inception in the 1880s. Previously silent works with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, now there is colour, noir, and just about every genre imaginable. But it’s not just the range - production sets as a whole have evolved exponentially. One of the most fascinating additions are intimacy co-ordinators, something I hadn’t heard of until Jessica Steinrock (a US-based intimacy co-ordinator) popped up in my feed six months ago.

Intimacy co-ordination was first established in the US in 2016 by actors Alicia Rodis, Tonia Sina, and Siobhan Richardson with the creation of Intimacy Directors International, now known as Intimacy Directors and Coordinators or the IDC. It was born out of Sina’s graduate thesis, combined with the actors’ negative personal experiences on production sets. The IDC defines this role as “…a choreographer, an advocate for actors, and a liaison between actors and production for scenes that involve nudity/hyper-exposed work, simulated sex acts, and/or intimate physical contact.” Directors focus on theatre and live performance, while co-ordinators work within TV and film. The aim was to make sets safer, more ethical places, and improve communication within the realm of sexual scenes.

Nudity and sex have been on screen since the 1930s, with a notable example being Ecstasy in 1933. However, this aspect of films was quickly curtailed with the introduction of the 1934 Motion Production Picture Code - also known as the Hays Code - which banned any sexual content. This did not last long, with its abolition in 1968. In the aftermath, directors re-engaged enthusiastically with explicit content, causing controversy with films such as 1973’s Last Tango in Paris. At the time, the only issue people held with it was a particularly graphic scene involving sexual assault, but in the cold light of post-production we see another problem - the way Maria Schneider was treated during the filming. She reported not being informed or prepared prior to filming; the scene felt violating. It sounds archaic, but this is not a thing of the past. Much more recently, actors Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos spoke out post-production to describe the - in my view degrading - treatment they received on the set of Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013).

Intimacy co-ordination works to prevent this by independently re-enforcing boundaries. Previously, sex scenes were choreographed and managed by the director, making it almost impossible to speak out, and reinforcing the ‘yes’ attitude some actors report experiencing. That’s the primary reason Heartstopper has an intimacy co-ordinator: a 12-rated show with no spicy scenes in its first two seasons (besides that iconic hickey), the co-ordinator David Thackeray wanted to prevent the ‘yes’ attitude from taking hold in a group of young actors, many of whom were just starting out.

Though its need was clear when the system was established in 2016, it took nearly two years for the role to be taken seriously. In fact, it took one Weinstein Scandal. It was in the wake of this horrific chain of events and the subsequent #MeToo movement that intimacy co-ordination really took off. Working within the entertainment industry should never just be about ‘managing’ - everyone should be able to thrive in a healthy working environment.

Though it is definitely important to protect the actors on set, it is equally vital to look out for the production members. Having an intimacy co-ordinator ensures that everybody involved in the shoot has consented to what is being filmed that day and are comfortable with seeing hyper-exposed work. For the actors themselves, there are plenty of protections available. Besides using barriers and coverups during the shoot itself, the scene is choreographed and rehearsed in advance with a co-ordinator present, much like a physical stunt. Additionally, the SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) guidelines stipulate that any scripts for sexual scenes cannot be changed 48 hours before the shoot. These are just some of the protections for the people involved in filming spicy scenes.

So, how do you become an intimacy co-ordinator? The IDC runs workshops through seven organisations accredited by SAG-AFTRA, two of which are based in the UK. They are reviewed biennially to ensure they continue to meet the Guild’s standards. Certification is an option, though interestingly, this is not a requirement - SAG-AFTRA wants to avoid unnecessary boundaries. While they do recommend that there is an intimacy co-ordinator on these types of projects, they only require proof of training, not certification.

Yet the employment of an intimacy co-ordinator remains just that - a recommendation. Currently there are no laws requiring that they be present on set. However, companies such as HBO are making it an internal requirement for intimacy co-ordinators to be hired. Time’s Up UK (a charity set up in the wake of the Weinstein scandal) are also campaigning for the recommendation to become a legal requirement. There is hope: in the wake of recent and ongoing SAG-AFTRA strikes, the 2023 Agreement states that producers must make a “good faith effort” to engage intimacy co-ordinators where appropriate. Also, the 48-hour rule will now extend to background performers as well as principal cast members.

As we continue to watch production set evolution, I wonder how much this area will develop. Hopefully, the use of intimacy co-ordinators becomes commonplace rather than a novelty. If larger streaming companies could adopt HBO’s thinking, I believe it would encourage others to follow suit. Netflix comes to mind - while big name shows like Bridgerton and Sex Education have used intimacy co-ordinators, they still do not require it. In fact, Sex Education was the first Netflix-produced show to employ a co-ordinator, and that was only in 2020. If this changes, the safety of both cast and crew can only continue to improve. Watch this space - this is just the beginning.


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