What really goes on when shooting sex scenes

Source:NyTimes

Read Time: 7 minutes

To hear most actors tell it, filming sex scenes is no turn-on. There are big cameras, of course, and big crew members that come with them. It’s a performance with a stranger-turned-scene-partner, for a director who’s judging every caress and whimper. It’s the antithesis of hot, stars assure us on late-night TV; it’s awkward and tense. Speak to the filmmakers, though, and you get a different take.

“I personally am very excited when we shoot sex scenes,” said Sarah Treem, a creator of the Showtime series “The Affair.” “Because I think they can be transgressive; they can be very, very real.”

When they work, she added, “everybody actually enjoys them.”

Audiences certainly do, if the blockbuster success of “Fifty Shades of Grey” is any measure. But they are delicate moments to capture. “We did actually save the explicit sex to the final week” of shooting, said Seamus McGarvey, the cinematographer of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” based on E. L. James’s S-and-M-centered novel — though on-screen, some of the whipping is created via digital imagery.

To simulate sex, actors employ tricks: pillows between them, prosthetics and body stockings, and push-ups to get their muscles bulging. But the movement is often improvised. “If it’s overly rehearsed or overly thought through, it seems like a bad soft-core porn on Cinemax,” said Judd Apatow, the auteur of raunchy rom-coms (and a producer of “Girls”). In the forthcoming comedy “Trainwreck,” Mr. Apatow directed the writer and comedian Amy Schumer in her first big-screen sex scenes; she pumped herself up by listening to Beyoncé in her trailer.

On “Fatal Attraction,” Michael Douglas and Glenn Close were loosened up with Champagne and margaritas, said Adrian Lyne, the director of that sexually charged classic as well as “Indecent Proposal” and “Unfaithful.”

Naturally, not all steamy scenes are amorous. Some, like those in Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Wild” and “Dallas Buyers Club,” are meant to be uncomfortable, and those are among the most difficult to create.

In individual telephone conversations, these film professionals discussed one of the weirder aspects of their jobs, the logistics of sex on screen.

Write, rehearse and choreograph? Or just let the camera roll?

Sarah Treem There’s a difference between the way that sex scenes are written and performed. We do have detailed stage directions. A lot changes on the day you’re shooting sex scenes, because they are so vulnerable for the actors. Some actors would say it’s them at the most honest.

Amy Schumer I think I overwrote the sex scenes. It was probably half a page of very specific stage directions before I even said one word in the movie.

Judd Apatow I took photos of every possible angle you could have sex in, but then on the day, all of it goes out the window. There’s only so many places you can put the camera for that activity.

Seamus McGarvey We did have rehearsals and to make the actors feel comfortable initially, look at how we might photograph the sex. Also, that suited the first few sex scenes, to have a slight awkwardness to them; the camera would be more at a distance. In the Red Room, when things heat up a little bit, that was less choreographed. Sometimes we would use a remotely operated camerahead so the actors wouldn’t have an operator leaning in.

Adrian Lyne You try and create a situation where there are possibilities. I’ve always thought that sort of grabbed sex is more fun than that statuesque sort of bedroom stuff. So in “Fatal Attraction,” the scene where they [have sex] over the sink, I knew it had humorous possibilities because there was plates and cups in the sink. If you don’t get some humor in, the audience will laugh at you, because they’re nervous watching it.

Jean-Marc Vallée There was no specific choreography, but there’s a way of setting a tone. Restricted crew, it’s just available light where we can move 360 degrees with the camera — this is the intention, and let’s see where it goes from there. [In “Wild”] it wasn’t specifically planned for this guy to take Reese [Witherspoon], to turn her on her back, and take her from behind, but it just happened as we were shooting. And [in “Dallas Buyers Club”] with Matthew [McConaughey], at one point he had a threesome, with two girls in this trailer home with his friend watching him, and he was on fire.

Do you ask for nudity, and then worry about covering it up afterward?

Lyne That’s the best way to do it. [In “Fatal Attraction”] I always remember when Michael Douglas is trying to carry her over her to the bed, and he couldn’t get out of his pants, and he’s having hysterics laughing. And he was naked — well, he had his shirt on. We noticed in the cutting room literally one frame where his testicles were visible. You couldn’t cut it out — it’s very, very brief. [Laughs] I hope Michael will forgive me for saying this.

Ruth Wilson and Dominic West in “The Affair.”CreditMark Schafer/Showtime

Treem We have actors on our show who have varying relationships to nudity; people have things they will and will not show, and we have to respect that. We had to create sex scenes that looked like we weren’t trying to cover body parts when we were. And — this was a discovery for us — sometimes the sexiest sex scenes, we shot very tight, only the actors’ faces.

