Sex on TV is changing, with series like I May Destroy You, Normal People and Sex Education showing an authentic – and sometimes uncomfortable – version of intimacy on screen.
Ita O’Brien choreographed the sex on all three shows – working on scenes depicting sex that was at times funny, touching, awkward and abusive.
The intimacy co-ordinator spoke to Radio 1 Newsbeat about what goes on behind the scenes and how filming sex might work on a socially-distanced set.
There are some minor plot spoilers below.
I May Destroy You
Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You has consent at its core, and explores what happens to people when it is taken away.
Some scenes are tough to watch, featuring sexual assault and stealthing – when a man removes a condom during sex despite being asked to wear one.
“Michaela had an absolutely clear idea of what she wanted,” says Ita.
“When you have challenging subject matter, what’s really important is to make sure the physical nature of the scene is clear and secure.”
Once that is in place, the cast members can concentrate on releasing their emotions during the scene, she says.
In 2014, she helped develop a set of intimacy guidelines which she gets all her clients in the TV and film industry to use.
“As the intimacy co-ordinator, I bring a professional structure and a risk assessment to the content,” she says.
In a Bafta Q&A, Michaela Coel said Ita brought an “energy that came on set and let us get into our bodies so that we didn’t feel weird”.
She said having her on set gave everyone “confidence”, adding: “Not only is the mental and physical well-being of the cast important, it enables us to get there safely and get what we need for the scene.”
Someone else was brought in alongside Ita to help any members of the cast and crew who might need emotional or psychological support after filming the scenes.
“It’s not just for the actors,” says Ita.
“It’s for the entire crew because when you have a challenging subject matter, you don’t know who’s going to be triggered by that.
“You need to take care across the board.”
In episode two of Normal People, Marianne and Connell have sex for the first time.
The 10-minute scene in Connell’s bedroom is full of close-ups of both characters at a crucial point in their relationship.
We’re watching Marianne lose her virginity and there’s nowhere for the actors – or the audience – to hide.
It was a scene that was praised by viewers for its depiction of consent.
“From the very beginning, I asked Paul Mescal (Connell) and Daisy Edgar Jones (Marianne) what they were OK with in terms of simulated sexual content, nudity and touch.”
She wanted to know “what their yes areas were”.
“With all my projects, I’m serving the writers’ and the directors’ vision, so when we get to set I’m watching the conversations between the actors and the director about what’s needed.”
Ita says one of the biggest shifts in the industry is allowing as much time and space as needed to rehearse intimate scenes.
It’s planned out in detail, with the actors involved knowing exactly what will happen and what they’re supposed to be doing.
“That means that when you put it in front of the camera, you’re going to get the best thing possible.”
Ita compares intimacy on screen to a “body dance” and says her role is just like “a choreographer with a dance or a stunt co-ordinator with a fight.”
“Just as if you’re doing a tango, you’ve got two bodies moving together in rhythm.
“Or in the case of Sex Education, the important thing is that they weren’t in rhythm.”
It brings to mind a scene from the show’s season two, as Otis (Asa Butterfield) tries – and fails – to impress Ola (Patricia “Trish” Allison) with his “clock technique”.
“Comedy comes from truth,” says Ita. “The more truthful something is, the more comedic it is.
“This was the second season so by this point Asa and Trish knew their characters inside out.
“I was on set in fits of giggles, trying to stifle my laughter because what Asa brought to that scene was stunning.
“But that could only happen because everyone had an agreement of touch.
“They’re not touching anywhere near the genital areas. We’re finding the safe place that looks right and then the movement of the arms sells it completely.”
Intimacy during Covid-19
With so much film and TV production on hold because of coronavirus, Ita knows the way intimate scenes are shot in future may change.
“I’m training intimacy coordinators all across the world and we’re looking at the new guidelines that are coming out in each country,” she says.
How can you film a socially-distanced sex scene?
“There’s a lot of thought about how you can use long lenses and camera angles to show intimate content but at the moment that’s all in theory.
“We have to be adaptive with our choreography,” she says.