With the London Film Festival’s upcoming screenings of Yorgos Lanthimos’ much heralded Poor Things, which sees Emma Stone embarking upon a fervent sexual awakening, taking place this weekend, we were able to speak to Intimacy Coordinator Elle McAlpine, co-founder of EK Intimacy, whose work has been praised in the media by both Stone and Lantimos. Intimacy coordination is still a relatively recent aspect of both film and TV production, yet as we’ve seen highlighted on projects such as Normal People, the role is vital in not only harbouring a safe and open environment on set for actors but also bringing forth incredibly authentic and realistic fully simulated sex scenes through a myriad of techniques which in the past, have been either over glamorised or too reflective to those we see within the porn industry. Elle trained under one of the forefront leaders of the intimacy profession Ita O’Brien and after working on TV shows such as It’s a Sin and Sex Education saw a welcome upheaval of the industry and acceptance of the significance of their roles and what they are able to bring to productions. The latest in our ongoing Film Industry Insights series, McAlpine joins DN for an extensive conversation in which we discuss how she came to be working as an IC and developed her practice, her evolving role within the industry and the essential items in her kit bag that help make simulated sex look so convincingly real.
Elle, you are both an actor and an intimacy coordinator. Can you tell us how you came to be working within this fast developing side of the industry?
I came into this work around 2016 when I was training at Drama Centre with Ita O’Brien who was one of my teachers. It was coming to the end of my time there and she was working with another group on a show called Katzelmacher which has a lot of intimacy and sex in it. I remember watching it and being completely blown away by my colleagues, what they were able to access and how incredibly free they were in their bodies around the intimate content in that play. I knew that they’d worked specifically on the moments of intimacy and how that was staged to make it look realistic and working with boundaries and consent and that was when I first heard about working with intimacy in drama.
Off the back of that, Ita did a workshop for the Sunday Times just as I was graduating in September of 2017 and we were working on a couple of scenes from a play called Cowboy Mouth. I did a full simulated sex scene with a colleague, so there was already a level of comfort there, but the workshop was amazing. We did a lot of animal work, getting into our bodies and learning how they engaged with intimacy. There was a photographer and I remember thinking how strange it was because it’s meant to be this very private space. We were doing our scene, a full simulated sex scene where we both came to a climax, fully clothed and choreographed by Miriam Lucia and I remember feeling completely empowered and amazing. My back was arched, he was on top and I was coming to climax and I remember the photographer literally kneeling down and snapping and I thought, “That’s going on the fucking front cover” and lo and behold, a month later, it was a double page spread of me mid climax. I remember coming away thinking, if you told me that I would be in the Sunday Times magazine mid-climax, I would have said “No, fuck off, I’m not doing this.” But actually looking at the image, I was blown away by how realistic it looked, even though we were fully clothed and it was simulated I was just really proud of myself. It felt so in keeping with the story and the characters that I didn’t see myself. Because of the work that we’d done on the character, the boundary setting, the choreography down to the nth degree I felt so empowered and safe.
This is an amazing thing to have access to as an actor. This sort of language, this way of working – of course a sex scene should be choreographed. When you look into the research, a lot of actors have spoken about how uncomfortable sex scenes made them feel, how out of body they felt and how they just wanted to get it over with. If writers, directors or showrunners want to implement sex into their storytelling we need to interrogate why and we need to choreograph it in a way that makes everybody feel safe. This also means it looks more realistic, and you’re not sitting there as an audience member watching something and thinking that’s really uncomfortable because I bet that that discomfort is because the actors that are actually simulating that or emulating that physical score are uncomfortable if you’re feeling uncomfortable.
If writers, directors or showrunners want to implement sex into their storytelling we need to interrogate why and we need to choreograph it in a way that makes everybody feel safe.
I did about 18 months’ worth of workshops with Ita as an actor, helping her show the work to the industry. I did hundreds of sex scenes in front of people, not just in the privacy of a closed set. It was really working with my own boundaries and what I felt comfortable doing live. I felt really passionate about showing this work to an industry that can feel quite archaic. It’s very difficult to break down some walls in this industry and it can be really challenging. So it was a really eye-opening 18 months because you felt the pushback, people worrying it was too prescribed or we were taking away from the director’s role. There’s an inevitable power dynamic between actor and director and what we’re doing is facilitating a safe creative space for actors to relay things that they might not want to relay to a director and then you can facilitate a space where you’re aware of the actor’s concerns, but also wanting to help the director with their vision. So you’re in this very privileged space where you can hold these two and hopefully create something that sits within both camps.
