What is Intimacy Coordination?

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Nowadays, it is almost impossible to watch a movie or TV show that does not feature some type of romantic relationship, as well as intimate scenes. From kissing to more sexual content, viewers are quite used to watching explicit scenes. But what exactly is the behind-the-scenes process? How is the on-screen intimacy so realistic? And what professional measures are put in place to ensure the well-being and comfort of the actors?

All these questions can be answered by a relatively recent but important profession known as intimacy coordinator (or intimacy director). These experienced professionals work in collaboration with the director, actors and other crew members to bring to vision and shoot intimate or nudity scenes, both in pre-production and during the shootings. They simultaneously create the most realistic result possible and advocate for the actors best interests, protecting their mental and physical well-being, serving as a mediator and facilitating communication.

Only in recent years have we seen a rise in the use of intimacy coordinators, as well as the acknowledgement of its importance and essentiality on a set. Some giants of the industry have already caught up on this, as for example, Netflix hired their first intimacy coordinator, Ita O’Brien, for the shooting of Sex Education, released in 2019. In HBO’s case, during the shooting of The Deuce, in 2008, after actress Emily Meade demanded HBO executives for a professional to help in this area to be hired, without ever having heard about intimacy coordinators before, the company decided to hire Alicia Rodis. Rodis, a former actress and stunt performer, is also the founder of the IDC (Intimacy Directors and Coordinators), a non-profit organization whose purpose is to set a standard of rules in order to protect performers, as well as being the “leading and largest organization training and certifying intimacy professionals worldwide”.

In an interview with Katie Couric, Emily described how terrified she was of speaking out about what she needed on set: “I’ve been asked to do sexual content since the beginning of my acting career, and it’s been a huge burden that I’ve had to carry. A lot of the time it felt like a curse that I was constantly being asked to do these sex scenes, and my only power was to try to say no and risk losing a part, which I sometimes did. And when I did the scenes, obviously there was a lot of pain through it. But thank God I went through all of that to get this insight to help try to bring some kind of change. If I hadn’t had those experiences, I wouldn’t be able to be part of the conversation. I decided that I wasn’t doing this just for me, but to set a precedent for other actors.”

Emily’s burden, as she described, was fortunately not in vain, since her actions set a precedent in the film industry: hiring Alícia Rodis turned out to be such a positive and fruitful decision for all sides, from actors to director, that she would go on to work permanently in HBO, in addition to the fact that in 2018, the company announced that from then on, they would be hiring intimate coordinators for all their upcoming shows and films.

This was not only a positive change for the actors, as director of The Deuce, David Simon, recounted in a Rolling Stone article, he too benefited from the work of Alicia Rodis: “… her job is to facilitate the filming of simulated sex and intimacy in such a way that we’re protecting the emotions and the dignity of everybody who’s involved.” He also added: “I don’t think I’m ever going to work without an intimacy coordinator again.”

Analyzing this from a professional standpoint, it was not only a positive change in terms of emotional and physical safety, but also on a creative level, since according to Emily Meade herself, her performance improved after Alicia Rodis joined the team. In her own words: “When there was finally someone there to protect me, I could relax a little bit. And that opened up a new space for creativity, and allowed me to be present and comfortable, and I could find new layers to my performance. I do think there’s a lot of important story-telling that can happen through sex and sexuality.”

Moreover, Emily Meade is not the only actress who has spoken about how intimacy coordinators can better a movie or a tv-show. For example, in a very interesting interview for Glamour, Phoebe Dynevor, star of Bridgerton, spoke openly about having a female intimacy coordinator, Lizzy Talbot, helping her simulate sexual pleasure: “I think it would have been a very difficult experience if Lizzy hadn’t been on set protecting me and looking after me. No one wants to be told how to perform orgasm [on set] by a man. [Laughs.]”

