Best of 2020 (Behind the Scenes): How Normal People 's intimacy coordinator made those sex scenes so sexy

Enda Bowe / Element Pictures / Hulu
In 2020 a TV show came out that made us all - quarantine or no quarantine - sad and horny. We're, of course, talking about the BBC and Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney's bestselling Normal People starring Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones. Since there has been enough sadness this year to last us a lifetime, let's talk about sex instead. The show's intimacy coordinator, Ita O'Brien (founder of Intimacy on Set and author of the Intimacy on Set guidelines that protect performers in scenes involving sex or nudity), introduces us to how these steamy scenes are made.
WEEKLY ENTERTAINMENT: Before we dive into normal people, tell me about the role of an intimacy coordinator and why it is so necessary.
ITA O'BRIEN: When you read a script and there is a waltz, you find that people don't necessarily know how to waltz. So we need a specialized choreographer to teach that. Or, of course, if we want to put swords in someone's hand, not only do people know how to play swords, we need a practitioner. Then there was this loophole. Just like a waltz, a sex scene is also a body dance and just like a fight, there is a risk and risk is that someone will become vulnerable if they are naked or touched in places that are not appropriate. It felt like everyone was doing sex so we don't have to teach technique. Then there is the realization that people are vulnerable. And as with any choreographed dance, you need a specialist who will help everyone talk about it properly and professionally and not gloss over consent. Consent is required for both touch and nudity, and simulated sexual content. So there is a need for a preparatory practitioner. Just like a choreographer, this practitioner employs clear choreography and brings in techniques. At first, of course, I had no idea that in the end I would help create a role as a practitioner who is now known as an intimacy coordinator.
The hope now is that it will always be the norm on set to have an intimacy coordinator to ensure that standard of actor care?
Yes absolutely. We invite producers to get this right from the start. If you read a script and include a dance, you get a choreographer. You'd do the exact same thing with the intimate content to make it just mundane. When I started talking about this post-Weinstein in 2017, I said, "I hope in five years ..." and here we are just a few years later and the shift is just fantastic. When I started teaching the work, the narrative I invited the actors to join was, "As a professional I want to give you, the director, the best of my acting skills, the writing, the intimate content and the style and way of serving. " to do this means to work professionally. “But at the time that narrative was really upside down. The testimony to Weinstein was,“ Oh, if you're an actor, you should be able to be naked. When you're an actor, you should be bold and intimate. "How many times have people come to workshops and say that it's the actor who does something like," Wait a minute, shouldn't we stop and talk about it? Shouldn't we be building a structure? ”And then it was they who feel unprofessional when they ask for it.
Thank god things have moved on. I would imagine that it can be so damaging, both professionally and personally, for a young actor to feel like they're going through something that makes them uncomfortable on set. Maybe abuse is too strong a word -
Abuse is actually not the wrong word for it. There are degrees of discomfort to harassment to outright abuse. It harms you, and this internal misappropriation has this lingering ripple effect. It harms a person's art. In normal people, we absolutely focused on the process, structure, relationship and connection so that the storytelling would be clear. As an actor, Paul said that he felt less uncomfortable than being in the audience, just sitting back and watching it.
Once you've gone through the script and determined the scenes you'll be working on, what's next? Sit down with the actors and directors?
The next is that I always want to serve the director's vision. Before I met Lenny [Abrahamson, director] he apparently got the idea that sometimes stunt coordinators would come in and they say, "Okay, I saw that moment so let's toss it over the sofa and then we'll hang on the chandeliers." He said, "Are you going to be like this?" and I will say, "No, I will listen to you. I will serve your vision and honor exactly what you want." With that in mind, I always say that the director talks to the actors about the scene first so it's really clear. Only after they have this conversation will I speak to the actors and say, "Great, you know the scene, you know what is wanted? What are you satisfied with? What are your concerns? What are you satisfied with nudity? Wise ? " I check all of this. After this conversation, I will speak to the cloakroom and make sure they have all the genital modesty clothing and everything ready. Then I'll talk to the first AD so we can work together and make sure we're on the same page and keep a really respectful, closed sentence. That is the preparation that needs to be done.
In some of those scenes where Connell (Mescal) and Marianne (Edgar-Jones) have sex, it just looks so realistic. Are there lots of choreographies and camera angles to make it seem so real? How do you actually do that
If you go back to that first scene you will find that you never see a whole body. You can really only see up from the chest. The same scene can make an actor incredibly vulnerable, depending on the camera angle. Honoring the one, honoring the director's vision and really choreographing it really clearly is one half of it, and the other half is absolutely where the camera is placed. Suzie Lavelle (cameraman) is just so creative here. Much of the book is about what the characters think, and their camerawork brings us very close to them. That scene [together for the first time] was such a complex scene - it lasts nine minutes. Lenny is such a generous soul and so experienced with his craft, but there is no ego with him. There was such ease and openness and collaboration with everyone. Paul and Daisy would have big conversations about what the scene meant and really question them. Someone who knows their craft might consider this a waste of time, but actually spending 20 minutes with your actors to have a conversation and get under the skin of every punch means that when you put it in front of a camera, you getting a bang I've got all the details Paul and Daisy were able to bring with them as a result of this collaboration.
How long does it take to shoot a scene like this first sex scene?
That was a whole day and it was boiling hot in the middle of summer. But when it comes to nudity, the actors are only as exposed as absolutely necessary, in each shot. So most of the time, they wear at least flesh-colored shorts and then sweatpants. That is always, always the case.
From a storytelling perspective, do you enjoy showing your growth through these scenes? For example, the difference between their lovemaking when they first met and when they get back together and each has more experience?
Yeah, in every scene is it where they are now? Who are you now When they get back together at university, they were both with other people, so we brought more of the body with us. We had a kiss on the stomach. We have them with our thumbs in our mouths and are more self-confident. Then when we came back after she was in Switzerland she did more research into the BDSM stuff and he was with Rachel so there is some level of confidence back there. In episode 12, we had her more on the floor than on the bed. That was a really conscious decision - there is a feeling of more freedom in the room. That's all part of what is taken into account.
After the scene is over, do the actors have a chance to watch it again and make sure they're okay with everything?
Yeah, that's a really important part of the process that gives the actors the chance to see the tapes before they get into the rest of the world so that the world doesn't get something they weren't prepared for. We need to be careful as intimacy coordinators because it's not about making promises, but rather about helping to facilitate the conversation between the actor and the production so that the actors can see that content.
It is also important that sex is included in the story not just for the sake of thrill or nudity, but must be an integral part of the narrative or promote it in some way.
Yes, and that goes back to how Sally talks about intimate content narration in ordinary people. It's not just: and then they have sex. It brings us a little more and I try to put that into the role of intimacy coordination. I said to Lenny when we were filming that I was really aware that this was groundbreaking intimate content. I knew that in every single role we had brought together a bag of absolutely magical practitioners, and that this produced something really, really special. It was a privilege to be a part of it.
Related content:
Paul Mescal of Ordinary People on Sally Rooney's TV novel, "What if I get this wrong?"
Hulus Normal People Trailer is full of sex, secrets, and insecurities
Sexy looks and subtle sighs: 7 reasons normal people aren't your normal TV romance
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