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Ita O’Brien discusses ‘Sex on Screen’ in hit shows

‘Sex Education,’ ‘Normal People’ Intimacy Coordinator sheds light on newly pioneered role

<p>O’Brien’s work as an intimacy coordinator was inspired by her career as a movement teacher in dance. O’Brien also founded the company Intimacy on Set to provide trained professional intimacy coordinators to the industry. </p><p>Courtesy of Georgia Salke</p>

O’Brien’s work as an intimacy coordinator was inspired by her career as a movement teacher in dance. O’Brien also founded the company Intimacy on Set to provide trained professional intimacy coordinators to the industry.

Courtesy of Georgia Salke

On Friday, the Ivy Film Festival hosted a virtual conversation with Ita O’Brien, the intimacy coordinator for “Sex Education,” “Normal People,” “Brave New World” and “I May Destroy You,” among other productions. 

“An intimacy coordinator is somebody who brings a clear structure and process when filming intimate scenes in theater, TV and film,” O’Brien explained in a video from The Guardian that she played at the start of the event. 

A significant part of her job includes ensuring that actors feel safe and comfortable when filming intimate scenes. “With a fight, the injury that you’re taking care of can be physical. With intimate content, the injury can be physical but it also can also be emotional and psychological,” she said in the video. 

O’Brien has been widely acknowledged as a pioneer of the intimacy coordinator role, and she also founded the company Intimacy on Set to “provide trained professional Intimacy Coordinators to the industry,” according to her website

O’Brien’s work as an intimacy coordinator was inspired by her career as a movement teacher in dance, as well as her experiences as a director and writer, she said. While casting for a piece she wrote exploring “the dynamic between perpetrator and victim,” she asked herself how she could best create a safe space for her actors as they explored that dynamic, she said.

When she was a movement teacher, O’Brien talked to her students about the lack of structure in the industry for creating intimate content, which inspired her to create  “standard guidelines in order to bring everybody a clear professional structure,” she said. 

She first approached the Personal Managers Association about her idea in June 2017, but her appeals gained traction around October of the same year, as the environment in the film industry changed with the rise of the #MeToo movement, she said. “People realized they cannot continue to turn a blind eye,” O’Brien explained. 

As an intimacy coordinator, in addition to managing matters of agreement and consent as well as the choreography of the intimate scenes, O’Brien keeps “an open conversation going” about budgets, casting decisions and rehearsal schedules with producers and directors. She added that she initially faced some pushback to the idea of “rehearsing” for sex scenes. 

“With a stunt or a dance of course people make time to rehearse,” she said. Now, however, more people are realizing that sex scenes should be treated as a “body dance,” she said, saying that “(rehearsing) allows the details of the director’s vision to be served.”

O’Brien’s job comes into play not just in sex scenes, but also for all the scenes in a script involving nudity or intimate touch. But the “aftercare” procedure for actors is also crucial, she said. 

Actors sometimes leave the set after shooting their intimate scenes feeling perfectly fine, she said, but they might reflect and realize how they truly feel only after going home. She stresses the importance of “checking in with them and making sure that everyone feels empowered about what eventually goes out there and that everyone consents to it.”

The guidelines she has developed have been “codified” in the written document “The Intimacy On Set Guidelines,” she said. Without this structure, “people were just embarrassed to talk about (intimacy on screen), so there was no room to talk about it creatively,” she added.

O’Brien’s first official hire as an intimacy coordinator was for “Sex Education” on Netflix. “In my very first conversation with Ben Taylor — the director and one of the showrunners of ‘Sex Education’ — we spoke about how a lot of young people turn to pornography as their teachers (for sex),” O’Brien said. “He wanted this to be something that brings more reality to these young people.” 

O’Brien ended her talk with advice for aspiring filmmakers who may not have access to an intimacy coordinator for their projects. Apart from consulting the “Intimacy On Set Guidelines,” filmmakers should go through the intimate content in the script once it is written and ask themselves why it is there and if it is gratuitous, she said, adding that intimate scenes should always be meaningful and intentional. 

O’Brien emphasized the importance of respecting the boundaries within the actors’ agreement and consent, especially considering the degree of vulnerability inherent to nudity. “Be creative with your camera angles and with your physical storytelling so you can still tell the story that you want … without overstepping anybody’s boundaries,” she said.

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