Filmmaking is all about challenges. When I set out on a new project, I’m always thinking of ways to test myself. And I’m not talking about the common challenges that plague most every shoot (money, schedules), or the technical challenges that can enhance the material (long tracking shots, fancy lighting). Moreover, I’m talking about challenges with the material. For example, early in the process of writing and developing my first feature film, Wait, sex was something I couldn’t get out of my mind.
There are exceptions, of course. Many well made films include sex scenes that are vital to their story (I wrote about ten here). And with that in mind, sex was always part of the equation for Wait. I realized very early on that in order to tell the raw and emotionally complex love story that I wanted to tell, sex had to be involved. But if it had to be involved, then it had to be necessary.
A few months ago, an unedited clip (embedded above) of a sex scene from Joe Carnahan’s film Stretch went viral. The footage shows actors Patrick Wilson and Brooklyn Decker having simulated sex in a tight two-shot. Although the scene is short and meant to be humorous (which it is, in the final film), I was shocked the first time I watched it. For one, Decker (despite her nervous laughter) seems mortified by what’s going on. It’s easy to see why. Listen to Carnahan in the background eagerly blurting out direction: “Hey bro,” Carnahan says to Wilson, “I’m gonna let Rick James teach you the rhythm!” Cue Rick James, blaring away. Carnahan calls action, the music cuts out, and Wilson and Decker execute the scene. The scene ends, and Carnahan immediately yells “GREAT fucking!” (which, admittedly, seems like verbal bait from Wilson). Then, while Wilson is getting sprayed down for another take, Carnahan approaches the actors and offers some specific direction, referring to Decker as “babe” whenever he talks to her.
Don’t get me wrong, I respect Joe Carnahan as a director (most modern cop thrillers pale in comparison to his Narc), and I’m a great admirer of Patrick Wilson’s work. But that clip is a goddamn mess. The scene itself is fine – it’s a humorous moment in a fun and purposefully absurd movie – but the way in which it was shot is, to me, a disaster.
After viewing the clip, I shared it around, mostly with actors I know or have worked with. I sent the clip via email, subject line: “Please tell me it isn’t always this bad…” To my horror, every actress said the clip was tame in comparison to what they’ve experienced during similar scenes. One actress told me that during a sexual assault scene she acted in, the director took away her lines seconds before they shot the scene, thereby making it seem like her character was consenting to the assault. Another actress told me that on the day of her love scene, the director demanded that it now be shot with both actors fully nude, which had not been stipulated in the script or her contract. She refused, and he threatened to fire her. I heard dozens of stories like these. And there were two common threads in almost all of them: insensitive directors, and supportive male co-stars. The directors were universally demanding and rude, while the male actor in the scene was considerate and empathetic.
Most of the actresses also mentioned that during their love scenes, there were entirely too many people on set. Sex scenes are typically shot on a closed set, which means that the only people present during filming are the people who actually need to be there. The actors, the director (unless he or she is off set, watching the scene on a monitor), the cinematographer, the camera operator, the sound mixer – on a small indie film, we’re talking six people (give or take) on set during a love scene. But there’s often more, and no matter how many people are on set, you can guarantee at least twice as many are watching the footage on monitors in another room.
Basically, sex scenes are awkward, right? Most of us know that, whether we’ve performed in one, shot one, or read about actors participating in one. So when I filmed the love scene for Wait, I was determined to capture it in a way that was tasteful, sensitive, and necessary.
Wait is essentially about two couples: Christian and Claire (played by Micah Parker and Catherine Warner, the star of my previous short, Earrings); and Dylan and Natalie, the couple who have the love scene. Dylan is played by Nathan Stayton, who appears briefly in Earrings as the creep whispering in Catherine’s ear in the club. Natalie is played by Murielle Zuker, a fierce performer who I suspected would own Natalie’s complexity.
|Murielle Zuker in Wait|
My biggest concern in casting Nathan and Murielle was that they were a couple at the time we started filming. Working with couples can be tough, the most obvious reason being that they could break up during filming and refuse to continue working together. That didn’t happen, and, in fact, Nathan and Murielle remain a happy couple to this day. Inversely, the benefit of casting a couple is that, if their real life chemistry translates onto the screen, you could end up with lightning in a bottle.
Once they both accepted their parts, I met with each actor individually and had long conversations about the love scene. The first thing I said is that the scene wouldn’t be nearly as graphic as it was in the script. There would be no nudity (nudity rarely interests me in film), no sound (music would be playing over the soundtrack), and, most importantly, no one in the room but me and them.
If every other day of shooting had gone as smoothly as the day we filmed that scene, then it would’ve been the easiest feature length shoot imaginable. There were no problems to be had. It wasn’t weird, it wasn’t awkward; everyone was comfortable and committed. I arrived on set a few hours before the actors. I lit the room, locked my camera settings, set my mounts, and waited for the actors to arrive. Once on set, they asked for a few minutes to prep, then we shot one take, reset for a few moments, shot another take, and that was that. Fifteen minutes. Clean, simple, comfortable. The shoot went so well, that I got an idea to immediately shoot another scene with Nathan at that location. That’s my style of filmmaking: I get inspired by what we’re scheduled to shoot, then capitalize on a new idea at the same location. I’d say 25 percent of what is in Wait are moments like these. Moments where I asked my actors to flesh out my idea right then. Where I’m throwing them lines and direction while the camera is rolling, and we’re all just making it up as we go.
|Nathan Stayton in Wait|
For any young filmmakers reading this post, please know that the way I shot the love scene in my film is not the way to do it. There’s no one way to shoot a sex scene, but I was aware of the many wrong ways, and determined to deviate from them. You don’t have to follow my model, but I suggest that you create an environment that is remote and comfortable for your actors.
The technical inspiration for the Wait love scene was the three-way scene in Steve McQueen’s Shame. Emotionally, the two scenes couldn’t be more different. But technically, they’re very similar. No natural sound, handheld camera work, deliberate lighting. I read a lot about that scene before filming Wait. In my research, I discovered that only the three actors, the cinematographer, and the director were in the room when they shot the scene. There’s simply no need to have more. But most importantly, that scene in Shame is one of the most necessary sex scenes from any movie I’ve ever seen. It tells a story. It has purpose, importance. And that should always be the case.