I felt as an actor when I was showing the work to the industry, that it was my job to show them how fucking amazing sex scenes could be in this way, with this level of intention and attention to a sex scene. After about a year of doing it as an actor, I was so embodied in the practice of intimacy coordination because I had a really strong sense of what it feels like so when Ita turned around and said, “Look, I am inundated with work” and she was ready to train me up. This was post series 1 of Sex Education, post series 1 of Gentleman Jack and the press were hot on it because these shows had done so well and there was a lot of amazing intimacy and sex in both those shows.
I then went onto It’s a Sin which was my first big job. I’d worked on a few short films and interrogated my own practice on those shorts and worked out my way of working because whilst it’s amazing being taught by someone, you really need to understand how to take that teaching and integrate it into your own practice. I’m training intimacy coordinators now and the biggest thing for me is telling them to get that language in your mouth and see how it sits with you. Talk about cunnilingus, talk about fellatio, let’s talk about female orgasm and thrusting and just use that language and make it become colloquial to you so you don’t bring your own shame and discomfort or judgement around those sorts of things.
I come from a family that has always talked about sex, so I’ve always been very comfortable talking about it and it’s so integral to keep talking and keep communicating this language in a very straight, direct way. With It’s a Sin, Peter Hoar is an amazing director and he gave me and David Thackeray so much space to just do the work and they were such advocates for us. Russell T Davies was also so supportive of us and gave us the creative freedom we needed. That series was about male sex and the joy of it. We had such a clear brief, they wanted it to be light and fun as it’s undercut by the AIDS epidemic and they didn’t want it to sit in that harrowing energy all the time. They needed the sex to elevate it and to make it something positive because queer male sex is beautiful.
Talk about cunnilingus, talk about fellatio, let’s talk about female orgasm and thrusting and just use that language and make it become colloquial to you so you don’t bring your own shame and discomfort or judgement around these sorts of things.
Did you then start to see and feel a demand out there for Intimacy Coordinators?
It’s an interesting industry because we were all working for one person but it’s a very independent job, you never see each other on set and it just felt right to do our own thing. You’re basically pioneering the role, you are the first intimacy coordinators out there so working under someone is difficult because they also don’t know. Ita was incredibly busy and didn’t really have the time to mentor us to the degree that we needed because she was so inundated with work so Kat, the co-founder of EK intimacy, and I felt that we were each other’s mentors. We were working things out together and we wanted to create something ourselves and wanted to see if we could build something just the two of us which is where EK Intimacy was born.
You are now creating an impressive blueprint for the intimacy industry, how do you think the film industry’s attitude has changed since you started as an IC?
I’ve had so much pushback and I always just ask for 10 minutes of their time so I can try and show them to the best of my abilities how this work can actually enhance this scene rather than make it negative or deter from actually what it is that you’re trying to do. I’m here to try and navigate boundaries and consent with creative vision. I’m not in the business trying to convince people how important this work is – the work speaks for itself. A lot of the early years were just working with the actor, you just didn’t have any chance with the directors. They didn’t really understand the role, and they didn’t really want you to enter their space, not all directors, but a lot of them. So it was working behind the scenes with the actors, having conversations with them, making sure they felt heard. Then when they get onto set letting the director work it out. Now, people are coming to us to help them create these scenes and it’s so much more creative which I love. Initially, it was all about safeguarding and holding space for people’s vulnerabilities which can be quite challenging on your body and on your psyche if you’re not then being creative with it. So I feel the shift has only really happened in the last couple of years since I worked on Poor Things.
I’m here to try and navigate boundaries and consent with creative vision.
I’d been recommended for that job by a couple of actors I worked with, so they already trusted me and knew how I worked so I was given a lot of space. But again, this work is like anything in the creative industry, if you’re given a good reference and have a good reputation, people are much more forgiving of you and you are free to make mistakes, free to just be creatively kind of messy. Whereas initially, I had to be really fucking good from the get-go, now I’m more comfortable in not really knowing what we’re going do and sitting in the messy middle of it all. And that’s what creative work is all about – being comfortable in the discomfort and in the messy middle.
With so many different moving elements on set, how does your role interact with everyone else during the production process such as the director, DOP, actors and other departments?
It does depend on the project. A lot of our work is in prep so it’s in those weeks when you’re having conversations with producers, actors, the director, the costume department, the makeup department and sometimes location. You could be on the side of a cliff having a sex scene so you need to make sure that location has all of the equipment that they need to make it safe for the actors. You’re basically just setting yourself up to be working with everybody. What I think we all noticed quite early on was there’s not a huge amount of communication between departments so when we came in we often felt like the thread between everybody to make these intimacy scenes as good as possible.
