Things I’ve Learned: Brian De Palma’s Golden Rules of Shooting a Sex Scene

This week’s Thing’s I’ve Learned, appearing in our upcoming 2014 Complete Guide to Making Movies special issue (on stands very soon!), reveals the tastefully sordid expertise of legendary director Brian De Palma, whose films all hinge upon the mysteries of sexual desire.

When Rebecca Romijn-Stamos offers a biker-bar striptease in Femme Fatale, there’s little nudity; it’s the gyrations and undulations that pack heat. Ditto for the Body Double beach embrace between Craig Wasson and Deborah Shelton, their overflowing sexual attraction translated by a mad, swirling, 360-degree tracking shot.

De Palma’s latest film, Passion—about two dancers whose competition becomes dangerously erotic—offers perhaps the most vivid depictions of dreamlike desire in his oeuvre. So MovieMaker asked the ’80s American master of big screen sex to give our readers a little advice on how to film a truly arousing scene. (Hint: don’t forget the foreplay!)

1. You have to have the actors and actresses beautifully photographed.

Eroticism is a bit of an illusion. You have to really capture the naked body, like beautiful paintings of nude women. I stress the fact that they must be exquisitely photographed. With the advent of the digital revolution, love scenes are not very well lit, and directors don’t seem to pay much attention to the way the actors look. Just the fact that you can see them seems to be enough. And to me, that isn’t the illusion I like to create on screen.

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2. Find the right cinematographer.

In Body Double, I spent a lot of time searching for the right cinematographer. I actually did screen tests for different DPs. I had these incredibly attractive women, and I wanted to make sure they were lensed correctly. That’s when I discovered Steven Burum, and I used him for many films after that.

3. You need some kind of conceptual idea.

Today, there’s such an incredible amount of lovemaking and nudity on cable television, and in pornography on the Internet. You see bodies photographed from every conceivable angle, doing every conceivable thing, so you really have to think hard to approach eroticism with a fresh idea. Just showing people kissing, people fucking—it’s of no interest to me.

4. Don’t underestimate the power of a kiss.

Watching Alfred Hitchcock, the first thing you learn about kissing is that you have to see the actor’s faces. You have to see them reacting to the kiss. Watch Cary Grant kissing Ingrid Bergman in Notorious. A lot of filmmakers think that just showing people kissing each other, and having a very good time, is enough. But so often their eyes are closed, and you can’t see their faces. The audience is completely shut out. In Hitchcock movies, you can see that they are kissing each other on the neck, and talking. They’re kissing lightly on the lips, and you can see their eyes. You see how they’re reacting. That’s what creates the eroticism of the scene.

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5. Using onscreen sex scenes only for shock value is passé.

I don’t think the big screen is the place where most people go to see erotica. Cable television and pornography don’t face the same restrictions as theatrically-released films, so they can be a lot more explicit. So don’t try to shock a movie audience with sex. It’s passé. As far as remembering a shocking sex scene in a movie on the big screen? I can’t really think of one. Angie Dickinson’s shower scene in Dressed to Kill would be kind of decorous today. I don’t think too many people would be shocked. On cable, people are being stripped and raped all the time. Just a naked girl in the shower? Please!

6. You have to have foreplay.

You’ve got to have a way to build up the tension and mystery. Just showing two people kissing and then making out in bed? There’s no illusion there! It’s very meat and potatoes. You might as well just turn the page! You’ve seen that scene a thousand times. There’s a lot of playfulness to eroticism. You have to slowly evoke it. That’s what’s so beautiful about Passion, I think. It’s about these two dancers and the connection with each other that ultimately ends up with the simplest kind of kiss. But it’s so exquisitely drawn out that it has a tremendous amount of sensual impact. You have to have the foreplay.

7. Watch Ryan’s Daughter.

There’s one great lovemaking scene in Ryan’s Daughter. She finally has a rendezvous with a military man. It’s exquisitely well done. You really feel the sense of nature surrounding the eroticism. Because [director David] Lean had an idea! Take a girl in a field and make love to her. The feel and the sensuality of the nature around them as they’re getting into the lovemaking—it’s quite good.

Don’t forget to visit us next week for more movie knowledge! Previous Wisdom Wednesdays have shared the expertise of Chris WeitzDanny BoyleSteve BuscemiJim JarmuschZack Snyder, Gus Van Sant, Neil Jordan, John WatersEli Roth and Wim Wenders.

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