Faking It: This Is How Sex Scenes Really Get Made

Photo: Illustration by Bella DiMarzio.
Welcome to Faking It, our new bimonthly guide to the magic of filmmaking. What exactly are two actors doing when they're "having sex" on camera? How do they "do drugs"? What are those phony cigarettes really made of? Join us as we explore the not-so-glamorous underground of faking sex, drugs, violence, and more.

We all have our favorite sex scenes. The best ones make you feel. The bad ones make you cringe. I remember having an extremely visceral reaction to True Blood 's Bill and Sookie rolling around in the cemetery dirt after he'd been buried alive — yuck.

A great sex scene erases the incredible amount of effort that goes into making everything look and sound perfect on set. You forget that these are actors, paid to pretend to fall into a spiral of lust, love, and/or hate, often in front of a large crew. The audience never sees the multiple takes, the bloopers, or the staging. In films and on TV, awkward, unscripted moments can be edited out — or enhanced — for dramatic effect.

But on stage, there's no yelling "Cut!" when a graphic sex scene goes awry. Everything needs to be carefully plotted and managed beforehand. That's where Yehuda Duenyas comes in.

A self-described "sex choreographer," Duenyas found he had a knack for making performers leap outside their comfort zones, when in 2007, he directed a particularly graphic play by Thomas Bradshaw.

And then, in 2015, he got a call from Bradshaw about signing on to help director Ethan McSweeny with the particularly graphic sex in Bradshaw's latest production, Fulfillment. The story, about an alcoholic African-American lawyer in an all-white firm who struggles with his boss' disapproval and a really loud upstairs neighbor, required the actors to simulate sex on stage, naked in front of the audience. (A sample stage direction: "As he glides his penis gently in and out of her.”)

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Great," Duenyas says. "I'll be a sex choreographer."
So, what exactly does that mean? There's no official definition. Westworld used one to create the orgy scene in episode 5, as did Martin Scorsese when filming The Wolf of Wall Street. But it's not a clear or strictly delineated role. Directors can choose to forego the extra help and use their own judgement and vision to set the scene — and many do, to great result.

Duenyas describes his role in stage productions as a kind of layer between the director and the cast, someone who handles everything from the actual blocking of the scene to the mental health of the players. Pulling from his experience as a burlesque dancer — he once went on tour with Dita Von Teese — and as a director and choreographer, Duenyas sought to create a secure environment for the actors to experiment.

"If you're going to be fighting with people on stage, you need someone to come in to make sure that that fighting is safe," he explains. "And you need to also check in so that you know that you're physically connected and on the same page and you're not going hurt each other. I think the same thing goes for sexuality and sexual choreography. There's so much opportunity to get it wrong, to hurt someone's feelings, to blow through someone's boundaries, to trigger past things."
Today, Duenyas works as an award-winning virtual reality and experience designer — his company, Mindride LLC, won Outstanding Commercial at the 2016 Creative Arts Emmys for "Love Has No Labels," a PSA promoting diversity and inclusion — but sex scenes are never far from his mind. He says he would definitely reprise his role again, hopefully for TV. He has his favorites: Girls and Transparent are at the top of his list, and if by any chance Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy are reading this, call him! He has some great ideas for the next season of Westworld.
Still curious as to how all this works? Duenyas ran us through his process for choreographing a sex scene.