The finale of HBO’s Insecure ends with a fuck scene that looks so much like the characters are really screwing that you wonder how exactly it was shot without that being the case. Despite our general knowledge of how these things work, it’s fun to fall for the illusion anyway, and part of the intrigue is in wondering how filmmakers pull it off.
In an enlightening roundup of interviews with Vulture, several directors confirmed that, yes, sex scenes are as strange and awkward to shoot as we imagine them to be. Any actor who’s ever been in a sex scene will at some point share that anecdote or get asked about it in press rounds, so as it turns out, Jezebel has written about the topic a lot: Hugh Grant Finds Filming Love Scenes Difficult But Sex Scenes Are ‘Quite a Turn-On’ and Kristen Schaal Farted on Will Forte During a Sex Scene and Maisie Williams Just Filmed Her First ‘Extremely Awkward’ Sex Scene, to name a few.
This Vulture piece answers some important questions about what goes into scenes that involve actors pretending to have sex: How does one handle naked body parts? How do you keep it PG? But of course, the point is that, like sex itself, everyone’s experience and process is different.
One weird recollection comes from director Catherine Hardwicke, who talked about an intimate scene in Thirteen between then 14-year-olds Evan Rachel Wood and Nikki Reed and an older actor Kip Pardue. For obvious reasons, a welfare worker had to be there to keep watch during filming:
That scene was wild. The welfare worker gave us the rules at the beginning: She said, “They’re not allowed to get closer than three inches near his nipple zone. They can touch his pants, but not pull them down.” This and that. When we actually went to film it, I wanted the camera to do a 360-degree long take — I wanted you to feel terrified watching it, without letting us cut away or feeling like the editor was controlling it at all — so the welfare worker and I were hiding behind the couch and crouched over this little monitor. Here I am trying to do the take and then all of a sudden, she yells out, “Stop! Cut! Nipple violation!”
Hardwicke adds that she basically approaches directing sex scenes almost like a sex coach:
I often talk people through the sex scene. I give them running commentary to get them going, saying all kinds of things: “Doesn’t it feel good when somebody kisses your neck? Really try to find that beautiful spot and look how the person responds. It’s funny, the last time I talked this through to adult actors, one was like, “Would you please come with me home tonight and just talk us through while me and my husband have sex?” But in the editing room, I can’t stand to hear my voice talking actors through sensual things. It ruins it — the editor has to get my voice out first before I can even watch it. I don’t want to hear the instruction manual, and I think nobody does. We want to just think it’s natural.
Leslye Headland, the writer/director of Sleeping With Other People, says an early scene between Alison Brie and Adam Scott reads like porn in the script but on screen is much tamer:
I literally go through every single thing that they do to each other, from “He kisses her here” or “She takes off her underwear” down to “He ejaculates inside of her.” But at the top of the page, right before the sex scene, there was this big disclaimer in bold print and underlined: “You will not see any nudity during this scene.” So while you were reading something that was basically porn, you had been told right up top that there was no nudity. The reason I did that is because I knew it was never going to get as intense as what it said on the page, but I needed actors who were sort of almost willing to do that.
Wild Things director John McNaughton on making sure actors are comfortable with the sex scenes:
When it comes to nudity, I always ask my actors a question, “Have you read the script?” I’m not going to pull a trick on an actor: “Oh, I know it’s not in the script, but do you mind taking your clothes off?” What I’ve found often with the actors is a lot of trepidation up front — they’ll say, “Oh, I’m uncomfortable with this and I won’t do that, et cetera” — but once they feel they’re not being exploited or tricked in any way, they start to get into it. Once they do that, the clothes start flying off, and things that they said they wouldn’t do at first, they really don’t have a problem doing them. They push it further once they’re in the comfort zone.
We all know covering naked body parts in scenes involves variations of nude-colored clothing or strategic cover-ups. For a scene in American Psycho, director Mary Harron says Christian Bale wore a sock over his peen:
There’s not a lot of nudity in the scene — Christian wore a sock, and I think the girls were wearing underwear — but there was definitely a lot of digital removal if you saw this or that. Still, it was a very lengthy process in the editing room of taking out frames. The MPAA was okay with the violence, but they really objected to that three-way sex scene where it looks like there might be rear-entry sex.
Beyond gratuitous sex scenes, Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) says there’s something to simply playing into the realness of the act. She remembers a male exec saying the original scene between Sanaa Lathan’s and Omar Epps’ character (in the movie, it’s her first time having sex) was essentially too boring:
Once it was shot and we cut it together and showed the studio, one note came back from a male exec that he wasn’t enjoying it enough, which was kind of hard to hear and against what the scene was about. Even though I disagreed with the note, it gave me the opportunity to shoot a little more footage and the couple of shots I got when I shot it again made the scene even better. But when we went to the MPAA, they gave us an R just for that scene. The argument was that it was too real, which was kind of striking to me ... if it didn’t look as real, would we have gotten a PG-13? They said the fact that you could tell it was her first time was troublesome for them, and one of our arguments about that was Meet Joe Black had just come out, and there was a scene in this PG-13 movie where Brad Pitt loses his virginity and that was okay. We found that double standard kind of fascinating.
Director Paul Fieg says it was helpful to keep the mood light on the set of Bridesmaids for the scene between Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig:
You just have to face it like it’s any other highly choreographed scene and find the physicality. The only way we were able to get through it is by making each other laugh, so it became this hilarious wrestling match — if you really look at it, it’s less like a sex scene and more like a crazy fight.
Paul Verhoeven (Showgirls) similarly treats the sex scene like a well-choreographed dance:
All sex scenes in my movies are precisely choreographed — there is no question of “Do I lick her nipple or not? Do I go down on her? How far, and what do you see?” Every move is already clear before we start, because I talk with my actors and actresses in a very open way about what will be visible, where the camera will be, what the actions are. I do it in extreme detail, using words like “nipple” and “vagina” continuously to make absolutely clear to the actors how we are going to shoot that scene. And when we shoot it, we really stick to the script. I don’t come to the actors later with additional details that are perhaps unacceptable — it should be clear in the script what’s happening.
For The Handmaiden, director Park Chan-Wook says he was conscious of the sex scenes between the female lovers not being perceived as male gaze. Since seeing body parts on screen can get distracting, he focused on showing the women’s faces. Logistically, he adds:
When it comes to the day of shooting, I would have every male member of the crew off the set. For this scene, I would bring in just the female boom person, and we would use the remote head on the camera crane so that there was just the two actors there. We would put on some quiet music, light a fragrant candle, and have some wine so the actors could truly get some rest in between takes and have complete peace and quiet on set. At the same time, I would try to get everything done as quickly as possible, only doing one or two takes and making sure there’s no other business going on apart from concentrating on getting this done.