McGarvey We were protecting the actors. Jamie [Dornan] had a cover over his penis. Dakota [Johnson] had kind of a patch that went over her pubic area, and right round her whole body. We were in the curious situation, in postproduction, of adding [pubic hair]. I wouldn’t say it was one of the highlights of my career, but it certainly was one of the most surreal scenarios. We did have a butt double for Dakota. I had the pleasure of casting a nontattooed bottom — Surreal Scenario No. 2.

Schumer I am sort of a boundaryless person, which is something I’m working on. In our house, nudity wasn’t a big deal, so that was never an issue for me. It was about the crew. The sex scenes that are funny, I don’t care, but the ones that are actually sexual, it’s like these people are seeing me be really vulnerable. Frank, who’s holding the boom, is seeing, “Oh, this is what Amy is like when she really means business.” In between every single take, I think I screamed, “It’s so embarrassing!”

Sex scenes mean a small crew. But how close are the cameras and how many takes?

McGarvey For the sex, we would always shoot with two cameras, so they wouldn’t have to do numerous takes. I have done sex scenes before that have more abandon, for instance, in “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” When I did that scene with Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly, with a 5D [camera], I was literally under the covers.

Lyne [In “Indecent Proposal”] the scene with Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore, I remember shooting it on the zoom so you can just push in and grab bits and pieces without stopping, and then get it wider. It’s a mistake to stop them. Usually they’re quite quick, love scenes like that, because there’s a limit to their endurance. Just in terms of kissing somebody, you can’t kiss forever.

Do the performers have to be turned on?

Vallée I’ve never seen an actor with an erection, in all of the films and the sex scenes that I’ve done, but it doesn’t mean that I haven’t seen a guy being excited. It’s so technical, but we’re humans, and they’re naked, and they touch each other.

Lyne The scene wouldn’t be working if they weren’t. Obviously, you’re not literally doing penetration but they’re both aroused; they would have to be; otherwise the scene would be hopeless.

Do actors express worry about their bodies?

Lyne Yes, I did have [an actor concerned about his manhood] — without the slightest reason to be worried — but it did show the amount of paranoia in their minds. I say, “You’re fine, you’re great!”

Vallée It happened in my first feature film. The lead actress had to perform a sex scene, and I think she was 35 at the time. She wanted to really talk about the angles and not show her from behind, and O.K. from the side, but not her breasts when she laid down. I can understand.

Schumer I definitely was saying to my sister [a producer on the film], do I look O.K.? They want us to look good, so they’re not going to be like, “Oh, cool, look what a realistic cellulite shot.” Beforehand I tried to look good; once they’re rolling, it’s the last thing on my mind. [But] I definitely skipped Taco Tuesday that day.

Quiet on the set! Or not?

Vallée With actors, while they’re doing it, I tell myself, “Shut up; don’t talk,” even though I want to.

Lyne What I have a horror of is these poor souls in total silence and not knowing whether they look good. So I’m always vocal, almost like I’m doing it with them. I’m going: “That was good. Do it again.” Afterward they have to cut my voice out.

McGarvey [The director] Joe Wright is a great proponent of music to help actors get into the mood. It helped the actors’ movement and the camera’s kind of coalesce, because it is like a dance. On “Atonement,” there’s a scene in the library between James McAvoy’s character and Keira Knightley’s, and we shot that to “Come to Me” by Mark Lanegan and PJ Harvey, a very languid, sexy tune, because the camera was hand-held.

Is it ever awkward for you?

Treem One of the sex scenes in Episode 4 — the character of Alison doesn’t really [have an orgasm]. She’s in grief, she’s lost a child, she’s sexual but she cannot enjoy it, and finally she does. Getting to that place was a bit of a challenge. I was acting out the sex scenes for [the episode director] Jeff Reiner. I’m acting out an orgasm with the whole crew behind me, and finally he was like, “Oh, I get it.”

Vallée I do get excited, but not sexually. I’m excited as a filmmaker.

Apatow I’m very shy. We did “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”; there was a speed-dating scene. The joke was a woman’s breast pops out, and I might’ve done half a take of it before I said we had what we need.

Schumer [The scenes] totally serve the story; they belong there. As to whether I would rather just be sitting in a dialogue with someone in a diner versus having them thrusting in my thigh — yeah, I’ll take the diner and get a piece of coconut cream pie. [But] I’m glad we did it.

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