Interview with Ita O'Brien, the Intimacy coordinator behind of the most praised sex scenes at Sex Education
The highly successful Netflix´ Sex Education and BBC/Hulu Normal People both feature teenage sexual discovery and have employed the same intimacy co-ordinator. Ita O´Brien choreographed every kiss, touch and sexual exchange in the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney´s hit novel and in the first season of Laurie Nunn’s breakthrough series. For the last six years, O´Brien, a trained dancer, actress and movement director has helped theatre, film and TV productions to use best practices during intimacy, sex and nudity scenes. She has written those practices into a referred rulebook, “Intimacy On Set Guidelines”, and has founded the organization Intimacy on Set that provides intimacy coordinators, consulting and training in Europe, the USA, Australia and New Zealand.
EWA Network had the chance to speak with Ita O’Brien via video chat before it was announced that she was one of the speakers of the online conference CARLA 2020 for diversity and inclusion in Film and TV.
What do we mean by intimacy?
O’Brien - Intimacy is any time you have touch. It can be an intimate touch, but It can also be the touch of a parent to a child, of an older child to an elderly parent in the bed or of a massage therapist to their clients. It is intimacy any time there is a touch from one body to another.
What is your role, an intimacy coordinator’s role in a production?
O’Brien – We use three canons. First of all, we invite open communication and transparency, then we put a structure of agreement and consent and finally we choreograph intimate content clearly. For instance, we talk with the writer because very often in the past they had just written they have sex, which means that their idea of intimate content might be not honoured because it was not written clearly. And then, there is communication with the director: we ask what your vision is, what do you want with the scene, and then keep that communication going towards the actors.
What is a structure of agreement and consent?
Every actor has different relationship with how their body is going to be touched, with the degree of nudity and of simulated sexual content. And just because an actor might not be comfortable being completely naked or being touched through their whole body does not mean that they are not a fantastic actor, or they are not the right actor for that particular role. With the structure, we want to know their no areas: whereas they are suitable to be touched or simulate sexual content or nudity. As I always say: your No is a gift, so we can work with your YES. Your no is your no. Your yes is your yes. Whereas MAYBE it is also a NO. Because as soon as you are saying maybe you are not ready to act.
Does the structure empower the actors?
In the past, without a statement, the actors were in an incredible vulnerable position. If an actor ever said no in any way, there would be a concern that they might be considered a troublemaker, or a diva and they might not be invited to work again. The structure and intimacy guideline allows to all of us to work openly, in an adult way and professionally. The actors are able to have a voice, we invite their no and from the no, we work on positive.
You mention a third guideline - the choreographing intimate content …
We give a physical outline to intimate content so that everything is known, and the actors are perfectly comfortable in their personal body and are able to serve intimacy required in a really professional way.
Emma Mackey who plays the sexually confident Maeve in Sex Education has said that they worked the sex scenes as a dance routine. Does she refer to that choreography?
It’s a body dance when you have two people moving together. Just because we think that everybody does sex doesn’t mean that in a professional situation with people who have met that morning, they can suddenly just find the way through it. You’re never expected to do that with a fire. You know that the skill has to be brought in place, choreographed and rehearsed with the stunt coordinator.
With the intimate content, there is also a risk: the person’s private intimate body and needs to be choreographed just as clearly. So, we give a clear structure that may be “first I gaze into your eyes, then I step towards you, I place my hand on your cheek, around your waist …” so the actors say “and again, and again, and again. So, I know the rhythm, I know that I am happy and so is my partner”.
When does your work start?
The best-case scenario is right in the preproduction time. Producers contact me, send the script and I identify what the intimate content is. But there is a risk about what is intimate content for everybody. For example, something like a peck might be absolutely fine for one person, whereas if you got the same scene with the main cast and a day player who have not met before and so it’s a different risk and that scene absolutely needs an intimacy coordinator. We usually ask for a shift for more gender parity in the crew. If there is going to a homosexual female sexual scene to have some female present in the crew makes such a difference. For example, I had a situation where the third AD was a woman and the first a man, so in the day of filming the intimacy content, they swapped. In another occasion, they just brought a female boom operator for the day.
Have you been rejected by any director that might felt their creativity curtailed?
Of course. I’m always advocating, explaining what I do. But some people don’t want to listen, some people say “I’m too old, I have done good work and I’m not interested”. Those times are challenging. But sometimes the directors themselves call us in. A very good friend who is a director which work I respect had a scene with abusive content in the past. She did a good practice, took care of the actors. But after working with an intimacy coordinator later, she is aware that she could have avoided the extra amount of taking care emotionally, psychologically and now she’s saying that she would call me in.
Has the #MeToo movement sped up the implementation of your role?
I was already trying to speak to the bodies in the industry in 2017. I did share with the group of agents that they absolutely embraced the work. But post me-too did completely change. It has created a different environment in which the conversation we were inviting were suddenly called for. With the productions all making their code of conduct. If me-too had not have happened I would be still bashing my head at everybody´s door and I still would be resisted.