We break scripts down, we look at what each scene requires, and we have conversations with the directors about what their vision is for that scene. Some directors are amazing and have storyboarded every single scene so they already have a very strong vision about what they want for these intimate scenes. Sometimes directors work day by day so you have to kind of slowly coax them into having a conversation about the scenes. We might be starting in October and we’re not going to be shooting this scene until February the year after. But in order for us to do our work we need a basic understanding of what kind of sex they’re wanting in this show, are we looking at glamorised sex or raw more realistic intimacy? “How are we portraying the sex in this show or in this film?” is a really important question to ask that can help with character work for actors and it helps us understand what we’re trying to create.
In order for us to do our work we need a basic understanding of what kind of sex they’re wanting in this show, are we looking at glamorised sex or raw more realistic intimacy?
Then the fundamental work is just checking in with the actors, getting a sense of where their boundaries are, what their consent levels are, how they’re feeling about the scenes. It’s really hard to ask actors, “How do you feel about this scene that we’re shooting in four months?” but a lot of actors really want to engage in conversation about the intimate side of their character. What’s the sexual expression of that character, how is it different when they’re in the bedroom to when they are in their everyday life? Is there something that we can create in this scene that shows something entirely new that makes an audience go, “Fuck, wow, that’s amazing!” It’s so fun talking about this sort of stuff. Some people don’t want to talk about it at all and just want to do it on the day so you have to navigate that but for the most part, people give you a lot and it can be really inspiring. Sometimes we’ll be lucky enough to have a day of rehearsal and we’ll look at consent, at agreement of touch and sometimes we have to do that in half an hour on the day before the scene is shot. It does vary depending on production and the money that they have.
We’re asking for people to trust us quite quickly and so that level of trust needs to be built in the prep. Depending on the director, we’ll always have a private rehearsal with them, the IC and the cast. Sometimes the director will want the DOP in there just so that we can have a look at what angles we’re shooting from. You could sculpt a really full simulated sex scene but actually, because of the way that the DOP is shooting it, we might not have needed to have done that. It could just all be above the waist so we look at creating a physical score where we’re just seeing above the waist. It’s all very well thrusting, but we need to show that in the top half of the body, you need to talk to the actors about what parts of their body they’re moving. It’s all implied, it’s all simulated so there’s an element of faking it but it’s really great if a DOP is involved because they can talk about the angles. And that’s why storyboards are great because you have a general idea of how it’s being shot.
When it comes to choreographing these sex scenes what items do you need to achieve that, I would love to know what is in your kit bag.
This is actually a really interesting question because we’re having a big discussion at the minute in our union about whether intimacy coordinators should provide a kit. A lot of it does bleed into what costume provides but I think we have an understanding of the garments out there. We know what works best and how to use them. Intimask provides the best garments and they do a plethora of things. So you have a Vega thong, which is a thong for a male-identifying person who has a penis and balls, which has a silicon cover that protects the genitals. It can also be a much harder covering if they’re performing a crotch grab so the actor who is grabbing the crotch doesn’t have to worry about touching somebody else’s genitals. You have things called modesty pouches or cock socks which are effectively little bags the man will put his genitals in and then we’ll tape it.
If you’re doing a fully implied nudity simulated sex scene from the side or from behind, and we need to imply that he is fully nude there’ll be a pouch that sits and then is taped to the top of the pubic bone or to the top of the lower stomach, so it holds everything in place. You then have these things called a C-string for a woman. It sits at the top and then it comes round and up the gluteal cleft, which is the bum crack, and just sits at the top of the bum crack and holds everything in place. And again, it can either have a silicone or a harder one, depending on the level of boundary that the actor wants. When we’re doing a simulated sex scene there always has to be at least two barriers in between two bodies. Some coordinators make sure that there’s always a third barrier by using a cushion or such but Kat and I work a lot with anchoring techniques. Sometimes when it’s full implied nudity and full simulated sex, having a cushion in there is really difficult for the director and the DOP to shoot around. So we use anchoring techniques as a way to mask any modesty.
When we’re doing a simulated sex scene there always has to be at least two barriers in between two bodies.
So you’re saying there’s a debate at the moment as to whether you provide all that kit or whether the film has to?
In the States, the intimacy coordinators and directors over there will always provide a kit bag which is sort of moving over to the UK, it’s part of a wider conversation. Before production starts we have long conversations with costume and work out the level of intimacy and nudity and establish the level of modesty. Then we’ll go through our breakdown form and check to see if they have the budgets to get everything. However, arguably, we know what works well and sometimes costume departments have so much to organise that it’s actually helpful if we bring a modesty pouch or a Vega thong. I’ll update my kit every few months but I will never assume that it is up to me to provide the kit. I’ll always check in with costume and make sure because they’ve been doing this job for years and it’s often fallen to the costume department to protect these actors so they are very well-versed in this.
