What does an intimacy coordinator do? We speak to Louise Kempton about her vital role on film sets that makes intimate scenes safe.
Featured image credit: Ruth Crafer
NB: The following contains discussions of sex and sexual violence that some readers may find distressing.
The role of an intimacy coordinator is a relatively new one, but one that has got people talking. Actors such as Michael Caine, Sean Bean and Emma Thompson have all publicly commented on whether or not such a role is needed on film sets.
So, what is an intimacy coordinator? Well, the easy answer is that they are there to help with any kind of intimate scene, whether it includes nudity, sex or sexual violence, or anything that might be considered – well, intimate. They ensure that the scene is captured in a safe environment and look after the well-being of the talent performing the scene.
There seems to still be an aura of mystery and perhaps some ignorance associated with intimacy coordinators, so we went straight to the source and asked Louise Kempton about her work as one. Recently, she worked on Prime Video’s tennis drama Fifteen-Love, which we’ll come to a bit later.
But first, how does one become an intimacy coordinator? For Louise, the idea stemmed from being trained as an actor and in movement, but also from a need to work more regularly than one does as an actor.
“Basically, I just got a bit older and got a bit like, ‘oh, when I’m not acting, I can’t be waitressing anymore.’ I was always fascinated with the craft of the actor from the movement sense,” Louise tells me.
Louise says she still gets some pushback on sets, but also describes that more people now understand what her role is when she walks into a production, and there’s no need to explain her place there. She also compares her role to that of the stunt coordinator, an analogy she said has been used a lot.
“I believe we’re choreographers and movement directors, movement coaches, but we are also part of the safeguarding team, fundamentally. We’re employed by production a lot to mitigate risk, like a stunt coordinator [whose] job it is to create a really beautiful fight. We’re there to create a really beautiful and romantic sex scene and to make it look really good, choreographically, but also to safeguard.”
According to Louise, young actors tend to ask for intimacy coordinators more. This makes sense, especially after reading Sir Michael Caine’s somewhat tone-deaf comments about just getting on with the work when it comes to intimacy. But viewers are also now more aware of what has happened behind the scenes.
We’ve all heard the story of Sharon Stone being gaslit into removing her underwear for that infamous scene in Basic Instinct. Numerous actors have commented on how awkward filming a sex scene is. Louise’s job is to make sure that the situation is as safe as possible and everyone is comfortable with the scene and how it unfolds.
“You want to be a conscientious viewer,” she says. “I think people are aware now of the possible horror stories, when you think of the worst case scenarios that have happened in the past, there’s no avoiding that. Now, once you know stuff, you can’t take it back.”
Louise tells me about a time when a shooting schedule changed and she wasn’t able to be present for an intimate scene. As one would, she arranged for another intimacy coordinator to take her place, but one of the actors in the scene said they weren’t comfortable with a new person on set that day.
“And that’s absolutely within their right to say that, because for them it was important,” Louise notes. “[Trust is] a huge factor. For some people, they’re so in there with them, they’re in their bodies and they will turn up and be incredibly professional and meet that person on the day. You’ve got to build that trust quite quickly, so actors are often very good at that, but that can be taken for granted, how they’re embracing the work. Building trust is really important and that starts hopefully, as early as possible, in the pre-production process.”
While Louise hopes that they would be brought on as early as possible, she also notes that it can still be a very last-minute thing.
I also ask Louise what it actually means to be safe when filming a sex scene. For many, the fact that an actor has (presumably) read the script and is aware of any intimate scenes, seems like automatic, implied consent. Louise emphasises the need for actors to ask themselves if a particular scene is breaking any of their own personal boundaries while considering taking a job.
“You can say no, that doesn’t mean you’re not a good actor. It doesn’t mean you won’t get a job after that.”
In episode six of Fifteen-Love, which stars Aidan Turner and Ella Lily Hyland, there is a scene that depicts sexual violence. It’s a tough scene to sit through, especially as a woman, but it also offers a lot to the story.
The scene comes at the tail end of the series and is, in many ways, the culmination of the relationship between the two characters, played by Hyland and Turner. The preparation for the scene began early in pre-production and involved a lot of movement work.
“We played with being more abstract, rather than doing things as an assault, but they wanted to really physicalise what that sense of space felt like with them,” Louise says.
“I spent that whole afternoon with them doing quite an in-depth movement session, looking at rhythms and breath, and we used music. And they really dived into that and that then gave us a language for the whole scene.”
The scene is a flashback, but once again, Louise credits the word done in pre-production as a key element for the success of filming such an emotional moment.
“We had sketched out physically with their bodies, where they were in their relationship and how it was with touch. So by the time we came to doing that scene, we’d already had a whole arc, a whole journey to get there.”
Finding the right moment in production to film such a scene can also be tricky.
“We knew that scene was coming up, and we knew it’d be a challenge, so we didn’t want to wait until the end of filming to just suddenly do that. But we didn’t want to film it too soon.”
For the scene, Louise worked with not just episode director Toby MacDonald but stunt director Guiomar Alonso due to the “physical violence” of it.
“That kind of intimate content is really choreographed, beat by beat. There are other scenes that are more loose, where we’ve agreed on the idea of positioning and touch but with those moments with Ella and Aiden, we really made sure we had choreography that was like a dance you created step by step.”
So where does Louise’s job end and the actors’ begin?
“They add the flavour of the breath and the quality of the touch, the tone. When does it go from romantic to something quite dark? [There’s a] real shift in the power so that was really clearly choreographed.”
On the day, the scene was shot with a closed set, like most intimate scenes. Louise also highlights that such scenes can be challenging for the crew and in the case of Fifteen-Love, the first assistant director spoke to them before the scene to ensure everyone felt good about what was about to transpire in front of the camera.
The work doesn’t end when the cameras stop rolling, though. Louise will always do a follow-up with the cast after the scene to make sure they’re feeling okay. Finding such a moment can be challenging on a busy film set, but she compares it to doing a cool down after an intense work-out.
“Closure is so important with that kind of work. Things might arise later, in a couple of days. Actors are amazing, they’re in the moment, it’s very visceral for them. They’re not robots. They really go into a place and even if an actor can just switch off after, they still have physically gone there.”
Intimacy coordinators are vital in making actors feel safe, but it’s not that simple.
“Safety is something that we strive for, but we can’t guarantee it,” Louise says. “The floor or the ceiling might fall in, there might be an earthquake. I cannot guarantee a safe space for you. What can guarantee that I will endeavour to bring structures that might support the sense of safety,” she adds.
“You don’t know how you’re going to feel that day, something might trigger something in you. Consent is a process, an ongoing process that we have to continually check in with, which people might find a bit difficult, because that is part of the job. But just because you’ve done one scene one day without issues doesn’t mean weeks later, you’re definitely gonna be fine to do it again.”
Fifteen-Love is available to stream on Prime Video. You can find more info on Louise’s work on her website.