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Podcast #135 How The Film & TV Industry Is Evolving Sex Scenes With Intimacy Coordinators

 
 

In this fascinating podcast, we speak to the founder of Intimacy On Set Ita O'Brien about her role in the film and TV industry as an Intimacy Coordinator. Ita has worked on the recent Netflix hit series (that we love) Sex Education, written by Laurie Nunn, as well as shows for the BBC, HBO, and Warner Bros. For more information, please visit intimacyonset.com

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Steve: Hi everyone, welcome to another Evolving Lover Podcast. We are at podcast #135 and I'm super excited to have Ita O'Brien on. She is on a mission to ensure everyone on a film & TV set is in a safe, protected and clear about they can and can't do on set. One of the series she has worked is one of the series she has worked on is the Netflix series, Sex Education. It's a series that I have been obsessed with, and I don't normally obsess over any series. This series opened my heart and gave me so much joy and I'm honoured to be speaking to Ita today about her work. She has also worked for many other productions on the BBC, HBO and Warner Bros. How are you doing today Ita?

Ita: I'm doing really good thank you. I've had a couple of interviews in the last couple of days for some exciting projects coming up. 

Steve: Nice. So your company, Intimacy On Set has been going a while. I had heard about it before and with the Sex Education series, I saw your credits come up and I had to get in touch. For me, and I think for everyone, film and TV have such a big influence on the sociological imprint of sexuality. Not only that, but the actors in the studios also lack this sex education that we have all missed. I want to ask, how did you get involved in this in the first place? I would love to know how your life went down this path. 

Ita: That journey has been completely mad and I feel I've been guided. The work very much developed and my journey in the profession is that I've been a musical theatre dancer and then I trained as an actor for 8 years and then did an MA in Movement Studies and then worked as a movement teacher and movement director. In that time, I wrote my own work and put that on. I wanted to do a devised piece looking at the dynamic of abuse in our society, looking at the flip side of the perpetrator and the abuser and very often they can be flip sides of the same coin. I was working with a lady who set up the Forgiveness Project. In my intention of doing that work I was thinking, "how do I keep my actors safe, whilst asking them to explore this dynamic?" and "what practices and principles do I need to have a really clear rehearsal room to have connection, presence, communication, to be able to step into the work in a professional way. Then at the end of the day to be able to reset, let go of what has been explored and leave the day in a really healthy way." That was the beginning of exploring this work and while I was doing that I was talking to one of my colleagues, Meredith Dufton who is the Head of Movement at Mount View. She said, "please come and teach your content with my students... invariably the physicality doesn't tell the right storytelling and when I say to them what they need to do I'm aware that there is no structure or professional way in which they can portray what they need to in a good way." So that was the beginning and that was April 2015. That was when I began to hone the work, develop how I taught it, and then create the Intimacy on Set guidelines which I drew together. The first time I presented them was to the Personal Managers Association which is a group of agents in London in June 2017. Then I was talking to Equity in the summer of 2017 and then Weinstein happened in October 2017. The first group was Vicky Featherstone at The Royal Court bringing her No Grey Area Day together and creating codes of conduct and saying, "we now have to do better, we have to do better across the board." In that, I was there to say, "this is the structure of how to do this content well."

Steve: And the core of those teachings that you are bringing to the set, I know consent is at the forefront of those. That being a big problem in society and on set. So, is consent the main thing that you worry about? 

Ita: Before consent has to be open communication and transparency. That is the over-arching umbrella. That is what you put in place first, right across the board, right from the get-go. From producers, writers, through to directors, directors with the actors, and then intimacy coordinators. Then with creating the intimate content, it's about putting in the structure that allows of agreement and consent of touch. What's really important is that before now, if an actor ever said, "no" they would be concerned about saying it. Because there have been situations where if they ever said, "no" they would be considered a trouble maker, a diva, and certainly be concerned about being asked back to act on this production. What we have flipped is actually saying, "within the agreement and the consent of touch, we are asking what is okay, what parts of your body are clearly no-go areas, where is your no? So that we can really clearly, freely, professionally and openly work with everywhere you have said yes to. Unless no can be present we can't really trust the yes." So that's been a really big shift. Joyfully, the industry is embracing that. The last thing is clear choreography so that you are not letting someone just improvise. So you can talk clearly, you might agree, "you can touch me there, you can't touch me there" but then equally say, "now just go for it". In that situation, something might happen, the way that their touched may not be in the way someone has agreed in their consent. So the last thing is choreographing clearly and then they can be free to act their socks off because they know everything that is going to happen and within that safety is freedom. 

