Monday, December 29, 2014

WAIT: Why I Included the Sex Scene

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.

To back up. I’m not a fan of sex scenes in movies. I’ve been very critical of them on this blog, and here’s why. I find sex scenes dull, or smutty for the sake of being smutty, or laughably inaccurate, and/or completely unnecessary. Most films use sex as nothing more than filler between two scenes. I’m left sitting there, wondering when the movie is actually going to get back to its story. Some use it as a marketing ploy – Come see (insert notable actress) bare all for the first time! – and the like. Most sex scenes are also chiefly concerned with the male character’s motivations. What’s he thinking? What does this act of sex say about him?

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.




24 comments:

  1. Wow, that was illuminating. I remember that clip and that made me uncomfortable. From the script that I had finished a few years ago. I had two sex scenes I wrote with details about what should be shown as I wanted to be important to the story. One of which plays into a sense of fun of sorts while the other is not so fun. Most of all, I wanted to include shots on penises. I know women are often the ones objectified in sex scenes as what I want to do as a filmmaker is level the playing field. Get the men to show what they got. Let's balance things a bit.

    I've also written ideas for sex scenes on another project that is on-and-off in the works since the project does revolve around the idea of sex. What I'm trying to do is to make it empowering where it's the men that have to expose themselves more as they're paying for a service that has some specific rules. I don't know if I'll ever get the outline finished. I just have too many things in my head.

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    1. Thanks man. I'm all for balancing things out. You're right, sex scenes disproportionately favor the female physique, which is a shame. You're idea actually sounds really interesting. I really hope you're able to flesh it out.

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  2. For me Alex it's all about what you have to say at the end of the day, you know? I mean, personally, I'm neither for nor against sex scenes in movies. I couldn't say I'm critical of them in the way I don't necessarily put myself in the position of trying to find an internal meaning for them for the story because there are many things in cinema that can work on an aesthetic level and I'm all for it when it does. I couldn't agree more with you that there needs to be a purpose otherwise the whole thing is pointless and totally unnecessary but I strongly believe that if it works, then it's all fine, you know what I mean? It may add something to the story or character development or the exploration of some themes or the tone of the film or so many other things. I mean look at the sex scenes in a film like Blue is the warmest color where they say SO much for the nature of the relationship the characters of the film share or their state of mind (like it happens in your film so brilliantly) and look at the raunchy sex scenes a film like The Wolf Of Wall Street includes to portray a world of excess and greed. So different but both so damn well executed. So bottom line: for me it either works or it doesn't. And when it does, I'm really ok.

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    1. What a perfect comment here. I seriously could've written those sentences about Blue is the Warmest Color and The Wolf of Wall Street. Exactly my sentiments. I'm definitely not against any and all sex scenes either. Like you said, there must be purpose.

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  3. Nice write up, Alex! That clip you talked about was very awkward to watch. I like sex scenes in films if they serve a purpose, but I too have read so many horror stories about filming them. That's really sweet of you to take such a simplistic approach.



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    1. Thanks Brittani! That's very nice of you to say. It's all about purpose, right? IF it serves a purpose, then I don't have a problem with the scene at all.

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  4. Good on you sir! Way to stay professional and respectful, no reason to act like a dick just because you're the director. A real inspiration sir! My first feature-length script has a lot of sexual ideas in it (yet no actual nude scenes) and reading this was a real light-bulb moment for me. I don't think I could ever allow more than a few people on a set if there was anything sexual going on honestly. It's awkward enough just kissing someone you barely know (obviously that wasn't a problem in you case) but doing anything further than that is just weird. No reason to have more than the bare minimum of people on set for those types of scenes. I figured that there was some sexism or just inappropriate behavior on film sets but wasn't aware to the degree that you bring up on here. Thanks!

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    1. Thanks buddy! That's so kind of you. I'm glad I could help shed light on this for you. I mean, I knew these scenes were always awkward, but the stories my friends told me were horrific. I got so goddamn mad! So, yeah, it was always my intention to make the set as comfortable as possible. Good luck on that script man!

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  5. Great write-up, Alex! I think that sex scenes in film are only necessary if they have a vital role in the development of the film's plot or in the character development. After reading this and your top 10 most necessary sex scenes, I think it's wonderful that you managed to film a sex scene in a safe working environment.

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    1. Thanks Aditya! Your comment means a lot to me. It's all about a safe environment, especially for the actress. And in terms of even including the scene, yeah, it should only be there if it's vital.

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  6. MY GOD, the way you write about film with such knowledge and passion makes me so envious...and yet so enamored. I really want to see your movie!

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    1. Wow dude, thanks! I can't wait to share it with everyone! Thanks a lot for the comment buddy.

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  7. I've often wondered about the sex scenes in films, specifically how awkward or emotionally difficult they are for the actors. Reading about your process -- including the amount of thought and research you put into it -- is fascinating. I'm off to re-read your 10 Necessary Sex Scenes post.

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    1. Thanks so much for the comment! The stories some of my friends have... wow, so bad. And sad. Hope you like that other post as well!

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  8. Just yesterday, I wanted to tweet you and ask if we'll get any more blog posts on Wait this year. You're a mindreader!

    This was a very interesting article. I hope your actors feel honoured working with you because you definitely deserve it -- that video in the post was a bit painful to see.

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    1. I'm actually going to start writing about it AT LEAST on a bi-weekly schedule now. Even if it's a small post. But I REALLY appreciate you thinking about the movie, that means a lot to me. All of the primary actors have seen the final film, and they all have very nice things to say, which is great. The best actors perform to do the script justice, and the best directors do their best to do the performances justice. When it's all going well, it can be such a thrilling cycle.

      Thanks again for this comment!

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  9. Great glimpse at a certain intricacy of filmmaking I dare say a great many of us watching these scenes don't even consider. Thanks.

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    1. Thanks for the comment man. Really nice of you to say.

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  10. Oh, great post. My God those directors who treat actresses like that sound like major pricks. Calling a woman 'babe' in these circumstances? Really? Thank God for supportive co-stars. I cannot even imagine doing a scene like that, so it's great to read you had no issues with shooting it for your movie.

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    1. Thanks so much! Seriously, that "babe" shit is bonkers. I can't imagine saying that under that circumstance, no matter how close I was with the actress. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

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  11. Excellent write-up, as always man. By coincidence, I just saw Stretch a few days ago, so it was great to have knowledge of that scene already. It's sad that some directors can't work *with* their actors on sex scenes, instead of placing demands on them, particularly the women. I think you handled your scene perfectly.

    Congrats again on the success of your film! Looking forward to seeing it!

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    1. Thanks man! You said it perfectly... filmmaking, really, should all be about working with people, not placing demands. And when it's a scene as sensitive as this one... I feel that you HAVE to be fully collaborative.

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  12. It's one part deplorable one part commonplace how Carnahan handled that shoot. It saddens me that the man would direct an actress like that as he's a real inspiration of mine, but hey, what can you do? Nevertheless great write up and insight on how you approached filming a sex scene in your film (which I'm very excited about, congrats on the festival man, kick its ass!) to create something organic.

    As I'm coming up to shooting some of my films sooner than later and seeing that I just keep writing sex scenes, I will take heed of your words and your method. You're a real inspiration man, keep up the good work.

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    1. Wow man, thanks so much for this comment. So kind of you. Yeah, I hope I wasn't too hard on Carnahan in this post. Like many of my actress friends said, the way he's directing that scene is tame to some of the things they've experienced.

      Thanks for the supportive words about the festivals. It's such a crazy and exciting time right now!

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