With rape scenes more prevalent in film and television than ever before, “rape choreography” has emerged as a necessary part of set life for actors and directors.
Rape choreographer isn’t exactly a desirable position (it takes an emotional toll to reenact sexual assault all day), but because all the best stunt jobs typically go to men (even actresses will often have male stunt doubles), this heavy task often falls to the underserved women of the stunt industry.
In a fantastic well-researched piece for LA Weekly (I’m jealous that I didn’t write it, though if I had, it wouldn’t be nearly as good), lead film critic April Wolfe spoke to woman stunt coordinator Deven MacNair and directors about what it takes to create a safe set for actors who are expected to perform rape scenes and the crew members who have to witness them.
On this week’s DirtCast, we sit down with Wolfe to discuss her insights into how rape scenes can be responsibly filmed.
“I think you should have more female directors. Not to say that male directors don’t have a safe set, it’s just that I think they think about things from a different perspective or have a different perspective,” Wolfe tells us. “So even if there’s a female producer or female director or any woman on the crew who may have some experience with this—it does make it safer because they speak up and say, ‘I don’t think we should be doing 10-15 takes of this rape scene’ when you got it in the first two. One of the things that all the female directors told me is that you do not do more than three takes.”
Exhaustive communication is also key. Actors—both the one playing the victim and the one playing the rapist—should know each movement and action that’s coming, almost like a very fucked up dance. It can be traumatic for both performers—few people enjoy portraying a rapist just as few people enjoy simulating being raped. By over-planning, a director minimizes the stress for everyone.
Of course, it hasn’t always been this way on set (and often still isn’t this way for non SAG films). Auteur directors such as Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris) to Sam Peckinpah (Straw Dogs) have confidently discussed using the element of surprise in order to get authentic performances from their female actors during rape scenes.
“These directors, they never trust the women to act,” Wolfe says. “They think they have to put them through hell when acting—it’s pretending...These guys, they thought they had to torture these women. They thought they were talentless, in a way.”
While it’s true that filmmakers still rely on (often unnecessary) rape scenes as a catalyst for movie and TV plots, there has been progress in making sets—at least those for SAG and union pictures—safer for the performers involved. This is largely thanks to women like Deven MacNair, so let’s reward her with an action movie without a rape, okay?
Our show is produced by Levi Sharpe with editorial oversight by Kate Dries. Mandana Mofidi is our Executive Director of Audio. Our theme music is by Stuart Wood. This episode was mixed by Brad Fisher. Listen to our politics podcast, Big Time Dicks, here.