The lighting is perfect, the temperature in the room is comfortable, and the cameras are ready to roll. Your actors look at you like deer in headlights, waiting for direction. The only problem is? You’ve never done this before.
Sure, you’ve directed plenty of passionate kisses, but you’ve never had two actors stark naked in front of you, ready to launch into what could be the make-or-break scene of your film. When it comes to nude love scenes, no amount of storyboarding or rehearsing can prepare you for calling “Action!” This is the scenario I found myself in while directing my second feature film, ToY, starring Briana Evigan and Kerry Norton. These two women had given me their trust, and damned if I was going to break it.
That trust, of course, isn’t built overnight. Ideally, during the lead-up to that moment of truth in bed, you’ve been able to demonstrate that you have your actors’ best interests at heart. Hopefully, too, you and your casting director have found actors with onscreen chemistry. If you haven’t invested the necessary time and energy to establish this rapport, a 30-day shoot could turn into a recurring nightmare.
On the day of the sex scene, you’re most likely a few days into shooting, if not a few weeks, and the actors are relatively comfortable with one another. Still, a good director never assumes that the actors are going to “just do it.” As with anything in the entertainment world, egos need to be coddled. It is your job to ensure that the actors are confident in and comfortable with your vision, their bodies, their mental space and above all else, their environment. There is a very fine line between pornography and art, and the director must ensure that the actors never feel that they have crossed that line.
While filming the love scene in ToY, I gave myself a very basic set of guidelines that I felt would help both the actors and the production team feel good about the scene.
1. Have the Talk First: Make absolutely sure that you have reiterated your vision—and the need for this scene in the film. If the actors can’t see it, how will the audience? In ToY’s big love scene, I asked Briana and Kerry to depict intimacy in its most true and carnal form. I realized that I could give them an idea of what the scene would look like with my two-camera set-up: a basic wide shot on one camera, and the other shot handheld with a macro lens.
I pulled in a monitor, plugged in the A and B cameras, and clicked back and forth between each angle. This allowed me to show my leads the emotional and aesthetic effects of intercutting the two, especially with the macro lens’ extreme close-ups—the beauty of Kerry’s fingernails sliding down Briana’s back and the passion evident when they kissed.
Once my actors were able to witness the vision first-hand, they were ready to embrace the moment. This can happen in preproduction, too: Let the actors see stills or images that inspired you to write the scene.
2. Comfort is King: Check that everyone on set feels safe and comfortable in the space. First of all, have your producer make it extremely clear from day one that joking about sex or the sexual situations on set is forbidden. This achieves a tone of professionalism and security in a potentially insecure dynamic.
Also, pay attention to room temperature, proximity and, most importantly, coverage—and I’m not talking about the camera kind. The toughest day on set was when we had to shoot Kerry’s character’s downward spiral—instead of loving, intimate sex, she begins having disheartening and dehumanizing sex with strangers. For that montage, we had to shoot multiple sex scenes with more than one man. We dressed a dirty set and hired a few “hard-looking” men. When Kerry came to set, she was extremely nervous. I quickly pulled her into the backroom and calmed her down. I explained each sex scene in detail: where the men would be, what sexual position they would be in and how everyone’s privates would be shielded—hers through a strapless thong and theirs with retrofitted skin-colored cups. There would be no surprises or last-minute alterations. We always had the wardrobe close by to ensure that they could cover themselves in between takes.
3. Pick Up the Pace: If you are filming disturbing sex scenes, or if the two actors just don’t like each other, try to shoot the scene in only a few takes. If possible, set up two cameras (e.g. manning one yourself as your DP or cameraman handles the other). Kerry depended on me to shoot the unpleasant scenes with her character, Kat, as fast as possible. With my shot list and storyboards, I thought hard about how much coverage I would need in the edit, and I realized: not much. It was a montage. A few shots sufficed; no need to overdo it. So I shot that segment fast, which put our actors at ease. A love scene shouldn’t take longer than 15 minutes to shoot, unless you intend to do numerous takes (which often reveals a lack of preparation). There is no reason for your actors to sit around naked for an hour.
Note: You can only pull this off with a competent crew. Make sure the crew is as well-informed about your pace as the cast. If necessary, pull your DP aside after shooting a take or two and watch playback (privately).
4. Only Necessary Personnel: This leads me to: no video village. Empty the set. Having a limited number of bodies around shows that you care as a director about actors’ privacy. Imagine if a video village watched you every time you and your significant other had a roll in the hay. Also, if this is an open set, make sure you collect all smartphones before shooting begins. Your gaffer or best boy might seem like a great person… but they just might be a scumbag.
5. Separate Dialogue and Action: Think about timing when you break down the scene. On the third day, we shot Briana and Kerry’s first love scene on a couch. There was a bunch of dialogue before they start undressing each other. We breezed through all lines and began moving toward the intimacies, when Briana stopped and said, “Are you going to call ‘cut,’ or are we just doing this?” Briana was right—the best thing to do would have been to get all of the dialogue out of the way first. That way, the actors don’t have to undress a hundred times and when the sexy parts begin, the actors can concentrate on the physicality of the scene instead of remembering lines.
6. Direct Just Enough: A lack of presence as a director is just as detrimental to a sex scene as being overbearing and breathing down people’s necks. You need to strike a balance between the two. Don’t hide behind your monitor, don’t micro-manage the scene, and only speak when spoken to. You hired these two to depict love, something that has never been mapped with any precision, so trust them to find their own way. Briana mentioned to me that I was talking too much during their final love scene. It was true! I was telling the DP what to capture, trying to get the most poetic shot, starting and stopping the actors, when I should have been watching and listening.
I strongly encourage moviemakers to place themselves in the shoes of their subjects. How would you feel if you had to imitate passion and love? Would you want your voice heard? Would you want an audience? Would you want the support of your director? Answering these questions is the first step to making sure an actor never feels like an object, but like the artist you hired them to be. MM
ToY opened on VOD June 3, 2016, courtesy of Gravitas Ventures. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2016 issue, on newsstands June 28, 2016.