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The coordination of intimacy: a choreography of consent

Article author :

Jil Theunissen

Evolving between law, media, culture and new technologies, Jil has recently started an official hat collection. In her spare time and often at night, she writes various contents ranging from columns to legal texts, and develops somewhat hybrid projects mixing the various disciplines mentioned above.

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In recent years a new profession has carved out a niche for itself in the film industry: the coordination of intimacy. Its aim? To signpost, supervise and support actors in the preparation and the acting-out of intimate scenes, making their consent the highest priority.

The coordination of intimacy emerged in the wake of the ‘Me Too’ movement, the bringing to light of dominant relationships on film sets and the wish to establish film shooting practices which are more respectful of the teams involved. It is based on the recognition that nude scenes, scenes involving simulated sex and, more broadly, intimacy are particularly tricky for actors to get a handle on, and require the supervision of specific people. In a context where actors learn from school ‘to go beyond their limits’ and to ‘give everything’ for a director whose ‘Vision’ needs to be satisfied, consent can effectively be eroded, and the limits of each person only respected fragilely at best. Intimacy coordination therefore aims to support, supervise and signpost the preparation and the acting-out of these scenes, to ensure the well-being of the actors, and to respect their consent and their limits. All in the service of the story and the narration. 

Whilst the profession first became established in the United States, in the French-speaking world only two women have had training in it, including Paloma Garcia Martens, an intimacy coordinator based in Brussels. A dresser in the cinema world for some ten years, and an astute observer of the dynamics at work on film sets, she obtained her training in intimacy coordination in 2021 from key American figures in the field. Today, her projects are coming thick and fast, supporting actors and directors in the sensitive construction of scenes of a particular type.

© cottonbro studio

The necessary supervision of the intimate

‘The basis of intimacy coordination is being aware that you are working with people’s vulnerability,’ explains Paloma. Acting an intimate scene, all the more so in front of a camera and a team consisting of dozens of people, means putting yourself in a position of off-putting exposure and fragility. For the actors, it is not uncommon that the acting of these scenes reactivates traumas: quite apart from the difficult situations or acts of violence actually experienced which are ‘reawakened’ when acting similar scenes, the acting in itself can create trauma for the actors. In merging into the skin of another person, it can in fact occur that the brain no longer knows how to distinguish between the emotions acted out and those personally felt, the character’s trauma ultimately becoming that of its actor. ‘Several studies have shown that when you are acting, the same areas of the brain are activated as when you personally feel the emotions,’ explains Paloma. ‘It’s true, from a cognitive point of view, that you know you are acting, but real bullets are being used all the same. That requires specific professional support.’

© Heloisa Vecchio

In concrete terms, how does it take place?

If the involvement of an intimacy coordinator varies depending on the project, the goal never changes: to work towards the consent, free and informed, of the actors involved, in the service of the story, in a constant discussion between the actors and the filmmaking team.

Free consent: short-circuiting domination dynamics 

As news items regularly remind us, filmsets are still in the grip of profound power relationships, in particular those between the actors and the filmmaking team. ‘The majority of actors have been conditioned since school to say yes,’ Paloma points out. ‘They are taught that to assent to all of the wishes of the filmmaking team means being courageous, daring, and that is what being a good actor is all about. On the other hand, there are directors whom everyone treats like gods, whose artistic vision the whole team must satisfy. You thus have people who believe that they should say yes to everything, dealing with people to whom no-one ever says no.’ It is not easy, in such conditions, to make sure that when an actress says ‘OK’ to a director who, even with all the best goodwill and intentions, is asking her to act in a bra, she is genuinely expressing her consent.

Having a third party onsite, whose role is precisely to ask the actors about their feelings, outside of any power relationship, contributes to short-circuiting these biases, allowing the actors to express their agreement more freely (in the majority of cases), as well as voicing their possible reluctances or suggestions. The coordinator can then act as an intermediary between actors and the filmmaking team, by looking for common solutions.

Informed consent: clarify

‘There is sometimes this idea that from chaos magic can be born. Sometimes, yes. But in intimate scenes that is rarely the case.’ 

To be able to fully consent to a scene, and to act it in the best conditions, you have to know what you are committing yourself to. ‘You cannot anticipate how a situation will be experienced just by reading the script,’ explains Paloma. ‘That only gives you a tiny part of the information required by the brain to understand if you will feel safe, when the time comes, to throw yourself into it.’ One of the tasks of the intimacy coordinator is thus to analyse and seek clarifications, from the director, concerning each intimate scene, to understand its intentions, to study the movements involved and to choreograph the unfolding of the scene. ‘Our work involves acting as a go-between with all of the people who are working on the production, to clarify things to ensure that there are as few surprises as possible, and that the shooting takes place smoothly. That doesn’t stop us from allowing some room for improvisation when the moment comes, but it needs to be signposted.’

© Joshua McKnight

‘And my freedom to create?’

There is no need for directors to worry; it remains intact. ‘I am not replacing the directing team,’ emphasises Paloma. The aim of the intimacy coordinator is to provide support for the production team, not to hamper it: the observations provided remain recommendations, whether or not the directing team chooses to follow them or not. Paloma has, moreover, noted that the identification of limits in advance sparks emulation, pushing the directors to react creatively. As for the criticisms claiming that the coordinators are creating problems where none had existed, the response is categorical: ‘I don’t create barriers, I am highlighting barriers which already exist. They are hidden away, people might prefer to be blind to them at the beginning, and yet they emerge at the worst moment’.

© Hakeem James Hausley

Artistic plus-value and a variety of representations

Intimacy coordination does not operate solely in negative terms. Quite the contrary. Ensuring the well-being of the performers certainly involves challenging some of the proposals in the script, but it also, and above all, means questioning the intentions of the scenes in order to grasp their meaning and significance, and to think about alternative solutions. Solutions which enable the unexpected to be worked around in the event of a false note, and which often prove to be more in line with the intentions of the story. ‘Asking questions about the meaning of the scene often means avoiding clichés,’ explains Paloma. Requesting what directors really want to show and why leads to a deeper reflection concerning the types of interactions wished for, the best ways of bringing them to the fore, the importance of certain gestures, certain looks, certain silences.

Intimacy coordination thus enables, through the discussions and reinventions it initiates, the imagining of more varied scenes, opening up the prism of the representations of intimacy and sexuality on the screen, raising the public’s awareness of other images, hitherto unseen viewpoints. Given the power images have over representations, one quickly understands the full potential of the initiative, which goes beyond simply protecting the actors to contribute to a very positive overall result.

What do those involved think of it?

It’s a good thing! The actors, feeling listened to and respected, feel at ease in tackling the scenes, and feel comfortable in suggesting more personal interpretations. The feedback is also enthusiastic on the part of the directors, who are seeing their works enriched. And who also say that they are often relieved to be able to delegate the supervision of intimate scenes to a trained person, who has the appropriate tools.  ‘Managing a film is enormously stressful for directors, as there are a thousand things to think of. Having someone in charge of intimacy coordination allows them to unburden themselves of these questions, of the worry of committing blunders, and to focus more on the directing.’

In short, far from the accusations of censorship or prudishness its detractors may level at it, intimacy coordination not only guarantees a safe environment for the actors, asked to expose themselves in all their fragility, but also ultimately results in richer scenes, respecting the consent of each person, serving the narrative, widening the spectrum of representations, and redefining along the way the at times archaic dynamics of an industry in which YES is king. A blast of fresh air which we hope will spread far and wide, over and over again.

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