Considering the cinema industry is a predominantly male industry, especially in positions such as director, it’s understandable that actresses would feel more comfortable having a woman on set to give them directions regarding female pleasure. On top of that, it added to the realism and the sensuality of the scenes, which made the show very popular and an internet sensation, especially on social media. The success of the “steamy scenes”, as well as the sensual romances portrayed in this period drama, show the advantages and effectiveness of having an intimacy coordinator (or in this specific case, a team of intimacy coordinators). As for Lizzy Talbot herself, on another Glamour interview, she talked about the desire of Bridgerton directors to show sex from a female perspective, as well as using it to portray the character evolution of Phoebe’s character, Daphne Bridgerton: “One of the aspects of Bridgerton they were very clear about is that this was going to be from the female gaze. It’s the sexual awakening and sexual education journey of Daphne, which was certainly not something that we had seen before in this magnitude. There wasn’t going to be much holding back when it came to female pleasure. We wanted to see orgasms. We wanted to see something that wasn’t just penetrative sex.”

There are lots of actors who have been vocal in interviews or social media about the importance of hiring intimacy coordinators, like for example Rachel Zegler, Emma Thompson, Rahul Kohli, as well as many others. It is still a relatively unknown profession, especially for people outside the industry, and one of the more notable moments of this discussion happened during the BAFTA awards in 2021, where Michaela Coel, after being awarded the prize of best leading actress for her role in the series I May Destroy You, decided to dedicate the award to her intimacy director, Ita O’Brien, stating: “Thank you for your existence in our industry, for making the space safe. For creating physical, emotional and professional boundaries, so that we can make work about exploitation, loss of respect, about abuse of power without being exploited or abused in the process.”

Looking at the opinion of actors who have been in the industry for a long time, we can better understand how much impact it can have on a performer’s experience. For example, Katherine Heigl, actress in Grey’s Anatomy, in an interview for Variety, recalls her first thoughts about working with an intimacy coordinator: “I was like, I’m an old Hollywood broad, bitch. I know what I’m doing. You don’t have to tell me how to make out on camera… I was so awkward about it’”. She then goes on to explain how she changed her mind: “I ended up loving this woman so deeply, and being so grateful for her, because she protected us in a way that I didn’t realize how unprotected we were. I didn’t even really quite realize having somebody else stand there and say: ‘She won’t do that, find another way to shoot it.”  If such a well-established actress didn’t realize that she needed protection, it’s worrisome to imagine how it feels to young actors and actresses who are just starting and are not familiar with the inner-workings of film-sets, and how vulnerable they might feel when they stand up for themselves. On this topic, Heigl says “We did have young girls on the set. There was a rape scene. And for her to be there protecting them, I felt this weight off of me in a way that I didn’t feel like I had to find a way to fight those battles for these girls.”

Yarit Dor. Image from IMDb profile: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm3723766/

When we interviewed Yarit Dor, movement director and IDC certified intimacy coordinator as well as SAG-AFTRA registred, known for her work in shows such as Cheaters, The Lord of the Rings – The Rings of Power and the movie Glass Onion, for the purpose of this article, she shared some of her thoughts regarding the process of simultaneously bringing the director’s vision to reality and still preserve the boundaries of the actors works. In her own words: “…I think when we come in is specifically for intimacy scenes, and we kinda of offer … [to be]… the person in the middle, so a performer could say certain things to us without a filter, and then we can see what are the issues there and then bring those issues to production, and offer them how we can mitigate those issues how can we still shoot the scene, still shoot the story, still shoot the intention of the intimate moment, but there might be adjustments to the physical action, so then that lives still within the boundaries of the performer.”