Steve: All of this is displayed in the Netflix series, Sex Education. I was watching it and saying, "Oh my! This is how it should be. This is how everything should be in terms of the way the scenes were done, the narrative flowing throughout, the variety of characters, the different problems with sex coming up. It's just a beautiful piece of work. What was that like for you to work on in those sex scenes? 

Ita: So working with the producers, everybody at Eleven Films, John Jennings, Ben Taylor, it was a really delightful collaboration. They were, in fact, the very first production that officially employed me as an intimacy coordinator. I had spent 3 or 4 years teaching the work and a couple of situations where I shared the work in theatre but this was the first time I was employed as an intimacy coordinator. We were on the same page in the fact that the narrative in this is so important. We want to have this really frank portrayal of sexual exploration, sexual partnerships, and particularly as teenagers are normally not so good because we are not practised and I have two teenager/adult sons so I was very aware of the storylines and the narratives about their friends opening-up into their sexual awakening. So the first series, I was so grateful. It was very much we were working it out together and how it works in the flow of production. As it's been highly documented, I said to them, "the best thing I can do for this production and particularly your young cast is to just run the workshop in the drama schools so that everybody across the board, the production, the directors, the first/second/third AD's, script supervisors all understand the process of the guidelines, put it into practice and then it means that when we get on set that it's understood what the journey is with open communication, consent, and choreographing clearly" and that's what we did. That set up the whole production and helped to bond the core actors and from there we were able to start creating the work in a really beautiful and professional way. 

Steve: It sounds like you are putting a really beautiful touch and a voice to these works like Sex Education and the other ones you have worked on. One of the voices with that particular series, I felt, was that of female pleasure and that being allowed to be seen on screen with Aimee's scene and generally throughout the series that was really carefully taken note of. I know it was quite a female-oriented writing team. How was it in terms of doing that self-touch scene with Aimee? And also, was it one of the series that has more female pleasure at the forefront? Are you noticing that more? Or that was just a one-off?

Ita: So as far as other productions, I have had the joy of working on many. I can't believe at The Oscars and The Baftas this year that there were no female writers or directors nominated because my experience of the last 18 months is working with so many amazing female writers, directors, even DOP's, and so within female writing of an exploration of female sexuality/female pleasure. I know that it's out there and I know productions are exploring this subject matter and it will just take time for that to ripple into finally coming through and being recognised at those kinds of awards. The scene with Aimee and her storyline, we knew how important it was going to be. We knew how important it was to really explore in that (self-touch) in a really a positive way and to really help and protect Aimee in the performance of that, and what we were going to do in help her be in the character, to have physicalities and rhythms in place so that she could give herself to the character rather than expose who she was personally and privately.  That's really important when you are doing an intimate scene with another character you can really focus on the intention, the relationship with this other character, and you've got the other character to work with. When you are by yourself, it's even more important to really step into character because it could be easier to fall back on who you are in your personal and private expression with yourself. We really looked at that to keep Aimee safe. We also knew what an important scene it was going to be. I met up with Aimee last year when she was performing at The National. She was saying, "I get about 100 texts every day saying thank you for that scene." I went back to Ireland and I was teaching in one of the drama schools and a student came scene to me, "that scene has changed my life." It's just so beautiful and fantastic that we were able to have a scene with Kate Herron's amazing direction that sent such positive affirmation out there. It's also done in a really real way, a raw way, it's not glamorised. I'm really proud of being part of a production that helps to send that message out to the world. 

Steve: It definitely made me think that I have done a lot of work in the last 8 years trying to take sex and intimacy education to make some cultural impact but with a scene like that, or a series like that, I should perhaps become a scriptwriter. 

Ita: Yeah!

