Recent revelations highlight the need for oversight in scenes involving nudity and simulated sex.
The Screen Actors Guild issued new guidelines on Wednesday for the role of an "intimacy coordinator" in overseeing simulated sex and nudity in film productions.
It might be hard to imagine an entire job that revolves around the R-rated scenes in movies, but in recent years it has become increasingly clear what an important and overlooked job it actually is. There are any number of ways in which performers can end up being exploited, harassed, or endangered in the course of filming nudity or a sex scene, and the process of protecting everyone's rights while still producing compelling sex scenes is surprisingly involved. To make the issue clearer, we can look at the cases of Emilia Clarke and James Franco.
Emilia Clarke turned 25 while the first season of Game of Thrones was filming. In theory, she was old enough to advocate for herself and decide what kinds of scenes she was comfortable shooting. But the power dynamics in that situation are potent. Clarke was an unknown actress at the time, fresh out of drama school. Her biggest previous role was in a SyFy original movie called Triassic Attack, and the prospect of a major role on an HBO drama would have been huge for her career even if Game of Thrones hadn't turned out to be such a hit. That position made her vulnerable to manipulation, and she ended up doing a lot more on-screen nudity than she was actually comfortable with.
In an interview with Dax Shephard for his Armchair Expert podcast, she talked about feeling like she was not in a position to advocate for herself or push for changes to the scenes that involved nudity and simulated sex. She explained that her attitude became "I'm gonna go cry in the bathroom, and then I'm gonna come back and we're gonna do the scene, and it's gonna be completely fine." It took her some time and some supportive advice from co-star Jason Momoa before she felt confident enough to assert herself in that context and refuse to shoot nude scenes, even when faced with coercive comments like, "you don't want to disappoint your Game of Thrones fans."
Clarke is clearly not alone in needing some help in these situations, which is what makes the details of James Franco's so-called "master class" on sex scenes so disturbing. Through the acting school Studio 4, founded by Franco in 2014 and since shut down, students were promised not only an education in how to navigate sex scenes but also opportunities to audition for roles in films produced by Franco's company, Rabbit Bandini. Subject to approval of audition videos featuring nudity and simulated sex acts—and for an additional $750—students earned the right to send Franco and his colleagues even more videos of themselves in various states of undress and to be pressured into participating in ever more explicit on-screen activity—all while learning very little about actual industry standards.
Whatever defense Franco might use to justify these practices—and any defense should be taken with a grain of salt in the case of a man who knowingly hit on a 17-year-old at the age of 36—the effect was to turn his acting school into a steady source of quasi-pornographic material for himself and his colleagues, some of which actually ended up on a porn site. And a true "master class" on the subject of sex scenes might have provided his predominantly young and female students with the tools to protect themselves from this kind of exploitation.
According to Sarah Tither-Kaplan—one of the former students who filed a lawsuit against Franco and Rabbit Bandini—"I didn't know anything about nudity riders, the detail required in them, the right to counsel with the director about nude scenes, the custom to choreograph nude scenes ahead of time to negotiate them with the cast and the director — I knew none of that throughout that class."
And that is exactly the issue that intimacy coordinators are intended to rectify. They will function both as advocates who empower performers to assert their rights and "movement coaches" who assist in making sex scenes look believable while conforming to safety and ethics standards. The new guidelines SAG has released lay out necessary qualifications, and the role of intimacy coordinators in establishing plans for sex scenes—maintaining a closed set, utilizing appropriate "modesty garments," and establishing consent for every aspect of "intimate and hyper-exposed scenes"—and making sure those plans are adhered to all the way through a film's final cut.
Emilia Clarke was lucky to have a kind costar to encourage her to assert herself, but if a SAG-approved intimacy coordinator had been on hand, then any and all nudity would have been carefully agreed to, and she would most likely not have been subjected to the kind of coercion she experienced. Likewise, an intimacy coordinator could have protected a lot of women from James Franco's exploitative practices on set, and certainly would not have allowed him to remove two women's plastic genital guards in the midst of simulating oral sex.
Two other student actresses say Franco became angry when, in the midst of a film shoot, no women would agree to his… https://t.co/V32qbRyFw3— Amy Kaufman (@Amy Kaufman) 1515673381.0
The #MeToo movement has done a lot to expose the exploitation and assault that are an ingrained part of Hollywood's culture. But we can't continue to place the burden on survivors to call out predatory behavior after the fact. SAG's new guidelines are a clear and important step toward codifying practices to help prevent this kind of traumatic exploitation from occurring in the first place.
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