EK Intimacy worked with How to Have Sex director Molly Manning Walker on her short Good Thanks, You? Here at Directors Notes we mainly focus on shorts and know there can be more budget constraints or other outside factors affecting the decision to use an intimacy coordinator. How do you find working on shorts differs from the larger productions such as Poor Things?
Short films are our playground, sometimes they don’t have a budget and so there’s a big conversation there about whether they need intimacy coordinators. But for the most part, if they have a budget and if they’ve got a sex scene, they should budget for an intimacy coordinator. It’s really important as you’re saying to the industry – it starts at the beginning. You wouldn’t do a fight scene without a stunt coordinator so why are they doing a sex scene without an intimacy coordinator? When they do, you are given so much creative freedom, it’s incredible. You’re given space to interrogate your own practice and work out where your anchoring techniques aren’t quite working and you’re able to work it out on those shoots and then you get to multi-million-pound production companies, where they’ve got so much money and there are loads of famous people and you’re having to navigate that whole dynamic. So short films for me are where it’s at because it’s so much more fun and not everybody quite has the egos yet. You’re effectively mucking in, everyone’s trying to work out how to do everything with limited time and limited budgets. You can do whatever needs to be done in the moment and you build these wonderful relationships with up-and-coming directors and DOPs – it’s a great place to build your network and to play.
I think as an entertainment industry, we have a responsibility to look at the sex scenes that we’re creating and ask, how can we use these sex scenes as a way to educate our young people.
So I saw on the EK Intimacy website that you guys have got a podcast coming. Did you see a gap in the market to initiate deeper conversations about intimacy coordination?
Our idea behind it was the fact that everybody we talked to about this work is so fascinated and so curious about it. Kat and I talk for hours on end about the work, our process and how we’re constantly evolving. So the idea was to talk to directors, to actors and to other ICs about sex and about our responsibility as an industry now. The porn industry is worth billions. Human beings want to watch sex, just look at how many people log onto Pornhub and have accounts on a plethora of websites where they watch porn for free. I think as an entertainment industry, we have a responsibility to look at the sex scenes that we’re creating and ask, how can we use these sex scenes as a way to educate our young people, as a way to look at romantic relationships, as a way to look at relationships in general and look at intimacy which we’re so cut off from. That is only perpetuated by the porn industry because it’s faceless, it’s vacuous, it’s often non-consensual, it’s rough. It’s an industry that needs tweaking on its own. We’ve worked with a lot of adult performers and they say it would be so helpful to have more intimacy coordinators in the porn industry. There are, of course, some amazing coordinators out there working in the porn industry and trying to make that environment more consensual, more boundary informed and kinder but we need more.
We work in simulated sex and we have a duty of care to our audiences and also to our young people who are watching these shows, to just show them what sex can be like and the realities of it. So the point of the podcast would be to talk about that and the sex scenes that we’ve worked on and to engage people into talking more openly about sex. There are so many sex podcasts out there and people doing amazing things so we’re still fine-tuning what we can bring to the space and if there’s even any legs to it at the minute.
Yorgos Lanthimos saying that intimacy coordinators made everything so much easier was amazing because we’ve got a straight cis-gendered white man who is a genius in the field saying something positive about this work and that’s huge!
Final question for you, do you feel that the industry wants ICs?
I don’t see how working with consent, working with boundaries, and facilitating a space where people feel creatively safe is not something that people should want. I understand where directors have come from when they have been proactive and have been doing it the way we advocate for. I appreciate that and I am not here to tell them that they’ve been doing it wrong – what I’m saying is they don’t have time. They have this whole show or film with millions of moving parts and they can’t spend an hour with an actor talking about their consent and boundary levels. Also, they are the director and the actor wants to please them just by the nature of the director/actor role. There is a power dynamic at play whether there is a good relationship or not. You need a third party to come in and just to create a more balanced space. It’s like the stunt coordinator, 30 or so years ago people didn’t see the need for them. Sometimes it’s a good way of convincing people by saying we are like a stunt coordinator for a sex scene. The roles are obviously so different but there’s an element of safety required in both of them. There’s an emotional and physical risk when you’re doing intimate scenes, and we’re hopefully there to try and mitigate those risks and to put best practices into place.
Yorgos Lanthimos saying that intimacy coordinators made everything so much easier was amazing because we’ve got a straight cis-gendered white man who is a genius in the field saying something positive about this work and that’s huge! Just the fact that somebody like him feels that this is important means it will just bleed out and it will make it easier. There are so many amazing people working within this industry, doing phenomenal work which is so exciting for everybody. Each intimacy coordinator goes onto set every day trying to make the world a better place and trying to impact shows and make a change and affect change. We’re just all trying to do our best, aren’t we really?