When asked about the relation between intimacy and director, she described it as a creative collaboration, and speaks about prioritizing open communication, stating: “I would say it’s like having a creative collaborator. So, when I speak to directors, I ask them not to sanitize their language with me. Which means that if there’s an intimacy action […], I ask them, what do you want to see? What’s the energy, what are they doing? I want you to just talk. Just tell me what’s in your head and don’t try and sanitize or make an anatomical language, […] because I want to know what is their ideal aim. So, I get words from directors like: – “I want it hot, I want it steamy. I want it raw. I want it to look improvised. I want it to look super passionate, I want to really feel that they’ve been in a relationship for like 20 years.”- So, that freedom in the conversation allows them to be the creative directors that they want to be. My job is to then translate that into action, so a bit similar to a stunt coordinator, they would need to know what kind of fight it is, what style, where, what would you want the story of the fight to be, etcetera, and then they take that information and then they [intimacy coordinators] work with the director and actors to produce something as close as possible to the original idea. The intimacy coordinator is the same.” She also added: “… the main role is to do intimacy choreography for the camera and achieve the style, and the sensation that the director was initially thinking of, as much as possible. If we have restrictions around what can we show with the performer’s body, or the depiction of the intimacy that we have restrictions around, then it’s our job to offer – “we could do it like this, or we could position it like this or with that camera movement. How about we do something like this?”- Because that might give you the same feeling of what you wanted before. So, we are almost like the specialist intimacy choreographer that just focuses on – “OK, I know the director has given me the aim. This is where we’re aiming. And how can we still get there even if there are terms and nudity, writers and restrictions that we have to work with, but how can we all get to what that aim actually means? –”

Regarding the future of the industry and what measures she thinks are relevant, she stated the importance of knowledge: “I think where the issue is, is education. Actors are not necessarily educated in their training programmes about contracts, about what a nudity writer is, about what their rights are around their body, and how their body is used and depicted on film. So, I think that really is here most of our advocacy goes to, part of it is kind of having a conversation with the performer and seeing what knowledge do they have about it, and what are the options that are actually for them to choose, because most of them don’t know. So, whether it’s unions becoming a bit more clear, whether it’s drama training or film training, giving that information to actors when they’re still in school, but also giving the information to directors. Because I mean a lot of directors that actually don’t know that signing a nudity rider is not exactly the same as signing an employment contract. So, you know, for them, part of the journey is also the understanding of it. And then they feel empowered, both directors and actors […] That’s where the power comes and that’s where we can make the on-set experience more trauma aware. because empowerments come through knowledge.”

From spreading knowledge and advocating for better education, as mentioned by Yarit, to open and clear communication between crew members, plenty of changes need to be made in order to build a safe and respectful professional environment, which the film industry, despite the substantial progress made in the last years, still falls short of. Unfortunately, we have been confronted more and more with how harsh and traumatic the reality of working in this industry is. Performers are coming forward about how vulnerable they still feel, the reason why so many of them, as mentioned in this article, speak out about the need for specialized professionals to be present on film productions. As we can notice in this article, intimacy directors assume a variety of vital roles, being helpful both to prevent abuse and protect the actors rights, as well as choreographing, helping prepare and perfecting both the creative and practical side of intimate scenes. Taking into account all the benefits provided by them, their importance becomes hard to contest, and, fortunately, their value is being recognized continuously more worldwide. 

For more informartion regarding Yarit Dor work: https://www.yarit-dor.com/

6 responses to “What is Intimacy Coordination?”

  1. Joaquim Seabra Avatar
    Joaquim Seabra

    Muito elucidativo, claro e importante

  2. Maria Alice Sabtos Avatar
    Maria Alice Sabtos

    Muito interessante
    Nunca tinha ouvido falar na “gestão da Intimidade” no cinema mas já me tinha interrogado sobre esta problemática. Aprendi

  3. Lucas Avatar

    In times of so many scandals involving actors intimacy and abuse on-set, the necessity for intimacy coordination becomes more explicit than ever. Alongside, the dissemination of this topic strikes an important role on raising awareness and promoting best practices in the cinema industry. Well done!

  4. Alejandro Ramirez Avatar
    Alejandro Ramirez

    I love it, it helps bring this new profession to the light. I love how it talks about its recent history, its importance, and how the future looks for it.

  5. Luís Almeida Avatar
    Luís Almeida

    I didn’t know this profession existed. The article was clarifying and a good read in general. Great job!

  6. Sophia Schuster Avatar
    Sophia Schuster

    Thank you for this article! It is well written, with very recent examples and shows, why it is important to spread more awareness about this profession.

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