Filming sex scenes: 13 directors and their approaches

Film directors and their crew discuss the techniques and approaches to capturing fruitiness on the big (and small) screen...

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

John Badham has written a couple of excellent books where he passed on advice about directing movies, and the lessons he’s learned across his own career. In the latest, John Badham On Directing, he raises the spectre of filming sex scenes, and the problems that ensue.

Actors get really spooked when it comes to intimacy in a scene, even kissing,” he wrote. “This is where the director has to be extremely patient with the actors and know that the emotional or intimate part of scenes don’t always shoot as easily as the production department thinks they should. The actors are not robots on a Toyota assembly line.”

But just how do different filmmakers approach putting intimacy on film? In lots of different ways, is the answer…

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Noel Clarke:

For the intimate scenes in his second film as director,, Noel Clarke believed very much in planning ahead. As he told us back in 2010, he storyboarded the scene between Shanika Warren-Markland and Susannah Fielding in advance.

“We showed the girls what we were planning to do. We explained to them at the beginning in the auditions and explained what we were going to do. No actress who came to the audition for that part didn’t know what they were getting into, so there was no changing your mind at the last minute,” he said.

“You storyboard it to show exactly what you were planning. Obviously, the two actors were very naked on that day, but we say to them, ‘look, this is how we’re going to shoot, nothing you don’t want to be seen will be seen.’ And if you look at that scene, you don’t see much.”

Clarke assured his cast that the extent of what’d be seen on camera was their naked backsides, and was true to his word.

Adrian Lyne: 9 1/2 Weeks

The infamous Mickey Rourke-Kim Basinger sexually-charged drama charted the rise and fall of a relationship over a couple of intense months.

Basinger and Rourke didn’t really get on (the former reportedly said that it was like kissing an ashtray), and it got to the stage where, as producer Antony Rufus Isaacs recalled “they wouldn’t even get into the lift together.”

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One of the most remembered scenes in the film is where Rourke’s John starts feeding Basinger’s Elizabeth the contents of his fridge. But filming such an intimate moment wasn’t easy. As Premiere magazine reported back in 1991, cameraman Craig Haagenson “spent a day and a half wedged under the kitchen sink” in order to get the necessary shots. A tense shoot all round, and not an easy one…

Steve McQueen: Shame

The extraordinary Shame is a strong example of a film to, er, pull out when looking to demonstrate how sex scenes in cinema can be very graphic, but not in the least bit erotic.

In one scene, Michael Fassbender, Calamity Chang, and DeeDee Luxe meet up for a “declothed conversation.” And Chang, talking to Moviefone, recalled that director Steve McQueen “was so polite…he was like, ‘uh, I’m going to turn this way, just let me know when you’re ready.”

But still: come the filming of the scene itself, McQueen cleared the set, so that there were just five people – including the three actors – in the room. “I think it says a lot about Steve’s decorum and respect for the actors that he’s working with – to have it closed,” Chang added. “We would’ve done it anyway, because that’s what we signed up for.”

Jon Wright: Tormented

An underrated British movie, director Jon Wright’s Tormented was his part-tribute to ’70s and ’80s horror, and part and parcel of that was the exploitation element. Wright thus wanted some nudity in his film, but male and female. “We were an equal opportunities employer,” he told us, “nudity for everyone!”

“I discussed it with the actors when I cast them, I tried to be as honest as I could up front”, he said. “None of the boys seemed to mind at all: as I recall, Alex Pettyfer and Tom Hopper were very keen, in fact! The girls were less keen – one very capable actress ruled herself out of the running because she didn’t want to be semi-naked on screen.”

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As it turned out, “one of the actresses agreed to be naked, signed the contract, and then informed me via her agent that she wouldn’t be naked – she lied to get the job. I confronted her about it, but I wasn’t going to force her to do anything she wasn’t comfortable with. So it ended up that there aren’t any bare breasts in the final cut of Tormented.”

That didn’t make things less tricky when it came to the sex scenes themselves though. “It turned out that the actor and actress in question had fallen out – in fact, they hated each other,” Wright recalled. “So you had the weird scenario of blocking a scene with two people who utterly despise one another. There was no trust. We had to choreograph it in painful detail, almost like we were negotiating a legal contract. ‘He will reach down at that point and appear to slide his hand into your knickers… You will gasp’. It was terrifically unsexy and strange. You don’t ordinarily break sex down into tiny little moments like that – you give away a lot about yourself personally, it’s embarrassing.”

“When we were shooting I had to keep going back to them and encouraging them to appear like they were enjoying it – it was hard going, if you’ll pardon the pun.”

“In the end the scene turned out well, I thought. Maybe the hatred gave it an edge, it played as a kind of edgy, animal thing. Or maybe they hated each other because there was sexual attraction underlying it. I don’t know.”

Wright made one further point. “Throughout the movie everybody used a condom. In my mind, this is because the girls in Tormented – the ones in the sex scenes, at least – were smart, they didn’t want to get pregnant while they were at school. They wanted careers, they wanted to party. This was widely misinterpreted. People thought it was because it was a BBC film, my hand had been forced by the producers.”

Atom Egoyan: Where The Truth Lies

Atom Egoyan is one of many directors who’s struggled to deliver an R-rated film dealing with sex, having to work with the notoriously prudish American censors.

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Talking to Landmark Theaters, via IFC, Egoyan argued that “the best way to shoot a sex scene and make it seem real is to use a master shot – an uninterrupted sequence with no cuts.”

