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TV Networks Staff Shows With 'Intimacy Coordinators' To Monitor Sex Scenes


It's award season for the movie and television industries, which are still, as other workplaces are, grappling with the fallout from the #MeToo movement. But unlike other industries, entertainers are often called upon to have intimate contact with each other in ways that would be totally uncalled for in other workplaces.

So how to prevent abuse and harassment on set? To that end, some production houses are now hiring so-called intimacy coordinators to oversee sex scenes. HBO announced this fall that they would staff every one of its television shows and films that have intimate scenes with an intimacy coordinator. We wanted to understand more about what this work entails, so we've called Ita O'Brien. She is the intimacy coordinator for the new Netflix show "Sex Education." She's with us now from London.

Ms. O'Brien, thanks so much for talking to us.

ITA O'BRIEN: Thank you very much for inviting me.

MARTIN: So, first, what's the job description? What does an intimacy coordinator do for a production?

O'BRIEN: The intimacy coordinator is someone who is practiced in putting in place a clear structure and a process to go through when choreographing a sex scene. So it allows for - to serve the director's vision, make sure the writing's served, and then putting a clear structure in place so that then the actor can choreograph the sex scenes safely. And then it means when they come to then actually acting it and filming it that everybody knows exactly what's happening, and then they can actually create and act the sex scene in a way better way than has been done before.

MARTIN: If you weren't there, who would be doing that? The director?

O'BRIEN: Yes. Yes, absolutely. And, of course, what's happened in the past, a lot of bad practice hasn't been because anybody's been sort of harassing or abusing but just because there hasn't been a clear structure put in place, and some very big different scenarios would happen - like, the director might talk about the scene very clearly about what they want but then just not know that the next stage is actually not just leave it to chance but then to create the structure and sculpt the sex scene so that everybody knows exactly what's happening. So in the past, they would've spoken about it, and then go, right. Just go for it. And then you get a situation where the actors are just improvising as best they can what's asked of them.

Another scenario that's happened is that, again, the director will talk about it really clearly. You know, the director isn't someone who's practiced in helping to choreograph physical bodies and physical bodies moving. So then they'll say, OK. You two go and work it out for yourselves. So then you're into a situation where actors are left in - rather than still being in a professional situation, they're suddenly thrown into a private situation and might go to their trailer, or they might, you know, go to a rehearsal room, but they're left to their own devices. And so then he's, like, oh, right. OK. You know, what are you happy with?

And you get situations where perhaps an actor with more experience - they might then take the lead. And, you know, it's basically a no-brainer. You know, when I bring this work in, everybody goes, oh, my goodness. This is just so obvious. And why hasn't it happened before now?

MARTIN: Well, that was what I was thinking - in the sense that fight coordinators have existed for years in Hollywood, that they choreograph fight scenes. It's interesting, though, that this work has only recently become part of the experience. But I think people are familiar with the abusive situations.

I think the one that comes to mind for a lot of people is "Last Tango In Paris," where Maria Schneider says - for those who are familiar with the film - but it was in 1972, was a huge, you know, moment in film history - but a scene of violence between Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando. And Maria Schneider says that the director, who was a man - Bernardo Bertolucci - and Marlon Brando knew what was going to happen, but she didn't. And the director says that he wanted her to react - you know, he wanted her to really feel the humiliation of this scene.

Well, there's been a huge outcry about this subsequently. Many people - industry have talked about how just really wrong that is. But that happened in 1972. And yet, your work has only just - when has your role really become institutionalized?

O'BRIEN: OK. So my understanding of it is, unfortunately, money speaks. And the thing is that a production is going to take care when they've deemed there to be a risk. There was a time - I think it was about 30 years ago - when people would do stunts, and there wasn't a stunt coordinator there. They'd just go ahead and do them. And, of course, people were injured.

So for years, as you said, "Last Tango In Paris" in the '70s - that we've known that doing an intimate scene while you're intimate and private personal body's being violated results in injury. But that injury is emotional and psychological. And my sense is that that hasn't been taken into account. It hasn't been deemed something that is - that they need to take care, and that someone might be able to call or address - you know, call out a miss, a wrongdoing, and therefore take action and be able to sue.

For me, the shift has been post-Weinstein. So post-Weinstein, the time's up - the fact that, you know, you are being listened to and heard. And that's the difference - the understanding that the injury - it can be physical, but it's emotional and psychological is now being given credence. And codes of conduct is about what we don't want. We don't want abuse. We don't want harassment. But the intimacy guidelines, the intimacy on set guidelines gives a clear process that allows for transparency and for agreement and consent so that then everybody is on the same page. And then you can get a fabulous sex scene. You can get a fabulous moment of passion.

MARTIN: But, you know, the show that you worked on, "Sex Education," centers on sexual situations. I mean, it's about a high school student who's the son of a sex therapist who gives sex advice to his peers. Well, the reason I'm curious about this is that in part because of the whole question of consent is very, very important when it comes to people who are underage. But the also - other question I have is, these are people who one assumes are still pretty new at this game, right? And are they really going to say no if they're uncomfortable with something?

O'BRIEN: So, first of all, obviously, none of the actors who were cast in the roles that had their sex scenes were under 18. Everybody was sort of - absolutely over 18, you know, mostly into their 20s, early 20s. But you're absolutely right. There were - a lot of the actors were very new out of drama school and, you know, very often hadn't done - hadn't been asked to do a sex scene on set before. So that's where the production knew that they needed to take care of the actors and help support the actors in how to do the sex scenes and how to do them safely, which is where they contacted me and brought me in on the production.

MARTIN: How did you come to this work?

O'BRIEN: So I came to this work through my work as a movement director and when I was creating work around abuse, looking at the dynamic of abuse in our society. This - that was in 2014. And when I started looking at how at bringing actors together, inviting them to do the research and in order to explore the abuser and the perpetrator, I was looking at, how do I keep my actors safe? What practices and processes should I put in place in order to create a safe rehearsal room?

And so, in a way, for me, that was the beginning of it. I started looking at structures and processes that kept the actors safe so they could create the intimate work, create these - you know, explore the relationship to those dynamic, but do it in a safe way.

MARTIN: That's Ita O'Brien. She is the intimacy coordinator for the Netflix show "Sex Education."

Ita O'Brien, thanks so much for talking to us.

O'BRIEN: Thank you very much for inviting me.