Steve: I did study scriptwriting at university. I have contacted Eleven Film for some work experience so we will see. 

Ita: Keep trying. Don't take no for an answer!

Steve: I was going to ask you (I'll probably answer from my point of view first) but what would you like to see with regards to sex scenes in the future of film and TV? From my point of view, they can't go far wrong from having someone like yourself or one of your team on set to assist in the production. I would like to see some of the different rituals around sex, more of the conscious consent, and also honouring the body before sex... really honouring the heart before sex. Having an exploration of beyond penetration because a lot of the sex is based around the penetration. I've studied sexuality quite a while and I've been to full body-orgasm workshops which looks like a kind of orgasmic reiki. I can have these 25 minute long orgasms from my partner licking my third-eye (the middle of my forehead), where it feels like every neuron on my brain is on fire with orgasm and it feels like an out-of-body transcendental experience. I would like to see more of a vast spectrum of what is possible within sexuality. I feel it's beginning to start with what you are doing and some of the different voices in the world's of sexuality but we have still got a way to go in the journey. What would you like to see in this niche that you are creating? 

Ita: Your journey sounds amazing. Let's meet up afterwards and I am sure you can teach me a thing or two! One of the production I worked on, the writer said, "now I know you exist, I can really write the sex scenes that I want to write." That's what you want. On that same production, the directors said, "I do good sex scenes" and then by the time I had presented the work to her she said, "actually what I've done is I have pulled back from really having the full-on sex scene that I really want because I have been trying to take care of the actors." One doesn't have to compromise the other if you have an intimacy coordinator what the director's vision is, what the actors want, and even if the actors have a "no" somewhere and the director thinks it has to be in play, for example, if there has to be a passionate kiss but one of the actors has a cold sore then it's not suitable to kiss that day. You can't get that same sensuality and intimacy so we work freely what is in play, telling the same storytelling. Once you know that, we just need good writing. That's also the shift. As I've been sharing the work on the symposium's I invite writers, directors and I'm saying, "all of us - the directors, actors, everyone is in service to the writing" and I had the response, "so then we better write better sex scenes" and I said, "yes, you better had". It doesn't help anybody if you just say, "they have sex" - everybody has their sexual expression, what they physically do, their energy, their communication, different parts of their body are erotic zones - it's different for every single person. Write that. Write the detail of the intimate content and we can honour it, then you as a writer are getting the scenes you want to see. Now you that you know that someone can choreograph it, bringing a professional structure, a body dance, that you can choreograph it clearly then the writers will know that it is their responsibility to write it better and to write it clearly - then it can be honoured. All the ideas that you are saying can come out. Like the details about the anal douching in the Sex Education Netflix series in the male gay sexual play. That was something that was an education for me. I just read that script and the director said to me, "have we gone a step too far?" And I said, "it is full-on but it is important."

Steve: That was important. I was like, "yay". I knew about it. For many, they wouldn't have done. It was great. 

Ita: It was beautiful because of the narrative and the conversations around it were so gently and beautifully portrayed and then through to a real, joyous, coming together of those men in a beautiful act of love. That's what you want so now people can step-up and write the work and write everything you are suggesting. 

Steve: So it's down to the writers. I'm certainly putting myself out there if there are any production teams or writers would like help with sex scenes, I honestly think I will be one of the best in the world at that! Contact me on steve@uls.online, please get in touch. I know we are cut short for time. I really appreciate the work you are doing in the world. I will definitely follow your work. I know you offer training for people... actors or people interested in this so people can go over to 

Ita: Intimacy on set and go to the training page. Come yourself to the workshop and we can have a dialogue, that would be fantastic. Heads up, some programmes that I worked on last year that I am really excited about and has groundbreaking intimate content. One is called, Normal People by Sally Rooney that is coming out now. Russell T. Davies' (BBC 3), Boys (Channel 4 - UK), about the HIV epidemic in the 80s and Michaela Coel's January 22nd (BBC). Those are three that I am really proud of their work. I feel they are really exciting and the intimate content is really integral to the storytelling. 

Steve: Keep an eye out for those programmes, I certainly will. Thank you so much, Ita!

Ita: Thank you and let's stay in touch!