“I wanted to see the bodies. The overwhelming challenge was how to show two (and in this case even more) people having sex without depicting the act of thrusting,” he wrote. He thus rehearsed sequences using dolls, “trying to figure out a way to get what he wanted without pissing off the MPAA Ratings Board.”

The film went on to piss off the MPAA Ratings Board, who slapped it with a commercially-poisonous NC-17 rating.

Woody Allen: Assorted films

In an interview with the New York Times (via Flavorwire), Woody Allen – who doesn’t shoot too many moments of body bopping – said that “if you have no limits, it does become more difficult because there are so many options.”

“Years ago, you had no options, so you had to come up with a few sophisticated ways to show sex. Now you can virtually do what you want to do, and it becomes more of an aesthetic decision, and it becomes tougher.”

“You can’t hide behind the fact that they’ll censor you, and you’ve got to come up with something that is ingenious or aesthetically pleasing, and you really have no limits to what you want to show.”

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Judd Apatow: Trainwreck

The 2015 hit comedy starring Amy Schumer and Bill Hader contained limbgym that Schumer herself had written, so she for one had an idea of what she was in for. But for Judd Apatow, directing was about preparation that soon went out of the window.

Talking to the New York Times, he said that “I took photos of every possible angle you could have sex in, but then on the day, all of it goes out the window. There’s only so many places you can put the camera for that activity.”

He added that “I’m very shy. We did The 40-Year-Old Virgin; there was a speed-dating scene. The joke was a woman’s breast pops out, and I might’ve done half a take of it before I said we had what we need.”

Paul Verhoeven: Basic Instinct, Showgirls

“I am extremely open, extremely direct about what I want to see,” says Paul Verhoeven of directing sex scenes. As quoted in Judith Weston’s book The Film Director’s Intuition, he says that “I tap into my own life – ‘this is what this woman did that was so special. Let’s try to use that’. And so the element of hypocrisy is gone. I want to discuss this all before, sitting in the trailer.”

“There should be no discussion on the set when people take their clothes off,” he added.

Marc Forster: Monster’s Ball

Marc Forster directed Halle Berry to an Oscar win in the drama Monster’s Ball. In the film, she and Billy Bob Thornton share a particularly stark and raw sex scene, and Forster, back in 2001, explained to how he’d approached it.

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“When I talked to Billy Bob and Halle at the beginning, I told them very clearly what I had in mind. It was important that these two emotionally repressed characters start out the sex scene very raw and animalistic,” he explained.

“Through this, they express everything that has been repressed for years. My main concern at the beginning was Halle; I wanted to make sure she felt comfortable with it and so I allowed her to have final cut over that scene.”

Thus, the scene was shot, and Thornton, Forster and Berry went through the footage as it came in, and chose there and then what they wanted to keep in or cut out.

The full article is worth a look, here

Roger Donaldson: No Way Out

The terrific Kevin Costner-Sean Young thriller No Way Out has our friends rumpy and pumpy making an appearance in the back of a posh car early in the film (the sequence was spoofed in Hot Shots! Part Deux, for good measure).

Director Roger Donaldson recalled that the leading pair weren’t the warmest of co-stars. “When they were playing opposite each other, they were extraordinarily electric,” he recalled to Premiere. “And when they were off-screen, they were two totally different people”.

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To prepare, Sean Young took a poll of the cast and crew to find out how many of them had sat and navved in a car. She was one of the few who hadn’t, and both she and Costner separately confessed to being nervous of the shoot. “It was a very difficult scene to do,” Young said, “because I was the vulnerable one, because I was naked, and I don’t really enjoy being naked.”

Graham Linehan & Nick Wood: Black Books

Not a complete sex scene granted, but there’s a moment in the frankly brilliant Black Books where Tamsin Greig, was having to lie in bed, getting turned on by the sound of the Radio 4 Shipping Forecast.

As Greig told the story on The Graham Norton Show, she wasn’t utterly comfortable, and it wasn’t quite working. And then Linehan gave her a very specific piece of direction that transformed the scene. He asked her “could you make the noises that you might make getting into a hot bath.” And that was it, she said. You can see her tell the tale right here…

Joe Carnahan: Stretch

The underrated Stretch never even made it to the inside of a UK cinema in the end, instead getting a video on demand and DVD release. A pity, as like most Joe Carnahan projects, it’s worth digging out.

Carnahan, though, rather than explain how awkward it can be to shoot a sex scene in the movie, released a behind the scenes video to demonstrate just how artificial and fake the whole thing is. This, then, is a not safe for work video (although it’s not particularly dirty) that looks at shooting a moment where Patrick Wilson and Brooklyn Decker undertake some bed ballet…

Michael Winterbottom: 9 Songs

Michael Winterbottom’s sexually explicit drama caused a furore and a half when it was first released in 2004, and much of the conversation was around how the writer-director captured his footage. After all, he was, in many senses, asking his young cast to be laid bare for the picture.

Winterbottom, for the sex scenes themselves, cleared the set down to the bare minimum of personnel. Just the actors, director, cameraman and sound recordist were allowed when the footage was being capture. Furthermore, leads Kieran O’Brien and Margo Stilley didn’t talk during the filming of the movie, so as to keep their outside life separate from their work life.

Stilley gave an interesting interview about the making of the film to The Guardian, here.

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Lead image: BigStockPhoto