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In film and theater, intimacy coordinators and directors redefine how to practice safe sets

A photograph from a rehearsal of "Romeo and Juliet" at UMass Boston, in which Angie Jepson served as intimacy director.Gillian Gordon

At first, the actors were wary when Marcus Watson came onto set.

After all, his title of intimacy coordinator — an industry professional who works with actors and directors to choreograph safe and consensual scenes of intimacy for film — is not always widely understood.

Watson was on set for only one scene of the Massachusetts-shot film “Don’t Look Up,” now out on Netflix, but that’s all it took for the actors to realize the value of having somebody in their corner to orchestrate those vulnerable moments. Several of the initial skeptics, he said, came up to him on set afterward to thank him.

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“As an actor, you’re told to be the clay,” said Watson, who is based in New York City. “Some actors have lost agency just through the training process, and so it’s about building that back in.”

A behind-the-scenes shot of director Adam McKay and actor Jennifer Lawrence from the set of Netflix's movie "Don't Look Up," which was filmed in Boston. Marcus Watson served as the intimacy coordinator for one of the film's scenes.NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX

Intimacy coordinators and intimacy directors (live theater’s counterpart) were formally introduced in 2016, when three women with backgrounds as fight directors founded Intimacy Directors International, the first association dedicated to the nascent field.

The job of the intimacy coordinator or director, they established, is part advocate, part choreographer, part liaison. Before these professionals existed, many scenes of intimacy used to be haphazard and depended on the decency of the actors and directors involved, said intimacy coordinator Lizzy Talbot. Now, there is a third party present whose job it is to find the overlap between what an actor consents to and a director’s artistic vision, and use that knowledge to craft a choreographed scene that advances the broader narrative.

“Let’s adjust our ribs in this motion, or let’s adjust our breathing here — let’s adjust this touch to tell a more truthful story,” Watson said, as some examples of instructions he might give actors. If an actor isn’t comfortable with something, “I immediately start thinking okay, great — what are the other options? How many other ways can you tell the story?”

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Though the rise of intimacy coordinators and directors coincided with the #MeToo era and its revelations about abuses of power in the entertainment industry, it had been a long-brewing idea, first conceived by Tonia Sina in her 2006 masters thesis. When #MeToo exploded, intimacy professionals met the moment, soon bursting onto Broadway and into Hollywood — and actors, directors, and showrunners alike have widely praised their newfound presence.

SAG-AFTRA, the powerhouse union representing thousands of film and television actors, recommends incorporating intimacy coordinators on set and released a set of standards and protocols for the use of these professionals in January 2020. Since 2018, HBO has required an intimacy coordinator to be on staff for any production with an intimate scene, and StageSource, which offers services to more than 200 New England theater organizations, has held several intimacy direction workshops.

Many working intimacy coordinators and directors, like Watson, come from the world of fight direction or stage combat. The parallels between the two forms of physical storytelling are hard to ignore, said Talbot, who worked on the Massachusetts-shot TV series “Dexter: New Blood” last year. (The season finale airs this week on Showtime.)

“Everyone knows the consequences of not keeping people safe when working with violence, because it’s very obvious,” said Talbot. “When working with scenes of intimacy, when they go wrong, or if people have trauma from them, it’s invisible.”

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A still from an episode of "Dexter: New Blood," a Massachusetts-shot show that debuted earlier this year. Lizzy Talbot served as the intimacy coordinator on the show.Seacia Pavao/Seacia Pavao/SHOWTIME

The work of intimacy directors and coordinators has five main components, says certifying organization Intimacy Directors and Coordinators, or IDC (Intimacy Directors International dissolved in March 2020, and many of the same professionals flocked to IDC). These are known as the five C’s: context, consent, communication, choreography, and closure. The first step, context, is establishing how the sex scene fits into the larger narrative.

“If we all have different ideas about what the story is, we can either be ineffective as storytellers, or we can possibly be doing damage,” said Ted Hewlett, a Boston-based intimacy director who as worked on several local productions and as a faculty member at Emerson College.

Communication and consent go hand-in-hand. Both involve pre-rehearsal or pre-production conversations with both actors and directors to suss out each party’s expectations and actors’ boundaries. If an actor isn’t comfortable with a certain angle, level of undress, or action that a director envisioned, intimacy professionals are there to negotiate those terms.

“There are people on set who are there to help make sure that they can say no,” Watson said, “and if they do say that, we’re problem solving the situation so that we can continue moving forward.”

What comes next is choreography. Intimacy directors and coordinators are trained to know what movements and vocalizations can convey the emotions appropriate to the scene, said Angie Jepson, an intimacy director who works on productions as a faculty member at University of Massachusetts Boston and the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. “Is it a light touch? Is it a strong touch? Does it float, does it flick, does it twist?” she said as some examples of questions she might pose.

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“Each and every intimate moment was a carefully choreographed moment in the arc of the play,” said Robert Lublin, who directed the UMass Boston production of “Romeo and Juliet,” for which Jepson did intimacy direction. “I think it went better with this play than I’ve done it in the past.”

A photograph from a performance of "Head Over Heels," a Boston Conservatory at Berklee production for which Angie Jepson did intimacy direction.Max Wagenblass

Establishing vocabulary around choreography — “quicken the pace” instead of “be more passionate,” for instance — frees everyone of “the elephant in the room,” said Rebecca Bradshaw, who enlisted Hewlett when she directed “Witch” at the Huntington last year.

“They were able to improv within these boundaries,” Bradshaw said, “and I don’t think that would have happened if we were more prescriptive about what we needed, or if an actor felt like they couldn’t bring their own imagination to the room.”

After the director calls “cut,” the final step of the intimacy director or coordinator is to practice closure with the actors. Closure, Jepson said, is any “practice that helps them step out of the work, so that they really are separating themselves from the role that they are playing,” she said.

The five C’s are just the beginning — each production carries different demands, which is why the process to become a certified intimacy director or coordinator through IDC involves anti-racism training, mental health first aid, and bystander intervention, Jepson said. In one of Jepson’s productions, an actor who was a domestic violence survivor had a flashback during a rehearsal, and her training in trauma stewardship helped the young actor rebound.

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A photograph from a rehearsal of the recent UMass Boston production of "Romeo and Juliet." From left: Zoa Archer as Juliet, Abigail Dickson as Romeo.Bill Doncaster

“There’s so much more time and energy and effort being invested into [intimate] scenes, that all we’re seeing [on stage and on screen] now is payoff of that,” said Talbot, who was also the intimacy coordinator on “Bridgerton,” Netflix’s Shonda Rhimes regency drama that featured plenty of scenes between the sheets. “Hollywood is now trying to emulate authentic, realistic relationships between people.”

The work that intimacy professionals have done, Hewlett said, gives him hope for a future with bolder, more diverse, and more empowering depictions of intimacy. “I’m hopeful that it’s going to have an effect on the stories that we tell,” he said, “not just how we tell them.”

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Tonia Sina’s last name and to correct a misattributed quote.


Dana Gerber can be reached at dana.gerber@globe.com